Pierneef's extraordinary artworks to be auctioned from R12k

30 May 2017 - 12:03 By Mary Corrigall
'Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch' by Pierneef.
'Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch' by Pierneef.
Image: Supplied

People will do anything to get close(r) to a Pierneef. In an effort to authentically experience, trace and capture the spirit of a Pierneef painting, the artist Monique Pelser was harnessed to a tree overlooking the Cullinan mine for 16 hours.

She was waiting for just the right light to take a photograph of the subterranean crater.

The atmosphere, shadows and character she was searching for in this 2009 project, which she recently put on sale during First Thursdays in Cape Town as part of the 1K Project, was determined by a work in a famous series of landscapes Pierneef produced for the Johannesburg railway station.

Pelser wasn't alone in her quest to retrace Pierneef's gaze; Carl Becker joined her, producing oil paintings for their Ons Land/Our Land collaborative project.

No doubt they are not the only people moved by this South African master's extraordinary series, on display at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch.

It would be tempting to say Pierneef is an artist's artist, if he weren't so popular with the public too. He's a staple feature of almost every auction by Strauss & Co.

Everyone wants a piece of Pierneef and they can have one. Their June auction boasts 13 art works ranging in price from R12,000 for a print to R8-million for a significant oil painting.

He wasn't always a commercial success, though, observes Alistair Meredith, a senior specialist at the auction house.

The first art works he showed in South Africa in which he was driving his unique language did not go down well.

It was after a trip to Amsterdam buoyed by the art nouveau movement and the geometric principles advanced by Willem van Konijnenburg that he created these works around 1925.

"The critics responded positively, but the large exhibition he put on at Polliacks [a music shop in Pretoria] that were out and out geometric was a financial failure.

"No one wanted to buy them and he returned to his tried and tested style," says Meredith.

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Fortunately, Pierneef listened to the art critics. But he settled on a compromise, fusing his geometric language with the traditional landscape genre.

The result of this can be detected in the standout 1928 Pierneef work for the Strauss & Co June auction dubbed Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch. For Meredith this painting is special because it so aptly captures this artistic "transition".

The pink twin peaks in the background are framed by the art nouveau stylised trees in the foreground, imparting this idea of viewing nature, the South African landscape, through an art nouveau inspired gaze.

This painting was a precursor for the panels for the Joburg railway station that compelled Pelser to sit in a tree for days.

For her, those paintings were thoroughly contemporary - "I was blown away by the Manga quality," she wrote.

• Strauss & Co's June 5 auction takes place at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg. The public are invited to view the lots from June 2. Visit straussart.co.za

• This article was originally published in The Times.