Insight: Art

Requiem for a free spirit, Walter Meyer

Light drove his creativity and alcohol drove him to destruction. Artist Walter Meyer was drawn to remote places to paint their ethereal beauty, but darkness and death intruded

22 July 2018 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON
The late Walter Meyer in his studio with a self-portrait. He was famous for Karoo landscapes but also painted portraits and still lifes.
The late Walter Meyer in his studio with a self-portrait. He was famous for Karoo landscapes but also painted portraits and still lifes.
Image: Esa Alexander

A TORTURED SOUL WHO FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE LIGHT

Empty beer bottles, rows of cabbages and the weight of grief mark the house in Augrabies Park, Upington, where landscape artist Walter Meyer was found dead on December 22, aged 52.

He painted the house in a foreboding piece not long before his murder. He also immortalised the murder accused, his second wife Sophia, in oils. Famous for painting Karoo scenes that shimmered with melancholy, Meyer was drawn in his final years to portraits of the waiflike Sophia.

"Your face and your earrings attracted me," Meyer told Sophia when he met her in Grootdrink, in the Northern Cape, in 2008. He heard a girl singing and followed the beautiful voice, finding 17-year-old Sophia.

Sophia, who is out on bail until the trial resumes in August, greeted us at the gate. She was wearing pink slippers. The fence bore a "beware of the dog" sign and an advert for tattoos.

Your face and your earrings attracted me
Walter Meyer
To his second wife, Sophia

The tattooist on the flyer is Joel Marcel Dumont, a man of Belgian descent who appeared in court with Sophia on Wednesday as her co-accused. He lived
with the Meyers and still stays with Sophia in the
RDP-style home.

The place is full of objects, but with one glaring omission: none of Meyer's paintings are on display.

When he was binge-drinking, say former friends, Meyer - some of whose luminous paintings have sold for up to R300000 - would hock his canvasses for a handful of cash and alcohol.

Now his works blaze from the walls of people he knew, or in unexpected places such as a lodge off the long, empty road between Upington and Cape Town.

Sophia, along with his former agent, his neighbour, his mechanic, a lodge owner, and others in his orbit during his last 10 years in Upington benefited from his obsession to paint even as his life there disintegrated.

Light was always Meyer's muse and, in Upington, it dazzled him. The light of the sun kept him in this faraway town, near the red dunes of the Kalahari, where he would retreat for weeks at a time.

One of several portraits of Sophia, his 'muse', by Walter Meyer.
One of several portraits of Sophia, his 'muse', by Walter Meyer.

He left for two years in 2006, when he followed his estranged wife, Catharina Scheepers, and their two children to Cape Town and painted seascapes. Yet he yearned for the light and open spaces and wound his way back to Upington. The couple divorced in 2008.

Enter Sophia. Ever an outsider, Meyer still liked company when he was drinking. When he met Sophia, he was holding a bottle of red wine.

He didn't care about conventions and looked somewhat unkempt when he introduced himself, by Sophia's account. She asked the lanky stranger, who dressed like a cowboy: "Wie is jy, meneer?" (Who are you, mister?)

"I am Walter Meyer," he told her, inviting her to come to his place. She went with him, and never left.

Sophia joined him in the suburban house he had shared with Catharina in Jan Groentjie Drive and when she fell pregnant, she asked him: "What will you tell your people? I am a coloured woman."

"My people must accept it," Meyer said. On June 27 2010, the same day as his wedding with Catharina years prior, he and Sophia got married.

But they didn't live happily ever. The siren call of alcohol was too strong and Meyer could not resist it.

Steve Botha, once Meyer's agent and friend, remembers him passed out in a stupor on Sophia's lap while she stroked his hair for hours; later she would disappear for days.

Sophia and Meyer's family was wrecked by addiction: their firstborn was taken into custody and, after Meyer was killed, Catharina came and took away the couple's daughter and second son for safekeeping.

Steve Botha examines the back of one of Meyer's last paintings, showing his house in Upington at night.
Steve Botha examines the back of one of Meyer's last paintings, showing his house in Upington at night.
Image: Esa Alexander

CHARMING WHEN SOBER

Jackie Castella, the owner of a guesthouse across the road, said she found Meyer charming when sober but would call the police when the couple's drinking, partying and fighting became intolerable.

Castella has works Meyer painted of her garden and one of her daughter.

"It was terrible to watch his downfall," she says. "The house was full of furniture when Catharina left, but by the time he was forced to move out there was no sheet for the mattress, no pillowcase for his head."

Meyer had no interest in material things, and would give away books, even paintings, to friends who liked them, says his biographer, Amanda Botha.

But about six years ago, when she last saw him, he told her: "I am slowly losing things that are important to me, like my rose garden.

I said to him: "But Walter, you never pruned the roses."

He replied: "But I would speak to them."

On that occasion he told Amanda he wanted to give her a rose "which would last". She says: "It was hot in Upington and there were no roses. We looked and looked. Then we drove far out of Upington, where he found a person on the roadside who does Sunday paintings.

"Meyer found a little painting of a full, yellow rose there, saying: 'See, I told you I would give you a rose.'"

He had a childlike wonder and impulsiveness, never taking responsibility for his behaviour and its consequences, she says.

Upington guesthouse owner Jackie Castella with a garden scene by Meyer. Pictures: Esa Alexander
Upington guesthouse owner Jackie Castella with a garden scene by Meyer. Pictures: Esa Alexander
Image: Esa Alexander

Yet, in her view, he was religious in an unconventional way. "When he died they found little pieces of paper in his wallet on his body. One piece had religious text about the heart of God. One was a picture of Joseph Beuys, his dean in Germany, where he studied. He was a kind person but had an inability to judge between good and bad, black and white. The world was seldom grey to him, it was kind of rosy," Amanda says. "In many ways he was the architect of his own demise."

Drinking was a lifelong problem for Meyer and he tried everything to stop. He went repeatedly into rehab, in Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and even for six months in Noupoort, but it never lasted.

"He was awkward in the world, that's why he started drinking," says Catharina. By the time she returned to Upington, after their children had left school, Meyer's life was spiralling out of control.

Steve Botha recalls days lost to alcohol followed by spectacular "redemptive paintings".

"He would drive his bakkie into the gate, into the river. I saw him drinking until he would fall over."

Meyer's first wife, Catharina Scheepers, looks at art journals and articles discussing his work.
Meyer's first wife, Catharina Scheepers, looks at art journals and articles discussing his work.
Image: Esa Alexander

LOVE AFFAIR WITH PLATTELAND

Challenging the stereotype of Sophia as a heartless gold digger, he says, very sombrely: "Any woman who took that abuse would have snapped."

Alcoholism is what drove Meyer and Catharina apart, but in their early days they were inseparable and free-spirited. She says: "From a hotel room we bought a house in Pearston [in the Eastern Cape] we had never seen, based on an ad in the Landbouweekblad. As we got closer to Pearston we thought: 'What have we done?' But we stayed there about a year."

The young couple wandered the neglected back roads of South Africa after their marriage in 1991, taking it in turns to choose the next place to stay.

"Looking at his paintings is like looking at a family album of the places we have been," she says.

Their sojourn in Bethulie, from 1994 onwards, was a prolific period for Meyer and he talked about it nostalgically to friends. His first son Gert and his first daughter Sonja, a talented fine-arts student at the University of Cape Town, were born there and he was a good father, says Catharina.

Sophia Meyer outside the home she shared with her husband Walter in Upington.
Sophia Meyer outside the home she shared with her husband Walter in Upington.
Image: Esa Alexander

Castella adds: "Walter said they had good times in Bethulie. They were two hippies, him and Catharina."

The young family with a Kombi kept moving and even spent a year in the Kalahari with the San people before settling in Upington, because Meyer "liked the sun".

Their original house, on Jan Groentjie Drive, near the Orange River, had plenty of roses and birds, and Meyer's passion for both extended to arcane knowledge, far removed from his classical art training.

Meyer got distinctions for his fine-arts degree at the University of Pretoria, winning the New Signature prize for painting in 1984 while a student. After graduation, he studied at an art academy in Dusseldorf, Germany, avoiding military conscription.

He returned to South Africa with a desire to paint distinctly South African landscapes. In 1990 he had his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg and, supported by Catharina, never looked back.

In 1994 he won the coveted FNB Vita Art Now merit award and his paintings hang in national galleries and collections including the South African National Gallery (Cape Town), the Durban Art Gallery, the Pretoria Art Museum, the South African Reserve Bank, and in London and New York.

Catharina was awarded half of Meyer's work when they divorced in 2008, making her a major collector. After she was gone, Steve Botha, who lived next door to him and Sophia, stepped in to sell his paintings.

Now editor of the Hadeda local newspaper, he marketed Meyer's work systematically and with zest, before they fell out over Meyer's drinking.

"I would send a client a painting to look at for 30 days and I sold every single one of them. Nobody returned a painting."

He sold Upington Motor Spares owner Nik van Blerk nine pieces. His wife Elize says of one in particular: "I thought it was just brown, but the instant I saw the colour on the canvas, it was the start of a love affair."

Some of Meyer's paintings from that period are outstanding; others are less memorable. Letsatsi Lodge, in Vanrhynsdorp, has about 30 Meyers on its walls, allegedly exchanged for minimal reward.

Steve Botha, a friend of Walter Meyer who acted as his agent and sold his paintings, consoles Sophia Meyer.
Steve Botha, a friend of Walter Meyer who acted as his agent and sold his paintings, consoles Sophia Meyer.
Image: Esa Alexander

LONGING FOR UNFENCED LANDSCAPE

When Meyer became famous, his somewhat traditional style was out of step with the conceptual art of the late 20th century. "I don't relate to it," Meyer said, in a documentary Lloyd Ross made about him.

Meyer's longing for the unfenced landscape, like the space around Aliwal North, where he was born, signified a nostalgia for the apartheid era, suggests one critic in this film.

This seems unlikely given Meyer's dissenting streak and close friendship with Voëlvry musicians like Johannes Kerkorrel of "Jy moet staan in jou ry/Jy moet jou hare kort sny ... stem vir die party" (You must stand in line/ You must cut your hair short ... vote for the party) fame, who slammed Afrikaner nationalism.

Younger artists have tried to emulate Meyer's searing vision but struggle to capture its elusive quality. "His masterpieces are not just about a building or old car in the veld. They are about an inner response. A fleeting moment," Amanda Botha says. "He is the modern-day Van Gogh."

Pinned up on his easel when he died was a small print of a Vincent van Gogh. Meyer had an affinity with post-impressionists like him and didn't paint to romanticise nature.

Instead, he found nature "brutal and cruel" and yearned primarily to paint the "way the light falls".

But, ultimately, the light was not enough.

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