Considering Pierneef

J.H. Pierneef: A Space for Landscape comes to the Standard Bank Gallery in July, Creative Feel spoke to the show’s curator, Wilhelm van Rensburg about the famed artist.

Pierneef is arguably one of South Africa’s most famous artists. His work fetches millions at auction, placing him second only to Irma Stern in the astronomical figures it commands among South African work. And yet, notes Wilhelm van Rensburg, curator of the forthcoming Pierneef exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery, the general public has, for the most part, had little opportunity to experience much of his oeuvre over the past two or three decades: the last extensive retrospective of Pierneef’s work took place in 1982. A subsequent exhibition celebrating Pierneef’s centenary showed at the Pretoria Art Gallery in 1986, but drew only on works from their own collection.

Thus a whole generation has largely been deprived of the chance to get to grips with Pierneef’s work (short of a trip to Stellenbosch, where it is possible to see the Johannesburg Station panels at the Rupert Museum). Part of the reason for this may lie in the controversial nature of the way in which his art is interpreted.

In the early 1990s, a revisionist approach focused on an overtly political interpretation of Pierneef’s work, aligning him with the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism, a position that is still often repeated in academic circles. Van Rensburg labels this approach the ‘dominant reading’ of Pierneef’s work, in which ‘you have the empty land, grand landscapes, all too ready to be appropriated. And I thought that this was something to interrogate, because I didn’t quite know whether it was true,’ he says. His conclusion is that there is plenty of evidence to cast doubt on this reading, a position that has also been defended by Stephan Welz. Welz rejects the idea that in painting an empty land, Pierneef sought to imply the moral ascendancy of the Afrikaner, as ‘patently ridiculous’. Rather, he suggests that Pierneef ‘recognised and accepted his own limitations. The human figure presented him with serious problems and in the main he steered clear of them… Pierneef was [also] passionate about the vastness of our South African landscape.’

Van Rensburg notes that Pierneef, far from being the darling of the Afrikaner art community, struggled to find acceptance with the South African art buying public of the 1920s and 30s, as did contemporaries such as Maggie Laubser, Irma Stern, and Wolf Kibel. ‘It was the Dutch intelligentsia in Pretoria who collected his work,’ he says. ‘The reigning orthodoxy at this time was the stuff of Edward Rowarth, Hugo Naude, Frans Oerder – 19th-century realist/impressionist landscapes of the Dutch and European landscape tradition. That’s what people collected. Pierneef arrived on the scene with different things. He went through different stages.’ Moreover, says van Rensburg, ‘For me, probably the most decisive argument that he was not necessarily this “Afrikaner Nationalist” that people made him out to be, was that in
1948, when the Voortrekker Monument was opened, he was ostracised. He was not involved at all. If anything, that would have been his moment as “Afrikaner Nationalist artist”.’

Thus van Rensburg has chosen to focus on an ‘oppositional reading’ of Pierneef’s work: ‘if he’s not for the group, then he must be for himself, the individual artist,’ he says. ‘So I looked up his individual trajectory as an artist, which was very interesting. And it was on that basis that I selected his works, demonstrating how his style evolved… there was a whole range –Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Pointillist, quasi-Cubist.’ Pierneef is often identified as a Cubist, a label that van Rensburg is quick to reject, noting that the artist’s concern was with ‘the simplification of form, rather than Cubism.’ In this he may have drawn inspiration from his exposure to Bushmen painting, an interest that shows up in his early work, in particular a series of murals he did for Ficksburg High School in 1922. ‘That influenced his style, his abstract work,’ says van Rensburg. ‘He was interested in Bushman art, but he didn’t pursue it. A very close friend, Erich Meyer, was more interested, and Erich Meyer was the one who inducted Walter Battiss to Bushman art. But Pierneef gave a number of public lectures throughout his life, and in the late 1910s, early 1920s, when he mentioned the importance of Bushman art he was heckled. When he said, “We should really take these people seriously, it’s important art,” he was booed off the stage.’

All in all, Pierneef is best classed as a Modernist, says van Rensburg, who notes that the artist’s work exhibits many of the hallmarks of Modernism, including an abandonment of local colour, an increased abstraction in form, and repetition of the same subject matter. ‘That was interesting, to look at the way he rendered a particular scene in different ways,’ he says. ‘He depicted Rustenburg Kloof, for instance, in a very geometrical style, and then in a sensitive, delicate Impressionist style.’ This has informed the curator’s approach to the exhibition, in that he abandons a chronological approach in favour of one juxtaposing multiple takes on the same subject, allowing the audience to appreciate the extent of Pierneef’s experimentation and ability.

Van Rensburg has also included work by several contemporary artists who have responded to Pierneef’s works, among them Wayne Barker, Andre van Zijl, and Roger
van Wyk, who are largely critical of the artist; and Carl Becker, who revisits the scenes that Pierneef painted, thus reflecting upon change and the passing of time. Van Rensburg also considers a third reading of Pierneef, one inspired by the 1988 writings of William Kentridge, in which he discusses the landscapes of Pierneef, Volschenk and the likes: ‘His words were something like: “To be blind to its beauty is crass, but to be swallowed up by it, seems equally foolish.” They are breathtakingly beautiful landscapes… but one cannot deny the political implications; it’s part of a broader cultural thrust. And he, Kentridge, used the example of looking at a very beautiful artwork depicting a forest scene in Europe, only to realise that it was actually the site of one of the Eastern European death camps of the Second World War. ‘His conclusion is that people get on with their lives. So, yes, it was the site of massive atrocities, but people get on with their lives. They don’t forget. It’s still there. The land, and the landscape actually contains all the history – you don’t necessarily need to portray it explicitly.’

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