South African painter and graphic artist Walter Meyer passed away in December 2017 at age 52. He is remembered for his evocative portrayals of derelict buildings and strikingly atmospheric, simple towns and landscapes.
Born 31 January 1965 in Aliwal North, Eastern Cape, Walter Meyer grew up, and studied fine art, in Pretoria and was living in Upington in the Northern Cape at the time of his death.
Meyer rose to prominence in the early 1990s with his distinctive landscape studies. Writing in 2009, Sean O’Toole described his work as such: ‘Eschewing the romantic idealism typical of so much local landscape painting, Meyer’s work, at its best, lingers on what is distinct and intrinsically banal about small-town South Africa… Although stylistically diverse, Meyer is best known for his photorealist renderings of desolate country scenes. In a 1997 article on his work, art historian Liese van der Watt argued that it was “through the kind of realism which he utilises now that Meyer manages to break away from the medium of traditional landscape painting”.’
In a 2005 essay, artist Cobus van Bosch took an in-depth look at Meyer’s subject matter: ‘The landscape – being continuously transformed by nature or human activity – has many faces, and many stories to tell… As we inhabit and transform the landscape, the terrain and its elements also impact on us – physically and emotionally. This interplay of forces has a major influence on the identity and condition of both the landscape and the people who inhabit it.
‘Instead of depicting beautiful and serene scenes – as so many decorative artists do – Meyer has become known for expressing at best the mundane and at worst the less desirable side of reality.
‘Meyer’s paintings speak little of the rural world as an exotic holiday destination where time stands still and life is free, easy and uncomplicated. Instead, through his eyes the remote countryside is for most part dotted with empty and lonely places. Here the relatively few human inhabitants are seldom seen, and very little seems to happen. But signs of human drama – of physical and mental struggle, shattered dreams and often complete failure in a virtually hostile landscape – are everywhere: in derelict old houses and bare and neglected backyards, rusted cars, empty town streets and deserted Kalahari plains where the struggle to survive is seen in the crumpled shapes of dry trees and shrubs.
‘These melancholy depictions of largely forgotten and deserted worlds furthermore linger in the memory because we not only distinctly recognise these landscapes as physical parts of Southern Africa, but are also reminded, as we have specifically realised in the last decade, that the old must eventually give way to the new.
We also see another side of ourselves in these works: that we are also drifters through time and space – sometimes accepted by the land, and often rejected by it. On both accounts, this leaves marks on us, as we leave our tracks on the landscape.’
The news of Meyer’s sudden and tragic death has left the art world reeling, with many lamenting the loss of one of the country’s top landscape artists.