The landscape genre is a key part of the story of South African art and remains a highly sought-after collectable at auction. More than half of the twelve most valuable artists sold at auction by Strauss & Co since 2009 worked with landscape, including Walter Battiss, Maggie Laubser, Hugo Naudé and Cecil Skotnes, but none were as faithful to this country’s geographical abundance as JH Pierneef.
Since its establishment in 2009 Strauss & Co has sold 273 lots by this master of the South African landscape at its live sales, achieving R163 million in combined sales. Pierneef is second only to Irma Stern as Strauss & Co’s top-selling artist, and his work is always enthusiastically pursued at auction. In June 2017 Strauss & Co achieved a world record for Pierneef’s 1928 oil, Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, when it sold for R 20.46 million.
Strauss & Co’s forthcoming spring sale in Cape Town on 15 October includes no less than 18 works by this celebrated artist. They cover all the media he worked with: oil on canvas, casein, watercolour, linocut, etching, pastel, charcoal and pencil. All classes of Pierneef enthusiasts are catered for: from entry-level collectors aiming to lay a solid foundation to connoisseurs in search of his rare, typically ravishing casein works.
Pierneef’s later-period work Elephant Castle, Selati River, Phalaborwa (estimate R3 – 5 million) commands the highest pre-sale estimate. Executed in 1945 in his monumental style, the 60,5 by 76cm oil on canvas depicts the Selati River near its confluence with the Oliphant’s River outside Phalaborwa. The picture is dominated by a granite hill, its geometric proportions keenly described by the artist.
An accomplished draughtsman, Pierneef’s gift was to inject theatricality into his pictures – be it through the formal styling of his clouds or use of colour. Painted in 1930, A View of Mountains Through Trees (estimate R1.2 – 1.8 million) sees Pierneef in an experimental mood, using dusky reds to frame and further dramatize a receding landscape. The clouds in this lot share affinities with those in his iconic Johannesburg station panel commission (1929-32), which the artist had already commenced.
Other notable Pierneef works on offer include: Thorn Trees in Mountain Landscape at Dusk (estimate R350 000 – 500 000), one of two casein landscapes purchased by the current owner’s grandparents from the artist’s studio in the early 1930s; two early pastels depicting trees, Green Sky with Brown Willows from 1914 (estimate R350 000 – 500 000) and Tree Roots from 1916 (estimate R250 000 – 350 000); and three dulcet mountain landscapes, all oil on board, A Road through a Mountainous Landscape (estimate R200 000 – 300 000), A Mountainous Landscape (estimate R200 000 – 300 000) and the petite 10,5 by 14cm Purple Mountains (estimate R100 000 – 150 000), depicting the Brandberg in Namibia.
Born two years after Pierneef, in Germany, Adolph Jentsch received his training in Dresden and moved to South-West Africa (now Namibia) in 1938. In the words of his biographer Olga Levinson, Jentsch’s landscapes evoke “the silent poetry” of the “great, empty land” he settled in. Strauss & Co is delighted to be offering four Jentsch oils from the Peter and Regina Strack Collection. A German-born architect and artist based in Namibia, Peter Strack honed his skills as a collector under the tutelage of Jentsch.
Vlei on Farm Teufelsbach (estimate R600 000 – 800 000) offers an unusually verdant view of the Otjihavera River. The work is a rarity in a country famed for its scorched desert landscapes. Schafrevier (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) is more typical of the muted desert tones of Namibia and Jentsch; it depicts the Schaf River just south of Windhoek. Ibenstein, SW Afrika (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) is a masterfully achieved night scene in grey that reflects Jentsch’s study of Chinese water-colourists.
Cecil Skotnes started out painting landscapes, but was dissuaded from pursuing the genre further by dealer Egon Guenther, only to return to it in later years. Painted in 1961, two years before the founding of the Amadlozi Group, Abstract Landscape (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) is a striking companion piece to the 1998 oil, City Bowl Landscape (estimate R250 000 – 350 000). Both works conjure mythic geographies from cubistic blocks of colour.
In 1957, the same year Pierneef died, Skotnes held his first solo exhibition in Pretoria. It was opened by Walter Battiss, whose Rock Formations (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) is typical of work from the 1950s when Battiss began integrating compressed perspectives, geometric simplification and non-naturalistic colours into his landscape compositions.
An influential figure in South Africa’s post-war art scene, Battiss was an early admirer of Erik Laubscher, in 1952 appreciatively describing his work as “compelling”. Strauss & Co’s coming sale includes two Laubscher oils: Middaglug Overberg (estimate R300 000 – 400 000), a geometric landscape from 1982 in burnt yellows, oranges and browns, and Storm Oor Die Land van Waveren (estimate R250 000 – 350 000), a more life-like study of the Tulbagh region of the Bree River Valley from 1993.
Much in the way that Laubscher derived his creative sustenance from the Swartland and Overberg regions, Peter Clarke was inspired by his visits to Tesselaarsdal near Caledon. Collectors covet Clarke’s works referencing his visits there in the period between 1949 and 1960. Painted in 1959 on 19th November, two weeks after painting Tree, Eroded Bank and Birds, which sold for R909 440, the gouache Koppie and Cattle, Tesslaarsdal (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) evidences Clarke’s “powerful graphic sensibility,” as Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin put it, and keen sense of nature’s elemental forms.
Notwithstanding the contemporary turn to portraiture by present-day artists, the landscape remains a vital subject. John Meyer’s Landscape with Thorn Tree and Birds (estimate R100 000 – 150 000) is typical of this artist’s accomplished naturalistic style. Produced in 1995, William Kentridge’s print edition Felix in Exile (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) features nine panels excerpted from his film of the same name, some depicting the etiolated landscapes flanking contemporary Johannesburg.
The global leader for South African art, Strauss & Co has sold nine of the ten most expensive paintings ever auctioned in South Africa. The works mentioned here will go under the hammer on the evening of Monday 15 October at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, Cape Town. The public can view these important works, along with many others, from 12 to 14 October, from 10:00 to 17:00. Strauss & Co will also be hosting an extensive programme of public talks and social events in the lead-up to the sale.