- Dec 01. Chairman's Review 2010
- Dec 01. Voorsitters Oorsig
- Nov 12. A sparkling array
- Nov 01. Art market grabs investor's imagination and opens pockets at Strauss & Co Auction
- Oct 19. Millions for South African Paintings
- Oct 18. Strauss & Co set a new record for South African art
- Oct 11. New record for South African art
- Sep 23. Top South African Paintings at Strauss & Co's October Auction
- Aug 31. Pierneef attracts wide interest
- Aug 30. Ruth First and Lilian Ngoyi Celebrated in Artwork at Auction
- Aug 03. Jewellery Week at Strauss & Co
- Jul 23. Another Irma Stern Still Life Poised to Break Auction Records
- Jul 23. Valuation Day at The Marine, Hermanus
- Jun 26. Stanley Pinker's, The Wheel of Life, 1974, to be offered for sale in Cape Town on 11 October 2010
- Jun 25. Forthcoming Cape Town Auction
- May 30. Rhodes statue led Welz to success
- May 25. Four South African Still Lifes sell for R22 million
- May 18. Auction of Important South African, British and Continental Paintings and Sculpture
- May 10. Maud Sumner – "a sound investment"
- May 03. Important work by Deborah Bell on auction at Strauss & Co, Johannesburg, 24 May 2010
- May 02. Artists with a passion for Africa
- Mar 25. Irma Stern - Still Life with Dahlias and Fruit
- Mar 16. "Bad News" proves to be good news
- Feb 08. Anton Van Wouw - Bad News
- Feb 08. Jane Alexander - Racework
- Feb 01. Edith Dodo Estate Collection
Pierneef Panele by Die Rupert Museum, Stellenbosch
September 1, 2010 [ Archived ]
Die negatiwiteit oor Pierneef het baie te make met 'n behoefte onder Engelssprekendes aan 'n bose en rassistiese stereotipe van Afrikaners, meen Stephan Welz. Hier is sy volledige toespraak by die opening van die Pierneef-uitstalling in die Rupert-museum.
Baie van u wat vanaand hier is mag miskien nie bewus wees van die storms en kontroversie wat oor die laaste klompie jare om Pierneef se kop draai nie. Ek moet eerlik wees die hele saga steek my dwars in die krop. Vanaand moet u my verskoon maar ek sou graag in Engels wil praat want ek kry die gevoel dat as dit in Afrikaans is ek dalk vir die ‘converted’ gaan ‘preach’.
In 1970 Esmé Berman, for whom I have the highest regard as person and art historian described Pierneef as ‘a prophet with honour in his own country’ Together with Irma Stern he is the highest priced artist in South Africa. Already in 1947 Johannes Grosskopf described him as ‘n kulturele profeet van die volk’. High praise indeed!
Some 22 years after Berman’s assessment, in 1992, N J Coetzee, in his Pierneef, land and landscape, comes with a whole new, and in my opinion negative, view of Pierneef and particularly his landscape painting. At this critical time in our country’s history Coetzee identifies a strong connection between Pierneef and Afrikaner Nationalism.
Applying what is known as a deconstructional approach he arrives at the conclusion, amongst others, that Pierneef, in his vast landscapes, devoid of any human beings, ready to be taken, strengthened the belief that God placed the Afrikaner in Africa and so saved the land and the landscape, and that the Afrikaner was in a position of dominance in Africa. Coetzee also pointed out that the Station Panels in no way reflect the hardships of the depression.
In a current Iziko exhibition "The “Lie of the Land” ( the double entendre says it all) the above interpretation is taken so far as to claim that landscapes painted from a commanding viewpoint (presumably only those painted by white Afrikaners or other so called ‘Settlers’) brings the landscape under control cognitively, in the first instance, but with obvious military and political implications! Another interpretation has to do with ownership. Simply put, by implication, by painting the landscape the artist in fact claims ownership.
In 2000 we had what was described as the ‘Pierneef Problem’. The artworks in South Africa House in London suddenly became highly offensive to a small but vocal group.
A compromise was reached and the objectors pacified. Here I would just like to relate my experience as proof that the negative perception of Pierneef’s art was obviously not held by every one representing the ‘new guard’. A few years ago, in the course of my work, I was instructed to list and value artworks and other items of value in the President and Deputy President’s offices and residences in Pretoria. It pleased me no end to discover that the Pierneef Room in Mahlamba Ndlopfu (formally known as Libertas) still boasted the same major Pierneef I had seen there in the time of President FW De Klerk and that the President’s office in the Union Building was still decorated with landscapes by Piet van Heerden and a work by my father, but more importantly some six landscapes of early Pretoria by Pierneef.
They may have been re-hung somewhere else now but the fact of the matter is that neither President Mandela nor President Mbeki had found them offensive.
In 2006 a group calling themselves the Avant Car Guard was photographed cavorting on Pierneef’s grave in the Old Cemetary in Pretoria. They were credited by the anti -Pierneef protagonists as displaying their view of Pierneef’s paintings as being outdated, false and destructive and also supposedly reflecting the then South African way of life and the Nationalist ideology upon which it was founded. I think the bottle of Tassenberg wine visible in the photo probably points to the real reason behind their behaviour. I do not believe those youngsters had any concept of what Pierneef’s work is all about and even less of Afrikaner Nationalism yet, the Pierneef critics appropriated the publicity seeking event to promote their cause.
What does one make of all this? Before looking at the man Pierneef let me make the following observations:
The admiration Pierneef has always commanded and the prices his works fetch relative to most other artists makes him a very desirable target to knock off his pedestal. Here it is interesting to note that when the SABC conducted a poll in 2004 to establish who the public thought the most important 100 South Aficans are, Pierneef was the only artist to make the list. His critics choose not to consider the broad spectrum of his work and the environment in which it was created but go looking for aspects of his work which can be made to fit their theories. They also latch onto opinions about him by earlier writers, which can today be construed in a negative way, with scant regard for the fact that generally these were not Pierneef’s own words, opinions or intentions.
The old adage ‘the victor gets to rewrite history’ is as true today as it has ever been. One just has to compare the history books most of us grew up on and the history being taught today to realise how true. We all know the truth probably lies somewhere in between. As far as Art History is concerned the same holds and as a result I believe the level of Art education at present is deplorable in many respects. I will tell you a true story as an example. A few years ago I employed a young graduate from UCT’s Michaelis School of Art. He had obtained a BA Fine Arts degree, majoring in Sculpture. To my utter dismay I soon discovered that he had never heard of the world famous sculptor, Rodin, let alone seen any of his work! Apparently everything that precedes the present is deemed by these illustrious institutions of learning not to be worthy of study or even noting. For these reasons , I have to confess, I take many of the opinions and theories expressed by the ‘illuminati’ of today with a pinch of salt.
PIERNEEF THE MAN
Four books have been written about him and his work – three of which can be described as adulatory and one, by Coetzee, critical in the main.
Pierneef was born in Pretoria and received his basic schooling at the Staats Model School where he excelled at drawing. The family Pierneef was not well-off but when the Anglo Boer War broke out his Dutch builder father decided, rather than to be interned as a Boer sympathiser, to take his family to Holland where they remained for the duration of the war. Pierneef, then a young teenager, had to work to help support the family but attended evening classes in drawing. Pierneef was 18 years old when they returned to South Africa after the war had ended.
Few people today realise how serious the plight of Afrikaner Boers and their families was on returning to their farms after the war The ‘scorched earth’ policy embarked on by the British had devastated thousands of farms. Because the declared policy had been to kill or drive away all animals, burn all homes as well as crops and remove women and children and all black staff to Concentration Camps, there was absolutely no possibility of starting up again.
With over 27,000 Boer family deaths in the camps the very fabric of Afrikaner social life had been irreversibly altered by what the Afrikaner deemed to be an unjust war.
If you read The Times History of the War in South Africa Britain was not only right in every respect but a saviour against evil. Some 90 years later Thomas Packenham came to completely different conclusions. Moving to larger towns and cities in an effort to find new ways of earning a living was the only way to survive for thousands of Boers.. Unskilled work on the mines, the railways, etc was all that many could do and the “Poor White Problem” which had already begun before the war became acute. Finally, between 1928 and 1932, the Carnegie Commission was set up to investigate this problem and steps were then taken by the Government and Church to implement the Commissions recommendations. Because the problem largely involved Afrikaners there was a strong undercurrent of sympathy for them.
The outbreak of the First World War and the fact that the Union Government joined the war on the side of Great Britain who so recently had been the enemy caused much bitterness amongst those who had suffered under the British. Ironically many men found themselves obliged to join up in the hope that they would be able to help support their families. Against this background the formation in 1918 of the Afrikaner Broederbond as a cultural organisation with the aim of promoting Afrikaner religious and cultural values was entirely logical. Many fine people from all walks of life joined and the fact that Pierneef became a member too has no sinister, deeper meaning.
You need only read Dr Nico Smith’s book Die Afrikaner Broederbond to realise how positively this body was viewed and how the seed of Afrikaner Nationalism germinated in him. Only much later did it become, to a large extent, repulsive to him.
Beyers Naude too was at one time a member of the Broederbond. Pierneef resigned from the Broederbond in 1946 – long before most.
As far as him being a conservative, Afrikaner Nationalist in the negative sense - as implied by his detractors - is concerned, his actions and life tell a different story. He associated freely with people of different cultural, language and religious persuasions and counted many highly respected, cultured people such as the architect Norman Eaton and Prof G.E. Pearse amongst his closest friends. Pearse strongly supported him in his endeavours to establish an art school in the Transvaal and Eaton shared his passion for domestic architecture amongs other things. Eaton ultimately served as an executor in his estate.
His work was much admired by Princess Alice of Athlone. Not only did she receive one of his paintings as a parting gift at the end of her husband the Governor-General’s term of office in 1930, but she also donated a Pierneef to the National Gallery.
In 1911 he exhibited with the Guild of SA Artists as well as becoming a member of a group of artists known as the ‘Individualists’ – both very English bodies.
In 1923 he was censured by the Church and left, never to return. Interestingly, when he remarried the following year it was by special license.
In 1926 he served on the Flag Commission but the politics behind the new designs did not appeal to him and he resigned.
Pierneef designed the end papers for a special book commemorating the Royal visit in 1947. Compare his positive contribution to the absolute boycott of the visit by dyed in the wool Afrikaner Nationalists. For instance, the Vaderland, with Dr Hendrik Verwoerd as editor, made no mention whatsoever of the visit other than to warn its readers about possible traffic congestion.
It may surprise many to discover that Pierneef produced erotic art of the kind one would sooner associate with an artist such as Walter Battiss.
Pierneef’s first marriage was beset by problems and ended in divorce in 1923. He remarried in 1924. He also had at least two serious extra-marital affairs.
During 1939 Jacob Pierneef purchased a small farm east of Pretoria and had a thatch-roofed house with stone walls built. This house was nicknamed ‘die Kraal’ but the official name was "Elangeni" a Zulu word meaning "in the sun" or “where the sun shines in”. Would a true”Afrikaner Nationalist” not rather have called his house “die Fort” or “die Laager”? I can hear you laughing!
In 1951 an Honorary Doctorate was bestowed on him by the University of Natal, no less, and in 1957 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Pretoria.
By now it should be clear that the conventional wisdom about Pierneef reflects only half the story about the person he was. Judging from the above and other instances too numerous to mention this evening it would be more accurate to describe him as a liberal free thinker than to persist in this effort to portray him as a ultra conservative bent on promoting the cause of so called ‘Afrikaner Nationalism’
Pierneef was very keen to promote a ‘national art’ in the ‘out of Africa’ sense of the word. Unfortunately his views, which had nothing to do with Nationalism in the party political sense, were ‘high jacked’ and exploited by others to promote “Afrikaner Nationalism,” an idea which today seems to have lost it’s original meaning and is used almost exclusively in a derogatory sense. In turn their interpretation of Pierneef’s work became the very basis of much of the current criticism against the man and his work.
Ideals about a national art were not unique to Pierneef. In America the Regionalist Art Movement, with Thomas Benton, John Curry and Grant Woods as the main proponents, produced some of the most recognisable examples of the American style. Although there was always some criticism of their work Grant Wood’s American Gothic, painted in 1930, is possibly one of the best known paintings in the world. In Mexico the highly acclaimed Diego Riviera believed that home-grown art would best express Mexican culture.
PIERNEEF AND HIS ART
A Pierneef is a Pierneef – seen one seen them all? I come across this simplistic interpretation more often than I care for.
Pierneef never ceased to experiment; seeking solutions and accepting challenges; paring down and distilling the essence of what he was portraying; striving to perfect his unique style. I urge you to visit the new Pierneef Gallery at La Motte in Franschoek - a very worthwhile companion exhibition to this one of the ‘Johannesburg Station Panels’ which we are tonight privileged to attend. At La Motte, a beautifully presented, chronological display of his work should greatly add to our appreciation of Pierneef’s art and development. It becomes clear that he did not work in isolation and was very much influenced by art movements elsewhere; that he experimented and sometimes followed new trends but sometimes also retraced his steps.
He was a superb draughtsman, equalled by few of the artists working today. As graphic artist he excelled from an early age. The pride he took in his work started in the preparation of his canvasses and was carried through to the finished artwork.
He used only the best materials and is one of only a handful of artists whose paintings seldom crack, flake or come adrift. He followed what I think of as, the basic principals and his work will never become a curator’s nightmare. So much of what has been done in the name of “Art” in the last thirty years has become, as I see it, no more than sand-castles on the beach. As a marketing man I find myself stepping away from much of the contemporary efforts because they only spell future trouble for the dealer, the auctioneer and definitely the buyer. Feathers, newsprint, animal carcasses, found objects etc. stuck to anything which comes to hand, embalmed in formaldehyde or carefully scattered about a room simply don’t follow the rules of ‘art’ in the sense the word has been used for hundreds of years. Perhaps we should create a whole new terminology for what is being created today and that might ease the friction between the so called ‘old’ and the ‘new’. I have no doubt that there are brilliant people with brilliant ideas out there but at the same time, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, would like to quote Tom Stoppard : ‘Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.’
Pierneef produced some brilliant work but, like most artists, also some less successful examples. Unlike many, he recognised and accepted his own limitations. The human figure presented him with serious problems and in the main he steered clear of them. Where he did attempt to do figures as demonstrated in the commissioned work ‘The Church of the Vow’ the work seemed stiff and unnatural and we have to count them amongst the least successful in his oeuvre. Criticism of his vast landscapes, devoid of human life, tend to conclude that as a ‘typical colonialist’ he did not paint people (read indigenous people) because he wished them away or discounted them. This is patently ridiculous. Pierneef was passionate about the vastness of our South African landscape.
When he painted his pictures there were no people and, might I add, if he had to paint these landscapes today there would still not be – it remains empty!
We are privileged tonight to see all 32 panels in their magnificent splendour. Judge for yourself what impact they must have had in 1932 when they were completed to grace the newly built Johannesburg Park Station. In 1935 Pierneef received The Medal for Visual Arts for these as well as for his panels in South Africa House in London
The Railways were responsible for tourism and publicity nationally as well as internationally and the new station was the first point of arrival for most tourists before the advent of commercial air-travel.
This commission was Pierneef’s largest and probably the biggest for any South African artist ever. Keep in mind his brief and the logistics involved. The paintings had to be viewed from below and the scale was daunting. For the time, and given the purpose, I believe no other artist could have been as successful. I have heard criticism that they are not conventional tourism material – presumably implying that beach scenes with laughing people in swimwear and suntans or roaring lions would have been more appropriate. Remember that the panels were to be a permanent part of the beautiful new Station building and not meant to be scraped of the walls, like posters, and replaced with fresh new images annually.
They represent what is most imposing and eternal in our unique, varied landscape and cannot help but impress even the most jaded eye. As mentioned earlier, NJ Coetzee in his book Pierneef, land and landscape criticises the fact that the Station Panels do not reflect the hardships of the depression which was in full swing at the time. This would have been highly unconventional if not impossible, given the brief.
Either you encourage people to travel, spend money and enjoy themselves or you bring them back to earth with a bump and show them the horrors and hardships.
Antjie Krog, the highly acclaimed Afrikaans poet, writer and journalist caused an outcry last year at the Goethe Institute when, as guest speaker, she argued that the song De la Rey, De la Rey by Bok van Blerk was being wilfully misinterpreted and taken out of the context of the rest of the CD by especially the English media. She expressed the opinion that journalist and some academics were actually missing the good old bad days of the ‘struggle’ when the Afrikaners made it easy for everyone to determine who was evil and who the saviours.
Also, that the Afrikaner community lives today as an accused minority and the only option for them was to sit it out until someone else could take over the role of the bad guy.
I know I am sticking my neck out but I have a strong suspicion that the current negativity towards Pierneef, and might I add Maggie Laubser and Hugo Naude too, amongst some art historians and academics has much to do with Antjie Krog’s theory about the English speaker’s need for a bad- rascist- Afrikaner stereotype.
On this ‘rascist’ or is it ‘tribal’ note I have to make one last observation.
If it had not been for Afrikaner and Jewish contributions on the South African cultural scene we would all have been immeasurably poorer. Why do I say this? Look at our art books, architecture -, Cape silver- and early Cape furniture books and people such as Esmë Berman, Frank Bradlow, David Heller, Ryno Greenwall, A.C. Bouman, Prof J du P Scholtz and Elza Botha (Miles) come to mind. Look at the Mendelsohn Library, the Mulne Collection, the William Fehr Collection in the Castle, Dr Max Greenberg’s donation to the William Humphreys Art Gallery, the Boerneef Collection and the Rupert Museum among the collections in cultural history Museums and Art galleries.
Look at the publishers of art books such as van Schaik, look at dedicated Art columns in newspapers such as the Burger and Beeld and finally look at benefactors and sponsors of the arts such as the Rupert Art Foundation and I’m sure you will all agree that the role of the Nationalist (in the patriotic sense of the word) Afrikaner stands as major monuments and that the work of artists such as Pierneef will withstand the ebb and flow of fashions and political correctness.
1 September 2010