Live Virtual Auction, 11 - 13 April 2021
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About this Item
Henk Pierneef painted this magnificent, hushed, imposing picture in 1952. The scene is dominated by monumental and ancient baobabs, those iconic sentinels of the bushveld. Each tree is caught in the artist’s boldly linear style, by then effortless, slick, and deeply familiar to a devoted public. A central canopy of branches, like the carefully carved hardwood tracery of a window, arcs across the sky, flecked at the tips with touches of umber and brown. Gently geometric, soothing and pure in colour, and clear and orderly in composition, the painting is a late-career masterpiece, bringing together so many of the artist’s most admired characteristics.
The central baobab – with its bark depicted in fat oily ribbons of pink, and its shadowy clefts in dark lilac – is immense and immovable, and calls to mind another major painting, The Baobab Tree, that was presented to Charles te Water and went on show in 1948 at the Overseas Exhibition of South African Art at the Tate in London. The present lot, a later version, plays even more cleverly with scale: despite a distant horizon, steep hillsides, and flat terraces of shifting grasslands, there is nothing to help one judge the central tree’s fantastic size. The effect is deceptive and spellbinding.
Already a national and cultural treasure, Pierneef’s time was in much demand in the early 1950s: between his lecture duties, interviews, embassy parties, and studio receptions, he had limited time to paint. The modest contemporary market, moreover, meant he had little option but to exhibit widely and regularly. No fewer than eight major shows opened between 1950 and 1952, and gallery-goers were able to enjoy his work in Johannesburg (May and September 1950), Pietermaritzburg (August 1950), Cape Town (November 1950), Pretoria (September 1951) and Bloemfontein (September 1951 and 1952). His ever-growing reputation culminated in his first honorary doctorate, from the University of Natal, in 1951, and glowing descriptions of his achievements were readily voiced: ‘He has contributed to the creation of a distinctly African style of painting with such determination and conviction, and with such accurate perception, that no one who knows South Africa dares deny his work… he has offered… an image of honest clarity, perfect equilibrium and rare artistic pleasure’.1
1. Professor H M van der Westhuizen of the Department of Afrikaanse en Nederlandse Kultuurgeskiedenis at the University of Pretoria. See P G Nel (ed) (1990) J H Pierneef: His Life and Work, Cape Town and Johannesburg: Perskor, page 101.
Property of a Gentleman.