Located on the north-eastern outskirts of Pretoria, Pierneef visited Roodeplaat Dam and its surrounding veld repeatedly. He camped in the area as a young man, occasionally with Anton van Wouw, and sketched there enthusiastically. The present lot might well have started as one of these studies, although it would almost certainly have been worked up in the studio. In any event, it is quite remarkable that Willow Trees, Roodeplaat Dam, so monumental a picture, is made up of such short and minute flashes of pure colour. Painted in casein, the swift-drying medium that, thanks to its curd-based binding agent, so wonderfully preserves pigment, the work shows off Pierneef’s polished skill, his passion for his surrounding veld, and his flair for the spectacular.
The focal point of the picture is the mature willow tree on the right of the composition. Each branch is weighted down by the twisted and bundled strings of leaves, now pure gold late in winter. As is usual with his willow forms, Pierneef takes as much notice of the tree’s architectural framework as he does the patterns created within it. The willow acts as a natural lattice, therefore, through which segments of sky and cloud can be appreciated. Below it the grass seems brushed and angled like freshly laid thatch, but the diagonal flicks of yellow and pink there offset the deep blue of the water. Between the far bank and the sky, the landscape is stacked with thin, parallel lines of dotted, contrasting colours: first lavender, then mint-green, then silver, then violet.
The artist is perhaps better known for his immense acacias, but it was the hardy Highveld willow tree that captured his attention as a young painter. Whether it was the silhouette of the tree changing through the seasons, or the unusual sense of balance created by the bunched, cascading leaves, there is little doubt that the artist’s early experiments with the willow form resulted in some of his most avant-garde designs and compositions.