Modestly scaled and less architectonic than his oils, JH Pierneef’s casein paintings are widely regarded as amongst his most lyrical works. The artist is said to have produced upwards of 50 landscape studies using casein, a milk-based binding agent that Pierneef obtained from a Düsseldorf-based supplier.1 Characterised by their notational brushstrokes and impressionistic use of colour, Pierneef’s casein works are a benchmark of his intuition and assuredness as a painter. A fast-drying material casein demands certainty. “It is not likely that it will become a very popular process with artists owing to the extreme difficulty of its manipulation, as after application to the prepared surface the mixed paint sets like a fine and indestructible cement,” wrote Ernest Lezard, a Johannesburg art dealer, in an appreciation of Pierneef’.2 Lezard exhibited new work by Pierneef in March 1927. The artist, who had recently returned from his important second visit to Europe (1925-26), was entering the peak of his career. This culminated in his now-legendary exhibition of faceted and cubistic landscape studies in Pretoria, in 1928, the same year this work was produced. Audiences balked at his experimental new practice. A year later Pierneef received a commission to paint 28 panels for display at Johannesburg’s central railway station. The broken brushwork and matt colouration of this work correspond with the formal qualities of Pierneef’s Station Panels. Even though the work is compositionally very similar to a casein work owned by William Henry Clegg, the first governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Pierneef has not yet devolved into pure formula here. His landscape is seen rather than stiffly composed; diverting fixtures that have been erased in the Clegg-owned work still appear here; his clouds, while theatrical, are not dominating. The rapture that underpinned Pierneef’s wanderings through the bushveld is still palpable.
1. Harmsen, Frieda, De Jager, Joey and Kempff, Katinka (1985) Looking at South African art: A guide to the study and appreciation of art, Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik. Page 47.
2. De Villiers, KL 1997, The JH Pierneef collection of the City Council of Pretoria housed in the Pretoria Art Museum, MA dissertation, University of Pretoria, Pretoria. Page 208.