Modern and Contemporary Art
Live Virtual Auction, 16 May 2023
Modern and Contemporary Art
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About this Item
signed, dated 23 Feb 1932 and inscribed 'Klipriviersberg'
Between 1929 and 1932, Henk Pierneef devoted himself to an epic commission for the new Johannesburg Railway Station on De Villiers Street. Honoured with the task of decorating the main concourse of this prominent building, Pierneef conceptualised a segmented panorama of southern African landscapes and landmarks. Large in scale, monumental in design and carefully linear in execution, these painted views were not only beautiful and evocative, but each a destination passengers might reach from the very railway hub in which they stood. With each panel placed high above commuters, the overall effect must have been exhilarating, not to mention a fine advert for the South African Railways, which pitched its network as modern and far-reaching. Pierneef spent no fewer than three years on the commission. Having criss-crossed the country for inspiration, constantly refining his studies and cartoons for the panels, he eventually settled on twenty-eight separate scenes that struck a balance between the instantly recognisable and the quietly spectacular. The former included well-known views of Knysna Heads, Stellenbosch, the Karoo and Amajuba; the latter revealed the artist’s soft spot for Okahandja, Graaff-Reinet, Heidelberg and the Malutis. Some of the chosen scenes were more deeply personal, however: his beloved Bosveld was captured with some drama, while he seemed to know every bend and eroded bank along the Apies and Pienaars Rivers. He was also clearly intimately familiar with the gentle koppies on the farm Klipriviersberg, in Alberton, as well as its old Transvaal-style farmhouse with its wrap-around stoep and charming outbuildings. He certainly knew the owners of this long established farmstead – the Meyer family – and the existence of a small group of flashy, luxuriously-painted oil studies of the farm show that he spent considerable time there. It is a remarkable coincidence that two of these expressive and historical studies, made early in 1932 in preparation for the final panel, now come to the market together. For the first of these paintings, Lot 47, Pierneef positioned himself due east of the farmhouse, at some distance, and so presented a sweeping view of the planted fields, glinting roofs, shadowy trees and sloping hillside. Interestingly, he placed a thatched rondawel on the right of the composition. The inclusion was in keeping with his affection for vernacular architecture, but it also gave a more theatrical sense of the scale of the scene. The grassy foreground – marked off with a rural fence, weathered and off-kilter, as well as a line of low, crumbling walls – he built up with a mesmerising combination of wriggling and flicking brushstrokes, ranging in colour from dusty brown, ruby-grey and sun-bleached green. Beyond, the neat diagonal bands of crops lead the eye towards the angled rooftop planes painted with orange and gold. If Lot 47 is a vivid and impressionistic precursor for the final station panel, Lot 48 is an attentive and even tender depiction of the old stable block, with its limewashed walls and rickety green doors, seeming to catch the artist in a more sentimental moment. The scene is quiet, still and timeless; warm sunshine lights the uneven foreground, while the darkened windows suggest a cool interior. There are some noteworthy stylistic flourishes too: the way he represented the shade under the trees, for instance, using short swipes of blue, brown and mauve, is reminiscent of his Divisionist experiments on his return from Europe in 1926. PG Nel illustrated Perdestal, Klipriviersberg in his landmark monograph on the artist. In the related caption he noted that the structure was not only the first outbuilding on the Meyer’s farm, but later, perhaps, the first building with a corrugated roof in Johannesburg.
P Meyer, and thence by descent.
PG Nel (ed) (1990) JH Pierneef: His Life and His Work, Cape Town and Johannesburg: Perskor, illustrated in colour on page 18.