Alastair Meredith on Pierneef's Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond
Acquired by Professor A.E. du Toit, the first professor of Mathematics at the University of Pretoria, and the University's Vice-Chancellor and Principal between 1927 and 1934; thence by descent.
Dedication reads: 'To dear Susan, with much love from mama, Anne du Toit'
As a major, magnificent example by Henk Pierneef, Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, is at once instantly recognisable and breathtakingly unique. Painted in 1928, at the beginning of what Esme Berman and PG Nel have long described as the artist's most celebrated period of 'discovery and mastery', the picture not only offers a beautiful, iconic view, but is also Pierneef's stunning precursor to his famous Stellenbosch panel that was installed in the Johannesburg Railway Station in November 1932 (fig.1). No comparison between the two versions has been possible until now as the earlier example has always remained in private hands, and has never been exhibited or illustrated.
Although Pierneef and his family had settled briefly in Hilversum and Rotterdam during the Anglo-Boer War, the artist made his first professional trip to Europe in July 1925. With his wife May he visited London, Rotterdam, Dusseldorf, Munich, Berlin, Paris, Antwerp and Bruges, and was endlessly struck by the various guises of modernism he encountered, as well as the lingering aesthetic of Art Nouveau. In Amsterdam he met Anton Hendriks (who would later become the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery) and Willem van Konijnenburg, whose art theories, based in the main on severe geometric principles and harmonious proportion, made an immediate impact on him.
Back home, energised by his European experiences, and armed with a hoard of catalogues and books on Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau, Pierneef felt ready to adjust his style, assimilate his new influences, 'deliver a heavy blow on the Pretoria frontier', and to 'shock many an art connoisseur.1 In this vein, he revealed some of his early, gently modern experiments with mixed success at small shows at the Levson Gallery and Girls’ High School in Pretoria in 1926, and at Lezard’s in Johannesburg in 1927. While some critics encouraged his new-found avant-garde spirit, buyers were more cautious. A much larger exhibition the following year in Polliack's Music Shop in Pretoria, however, which featured a good number of deliberately reduced, markedly geometric compositions with Symbolist undercurrents, while generating much debate, proved a financial disaster. Works such as Study in Blue (fig.2) and Komposisie – Geometriese Landskap, now deservingly iconic, were widely panned, and the artist was persuaded to turn back towards his more familiar, monumental style. Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, executed in the same year as the Polliack show, is particularly special as it captures most spectacularly the moment of the artist’s stylistic transition. The mountainside splintered into shards of pure colour is an obvious link to his recent European exposure, while van Konijnenburg would have appreciated the linear clarity, architectonic structure and proportional discipline on show, but in depicting the simple vernacular homestead nestled amongst ordered gardens and enormous, watchful trees, Pierneef returned to a more characteristic and endearing mode.
Pierneef painted a number of smaller canvases using a comparable viewpoint. Die Pieke vanaf Lanzarac (1925) in the Pretoria Art Musuem, with its vineyards in shadow, and the ridges and clouds painted up in similar crimsons, lavenders and carmine, immediately comes to mind, as does a much earlier, more painterly example that the artist presented as a wedding gift to a friend in 1923 (fig.3). But neither have the weight and power of Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, nor indeed do they conjure the same sense of sheer decorative delight.
Pierneef was a master printmaker, having been guided in the medium by George Smithard, Pieter Wenning and Frans Oerder, and there is a controlled, graphic element, and a search for essential form, evident in many of his milestone paintings, including the present lot. The Twin Peaks in the painting, in particular, with their angular, carved lines and panes of colour, bears a striking stylistic resemblance to at least two of the artist’s well-loved linocuts from 1922 and 1925 (fig.4 is the latter),as well as the admittedly later covers of Die Stellenbosse Student and Die Nuwe Brandwag (fig.5 is the former).
One of the more memorable aspects of the painting’s composition is the group of aged, elegant, straight-trunked trees that frame the view of the homestead and the Peaks. Their dark, entangled branches that arc through the sky form a graceful and masterfully-carved Art Nouveau tracery that is accentuated by the rose, dusky light behind. The compositional choice had a number of precedents in the artist's oeuvre. Perhaps the earliest are two stage backdrops that Pierneef designed for the production of Amakeia, a poem by AG Visser (1886-1929). One of these, Amatola, captured in a 1920 aquatint (fig.6), offers a particularly interesting comparison. It is also a neat coincidence that the stage-like composition from 1920 re-frames such a theatrical view at Jonkershoek in 1928.
Works of this quality and size are few and far between, and a more dramatic, spine-tingling combination of coloured fragments in mauve, violet and electric pink could not have been locked together anymore beautifully.
1 See letter from Pierneef to T.M. Steele, dated 3 September 1925 (Johannesburg Art Gallery: J.H. Pierneef Collection); also see PG Nel (ed), JH Pierneef: His Life and His Works. Johannesburg: Peskor, 1990, page 67.
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