31 August 2010 Archived
Strauss & Co's spring auctions, on 11th October at the Vineyard Hotel and on 1st November at the Country Club Johannesburg in Woodmead respectively, are set to showcase some of the most exciting examples of top South African art ever to come to auction. Amongst these, are a number of key works by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef that have been treausured in private collections and not been seen publically.
Pierneef’s Barberton en Nelshoogte Kaapschehoop, coming up at Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg sale, has an illustrious provenance. It was acquired from the artist by Johannes Lambertus van Schaik (1888 – 1965) on 25th November 1949 and inherited by his son Jan Jacob van Schaik (1917 – 2009). The former came to South Africa from Holland in 1911 and joined the bookseller De Bussy in Johannesburg. In 1914 he founded the bookselling and publishing house J L van Schaik in Pretoria. The business flourished and on his death his two sons Jan and Hans continued to run the company until 1986 when it was sold to Nasionale Pers. It still continues to trade under the name Van Schaiks.
Acquired from the artist’s studio shortly after it was painted, the provenance is evidence of the close and supportive relationship between the artist and the bibliophile. As a patron of the arts, Van Schaik is known to have collected impressive works that include Irma Stern’s Gladioli, to be auctioned on Strauss & Co’s 11th October sale at the Vineyard Hotel. The fact that he selected this particular painting is evidence of its importance in Pierneef’s oeuvre.
Viewed from the Nelshoogte plateau along the southern part of the Mpumalanga escarpment area west of the town of Barberton, the painting offers a spectacular view of the valley with the river coursing into the distance. The foreground has an astonishing wealth of detail in the vegetation and thorn trees so emblematic of Pierneef’s landscape paintings.
The title alerts us to the artist’s thoughts as he traced the contours of this remarkable area. Kaapschehoop, a tiny hamlet in the Barberton district, was one of the first places in which alluvial gold deposits were discovered in the 1880s. Prospectors, seeing in the 10 000 square kilometre valley a resemblance to the Cape of Good Hope with Table Mountain towering above it, named it De Kaap valley and their incorrigible optimism gave rise to the official name of the hamlet. Pierneef’s painting thus becomes a cultural meditation on the origins of the gold industry that gave first Barberton and then the Witwatersrand their raison d’être.
The artist succeeds in achieving both a breadth of vision and a depth of perspective by structuring his composition in astute ways. The rolling hills and the sloping mountains that are arranged in a series of interlocking diagonals, encourage our eye to travel to the edges of the painting and back to its centre, emphasising the width of the landscape. Linear perspective that leads one’s eye, via the zigzagging river to the vanishing point and aerial perspective with warm colours that advance in the foreground and cool, receding colours in the background, provide the impression of deep space.
The result is a painting that is breathtaking in its scale and ability to evoke the vastness of the South African landscape. While the artist’s compositional strategies lend complexity to the painting, the apparently endless variations, lull one into a sense of wonder and satisfaction.
Pierneef’s Koringlande Agter Paarl, on Strauss & Co’s Cape Town sale in October, was painted in 1952 and is a rare example of the artist’s Cape landscapes. It depicts a Cape Dutch farmhouse nestled amongst sweeping wheat fields at the foot of a dramatic mountain range which includes, from the left, Klapmutskop, Kanonkop and Simonsberg with the Stellenbosch mountains in the distance on the right. Some of the farms situated in this area were planted with wheat and tobacco during the 1950s when wine proved unprofitable.
The success of this painting is due in great measure to Pierneef’s extraordinary ability to harness keen observation and sound technical expertise to a profound knowledge of the South African landscape. His architectonic approach to painting, which ordered composition by foregrounding its underlying structure, was ideally suited to capturing the vastness of the South African landscape that he loved so dearly. Dutch artist and theorist Willem van Konijnenburg, whose marked influence on Pierneef resulted in a greater abstraction of nature, was a great source of inspiration. In a letter to the artist written in 1929, Van Konijnenburg offered the following encouragement: Perseverance takes root in the deep love the artist has for nature. It is indeed this quality that pleases me so much, I feel that this love is present in full measure in you, in the painter Pierneef.1
Pierneef’s love of farms and homesteads was nurtured in part through his love of working the soil and of building, a skill he had learnt from his father, Gerrit Pierneef, a master builder and contractor. By 1939 he had acquired a piece of land in the Pretoria district and begun building his own house, assisted by a local stonemason. Built in the form of a kraal, his home was called Elangeni, the Zulu word for ‘in the sun’.
A common feature in Pierneef’s landscapes is brilliant light, which he employed not only as a means to articulate form but to imbue his landscapes with radiant light. His devotion to capturing the strong local sunlight so unlike that of Europe, contributed in large part to the development of his characteristically South African landscapes.
Pierneef’s stylisation of form was inspired as much by his studies of Bushman rock art as by his knowledge of European modernist trends. Rhythmic bands of foreground ochre soil, the middle ground of wheat fields and the distant blue mountains, arranged in strong horizontal registers, achieve a perfect balance that enhances feelings of calm and tranquillity.
The painting exudes an atmosphere of contentment and well-being, which the artist has achieved through his use of subtle, warm tones in simplified, broad planes. Massing clouds forecast rain that is so essential for agriculture. No sign of human activity disturbs the peace. It is as if all the labour required for a fully functioning farm is at rest. The result is an idyllic Boland scene.
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef
South African 1886-1957
Barberton en Nelshoogte Kaapshehoop
signed and dated 49; inscribed with the title on the frame on the reverse
oil on canvas
65,5 by 85,5cm
Inscribed "van Pierneef studio 25.11.49" on the frame on the reverse
Late J. J. van Schaik
R 3 000 000 – 4 000 000
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef
South African 1886-1957
Koringlande Agter Paarl
Signed and dated 52; inscribed with the title on the frame on the reverse
oil on board
53 by 84cm
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner’s father
R2 500 000 – 3 500 000
1. P. G. Nel, J H Pierneef: His life and his work, Perskor, Cape Town, pp76-77
Researching a work of art can often lead one on unexpected and exciting journeys. When Stephan Welz suggested I research the Pierneef’s Koringlande, Agter Paarl to identify the site from which the artist painted, I relished the thought, especially as a painting of a Boland scene is so rare in the artist’s oeuvre.
If one needs to identify historic Boland homes and farms, who better to consult than a restoration specialist who knows the area well? So I called Len Raymond of Dal Josafat Restorations who very quickly identified the Simonsberg mountains ranging from the foothills around Klapmuts on the left of the painting towards Stellenbosch on the far right. He speculated that it was painted from an elevation at Uitkyk above Kanonkop and Nattevallei and that some of it could be on present day Warwick.
But he was perplexed about the buildings in the painting, the absence of the old oaks surrounding the homesteads there and expressed doubt that wheat farms were ever that high up on the slope.
Nevertheless on a cold, rainy winter’s day I drove out along the R304 from Stellenbosch to the intersection with the Elsenburg Road where we looked over towards Warwick. What we could see looked similar to some of the mountains in Pierneef’s painting and I contacted the owners immediately. A rapid response dashed my hopes but very helpfully, a Google Earth photo with the view from Joostenberg was attached to the email.
So, with renewed excitement I quickly emailed the owners of Joostenberg on the other side of the N1. It was pointed out to me that the Joostenberg homestead is south facing while the homestead in Pierneef’s painting is north facing. Very helpfully, the mountains were identified from left to right as Klapmutskop, Kanonkop and Simonsberg and it was confirmed that a lot of wheat or other cereals were planted in the 1950s when wine was not profitable.
They suggested it could be Matjieskuil. So I emailed the owners of that farm with its impressive and meticulously restored Hawksmoor Manor. They were away in France but replied promptly with great excitement.
Again I was disappointed but they wondered whether it wasn’t Eenzaamheid, a farm owned by the Briers family. They pointed out that all the farms from Muldersvlei to Malmesbury, including Matjieskuil, had been owned by various descendants of the Briers family for centuries. They also advised contacting the owners of Hercules Pillaar, nearby Eenzaamheid.
The wine journalist, Tim James, also directed me to Eenzaamheid but I had initial trouble tracking down the owners. In the meantime, another source directed me to the Muratie Estate which was owned by the painter, G. P. Canitz in the 1940s and 50s. Believing this to be the most plausible theory because the artists might have befriended one another, I approached the owners with great confidence only to be let down, swiftly but kindly.
So I returned to Tim’s suggestion and contacted Christo and Karina Briers-Louw through Charles Back. With absolute conviction, Christo claimed “Dis my geboue!” My heart surged. I couldn’t believe that I’d at last found the site. “Maar” he said, “dis nie my berge nie!” How was that possible? I thought he must be mistaken.
So on a crisp and sunny Monday morning in August I drove out to Eenzaamheid to shoot photographs of the farm buildings and try to find the site. Taking the R304 to Malmesbury I stopped along the way to take photos of similar views. I was definitely getting onto the right track.
Despite a really busy start to their work week the Briers-Louws took time out to show me around the farm, give me access to their extensive archives and plied me with really good coffee. Christo showed me the original long cottage, or pioniersgebou, indicating that early farmers built these to accommodate all aspects of farming – from the family, to the livestock and the hay.
As their fortunes improved they built the Cape Dutch homestead and the pioniersgebou was often abandoned. As a result there are very few Boland farms that retain the Cape Dutch homestead and pioniersgebou in close proximity to one another as on Eenzaamheid. While their pioniersgebou has retained many original elements and much of its character, it has been lovingly restored and well furnished, to provide wine tastings and overnight accommodation for up-market, foreign tourists.
Christo was right – the view of the mountains that Pierneef chose could not be seen from his farm but as I drove back I took the Hercules Pillaar turn-off and was exhilarated to see a very similar view from Hohenfelde.
Much as I would have loved to have found the precise site from which Pierneef painted, I had to agree with Christo’s conclusion – the painting is a conglomerate. Not only has the artist borrowed buildings from different sites, but he had swiveled them around on their axes and relocated them to another site to create a more picturesque painting. And while the painting is an absolutely convincing rendition of the character of the area, it nevertheless confirms the extent to which the artist used his imagination, stylised the mountains, extended the wheat fields and added an impressive sky, in order to create a work of art that would encompass all the things he wanted to express about this beautiful and beloved land.
Senior Paintings Specialist
Strauss & Co
20 August 2010