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Pierneef Painting that Launched Cultural Movement Headlines Strauss Auction

  6 March 2015     Archived

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef's painting of 'The Maluti Mountains' (1 200 000 â?? 1 600 000) at Strauss & Co's upcoming auction on 16 March 2015 at the Vineyard Hotel, Newlands in Cape Town, tells a fascinating South African story. Not only is it a extraordinary painting from the period which Esmé Berman described as one of "discovery and mastery" but it was purchased by a remarkable man instrumental in developing South Africa's educational and cultural institutions.

Lot 557 JH Pierneef
Lot 557 JH Pierneef 'The Maluti Mountains' R1 200 000 – 1 600 000

The mountain landscapes near Ficksburg, in the eastern Free State, recur as subjects in Pierneef’s work from his important middle period (1925-35). His painterly descriptions of especially the Maloti Mountains (also spelled Maluti) encompass a range of styles, from the impressionistically descriptive to the formally experimental. Evident throughout, though, is Pierneef’s fidelity to place and architectonic approach to composing space (“a mathematical precision of line and colour,” as he put it in a 1926 interview in the Pretoria News). This painting, with its receding foreground of jaggedly tiled greens and browns, predates his monumental study of the same range for his Station Panels series, unveiled in Johannesburg in 1932. Similar to that better-known work, which features theatrical clouds and mountains resembling ground molars, the scene is descriptive of a verifiable landscape. Locatable as it is, the landscape bears an unmistakable Pierneef imprimatur.


Pierneef’s quest to define an authentic personal style was hard won and informed by larger forces. The artist was 23 when the Union of South Africa was founded as a dominion of the British Empire in 1910. This watershed event, which united disparate groupings of peoples and political territories under a single flag, ushered in a period of nationalist organisation and grassroots activism. Pierneef was an active protagonist, initially as a member of The Individualists, a group of progressive artists from Pretoria, and latterly as a revered national artist whose landscapes mapped the totality of the mature union. The provenance of this undated work sheds important light on the key role of early patrons in helping Pierneef achieve his vision of an authentically South African art in the newly unified state.


In December 1929, over 300 Afrikaner figureheads – including political leaders C.R. Swart and D.F. Malan – met in Bloemfontein to discuss ways to coordinate the activities of various cultural organisations. The meeting culminated in the founding of the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK), an umbrella organization for Afrikaner cultural groups. To coincide with this meeting, Martin du Toit, editor of the recently established magazine Die Nuwe Brandwag, organised an exhibition at the National Museum featuring work by Pierneef, Maggie Laubser, Anton van Wouw, Gerard Moerdyk and Gordon Leith. Martha Mabel Jansen, an influential cultural leader and well-known art collector, opened the exhibition; it was here that her brother, Samuel Henri Pellissier, acquired this painting.


The grandson of a French missionary who settled in Bethulie, Pellissier is best remembered for his work establishing the Volkspele movement in 1914. An educator by profession, who was later to be appointed Director of Education for the Orange Free State and Vice-Chancellor of UNISA, he already knew the artist personally when he acquired this work. The two met in 1922 when Pierneef was commissioned to decorate the school hall in Ficksburg. Pellissier was principal of the school and offered Pierneef lodgings during the month-long production of his eight murals. Pierneef’s first public commission comprised interpretive renderings of San rock art he based on documentation produced by early researchers, notably Helen Tongue and George Stow. Despite his second-hand encounter with San art, Pierneef held the work in high regard and described it in a 1916 letter as an “ideal basis” (idiale grondslag) for a new national art. Pierneef communicated this message widely, including during a lecture in Bloemfontein in 1917. Significantly, Pierneef stayed with Reenen J. van Reenen, a senior public works official, during this visit. And it was Van Reenen, an amateur rock art enthusiast who frequently hiked the Malutis with Pellissier, that later put the artist’s name forward to decorate the ambitious principal’s school hall in Ficksburg.


Important South African & International Art, Decorative Arts & Jewellery
Monday 16 March 2015
Venue: The Vineyard Hotel, Newlands, Cape Town
Preview: Friday 13 to Sunday 15 March 10am to 5pm
Walkabouts conducted by Stephan Welz and Emma Bedford: Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 March at 11:00


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