Alet Swarts: A quiet conversation
Alet Swarts: A quiet conversation
On show at Johans Borman Fine Art from 24 May to 28 June 2014

To view the works on exhibition please visit
Gallery I
Gallery II

To view the gallery images click here

To download (and save) the Still exhibition catalogue, please click here


Stillness soars as a mountain peak,
Seeking its greatness in height.
Movement stops in a silent lake,
Seeking in depth its limit.
R. Tagore

This exhibition has its roots in the tradition of still-life painting, but our objective was to broaden the scope of its interpretation by expanding the meaning of ‘Still’ to include works that express and/or investigate the literal meaning of the word, i.e. motionless, tranquil, calm, subdued, etc. With this in mind, works were selected to compliment the conceptual premise, resulting in a very diverse collection in which every piece presents a unique interpretation. The exhibition can thematically be viewed in two parts; artists who chose to work according to the principles of traditional still life painting, and in some way offer a unique and fresh take; and others who have chosen to elaborate on the meaning of the word and follow a more conceptual approach.

The traditional approach
The tradition of depicting inanimate objects observed from daily life can be traced back as far as the decorative fresco murals and mosaics from the Middle Ages and Ancient Graeco-Roman art, and are usually referred to using terms meaning ‘dead nature’ – nature morte in French.

Still life painting only emerged as a distinct genre and professional specialization in Western painting in the early 1600s, flourishing especially in the Netherlands during the highly successful period referred to as the Dutch Golden Age. This was brought about by two distinct factors; firstly, the success of the Dutch East India Company’s monopoly on specific trade routes resulted in Amsterdam becoming one of the largest trading ports in the world by the 17th century. The city became the social, political, and financial capital of the Netherlands in the mid-1600s. The great wealth generated at the time brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade and learning – owning a still-life painting which represented the source of this wealth became very desirable. Still-life paintings grew more elaborate as personal wealth increased and still-life painters produced fancy or pronk still-lifes featuring imported fruits and expensive objects like Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilded home ware. The second influence on the development of still-life painting was the Protestant Netherlands breaking away from the Catholic Church. This saw the end of religious subject matter, and still-life painters could explore the genre more fully.

Due to the dramatic increase in popularity, ‘still-life’ became too broad a term, and sub-genres developed. The four most prominent were: Firstly, ‘Breakfast paintings’ which depicted the harvest and local produce on a table – symbolically reminding viewers to follow moderation in all things. Secondly, ‘Floral Still-Life’ paintings depicting flowers from newly discovered exotic destinations which were brought to Holland – compositions of different flowers became a symbol of Dutch pride as they were obtained through the power of trade. Thirdly, the Vanitas paintings which allowed artists to combine allegorical representations of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death and decay, utilising religious symbols, biblical references and realistic depictions of familiar objects and food. The fourth sub-genre was the ‘Banquet Still-Life’ painting in which the objects depicted went from bland and simple to exotic and luxurious. Artists became very skilled, and the depictions very realistic, resulting in a decorative style based on optical illusion which came to be called Trompe l’oeil, or ‘trick the eye’ – an important element in still life painting to this day.

Like their 17th century Dutch predecessors, contemporary 21st century still-life paintings can still be seen as primary source documents similar to letters and diaries. These paintings serve a dual purpose of documenting everyday life as well as symbolic allusions to philosophical ideas, and tell us a lot about history without the standard elements used in a narrative painting. They still provide a context for reflecting the influence of specific historical events on culture, whilst conveying countless symbolic messages.

In this exhibition, the traditional ‘Breakfast painting’ is revived in a number of different takes on domesticity and the kitchen. Adele Potgieter’s ‘A prayer to St. Lawrence’ follows the Trompe-l’oeil painting style of the 17th Century artist Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts. She writes: I composed a still life of objects that are very personal to me. Some of these objects are gifts, while others are heirlooms – all from women who have imparted to me both their wisdom and cooking skills. The painting further pays homage to the patron Saint Lawrence, who showed incredible strength and courage when being grilled to death, and therefore became the patron of cooks and culinary workers. In Marjorie Wallace’s painting, ‘The kitchen corner’, the artist cleverly captures the early morning sun through her kitchen window in Onrus, utilising the geometric shadows of a chair and its function of rest to accentuate the weight of the daily chores that lie ahead. Clare Menck turns the typical domestic scene on its head, portraying her daughter in a plastic tub and a chicken in a box – drawing visual links between fertility, female responsibilities and nesting instincts. Ena Carstens’ ‘Dooprokkie’ (Afrikaans for Christening gown) refers more subtly to the inherent message captured in an heirloom – symbolising the expectations bestowed upon female family members as it is handed down from one generation to the next. Cecil Skotnes applies a more masculine approach to his carved and painted wood panel, ‘Kitchen still life’, his use of different planes and perspectives giving these everyday kitchen objects a Cubist quality.

Two painters present us with their take on the Vanitas Still-life tradition: In Walter Meyer’s ‘Still Life with dried pineapple’ the artist skilfully paints rotting and dried fruits randomly scattered across a luminous sunflower-yellow table. Ben Coutouvidis, in turn, presents us with a selection of objects; a lucky bean necklace – believed to be a lucky charm – a copy of a polaroid photograph – ‘Self-Portrait (Being Choked)’ – by Andy Warhol, and over ripe fruits in ‘Still life with Persimmons’ – all hinting at human mortality and the inexorable nature of death and decay. Coutouvidis’ painting ‘Mealies and snakeskin’ places a row of genetically modified mealie cobs next to a snakeskin. Here he doesn’t comment on our transient existence, but rather on the negative impact we as humans have had on the natural course of things in the relatively brief period we have roamed the planet.

Simon Stone’s cynical take on Pronk stileven is illustrated in his painting titled ‘Constantia still life’. With his selection of predominantly white objects, and a postcard picturing a foreign vacation destination, the artist mockingly hints at the exclusivity of wealth and luxury. This may also serve as a comment on the morality and ephemerality of sensory pleasures. Jan Dingemans’ bounteous and extravagant still-life composition almost ignores the subject to become an exercise in form and colour. Other artists explore the traditional ‘Floral Still-life’ approach; Maggie Laubser captures the vitality of life in her bright, luminous watercolour flower study, and Kenneth Baker’s playfully colourful brush strokes evoke an energetic feeling of spring. Clement Serneels’ dramatic and confident paint application shows us that this ever-popular theme can be approached as variably as the individual artists’ personalities. Peter Clarke’s ‘Blue bouquet’ holds symbolic meaning; the blue flower is a symbol of inspiration, hope and beauty. Alex Emsley’s hyper-realistic rendition of a Bougainvillea bloom in a white vase demands admiration – this masterfully painted work required hours of intense concentration and labour, applying layer upon layer to create the desired realistic effect: the challenge against the divisions between art, craft and photography. The title, ‘Ides of March’, refers to the first full moon of a new year in the earliest Roman calendar.

Travel and trade inspired three other artists’ paintings included in this selection. From the 1600s onwards, trade brought about by the Dutch East India Company had a great impact on history and the still-life painting tradition. Diane Mclean brings our attention to the history of trade, and at the same time to the history of an object, with her ‘Three ginger jars’ series. These jars, originally from China, once contained ginger – one of the most valuable spices at the time. The jars were also used to hold salt, spices and oils. They are now, however, completely removed from this historical context and stripped of their intended function, and are merely admired as decorative objects. Henk Serfontein, on the other hand, draws our attention to the effect the Dutch East India Company’s trade had in Africa: In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck landed three ships in Table Bay to fortify the site as a way-station for the VOC’s trade route between the Netherlands and the East Indies. Two centuries later, the colonization of Africa brought to our shores British Colonial explorers such as Thomas Baines, who documented this process of laying claim to the land and its people. Serfontein places Baines’ historic illustrations of ships in the Table Bay Harbour of the Cape Colony on top of enamel plates, which are widely used by labourers. The artist hereby explores issues such as the exploitation of the indigenous population, the distribution of wealth gained from natural resources and, therefore, the impact of colonization on Africa. Richard Mudariki comments on Neo-colonialism in his painting ‘The scarecrow’. He writes: In this painting, a motionless but effective object, used to scare away animals/birds from a field, is dressed as a member of the armed forces. It stands motionless to scare predators away from stealing the wealth of Africa. The artwork questions the strength and effectiveness of African forces in defending their wealth and the integrity of the continent from ‘predators’. The historic battles in the wars between nations is the inspiration for Cobus van Bosch’s painting ‘Crash’, and he further explores the differences in African and Western cultural beliefs in his tongue-in-cheek painting ‘Bookholoshe’.

The indigenous art, culture and flora of Africa are the source of inspiration for one of South Africa’s most influential art pioneers, JH Pierneef’s painting ‘Still life of gourds, a pomegranate and an African clay pot’. The painting displays all the elements of his trademark style; balance, simplicity of design and a strong composition. The artist presents us with a composition of four spherical shapes; two different gourd variants, one of the oldest domesticated African plants used primarily as a water container; a pomegranate, which has been cultivated from ancient times, and a traditional clay pot used in African ceremonies. These forms, steeped in ancient history and tradition, are not only beautifully rendered, but are proof of Pierneef’s passion for indigenous African art and design.

The progression of time brings change, and whilst most still-life painters try to freeze a moment, Odette Marais challenges this notion by observing the same still-life during different times of the day – she explains: the exploration of a time-line, the tenuousness of a moment, continuity, exhaustion and absence. A moment, captured that has passed… Rina Stutzer’s beautifully angulated sculpture of a falling crow’s body, frozen in a moment of counter-balance, echoes this. She states; I question the permanence of things in an attempt to pin down the transitory. Marlene von Dürckheim also attempts to capture a moment that has passed, referring to various segments of memories from a specific moment to construct her painting ‘Room with a view (memory of Nafplio)’. Albert Coertse abstracts the objects in his still-life composition panel ‘Faire Taire’ by breaking them down to their essence of mere form and line, muting the visual clues we use to differentiate forms and shapes. The French title means to hush, silence or shut someone up. Acclaimed ceramicist Clementina van der Walt brings ode to Italian painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi, famous for his tonal subtlety in depicting apparently simple subjects. It has been written about his work that long before the rise of minimalism this hypnotic painter excluded action, mess, and the noise of the world from his art. Morandi’s still-lifes and landscapes concentrate on simple visual facts, which he examines in silent, contemplative calm. Andries Gouws makes us aware that we are continuously surrounded by intimate still-lifes, and that we only need to look more carefully to see them: What I paint is usually something I happen upon; I hardly ever intentionally set up a still life or interior so as to paint it.

The conceptual approach
Inner stillness can only be achieved through solitude and living a monastic life, a Buddhist concept Adolph Jentsch believed in. He believed mental preparation before painting to be very important. He would rise every morning at about four and make his way quietly into the cool stillness of the Namibian dawn, walking sometimes for mile upon mile into the virginal bushveld surrounding his home. Finding a suitable vantage point, he would sit contemplating the scene for quite a while until he felt ready to begin. His watercolour sketch, ‘S.W.A. landscape’, probably executed during one of his early morning rituals, has the same atmospheric silence found in the painting by Maud Sumner of the Namib Desert. Sumner’s desolate and bare landscape, however, emerges like a ghostly mirage from the canvas in soft purple and pink hues. In JEA Volschenk’s painting ‘Evening near George, CP’, a lonely traveller finds himself on a dusty road trying to make his way home before night falls. This painting, rather unique as the presence of figures in Volschenk’s work is quite rare, can be read metaphorically as Man’s journey through life. It has a romantic air about it, reminiscent of Caspar Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer in the sea of mist’. This inner conversation can also be observed in the painting ‘Woman with silver goblet (the artist’s sister), Langebaan’ by Clare Menck. Here, a woman is portrayed turning her back to the sea and the setting sun, with folded arms warming her from the chill of the deep blue. Is she waiting for someone or just pondering? Hanneke Benadé’s ‘The wait’ shows a young girl curled up on a chair, supporting her head patiently in her hand; a head that has become weary and heavy due to the hours spent in still anticipation.

An escape from the bustling noise of the inner city to the tranquillity of nature is what artist Jaco Sieberhagen yearns for in his two ‘Stilte (Silence)’ sculptures. A solitary figure, depicted high up in the tree tops, is removed from the engulfing noise of the inner city of Cape Town and the bustling of Johannesburg. Nature presents us with such hidden pockets of calm; those special spots where we can daydream of escape from our daily responsibilities. Jacobus Kloppers meticulously renders in oil a Karoo dam titled ‘Ongebreekte water’. The motionless water surface reflects a lost cloud; the promise of rain in the middle of a bone dry environment. Joshua Miles finds similar inspiration in the reflections of trees, reeds and rushes growing close to their life source, showing their inter-dependence. Reflection is also the inspiration for Eugenie Marais’ intimate paintings of mirrors titled ‘Reflectors’. She directs our attention to the reflections of closed doors and curtains, leaving our imagination to construct the links between the past and the future. Tranquillity can often be found in the most unexpected places, as the two rest stop public bathroom scenes, ‘A moment’s escape 1 and 2’, by Michele Davidson testify. Road trips are almost impossible without hours spent in the confines of a car, potentially in the company of nagging children or irritable passengers. These sterile, tiled environments, with their over-powering odour of cleaning chemicals, although not ideal, may sometimes be the only place to escape to. The tracks left by trucks and cars at the dusty roadside stop-over on the N1, photographed by Dave Southwood, create a textural but also conceptual contrast to the line of light created by the movement of vehicles on the road. The same play in opposites is visible in Kyle Weeks’ photograph of a single light bulb hanging from a white ceiling, etched into the unexposed black of the photograph. Sanell Aggenbach’s still-life painting, inspired by an old family photograph, is more personal: Night Bloom can be experienced as a ‘modern memento mori_’, in a body of work that examined contemplations of loss and belatedness by celebrating loved ones through depictions of still-lifes, personal objects and ikebana flower arrangements. By working from these sources I play into what Luc Tuymans refers to as the_ authentic forgery_, producing images of images, thus twice removed from reality_. Kyle Weeks’ contribution to the exhibition can also be described as authentic forgery. The photographer turns his analogue 6 x 7” film camera to the computer screen to photograph still-life compositions within various gaming platforms. While advances in these technologies constantly continue to blur the boundaries of reality, still-life images captured from within these virtual worlds clearly depict how the distinction is being lost.

The silence at dusk – that grave, still hour when the movement of life seems to droop and falter for a few precious minutes – brings with it a promise of quiet and rest after a busy day. Eugenie Marais and MJ Lourens’ silhouetted nightscapes allude to this promise as day turns to night. The state of being at rest, free from worry with peace of mind is where Hennie Niemann Jnr’s muse finds herself – the artist renders the still-life objects in his painting to little more than bold, flat outlines filled with bright colors. Alet Swarts’ ‘Quiet conversation’ displays a meditative quality, not only through her meticulously detailed brush work, but also by juxtaposing different elements – the shrike, known to swoop quietly down on its prey; the cold, mid-winter tree-scape; and the desert rose succulent. She creates an awareness of the quiet moments that so often pass us by unnoticed. The careful rendering of form in the atmospheric conté drawings by Paul Emsley gives them a sculptural monumentality like moments frozen in time.

The forlorn, deserted farm houses photographed by Dillon Marsh stand silent witness to an almost forgotten chapter in South African history. The title, ‘Swansong’, metaphorically refers to a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. This phrase originated from the belief that swans, having been silent during most of their lifetime, sing a beautiful song the moments just before death. These houses, with their missing doors and windows, become garish portraits with forced-open mouths that cannot sing, but almost scream out their politically uncomfortable past. Lien Botha’s contribution to the exhibition, ‘Groot Inkleurboek Safari; Dan Stilte. Soos na ‘n storm’, presents us with an apparently familiar piece of veld. She superimposes a musical score over the scene with the notes erased from its lines. By removing the notes, she refers to the unrecorded histories that played out on South African soil. The photos in Lien Botha’s series entitled ‘Safari’ show a blue sky that reigns supreme over landscapes so uninhabited as to become still-life scenes – devastated places in which huts or fences are the only traces of a former human presence.

In 1952 American experimental composer John Cage wrote 4′33″ (or more commonly referred to as ‘four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence’). This composition consisted of three movements, however, in the score the composer instructs the performers not to play their instruments throughout the piece. By leaving the audience in anticipation and a mounting uncomfortable silence, Cage made them aware of the sounds that naturally surrounded them, and by doing so, makes us aware of the improbability of ever achieving complete silence. In this exhibition we are presented with a collection of works, each separately trying to capture different facets of the meaning and concept of the word ‘still’. The artworks, if read as excerpts from the artists’ lives, present us with the experiences and longings of our contemporary society; a society which yearns for a moment of silence, an escape from the bustling noise of our rushed city lives to a place of solitude where we will be able to discover tranquility or calm – an utopian world away from chaos and our hurried existence. This is, however, almost unattainable due to the ephemeral nature of the word ‘still’. We can only attempt to hold back the hand of time, and live in the moment in an effort to pin down the essence of ‘Still’ for a split second, before it passes us by.

Zach Taljaard
May 2014
Cape Town

To view the works on exhibition please visit
Gallery I
Gallery II

To download (and save) the Still exhibition catalogue, please click here