‘–scape’ is a combining form denoting an extensive view or scene. As the title for this exhibition, its collective meaning encompasses the curatorial objective of juxtaposing the interpretation, symbolism and metaphorical aspects of the South African landscape by 20th Century Modern Masters, such as Hugo Naudé and JH Pierneef, with the works of contemporary artists.
The exhibition title also allows the inclusion of the emotional, psychological and philosophical aspects of seeing and depicting the land, sea, city or township, or any artistic vision of such places. The human desire to experience the freedom of the natural, unspoiled –scape (land, sea or beach) may very well be rooted in our efforts to ‘e-scape’ from contemporary security concerns characterised by our restricted existence behind high walls and electrified fences, guarded by security cameras and alarm systems.
The way we see and experience any place is subjectively influenced by our individual references in terms of culture and history, as well as our physical and emotional relationship with such a place. The creation and interpretation of any artwork that references the physical environment is therefore highly subjective for both the artist and the viewer, as it is likely to reflect their beliefs and personal history.
The South African artist who has probably been most controversial because of this phenomenon is JH Pierneef. The debate around the artist’s true intent when painting his glorified interpretations of the Southern African landscape is on-going; was it an idealistically and politically inspired effort to advance an Afrikaner nationalism that had its foundations in the land, or was it purely the vision of a nature lover in awe of its magnificence?
Pierneef’s individual style was greatly inspired and influenced by the primitive rock art of the San people, as well as the decorative art of the black peoples of Southern Africa. He advocated a greater affinity for the works of these indigenous artists to his fellow European trained artists, as he considered their approach to be definitive of the essential characteristics of the African landscape. Pierneef’s stylistic preferences for balance, simplicity of design and structured composition in his paintings were undoubtedly influenced by these early artists of the sub-continent. Like them, he wanted to capture the spirit of the land in his own unique style – as they had so successfully done before him.
The notion that Pierneef’s landscape paintings, devoid of human activity, as is the case with most landscape art, can be interpreted as evidence of him denying the indigenous peoples their rightful place in their native land, reeks of opportunism. The painting ‘Bosveld murasie’, included in this exhibition, provides a significant counter argument to this notion, as this work depicts the deserted ruins of a homestead which would have housed a ‘settler’ farmer and his family. The atmosphere is quiet and peaceful – devoted to the superior force of nature that is claiming back what will never be owned by any man. Long before his death Pierneef expressed a wish: Bury me under a camel thorn tree, with its straight manly character guarding me, and its roots deep in the soil of Africa. In this painting, the same camel thorn trees are guarding over their glorious bushveld – free of any human ideology or politics – just as he wanted to portray it.
Hugo Naudé loved going on painting expeditions to experience more of the excitement and drama that the Southern African landscape had to offer. Apart from exploring the Cape’s coast and Boland mountains, he travelled to the Victoria Falls, the Natal Drakensberg, the rugged Transkei coast and the Knysna forests. Naudé regularly painted the flowering spectacle of Namaqualand in spring, creating iconic paintings that capture this unexpected abundance – one of these particularly fine examples has been included in this exhibition. Although there is a considerable time difference, and a distinctly modernist feel about the paintings of Piet van Heerden, David Botha, Daan Vermeulen and Alice Goldin, it is very obvious that they share the same inspiration and passion as Naudé and JEA Volschenk.
Adolph Jentsch’s paintings of the Namibian landscape add a very special spiritual aspect to the genre. Olga Levinson writes that Jentsch found that by discarding the load of book-learning and returning to a simple country life he could bring himself into harmony with the universe – thus obtaining insight into the divine spirit. Jentsch recognised the holiness of nature and desired that spirit should triumph over the black onrush of materialism.
Jentsch described his landscape painting as a form of art that offers the opportunity to reveal experiences of the spirit intuitively. My painting is pure intuition concerning the science of life. In the arts all the spiritually vital experiences are gained intuitively. My experience of the landscape is shown in the spiritual vision which I put into my painting. Intuition is the spring of my painting arising from my inner self. It is an instant matter.
John Koenakeefe Mohl appealed to Gerard Sekoto not to leave the country of his birth:
South Africa or Africa needs artists badly, you see, to paint our people, our life, our way of living, not speaking in the spirit of apartheid or submission, but there are no artists here and there are no black artists…
Elza Miles comments: Mohl practised what he preached. His landscapes, which have a strong sense of the historical significance of place, are windows on South African life and scenery.
Mohl studied painting in Düsseldorf, Germany for 5 years during the early 1930s and actively pursued his career as an artist on his return. Elza Miles writes: He portrayed the land with its inhabitants busying themselves in their daily tasks: crushing corn, ploughing, fighting veld fires and in town going to work and returning by bicycle or on foot.
‘“The twilights of dawn” in Lesotho near Sunnypass’ (sic – should read Sani Pass) and ‘Miners in the moonlight’ are excellent examples of Mohl’s objective with his art – to honour his fellow South Africans by recording the pride and determination reflected in their daily toil.
For all aspirant landscape artists the most daunting challenge is to find their niche in this visual arena – everything seems to have been done; every angle covered. It is therefore fascinating to investigate what contemporary artists have been doing to find their unique voice utilising fresh concepts and interpretations.
A proponent of mid-20th century trends, Erik Laubscher has excelled as a visual articulator of the Southern African landscape, distilling visual and emotional experiences to their poetic essence. Arresting patterns in the landscape are juxtaposed as abstracted forms in his paintings, capturing the dramatic atmosphere and not the sentiment evoked by a picturesque scene. Laubscher’s ‘Overberg No. 1’, painted in 1965, is a prime example of contemporary painting of that time – utilising a ‘hard edge’ approach to capture the drama of the harsh summer tones of the Overberg. In his ‘Namibian sky and desert’ painting, he demonstrates his masterful talent in capturing the power and brutality of the rocks and clouds defining this impressive ‘big sky’ landscape.
Complementing Laubscher’s works, the stylistic trends of Post-War artists are well represented in this exhibition by the landscape paintings of Herman van Nazareth, Sidney Goldblatt and Diederick During. Each one of them speaks with their unique voice, capturing the energy of the time in their efforts to progress towards a modern era.
Peter Clarke’s work was strongly influenced by the expressionistic style of the modernist Mexican artists, characterised by its strong contrasting colours and angular abstraction. Clarke’s descriptive style explores a range of motifs in his paintings and graphics, often depicting life in poor, urban Cape Town and its rural hinterland. It should be noted that Clarke lived through the turbulent times resulting from the rise and fall of Apartheid, and that this unavoidable influence on his psyche is reflected in his art, and possibly also the context of this painting. The ‘Land of thorns’ engraving and ‘Ghetto fence’ collages are prime examples of the psychological impact this politicised environment can have. These works comment on the barriers that were created in society, often reinforced by the physicality of the fences around racially segregated townships like Ocean View where his family was forcibly moved to.
The landscape paintings of Walter Meyer have often been used as examples of a contemporary response and departure from what has become a rather boring and even exhausted tradition of art making – juxtaposing the old and the new in terms of interpretation and zeitgeist. Liese van der Watt expresses her views on the contemporary relevance of Meyer’s landscapes as follows:
In contrast to early landscape painters like Volschenk, Hugo Naudé, Pierneef and even more contemporary ones, Meyer’s is a realism that is completely devoid of glamour or beautification and instead focuses on the ordinariness and banality of the South African landscape and platteland.
She concludes: Meyer’s art describes human displacement. His works retreat from narrative – they carry no promise for a brighter future nor are they nostalgic for a better past. Suspended in the ‘now’, his works proclaim not ownership and authority, but transience and temporary residence.
Jacobus Kloppers’ journey to give expression to his interpretation of the Southern African landscape has been evolving continuously; from the aspects of man’s habitation and marks made on the land, to the metaphors of the physical road and the signposts along the way, to the road map, to the endless sky with nomadic clouds, and to the coastal rock pools where water, sand and stones are shaken up to form sea-foam salt lines. Kloppers’ paintings allow us to experience many things during this journey over the psychological landscape – all in an attempt to eventually help us discover nothing but ourselves.
Cobus van Bosch’s two groupings of small scale paintings of scenes along the major routes to and from Cape Town, are representative of his views on the landscape’s metaphorical possibilities:
The landscape – being continuously transformed by nature or human activity – has many faces, and many stories to tell. As the arena of life, it is a collection of numerable tracks, a document of past and present occurrences from which we can often read what the future may hold. As we inhabit and transform the landscape, the terrain and its elements also impact on us – physically and emotionally. This interplay of forces has a major influence on the identity and condition of both the landscape and the people who inhabit it.
The harmonious and whimsical painting titled ‘Karoo – a lifeline’ echoes Karin Daymond’s philosophical views on her approach to landscape painting:
I have always been interested in land. Since childhood I have wanted to climb to the highest point to get a bird’s eye view of the lie of the land. My paintings attempt to capture the spirit of a place, and so raise our awareness of the South African landscape as a place of beauty and strife. The possession of land is central to much of our identity, and land is like a canvas on which people can make their mark.
Henk Serfontein’s goal is to challenge viewers of his work to stand still and contemplate the uncomfortable truths of life. In his endeavour to address both the transience and ambiguity of human life, Serfontein expresses his motivation as follows:
I am intrigued by the transcendental, that silent and mysterious moment when actual place becomes psychological space.
The dark, highly contrasted night-time scenes depicted in Serfontein’s paintings are laden with emotion but stripped of sentimentality. They tell their stories warts and all. The stark reality of our world is mirrored in the cool, quiet moments of the night and we are compelled to contemplate the meaning of our transient existence.
Empty advertising structures, juxtaposed against what could have been a glorious Pierneef vision, allow MJ Lourens’ paintings to comment on modern man’s technological prowess. This evokes contrasting emotions in the viewer and becomes a metaphor for the conflicts brought about by man’s advancement. Lourens comments on the source of his artistic inspiration:
What strikes me most in landscapes is the sense of solitude. Experiencing that same sense of isolation, it became a search for my own voice which I found in portraying my surroundings. Growing up in a middle class environment, I was continuously surrounded by the suburban landscape. Walking along these deserted streets at dusk I experienced solace and beauty in the quietness of objects that indicate human existence – the dark trees, quiet streets, and ever-present telephone poles. My objective with these paintings is to capture the serene mood of the early evening vistas contrasted by the distant flickering of city lights.
There is great excitement and inspiration captured in the many fresh, creative approaches to landscape painting by the contemporary artists showcased in this exhibition. By including figures in their landscape works, Simon Stone, Johann Louw and Clare Menck all comment directly on man’s physical and psychological bond with the land. Sanell Aggenbach’s diptych, ‘Scout’, conjures up visions of an outcome or discovery – or is it merely an escape to never-never land? Philip Barlow’s unique style of abstraction deep-etches the brilliance of summer on a Clifton beach into our memories in ‘The dash’, triggering metaphors for youthful energy and freedom all the way. The ‘Rush’ and ‘Surge’ of flood waters in Greg Schultz’s energetic canvasses immerse us in the midst of nature’s powerful cycles, while also highlighting the wonder that lies obscured in this with ‘La Ninã’.
Joshua Miles’ three large scale reduction woodcut prints are fitting examples of how artists and art lovers will always yearn to interpret and interact with the landscape. One of the oldest printmaking techniques, reduction woodcuts – especially on this scale – require tremendous concentration and physical hard labour to produce. Every colour has to be printed individually on the full edition before further cutting can be done and more colours introduced. It requires perfect registration and printing as there is no going back with this process – requiring the skills of a master printmaker. Miles’ work is characterised by his distinctive palette and style of abstraction, but does not hold any underlying conceptual message. As with the early 20th Century Impressionists, Miles finds his inspiration in the wonder and beauty of the land. His superior skill and craftsmanship enables him to give expression to what inspires him in a contemporary fashion while utilising an ancient technique – seamlessly linking the past with the present.
Newlands, Cape Town