in Opinion | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Strange Weather

The disputed legacy of a South African painter

in Opinion | 01 MAR 11

JH Pierneef Bosveld, Transvaal 1932

Completed in 1833, Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock series ‘36 Views of Mount Fuji’ depicts the quotidian life of Edo Japan. Men saw wood, fish, toil; women fetch water, tend children and look plaintively at a mountain that they (women) were not permitted to climb until the Meiji restoration of imperial rule in 1868. Hokusai’s genius here lies in his portrayal of weather – it is an elemental thing that lifts kites, gives his great ocean wave off Kanagawa its verticality and would years later inspire Jeff Wall to recreate a scene portraying Hokusai’s hat-stealing wind.

Neither people nor weather feature in South African painter J.H. Pierneef’s much-loved and equally contested ‘Station Panels’ (1929–32). Similar to Hokusai’s prints, Pierneef’s 32 paintings (28 large, squarish landscape studies and four tall, rectangular portraits of indigenous trees) were made for the consumption of a newly empowered white tourist class free to roam an isolated landscape. Commissioned in 1929 and installed three years later in dedicated niches of Johannesburg’s new central railway station, Pierneef’s architectonic paintings, which have a graphic, cartoon-like quality, are firmly of the picturesque tradition.

Pierneef’s only concession to the volatility of nature in the series – which is currently on view at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch, a university town 30 miles north of Cape Town – are his vast cumulonimbus clouds. These theatrical fictions herald a deeper series of deceptions. A studio painter, Pierneef based his canvases on preliminary sketches and watercolours made on field trips, a process that lent itself to the collaging of impression and fact; although, it is not for his light fictionalizing of the truth that Pierneef has been pummelled over the last three decades.

In 1988 – the same year J.M. Coetzee published White Writing, a book of essays unpicking how a European ‘repertoire of thinking’ had enabled white artists and writers to imaginatively render the African landscape – William Kentridge published an essay in which he took issue with Pierneef and his precursors, notably J.E.A. Volschenk. ‘The Volschenks and Pierneefs,’ wrote Kentridge, ‘are empty of tribal images but are not unrelated. The landscape is arranged into a vision of pure nature, majestic primal forces of rock and sky.’ Emerging after ‘puffs of gunsmoke’ had silenced debate over who controlled the land, these ‘landscape in a state of grace’ were, according to Kentridge, ‘documents of disremembering’.

Artists since have made it popular sport to bash Pierneef. In 1989, Wayne Barker painted a facsimile of one of the ‘Station Panels’, which he then smashed in a performance at a black working men’s bar in Johannesburg. More recently, members of the artists collective Avant Car Guard photographed themselves dancing on Pierneef’s grave in Pretoria, a few paces from the black mausoleum bearing a white circular portrait bust of Hendrik Verwoerd, prime architect of the policy of ‘separate development’.

Although less ribald, historians have been no less strident: one Afrikaans art scholar dismissed Pierneef’s ‘de-historicized, de-humanized’ scenes as ‘drained of compassion’ and ‘informed by a sterile religious mysticism’. In his 2009 book, Art and the End of Apartheid, John Peffer described the ‘Station Panels’ as ‘a Utopian fantasy of what the South African landscape never actually was’. Paintings being, as Lucy Lippard once put it, ‘dumb objects’, they are indifferent to public opinion.

Despite their presence in the popular imagination, Pierneef’s paintings have not enjoyed much visibility in recent years. Removed for restoration from their railway station niches in 1971, the paintings were indecisively shuttled around until 1987, when they were loaned to the Johannesburg Art Gallery. I recall seeing one of them shyly displayed in the public museum in 2001, a year before the Transnet Foundation, who owned the series, permanently loaned it to the Rupert Art Foundation, which displayed the panels in an old mission church in Graaff-Reinet, a town more than 400 miles northeast of Cape Town – the middle of nowhere, really. This partly explains the frisson accompanying the unveiling of the paintings in Cape Town in September 2010.

Speaking at the opening, auctioneer Stefan Welz, a well-known public figure and authority on early 20th-century South African art, argued that Pierneef has been misunderstood. The nub of Welz’s cantankerous 3,500-word speech – a sort of beachhead for a resurgent post-apartheid Afrikaner culture – is that the old adage of the victor rewriting history ‘is as true today as it has ever been’. The speech was reprinted in its entirety by an Afrikaans daily in its original English.

Opened in 2005, the Rupert Museum is named after the late Afrikaans billionaire industrialist and philanthropist Anton Rupert and his wife Huberte, art collectors who cultivated a genuine public interest in local art. The couple’s eldest son Johann now controls the family businesses, notably Richemont, a Swiss luxury group founded by Rupert Sr. in 1988. Long a fixture of the Forbes wealth list, golf-loving Rupert Jr. famously pulled advertising from Wallpaper* magazine in 2005 after an article described Afrikaans as ‘one of the ugliest languages in the world’ – not an inconsequential move considering Richemont’s ownership of luxury brands such as Chloé, Cartier and Montblanc.

Family causes cannot guarantee an artist’s legacy, although they do help. Will Pierneef’s art endure the great wave of negative opinion that threatens to annihilate his legacy? Hokusai’s well-known tourist postcard from Kanagawa suggests one possible, if cryptic answer. The future is unknowable and always happening; there is no respite from it.