Opinion: Pierneef Posers, Or Painting Over The Past

August 18, 2015



There is a taste war being waged in South Africa. On one side, a distaste for shame dominates. Let me put it this way: if your grandfather was sympathetic to evil social experiments, please don’t take me up to the attic and show me how nicely he could draw a flower. Put away those lionising sculptures and portraits of the dead white men who stood on the face of liberty. The slogan could be “put shame to rest”. Now the other side is done hiding, and they want us to look at JH Pierneef (1886-1957).

Must we really humanise the traditional oppressors and poke fun at the previously disadvantaged? Brett Murray used a highly Eurocentric idiom to shame the President, Jacob Zuma, painting him in a Lenin-esque pose with his penis hanging out. As if reinforcing the stereotype of powerful black men not “keeping it in their pants” is harmless. Zapiro shames struggle heroes weekly, sometimes relying on the kind of sophisticated visual literacy that was off-syllabus for “Bantus”. Willem Boshoff is “Proud to be labelled a racist in South Africa”. Have these people no shame?

To make things worse, after three decades of perving over the Nationalist Afrikaner icons of Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef in private, the fundis who feel they’re a cut above white guilt have collected Pierneef’s work for public exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery, in the Johannesburg CBD. The cold streets outside are populated solely by black people, which cannot be said for the receiving end of the gallery’s bar on opening night. Why push out another page of exclusivist white discourse? Perhaps the hope is that the sins that made Pierneef’s vision of South Africa possible (and profitable) will be forgotten, passed over. We seem to have sacrificed the concept of obscenity on the altar of high art; look, oppression is over, everything is permitted!

Matlala's Mountain

Matlala’s Mountain


A great deal of writing and speeching accompanied this exhibition – the catalogue is fat. The war of taste is noticed every time, but never labelled. This is also true of every review of the exhibition published to date. Everyone takes pains to explain why it’s OK for curator Wilhelm van Rensburg to gather up Pierneef’s work for the first time since 1982. But no one is willing to call to call the exhibition, pleadingly titled A Space for Landscape: The Work of Pierneef what it is: a provocation.

Don’t be fooled. Anyone who says, “forget the politics, just look at the painting” is on the shameless side, because they’re denying the social responsibility of the art world. Wars are seldom fought by volunteers only.

Although the two formal essays in the catalogue do not call a spade a spade, or a war a war, they tackle the problem directly. They open and close, respectively, with anxiety about the erasure of historic art. #RhodesMustFall has given that side, the “shushers”, a major victory. The war is now being fought by the shamelessly high-minded. Now is the time to see how beautifully a dead white Afrikaner can paint, before the impulse to discard historic art gathers momentum.

But will the impulse to smother politically tainted art gather momentum? The comparison, drawn by major Cape Town curator Hayden Proud, to Nazis disposing of “degenerate” art sounds shrill. Ideological prohibition of art is far from official policy in SA. We are even further from the Soviets, who often killed dissenting commentators. On the other hand, if those offended by “tasteless art” push hard for the removal of more sculptures and portraits and the silencing of Eurocentric satirists and so on, will they be checked by a superbly well-curated exhibition of Pierneef’s work?

It’s likely those who prefer to hide our shame in the attic won’t climb the stairs to Standard Bank’s Gallery. This critic was reluctant to do so himself. But he did his duty, which is to go and look.




He felt his eyebrows raise when he walked in. Rather than so many versions of the same Pierneef trope he’d learned to identify in grade five art class, there was a display of restless ambition. Now Pierneef borrows from Monet, now he begs from Cezanne, here he riffs off Seurat, there he goes rock art. He finds his iconic style and then departs again. Here Pierneef echoes Braque and Picasso’s geometric fission of space and this critic overhears someone gasp, “reminds me of tripping on LSD in the bush”.

Ok – Pierneef takes stylistic chances, and often. A point in his favour. A point that pales when you read Van Rensburg’s quote in the Saturday Star: “If Pierneef can’t be pinned down in terms of style, perhaps the same is true in terms of the historical contexts in which his work was produced and received.” Nice try – but it doesn’t work like that.

This critic lingers at Haunted House, Zanzibar (1955). He is reminded that wood is, when alive and unchecked, more powerful than stone. He has seen thick walls brought down by tree roots and steel burglar bars unhinged by vines. He sees something like that now. Yet the flying “mangrove” roots in the painting are patterned pristine tubes while the building is muddy and shabby. Man’s work is literally overwhelmed by a force of nature, but it also seems unharmed. Have the inhabitants been squeezed out of this “haunted” house or do they welcome the addition? Zanzibar was home to many of the last slave traders in Africa. Was this once the house of a slaver, ruined by British policing of the Indian Ocean? The painting doesn’t answer these questions. Maybe it is just an upside-down joke on the idea of a tree-house.

Haunted House Zanzibar

Haunted House Zanzibar


Playful ambiguity is something that Pierneef deploys repeatedly – another surprise given his reputation for earnest monumentalism. Another point.

Pierneef’s more iconic pieces play a familiar game with light. Unlike that master of light and dark, Rembrandt, Pierneef puts the lightest moment, idiomatic clouds, at the back of the scene. Light tends to pop out, so putting the brightest at the back challenges the viewer. Because of the content – clouds, trees, short plants, mountains, buildings – you interpret three dimensions. But the tones bring the “furthest” parts forward and push the “closest” parts back. This dynamic tension holds the gaze and realises the sense of an inner glow radiating from the canvas. Pierneef is not the only one to play this game. Still, he does it well. But not Springtime In Clarens, OFS (undated).

Here Pierneef seems to have gone wild under the sun. There are few shadows and even the shadows are incandescent. Everything is so bright that you feel like you need to blink. The earth and the sky have been bleached. The faded colours are subtly clinging to their identities. Or are the blues and greens and browns really just different shades of white? Because of its audacity the light doesn’t seem to emanate from the painting. It seems to be everywhere, dazzling.

Remember the basic physics lesson – colour is produced when certain wavelengths of light are absorbed. When we see colour we interpret an absence. On a Free State farm in the blazing heat, however, one can experience over-exposure. It is as if there is so much light that the mielies and the sunflowers and the rocks can’t absorb enough of it to produce the proper effect of colour. Pierneef has, in his way, managed to bring the famous African sun indoors by mimicking its affect. This critic almost forgets to give Pierneef a point for that one.




A security guard politely taps me on the shoulder. Everyone has left except the dozen or so guards who have been waiting for me to wrap up my aesthetic experience. No doubt some of them have far to go and it’s deep in the night. I am clearly privileged.

I kick myself down to the parking lot – all the colours became “different shade of white”. Not a good idea. Not in good taste. Every time I was arrested by Pierneef’s unmatched command of the colour orange I neglected the political connotations of that colour here and in his ancestral Netherlands. And the over-exposure trick can’t be that great – an iPhone app can probably do something similar. If I could be so easily absorbed by Pierneef I must be an Afrikaner Nationalist. I’ve turned to the literature to see if that is true. Here are the three points against Pierneef’s art.

First, as noticed in the Financial Mail’s preview, “[t]he main beef with Pierneef landscapes is that few show any human impact”. This creates a “there for the taking” impression. The land was not there for the taking, but it was taken.

Of the 126 works in the body of the catalogue (excluding his self-portrait and book-covers) fully 67 include buildings, roads or human figures. (The human figures are presumably descendants of South Africa’s original inhabitants). So about half the works are patently inhabited. If you paint a footprint you don’t also have to paint a foot to let your viewer know someone walked there. It is obvious that some “footprints” Pierneef recorded were made by black feet.

Not all of his works are catalogued, however. And what about the other half of his work that is “uninhabited” – does the criticism apply there? Perhaps. But the “uninhabited” criticism is seriously challenged by the “uninhabited” suburban work of Edward Hopper, Rene Magritte and Vincent van Gogh. It is precisely the absence of a human figure in a place so manifestly suited to humans that makes those works poignant and lonely. The high Romantic of loneliness, Casper David Friedrich, did the same in his landscapes.

The fashion for expressing a melancholy solitary experience has passed, I concede that. Hipper to turn the camera on yourself, let the landscape (painted or real) reduce to a pretty background and show the world exactly how the scene makes you feel. And if you’re instagramming in Africa, it’s hippest to do it surrounded by smiling black children. Selfies might be newer than the academy’s snipe at Pierneef, but they have something in common: a naive handling of irony. Pierneef’s tireless journeys around the countryside and isolated expressions reminded me of Herman Hesse’s “homesickness for freedom” and Byron’s lines:


            There is pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is rapture in the lonely shore


I love not man the less, but Nature more,


My conviction is that this is not a “white” theme and it is vile to think it is, but I doubt I’ll convince the academy that shunned Pierneef for so long.

The second beef is that, however accomplished Pierneef’s work is, it is tainted by his obvious pandering to an Afrikaner Nationalist audience. You imagine a NAT looking and liking and if that’s what Pierneef was after then that would be unappealing.

But if that’s what Pierneef was after then he left a bloody deep well of common feeling untapped. The Transvaal and Orange Free State became a special version of hell on earth after Kitchener had his way in the South African war of 1899. Land burned to a crisp, animals torched and farmhouses razed to the ground. Where is Pierneef’s painting of that horror to match the Calvinist, brimstone sermons? Big European political painters like Delacroix and Goya made the abomination of war and resistance fascinating and were loved for it by the survivors. With the seasonal burning of vast swathes of South African flora Pierneef would have been reminded, again and again, how beautiful our country can look in so many shades of ash. He must have known the gees of the fresh green grass that pushes through.

J.H. Pierneef By Fouriesburg, OVS 1951 Oil on board 38 x 53.5 cm_Private collection

J.H. Pierneef By Fouriesburg, OVS 1951 Oil on board 38 x 53.5 cm_Private collection


And where are the paintings of the concentration camps – provocative scapes full of repeated angles undoubtedly suited to his geometric style. No wonder he was left out of the cash-cow Voortrekker Monument project – his paintings lack a sense of enmity and all sense of victimhood.

Third, Pierneef made no plea for universal suffrage – he was not enlightened. However, he did get booed off stage for telling white men to take San art seriously. By the standards of his peers Pierneef was not always “one of us”. That should give us pause before we brand him “one of them”.

Pierneef must be seen in the context of an ancient war of taste. One of the first people to take up the battle cry against socially irresponsible artists was Plato. One of the worst generals of that army was Stalin, who called artists “engineers of the human soul”. Those engineers were not to look upon the “White” Russians kindly, nor to question current leadership. Their mandate was to build a wall around the “righteous revolution” through which no ambivalence could pass.

The counter-argument made by art-lovers has not changed much since Aristotle gave his teacher the finger. It is humiliating, we all agree, to notice that the worst share some of our best qualities and that one man’s hero is another man’s horror. It also humbles us all. As Solzhenitsyn has it, “the line separating good and evil passes…right through every human heart”. Art allows us to get over, if only for a moment, our personal lot and witness universal features of the human condition – truths that resonate through every human heart.

Affirming that idea is paradoxical. It means that even on this side, the conservative side, the side who seeks some redemption in art for humanity’s wrongs and refuses to hide those wrongs, there is a nasty self-serving agenda. This side’s flag is attached to a thorny staff. It is difficult to grasp, to wield. I cannot tell you whether it is worth risking a nick. But I assure you that if you enter A Space For Landscape you will wonder what our country would look like if all its thorny trees were cut out, root and branch.