Ons Land / Our Land The Johannesburg Station Panels Revisited
Carl Becker and Monique Pelser
Ons Land / Our Land The Johannesburg Station Panels Revisited
Carl Becker and Monique Pelser
Copyright ÂŠ Carl Becker and Monique Pelser
“I’ve been here before”: Monique Pelser, Carl Becker and Pierneef’s ghosts
the open road and stopping to paint whatever caught his fancy”.7
In memory of photographer and artist John Hodgkiss (1966-2012) “There can be no friendship without moments of departure and separation. ... [T]here can be no friendship that is not touched by a haunting.” - Gerhard Richter, Walter Benjamin and the corpus of autobiography Picture someone - an artist - driving alone in a car through a landscape. The landscape opens up to solitude. The car follows a road, which opens up the landscape, layer by layer. The layers of the landscape and of the road are material but also intangible. Travelling alone along a road through the landscape is characterised by the fleetingness of tangible and immaterial images, which precede, follow, punctuate and transform one another - before- and afterimages reminiscent of cinema. The road bears thousands of traces: road kill, tire tracks, paper, tin, rubber, bugs, cigarette butts, shit, blood, discarded food, sand, dust, pollen and the footprints of hitchhikers and travellers of various kinds. These are the marks of time and time is definitive; it is also painfully illusionary. Where does time begin and where does it end? You can sense time but you can’t really see it; not in its totality. Paradoxically, this might only be possible at the end of time. You can only see time’s traces, which point to other traces - without ever disclosing an origin.1 Paintings and photographs of the landscape have this in common: here where the road cuts through the landscape; origins and originals disappear in the rear-view mirror of memory. The road is lonely; think of Cormac McCarthy.2 It is inhabited by ghosts of things past. The road is empty; so is the landscape - “as disconsolate as the speech of ghosts”.3 What makes us lonelier than a road that we’ve travelled before - a road joining space and place; past and present; near and far; lived and imagined memory? What is this here before here, where I’ve been before? I recognise the scene because I’ve seen it before; only slightly differently.4 I’ve seen the solitary artist driving through the landscape, too; in different guises. Milan Kundera speaks of variations of a theme; “the art of ellipsis”.5 Even if he didn’t drive, Vincent van Gogh comes to mind. So does Pierneef (“Oom Henk”, to cite Carl Becker6), who apparently liked to take “long solitary trips through the landscape, simply taking 1 Cf Gerhard Schoeman, “Photography’s disaster: Reproducibility and ruined origin(al)s in Andy Warhol, Guy Tillim, Richard Misrach and Christo Doherty”, Art South Africa 10(1) (2011): 56-7, here 56. 2 Cf Cormac McCarthy, The road (London: Picador, 2006). 3 Walter Benjamin quoted by Gershom Scholem in a letter to Benjamin, February 1940. See The correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem: 1932-1940. Tr by Gary Smith & Andre Lefevere, G Scholem (ed) (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), pp. 264-5, here 265. 4 Cf Carl Becker’s description of his trip to the site of Pierneef’s The valley of desolation: “I’ve been here before, and not quite figured out where our man painted it from. The original seems to have been done from the bottom of the valley, but there’s no easy way down there. 5 Milan Kundera, “Dialogue on the art of composition” in The art of the novel. Tr by Linda Asher (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), pp. 71-96, here pp. 72, 76. 6 http://carlbecker.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/kerk-toe/
In the exhibition Ons land / Our land Carl Becker and Monique Pelser have revisited various sites, which are the sources of Pierneef’s Johannesburg Station Panels, installed in 2002 in the Pierneef museum in Graaff Reinet. The sites, Pierneef’s paintings of them and Becker’s and Pelser’s revisits are haunted by Pierneef’s ghosts. To revisit means to return and to haunt that which haunts you: a photograph of a painting, a painting of a photograph, a painting of a painting, a picture in a newspaper, an imaginary or real letter. The ghost goes away and returns. To paraphrase Jacques Derrida: we follow the ghost that follows us.8 Becker and Pelser follow Pierneef’s images, which are also ghost images: images ghosted by marks, cuts, indexes, scrolls, blobs, trails, smears and stains; visible and invisible imprints. Becker’s and Pelser’s images are images of images, haunted by other images - copies of copies. Even if you see an original oil painting by Pierneef in person or its source in the physical landscape or an “original” Pelser or Becker inspired by one of Pierneef’s images; the image is filtered by reproductions and their different frames of reference - most notably: Afrikaner identity, “dispossession”, the “proprietorial gaze”,9 the male gaze, the colonial yearning for virgin space, nationalism, apartheid ideology, the sublime etc. Full and desolate, the image is burdened down by site-specific discourse: discourse (read: ideology and counter-ideology; Roland Barthes might have said cliché, more specifically, generalised hysteria)10 can be as heavy as it can be illuminating. Revisiting also means digging, scattering, transforming and being transformed - “in the place of the finding”. In “A Berlin chronicle”, Walter Benjamin conjures an evocative image of memory as “the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried”. He writes: He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. This determines the tone and bearing of genuine reminiscences. They must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the matter itself is merely a deposit, a stratum, which yields only to the most meticulous examination what constitutes the real treasure hidden within the earth: the images, severed from all earlier associations, that stand - like precious fragments or torsos in a collector’s gallery - in the sober rooms of our later insights. True, for successful excavations a plan is needed. Yet no less indispensable is the cautious probing of the spade in the dark loam, and it is to cheat oneself of the richest prize to 7 Cf Ivan Vladislavic’s “Mountain landscape” in this catalogue. 8 As Derrida writes: “What does it mean to follow a ghost? And what if this came down to being followed by it, always persecuted by the very chase we are leading?” See Derrida, Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New International. Tr by P Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 10. Cf Gerhard Schoeman, “Felix in exile: William Kentridge’s allegories of art and history”, Acta Academica 36(2) (2004): 1-56, here 48. 9 To cite Vladislavic, “Mountain landscape”. 10 Cf Roland Barthes, A lover’s discourse: Fragments. Tr by Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 88.
preserve as a record merely the inventory of one’s discoveries, and not this dark joy of the place of the finding, as well. Fruitless searching is as much a part of this as succeeding, and consequently remembrance must not proceed in the manner of a narrative or still less that of a report, but must, in the strictest epic and rhapsodic manner, assay its spade in ever-new places, and in the old ones delve to ever-deeper layers.11 “[T]his dark joy of the place of finding”, this “return again and again to the same matter” - it is characterised by ghosts, ghost(ly) images, haunting, finding and losing one’s way. Becker’s and Pelser’s images are deeply suggestive of the familiar sense, clear and obscure, that, I’ve been here before. An image seems to hover just below or in front of another image; phantasmagoria of the past and the present. As in Pelser’s photographic study of light Premier Mine, Cullinan, Gauteng, which brings to mind not only Pierneef but also Constable and Turner: that time and this time linger and shift; just barely. I can see the face of another time in the time of digging, mining, finding, scattering, lingering, waiting, returning and losing again. Light shifts; shadow too; so does “the looking we write about and with”.12 You have to be patient to see this. This absent/present face in the landscape (Pierneef’s paintings have a face: look at Becker’s and Pelser’s renditions of Meiringspoort, Western Cape) haunts the path opening up as I delve deeper. But depth is also merely surface and surface can be deceptive. Delving brings me closer and pushes me further away from the source.
In Pelser’s digital slideshow of Lion’s Head in Cape Town, the famous tip comes into view, like a ghost13 - instantly recognisable but far away in the distance, on the other side of the city. I’ve been here; I’ve seen this before. The mountain head is cut and framed by the city and the highway. Lion’s Head comes into view the way an image in a rear- or side-view mirror does; peripherally, partially, magnetically. Then it is gone; only to be illuminated, all at once, in Becker’s close-up painting of the shimmering beacon with its multifaceted face. Becker’s small painting zooms in on just what makes a photographic surface so tantalising: flat reproduction of light bouncing off an object; then and there, here and now. Vice versa, the photographic slideshow highlights the layered texture of an oil painting; its sense of deep time. Difference in time comes into view. And time matters;14 even in the dark recognition that it is fleeting and always out of reach. Down below, even deeper than we thought at first. Dr Gerhard Schoeman Johannesburg, 26 March 2012
What is the difference between painterly and photographic surface? Painting is layered with time; the time of looking, application, scraping or wiping away, and reapplication. Photographs frieze a moment; their surface is paper-thin or thin as a screen. Paintings, too, are like screens; they hover, float and combine after or before the fact. But unlike photographs (especially digital), you can touch paintings; almost as if you could touch time. But what happens when you “animate” or layer a photograph - say by joining several together, as in David Hockney’s “joiners”, Jeff Wall’s digital composites or Pelser’s digital slideshows, which shift every 5 seconds? Wouldn’t you add the element of time? Wouldn’t the photographic surface then reveal the play of light and shadow that is made visible on the surface of a painting? Ons land / Our land focalises the intricate and intriguing differences and similarities between painterly and photographic surfaces (or different languages as evoked in the title of the exhibition), involving the subtle or dramatic play of light and shadow, something and nothing. Pierneef’s paintings are haunted by their painterly and photographic reproductions; similarly Pierneef haunts the sites that Becker and Pelser have revisited. 11 Walter Benjamin, “A Berlin chronicle”, Selected writings 2: 1927-1934. Tr by Edmund Jephcott, M W Jennings, Howard Eiland & Gary Smith (eds) (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 1999), pp. 595-637, here p. 611. 12 Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary art, preposterous history (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 120.
13 Cf Henri Bergson in Gerhard Richter, Walter Benjamin and the corpus of autobiography (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), p. 175: “[W]hen a memory reappears in consciousness, it produces on us the effect of a ghost”. 14 Cf Mieke Bal in Gerhard Schoeman, “Space, ritual, absence”, Art South Africa 9(4). http://www.artsouthafrica.com/?article=880
Carl Becker - artist’s statement Chasing the light. In 2006 I was living in Johannesburg, working in Fordsburg and painting the city. The robust environment carried a certain charge, but often the noise and urgency felt chaotic and I was getting tired of living on the edge. On a visit to the Pierneef museum in Graaff-Reinet I stood before those big paintings with their monumental forms and subdued hues and realized here was the stasis I craved. I wanted to be in them. For some time I had wanted to reinvent myself as a landscape painter, and here was a way in. The Panels not only offered the allure of the road trip, but also laid down my subject matter for me. And there was something chimerical about this quest: did these idealized images ever exist, or were they fictions to start with? Seen as a whole, the Station Panels are an imposing body of work. With the broad mandate to paint “places of scenic beauty or historical interest,” Pierneef travelled throughout SA, choosing his sites. With the sketches and watercolours made there, he produced 28 canvases within three years, ready for the opening of the new Johannesburg Station in 1932. Here they hung in the concourse, inviting weary commuters to visit the far flung corners of the old Union of South Africa. The bucolic splendour of these uninhabited landscapes gives us a sense of belonging, of home even. But in the intervening 80 years, myriad forms of human busyness were bound to have left their mark. I was looking forward to the search for the remains. On the master’s turf. I knew, of course, that Pierneef’s work was contested terrain. Several of my contemporaries had gone after him, some reverently, others intent on destruction. And yet Pierneef was in my blood. Two of his woodcuts hanging in my aunt’s farmhouse outside Pretoria were some of the first original landscapes I’d seen. Their graceful and simplified forms seemed to offer a way of depicting the land that was both real and possible. Like it or not, Pierneef is entrenched in the psyche of many artists of my generation. He casts a shadow that demands we take him into account on our way to becoming ourselves. Land and landscape resonates within us and helps define who we are. Notions of ‘nationality’ - and of home - are sustained by it. But our sense of home is not quite as settled as we would like. We’re given to believe that we all want a modern constitutional democracy with an ever expanding middle class, but we don’t agree on how to get there. On any given day, the newspapers and airwaves are awash with the evidence. On a daily diet of political graft and creeping dysfunction, I was starting to feel more and more uneasy about ‘home.’ I had been one of the last whiteys to emigrate from that once bohemian enclave of Yeoville. I was under no illusions as to how quickly ‘home’ can be estranged. I needed to check up on the landscape. I needed to know if it was still there. 6
Arcane procedures. I travelled with one eye on the present, but also with a vaguely archeological intent - ferreting through the present moment for hints of the past. I worked outside when I could, drawing and painting in watercolour. There’s a kind of freedom to be had in these old-fashioned media - a simplicity and directness you don’t get with digital technology and its endless choices. Outside, you often attract the scrutiny of strangers; suddenly you are under pressure to perform. Or you may go completely unnoticed. The process is difficult - the light is always changing, one is too hot, one is too cold, one is bothered by flies. One cannot find a vantage point in the shade. One is running out of time. But one is always immersed, exposed to a richness and reward. I kept these visual notes as a kind of diary, but back in the studio I was working from photographs too, hoping that the magic of the brushmark would transform often banal imagery into something worth looking at. The snapshot gives us speed and the frozen moment, but time spent in the landscape offers up hidden subtleties. As I worked at the sites, I noticed obscure little fabrications in the original Pierneefs. In some images, he incorporated different perspectives and even different times of day. Early morning light falls on Rustenburg Kloof, for example, beneath the massed cumulus clouds of a highveld afternoon. As he simplified and flattened he seized on what was crucial in a landscape. He captured the neutral grey greens of fynbos, the umbers and mauves of the karoo, and the chrome greens of burnt bushveld grass in spring. Those colours were either the result of a photographic memory or great faith in his in situ watercolours. If necessary, Pierneef would shift a mountain to make it conform to his geometric matrix. He was a liar, but I’ve learned that the camera, commonly assumed to tell the ‘truth,’ merely gives us one more rendering of it. These days, I’m inclined to accept the veracity of Pierneef’s confections. His paintings are complex constructions that trigger our recollections of place. They give us the illusion, and we take it. His distortions and simplifications concur with memory in a way that the camera lens, which tends to treat all visual data equally, doesn’t. A highway runs through it. I never expected to find the idyllic scenes depicted in the Station Panels. If they had ever existed, they would be greatly changed by development, I reasoned. There’s a kind of naïve optimism about the Panels. That sentiment was bound to be obsolete, smothered by the volcanic ash of political and social upheaval. I didn’t need to look hard for the symbols of a changed political order. The proud acacia in the centre of Rustenburg Kloof is gone: instead there is a small derelict building, perhaps from the 1960s. Once a change
room for picnicking white people, it now stands abandoned. The bungalows, in a similar style, were occupied by conferencing union members - the logos on their T-shirts uncannily like Afrikaans worker unions of the 1930s. At the plesieroord in Parys, camping berths with their crumbling braais stand empty except for the occasional transient. The place could do with a lick of paint, but that would not lift the melancholia. Come sundown the manne are still to be found at the riverside, clutching quarts of Black Label around a fire. They are black and listening to kwaito while the Vaal gurgles gently by. The Volk have surrendered the public spaces and withdrawn to the privacy of their game lodges. In Louis Trichardt, Gerard Moerdijk’s superb church still stands immaculate. Alongside it is an ugly facebrick building, signaling an aesthetic numbness. Beneath the surface, old hostilities are still at play in the tussle over the town’s name change to Makhado, whose son’s army was defeated by a boer commando that camped on the very site where the church was built. The road snaking through Meiringspoort has been rebuilt several times, and in between the long haul trucks, a density of heat and silence can still impose itself. On the gravel of the Swartberg Pass I narrowly missed cyclists coming down at speed. The once daunting road has been reduced to an afternoon’s time trial.
Afrikaner Nationalism was spawned by a need to escape the Anglo-Saxon reach. Within that, there was a strand that sought a genuine African identity. For Pierneef, this meant study of the art of both San and Bantu people. Close to the Hartbeespoort Dam site is the home of Pierneef’s contemporary Gustav Preller. The modest thatch and stone dwelling blends seamlessly into the surrounding bush. Would Pierneef and Preller have dreamt that the trajectory of Afrikaner Nationalism ends in the imposing towers of the Pelindaba nuclear facility, a stone’s throw away? Our 21st century sensibility is used to seeing the beer can in the river. We are wary of glossing over such things in the quest for beauty. We are rightly suspicious of Pierneef’s billowing clouds with their promise of rain and renewal. The detritus of progress intrudes on the original sites, yet they are capable of preposterous beauty. The sublime moment can still be had, but those monumental forms and big spaces are shrinking down, reduced by the human figure that was once so absent.
In the Valley of Desolation, those eternal dolerite columns that Pierneef gives us as proof of an Almighty are now overflown by paragliders: nature as sport rather than church. In the 1930s, driving from Pretoria to Musina took two days. Now it takes four hours. Our sense of scale has changed and with that we have lost our awe. We glide through in our air-conditioned SUVs, vokking voort. Beer cans in the river. The world of the Station Panels is safe, almost domesticated. Broken branches are clues to the destructiveness of Nature, but even that is on hold. Sites of conflict, like Majuba or Louis Trichardt, lie before us bathed in light like 17th century Dutch paintings. You may regard these empty landscapes with their rolling fields as the product of a proprietary, colonialist gaze. But time has changed the meaning of both the paintings and the sites themselves. What once was monumental is now vulnerable. The tide of nationalism that held Pierneef close has long since receded. What are we to make of these messages from a lost world? Working at the sites made me realize Pierneef’s fidelity to his source material. The specificity of plantlife, of cracks in rockfaces, is not the product of a man intent on ideological pursuits. It is the work of someone who believes in the redemptive power of nature. I came to the conclusion that what he had in front of him in the 1930s was a Nirvana of sorts, and it might be more rewarding to see Pierneef not as a manipulator, but as a truth teller. Perhaps the story of these paintings is one of a vision betrayed, both in our dealings with the land and the people on it.
Monique Pelser - artist’s statement There is a quiet certainty in the knowledge that things change, and in South Africa we have experienced extreme changes, which are sometimes obviously visible and at other times they are subtler. The power of the photographic medium is that it freezes past moments allowing one to draw comparisons and to study these shifts and changes. While travelling South Africa and studying the landscape I became acutely aware of how, over a given time frame, the light changed a site. I began considering how this change could be extended into a metaphorical reading of the transformation of our land and decided to imitate the plein air painters through a process of photographically mapping the light as it shifted across the landscape.
a dehistoricised, dehumanized outsider’s view of the territory, offering an untouched land available to explore, conquer and control.”3 I was interested in revisiting and representing the sites as they are inclusive of the “Tuscan housing developers or bungee jumping entrepreneurs”4 as Carl Becker puts it. My process of replicating Pierneef’s journey and imitating his work – as female observer, from the future – resulted in a process of negotiating complex layers of history and became a simple and cathartic act of replacing his gaze with my own. Along the way I saw pylon after pylon, fences and areas I was not allowed to enter. The utopian views I held in my hand on a photocopied piece of paper were a far cry from what I faced. But there were moments when I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what I saw and I understood the sublime. And then a 4x4 would fly by and pick up dust that would cover my face and bring me back into the 21st century.
It has been said of JH Pierneef that “[h]e is teaching us to see, understand and to appreciate the rolling miles of veld with the blue mountains in the distance [and] the strange almost fantastic trees that dot the landscape of our own land”1. As rudimentary as T. Roos’ quotation is, there was something alluring to me about developing an understanding of the landscape genre and learning how to grow my observational skills. So in 2007 I began appropriating and imitating the Johannesburg Station Panels. I stumbled upon them in the Pierneef Museum in Graaff-Reinet in late 2006 and was blown away by the manga2 quality of the painting. To me the uninhabited pastoral landscapes slipped into the realm of phantasmagoria and I found these sites absolutely enticing. I walked around absorbed for hours immersed in these isolated pictures of industry, mining and seaside village. By the time I walked out of the gallery I was certain I was going to travel around the country and visit these sites. Speaking to a colleague Akinbode Akinbiyi about the landscape in photography, he brought to my attention that in his native language there is no word for landscape, only for land. The word landscape indicates the re-presentation of land and is therefore essentially a constructed view. Engaging in the landscape thus becomes an intellectual activity. This self-appointed apprenticeship has schooled me beyond an understanding of composition and the study of light. I learned about the active surveying gaze and what it means to be that person (a role traditionally taken up by the masculine gaze) who is examining and recording the features of an area in order to construct a description. It is common knowledge that Pierneef’s gaze is controversial and, as Ulrika Flink wrote, it has been “described as 1 T. Roos in the catalogue Pierneef 1886 - 1957 2 A Japanese genre of cartoons typically having fantasy themes
3 Ulrika Flink in the essay Contentious Landscapes and Metal Trunks an interview with Monique Pelser from the book The Right Dissonance 2010 RCA 4 In the catalogue Four Pierneef Sites by Carl Becker 2009
Old Harbour, Hermanus
Monique Pelser Old Harbour, Hermanus 2012 Triptych exhibited as shifting time lapses on digital photo frames Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 16 x 25 cm 12
Carl Becker Old Harbour, Hermanus 2009/12 Oil on canvas 65 x 170 cm 13
Monique Pelser Drakensberg 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 14
Carl Becker Karoo 2011 Oil on canvas 25 x 40 cm 15
Apies River, Tswane
Monique Pelser Apies River, Tswane 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 16
Table Mountain, Cape Town
Monique Pelser Table Mountain, Cape Town 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 18
Carl Becker Orators 2011 Oil on canvas 4 x 20 x 20 cm panels 19
Louis Trichardt / Makhado, Limpopo
Carl Becker Louis Trichardt 2011 Oil on canvas 28 x 35 cm each 20
Monique Pelser Louis Trichardt 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 21
Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape
Carl Becker Graaff-Reinet 2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 100 cm 22
Monique Pelser Okahandja 2011 Triptych exhibited as shifting time lapses on digital photo frames 16 x 25 cm 24
Monique Pelser Bosveld, Gauteng 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm
(overleaf ) Monique Pelser Karibib, Namibia (Diptych) 2009 Archival pigment ink (ed.15) 40 x 40 cm each 26
Premier Mine, Cullinan, Gauteng
Monique Pelser Premier Mine, Cullinan 2009 Triptych exhibited as shifting time lapses on digital photo frames Archival pigment ink (ed.15) 16 x 25 cm 30
Monique Pelser Premier Mine, Cullinan 2009 Archival Pigment Ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 31
Meiringspoort, Western Cape
Monique Pelser Meiringspoort 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 32
Carl Becker Meiringspoort 2011 Oil on canvas 18 x 18 cm 33
Waterval Boven, Mpumalanga
Carl Becker Waterval Boven 2012 Oil on canvas 25 x 21 cm 34
Monique Pelser Kameeldoringboom 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 35
Rand Gold Mine, Gauteng
Name Title XXX XXX dimensions
Carl Becker Rand Gold Mine 2012 Oil on canvas 25 x 40 cm 37
Kloof, Rustenburg, North West
Carl Becker Rustenburg Kloof (Diptych) 2009/12 Oil on canvas 45 x 105 cm (each) 38
Lion’s Head, Cape Town
(top right) Monique Pelser Lion’s Head, Cape Town 2008 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm
Monique Pelser Lion’s Head, Cape Town 2009 Triptych exhibited as shifting time lapses on digital photo frames Archival pigment ink (ed.15) 16 x 25 cm 40
Carl Becker Double Portrait, Lion’s Head (detail) 2011 Oil on canvas 10 x 13 cm 41
Knysna Heads, Western Cape
Monique Pelser Knysna Heads 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 42
Vaal River, Parys
Carl Becker Vaal River 2011 Oil on canvas 25 x 21 cm 43
Monique Pelser Heidelberg 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 44
Hartbeespoort Dam, Gauteng
Monique Pelser Hartbeespoort Dam 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm
(overleaf ) Monique Pelser Mont aux Sources (Diptych) 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed.15) 40 x 40 cm 45
Swartberg Pass, Western Cape
Monique Pelser Swartberg Pass 2009 Triptych exhibited as shifting time lapses on digital photo frames Archival pigment ink (ed.15) 16 x 25 cm 48
Maluti Mountains, Lesotho
Carl Becker Malutis, Lesotho 2012 Oil on canvas 25 x 21 cm 50
Monique Pelser Amajuba 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 51
Monique Pelser Alberton 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 52
Carl Becker Houtbos 2012 Oil on canvas 25 x 21 cm 53
Pienaars River, Limpopo
Carl Becker Pienaars River 2011 Oil on canvas 25 x 21 cm 54
Monique Pelser Stellenbosch 2010 Archival pigment ink (ed. 15) 40 x 40 cm 55
Mountain Landscape Ivan Vladislavić Dear Ms Williams, re: Pierneef Thank you for your letter of the 5th. I appreciate very much your ongoing involvement with the Company’s collection, and especially your proposal for the redeployment of my Pierneef. I read Prof. Keyser’s article, which you kindly attached, with interest. It was thoughtful of you to highlight specific passages for my attention, and those were well chosen indeed, but I took it upon myself to study the entire paper. As you know, I have no particular knowledge of art, but Claudia Fischhoff, whom you might have come across in your dealings, is always encouraging me to educate myself. Claudia advises me on my modest private collection and has given me some valuable tips in the last few years. My only regret is that I started so late. Your view that my Pierneef does not send the right sort of message about the Company is persuasively argued. However, I must take issue with certain of your conclusions. I hope you will humour me - and forgive the shortage of footnotes! It may interest you to know that the painting in question was not hanging in the boardroom when I took over as CEO five years ago. Then the wall was graced by a photograph of Tokyo Sexwale and the lads of Free State Stars hoisting the league trophy. It was an appropriate choice for the boardroom - the Company’s logo is all over the stadium - and I would have kept it, even though it doesn’t quite measure up to the picture of Madiba in his springbok jersey at Ellis Park. But one day, not long after my appointment, I was browsing through our annual reports, familiarising myself with the corporate history, when I came across a photograph of my predecessor Janus van Huyssteen in front of a painting. And naturally I became curious as to its whereabouts. I’m ashamed to say that I did not recognise a Pierneef in those days (you wouldn’t catch me out now). I had to show the photo to Claudia and she brought me up to speed. She even photocopied a couple of things for me to read, just some facts and figures, nothing as penetrating as Prof. Keyser’s article. Between you and me, I think Claudia had decided to take me under her wing. The very next day, I set about looking for the missing Pierneef. At first I suspected someone might have walked off with it. A casualty of the transition. Fortunately, I thought to ask my personal assistant, Miss Du Toit, who has had a long association with the Company. When in doubt, ask the secretary - another one of those things they don’t teach you at the Harvard Business School. Bless her, she remembered exactly when Mr Van Huyssteen had the painting of mountains
taken down and the photograph of soccer players put up instead. That dusty old thing! She pointed me towards a storeroom on the 19th floor and there it was, Mountain Landscape, jammed in between a filing cabinet and a three-legged chair, among piles of stationery and cleaning equipment. Nothing but mops, brushes and brooms. It would have made your hair stand on end to see everything jumbled together like that. There was a second canvas, a frisky little nude by Battiss, with the handle of a vacuum cleaner practically poking through it. A minor work, in my humble opinion. And some photographs of board members, and my predecessors at the helm of the Company, not to mention some captains of the ship of state - but let’s not go there, as they say. I had the Battiss hung in the reception area on the top floor, as a thank you to Miss Du Toit, and the Pierneef brought up to the boardroom. (By the way, ‘frisky’ is Claudia’s word, not mine.) You may wonder why I did not think to ask you about my painting. That’s exactly what I would do today, of course. But at the time I had no idea you were in charge of these things. I’m afraid my learning curve had not even begun to ascend. I have spent some time looking at Mountain Landscape. Occasionally, I bring a cup of tea in here, turn my back on our much-envied city panorama, and simply gaze at that square of paint on canvas. There are golden foothills, soaring peaks in purple and mauve, storm clouds advancing or retreating. I get quite lost in it, in its wide open spaces, its ‘echoing solitudes’ (to quote Prof. Keyser). It is full of silence and grandeur (and this really is a phrase of my own). Afterwards, when I return to the present, to find that I’ve spilt tea in my saucer or dropped biscuit crumbs on the carpet, I feel as if I’ve been away to some high place where the air is purer. I feel quite refreshed. I cannot speak with authority - one day at the Louvre will hardly atone for a lifetime of ignorance - but I suspect that this capacity to refresh the senses and the spirit is one of the marks of great art. I have also spent some time looking at other people looking at my painting. From my vantage point at the head of the conference table, I often see my colleagues’ eyes grow misty as they stray to the wall over my shoulder. I think I can say that Mountain Landscape is a compelling work, that it commands attention, and not just by its location in the scheme of things. The attention of my board members was not nearly as prone to wander when the wall was occupied by Mr Sexwale and his players. Without meaning to, I see I have made two arguments in favour of my Pierneef. Let me introduce a third by saying that I cannot agree with Prof. Keyser on the painting’s style. I think it is the ‘style’ she refers to (you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) when she says that the painting has a ‘mannered, otherworldly quality’ and that it ‘denies the humanly specific in favour of a dehistoricised abstraction’. (My spellchecker does not approve of ‘dehistoricised’ but I’ve copied it down exactly.) Just after Mountain Landscape was put back in the boardroom - the photograph of Tokyo is now on ‘permanent loan’ to the staff canteen - I had occasion
to entertain Leo Mbola of Telkom. And the first thing he commented on was my painting. He said that he recognised the scene as part of the Winterberg range near Queenstown where he grew up. To Mr Mbola at least the painting captured a specific place rather than an abstract somewhere-or-other. He even offered to show it to me if I ever come down to Queenstown for a long weekend - and I might take him up on the offer. I know from the photocopies Claudia made me that Pierneef was fond of long, solitary trips in his car, simply taking the open road and stopping to paint whatever caught his fancy, but I have no idea whether he was ever in the vicinity of Queenstown. Is it important to know whether this mountain of his exists in the world? Would it change our appreciation of his art? I cannot say. But I do wonder what kind of person Pierneef was. Did he strut about like a king or was he a simple man you would have walked straight past on the street? He certainly had a special way of seeing things. Perhaps he was a bit of a dreamer? Or a man of peculiar habits? On a business trip recently, I read something about Vincent van Gogh in one of those airline magazines. The name of the author would have come in useful now as a footnote. I suppose someone like Prof. Keyser is in the habit of storing up the bits and pieces one might need to argue the case for or against. There’s a lesson for me. Anyway, this article said that Van Gogh was a coffee addict. Apparently he used to drink twenty-four cups of coffee a day. Can you imagine! If I have so much as an espresso after lunch, I know I’ll be up half the night with my mind racing. Twenty-four cups! The journalist mentioned this fact in passing, as a mere curiosity, but I think it explains quite a lot about how Van Gogh saw the world, about his ‘style’. If you look at Starry Night, for instance, and imagine that you’ve had twenty-four cups of coffee since breakfast, it doesn’t seem so strange after all. I am returning Prof. Keyser’s article to you with this letter. It is a photocopy of your photocopy, which means that the parts you highlighted in red for my benefit now appear as grey speckles, whereas my highlights are in green. I have made some notes about this and that, which I won’t go over here. But please look especially at the last page. Whereas you drew my attention to the point about ‘dispossession’, I wish to emphasise ‘the proprietorial gaze’, which occurs in the previous paragraph. This is the crux of the matter, I think. Will you allow me one more anecdote? Last week, Eddie Khumbane of Spoornet dropped in to discuss some very interesting developments in the transport sector. We had met before in the conference environment, but this was his first visit to our HQ. It turns out he takes quite an interest in Pierneef - he had all the facts and figures you could ask for. So the two of us, rank amateurs but passionate ones, if I may say so, talked art when we should have been talking shop. You would be amused to know that he called Mountain Landscape a ‘prime piece of real estate’. He stood there with his hands behind his back, gazing at the
painting as if he owned it, and not just the painting but the mountains themselves, the lofty reaches of the Winterberg. You would have thought he’d read Prof. Keyser’s article. If you could have seen him, I think you might agree that the impression made by Mountain Landscape is not at odds with our corporate culture. All things considered, it seems to me that the Willie Bester street scene you had earmarked for the boardroom might be better suited to the lobby, the western wall I think, where it will catch every visitor’s eye, and for the time being I’ll keep the Pierneef here with me. Sincerely, (Signed) H.K. Khoza PS According to Prof. Keyser, Pierneef could have learnt a thing or two from Joos de Momper. She says De Momper’s Great Mountain Landscape (1623), majestic though it is, has paths twisting through it, and on those paths are beggars, hermits, horses and dogs, and their presence makes all the difference. I cannot say whether she is right, because I haven’t seen the painting yet - I must still search for it on the internet. Have you come across this De Momper? He sounds like an Afrikaner, but as far as I know there were no Afrikaners in 1623.
© Ivan Vladislavić
The Transnet Foundation refused permission to publish reproductions of the Station Panels. They can be seen at the Rupert Museum, Stellenbosch.
Exhibition catalogue - The Pierneef Station Panels Revisited. Carl Becker and Monique Pelser, 2012.