ONE of SA’s leading painters, Stanley Pinker, who died at 87, has been described by his contemporaries and his art students as “intensely private”, “a wonderful teacher” and a “magnificent man”. His contribution to our cultural landscape is immeasurable and he is celebrated as belonging to a continuum of great artists from Cezanne to Matisse.
He was awarded the Molteno Medal, acknowledgement of a lifetime devoted to painting, and he is represented in most major collections. Artist Sue Williamson said Pinker had been an integral part of the Cape Town scene and was once a winner of the Cape Town Triennial.
“For many years, he was also a popular and highly accomplished lecturer in painting at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and in the early 1970s, at a time when most local artists were struggling to reconcile modernist teachings with the reality of the African landscape, resulting only too often in work that was stiff and clichéd, Stanley Pinker’s work was a breath of fresh air.
“His paint was sometimes light and lyrical, even sketchy, and sometimes drenched with rich colour. His subjects were often gently satirical. Odd objects were sometimes introduced. I remember seeing a painting of musicians, with real buttons stitched to the back of their blue tailcoats.”
Williamson said Pinker’s most famous student was the now internationally acclaimed Marlene Dumas, to whom he once wrote on a postcard something along the lines of ‘My poor child, you are doomed to be a painter’. “He recognised in his former student the same compulsion which dominated his own life,” said Williamson.
Curator Andrew Lamprecht said Pinker had had an immense impact on a generation of artists he taught.
“Although he is an important artist in his own right, his impact as a mentor and gentle guide to generations of students is immense. As they said of the Roman emperors: ‘If you seek his monument, look around you’,” said Lamprecht.
Pinker studied at the Continental Art School in Cape Town under Maurice van Essche. “Van Essche had an enormous impact on Michaelis after founding the Continental Art School,” added Lamprecht.
“Interestingly, he studied under Matisse so there is a direct chain linking Matisse to Stanley Pinker. Stanley’s influence continues in the next generation, with the art school he did so much to build, and with his legacy of engaged and intellectually challenging and visually beautiful artwork, which shall be enjoyed well into the future. When an artist dies, his works live on and with the passing of a great teacher, his spirit is carried on by those who learned at his feet.”
Michael Stevenson of Stevenson Galleries, who represented the artist, said all Pinker’s works were seminal in some major or minor way because he was an artist who seldom painted a painting that was off-key from the early 1960s onwards when his visual language came into its own.
“This is a rare achievement because most artist’s oeuvres are – in retrospect – patchy with some eras and paintings dramatically more significant and compelling than others, and this is not the case with Pinker.
“Each painting was indeed a deeply considered and reflection and a meditation on painting itself,” he said.
Stevenson confirmed that the family had stopped selling his works about six years ago. “Only works that appear on the secondary market are for sale,” he said. One of the most recent sales of one of Pinker’s paintings, The Wheel of Life, by Strauss & Co auctioneers, was sold for R2.4 million in October 2010.
Hayden Proud, curator of historical paintings at Iziko SA National Gallery, was taught by Pinker. “Stanley was my painting teacher at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, where he taught from 1969 to 1986.
“He was one of the few SA painters who understood and continued to explore the implications of Cubism and painterly, textural surface-materiality with intelligence and wit. Ingenious in his magpie eclecticism, he drew inspiration from the moderns from Cezanne to Braque to Matisse to Klee. Infusing his work with something of the humour of pop art, he focused on subjects and an ironic content particularly reflective of South(ern) Africa’s beautiful landscapes; its society and its ills, creating a unique vision and a leaving us a great artistic legacy.
“No SA art museum can ever have enough of his work.”
Pinker’s immaculate command of the formal vocabulary of painting is long-steeped in a deep understanding of early 20th century European modernism, while his rootedness in a specifically SA realm of experience is the basis of his art’s authenticity and integrity. Becoming aware of the complexities of SA society after his 12-year sojourn in Europe, Pinker broke away from idealistic landscape painting in the 1960s to include figures which made his work less specific of place and more specific of content.
Esmé Berman, in Art & Artists of South Africa, said of Pinker’s work: “Although he retains faith in figurative imagery, Pinker’s intention is to make deeper, more cryptic observations about experience than can be conveyed in the factual description of natural appearances. Therefore, he attempts to create a new psychological dimension within his canvases by distorting space and recomposing elements of observable reality within this new environment.”
Pinker himself said: “In the dark days of our country, there were times when one had to live with the ‘reality’ of what one read in newspapers and saw on television screens, but when I went into my studio I did not want to paint those things.
“Paintings such as this one ( Halfway House) provided a sense of relief because I could escape with the sole intent of making a beautiful painting.”