One of the results of the in-depth study of this droopy tree, which cast a shadow in his Pretoria garden, would be a pastel drawing titled Willow Trees in Summer (1913), which will go under the hammer at the Strauss & Co. auction on October 16.
It will be joined by a number of other Pierneef works colonised by trees, such as Hardekoolboom in a Bushveld Landscape (1944), which is expected to fetch up to R3-million, Trees in a Landscape and Bushveld Landscape. As his later paintings revealed, he quickly jettisoned the sagging willow tree in favour of more upright ones that better suited his geometric angular language.
However, his obsession with bucolic scenes remained constant.
He wasn’t the only artist focused on depicting natural environments. If you peruse the artworks shown under the banner of important South African art at the Strauss & Co. auction, it is clear this subject-matter determined art in the country for decades. From the first early white painters such as Thomas Baines, whose A South Easter off the Cape (1849) depicts a boat in a rough ocean, to Hugo Naudé works featuring the Hermanus coastline, Port St Johns, Victoria Falls, Maggie Laubser’s Yellow Bird, to Cecil Skotnes’s Head and Figure Landscape from the early ’90s, to Erik Laubscher’s abstract Evening Landscape.
Stanley Pinker also embraced an abstract rendition of the landscape in an eponymous work, while contemporary painter John Meyer digs into his hyper real cinematic vocabulary in Odysseus, an evening landscape, featuring a starry night sky.
The list is endless if you count Gregoire Boonzaier’s drawings of trees - Gnarled Tree (1991) and Twee Bloekombome Kaapsevlakte - Willem Hermanus Coetzer’s landscapes and Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk’s The Sand Dunes of the Sea and Morning on the Veld.
The abundance of space, a love of the outdoors and the slow densification of urban cities (think of how SA cities grow outwardly rather than upwardly) explain this fixation with the landscape and nature, according to Esme Berman, the late art historian. Dutch and French artists of the 19th century focused on still life’s and interior scenes.
Those European countries lacked what she identified as the “peculiar intensity of light” - the brightness that is striking in South Africa. Naudé’s Autumn in Hex River and Namaqualand, which pop with bright tones of yellow, orange and red confirm this idea. The sky is a crisp, bright blue in the latter work despite the season.
The more contemporary view, as taken up by art historians such as Juliette Leeb-du Toit, point to the obsession with the landscape as one tied to politics and establishing nationhood.
In his depiction of a boat in a storm, Baines may have been grappling with humankind’s relationship to nature, this desire to tame it, but it also could serve as a record not only of the arrival of British settlers but their desire to govern this supposedly “untamed” African territory. It may also capture the uncertainty of his or his ancestor’s ambiguous status - caught between places. Establishing a sense of belonging drove much of the landscape tradition in painting by white artists, suggests Leeb-du Toit.
Afrikaner nationalism as tied to the mythology surrounding the Great Trek would find expression in both idyllic representations of the ’30s and ’40s by the likes of Volschenk and depictions of the then Transvaal, Orange Free State.
Upturning this drive and advancing democracy, would play out through landscape art when the struggle movement gathered steam and artists turned on national or European narratives. In the Long Journey, Peter Clarke depicts an old woman on crutches traversing a rural landscape, barren, barring a peculiar structure that appears like a large tooth - perhaps signifying a monument built by the Afrikaner state?
The image proves a powerful metaphor for the struggle for freedom - though the battle, or is it the victim of it, is taken up by an old black woman? The beauty or breadth of the landscape, its pretty “light”, is obscured by twisted politics.
In Birds in Flight (1960) the path the male subject might travel through the landscape is unclear, seemingly thwarted by shards and blocks. The bright blue sky, recalling the one in Naudé’s work, is dominated by a flock of birds - a recurring symbol in Clarke’s work, thought to evoke a yearning for freedom, but also the idea of being bonded to the land. - sponsored text by Corrigall & Co
* Strauss & Co’s October 16 Auction will take place at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, Cape Town. All the works and details about them can be viewed on www.straussart.co.za