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A single-artist auction dedicated to a modernist master

By Strauss and co 20 July 2021

In the early years of the twentieth century, Pierneef, perhaps South Africa’s most iconic landscape painter, developed an ever-recognisable aesthetic, helped establish a local landscape tradition, and achieved enormous popularity and critical success. The artist’s philosophical outlook is most notably achieved in his synthesis between the land and the sky, where fleeting clouds build into monuments, anchoring and balancing the weight of his compositions.

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Enormously prolific, the artist was equally comfortable working in oils, gouache, watercolour and casein, while the prints he produced, both linocuts and etchings, remain as influential as they are collectable. More than 50 years after his death, his works are still among the top-selling works on auction, in demand locally and internationally. 

The early years

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef was born on the Highveld in 1886 and attended the Staatsmodel School in Pretoria, but the family went into exile in Hilversum, in the Netherlands, during the Anglo-Boer War. A young Henk was afforded late-night lessons in architectural drawing. Having already grown to appreciate clean, practical draughtsmanship from his father Gerrit Pierneef, a master carpenter, he continued to refine his line, rely on his observation, and improve his accuracy in the conventional, no-nonsense classes at the Rotterdam Academy. However, after returning to Pretoria shortly after the May 1902 peace, and completing a last year at school on Esselen Street, the teenage Pierneef was expected to make a living. Despite committing in his own mind to becoming an artist, as a result of his father’s investment in Lodewijk de Jager & Co., the tobacconist on Church Street West, he had little option but to take up a position there late in 1906. Mischievous anecdotes from JFW Grosskopf and PG Nel, the artist’s first biographers, suggest that he was frustrated by his employment and that he would at the first opportunity neglect his retail duties for his pencils and brushes. 

The artist’s mature career

From the 1920s onwards, Pierneef began working as a full-time artist. He exhibited frequently, sold well, lectured continuously, and served on numerous selection committees. He held shows in all the major cities in South Africa and, in 1947, even contributed an apparently beautiful end-paper for the 25 private leather-bound guides given to King George and his retinue during the visit of the Royal Family. 

Regarded as a national and cultural treasure, Pierneef’s time was in much demand in the early 1950s. The modest contemporary market meant he had little option but to exhibit widely and regularly. No fewer than eight major shows opened between 1950 and 1952, and gallery-goers were able to enjoy his work in Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Bloemfontein. His ever-growing reputation culminated in his first honorary doctorate, from the University of Natal, in 1951, and glowing descriptions of his achievements were readily voiced.

Pierneef died in Pretoria in 1957, at the age of 71, after a long and productive career.

Pierneef’s typical subject matter

Few South African landscape paintings are as dazzling, as evocative, and as memorable as Pierneef’s bushveld scenes. No other scene was more inspirational to the artist, and no other subject closer to his heart. In some compositions, one gets a sense that he has summoned all his powers of compositional design, all his sensitivity for subtle colour harmonies, and all his flair for the grand and the dazzling.

Painted in 1950, the landscape Bushveld Game Reserve (lot 557, Strauss & Co, May 2020, sold for R 2 276 000) is part of a theme and body of work that occupied the artist throughout his life. These works from the 1940s and 1950s have certain formal compositional similarities but retain their unique distinctions, some with marked variations on that theme, particularly sensitivity to the particular vegetation and season in which the work was painted.

The artist became best known for his immense acacias, but it was the graceful willow tree, common on the Highveld, that captured his attention as a young painter (lot 255, Strauss & Co, June 2018, sold for R 238 980). Whether it was the silhouette of the tree changing through the seasons, or the unusual sense of balance created by the bunched, cascading leaves, there is little doubt that the artist’s early experiments with the willow form resulted in some of his most avant-garde designs and compositions. Pierneef takes as much notice of the tree’s architectural framework as he does the patterns created within it. The willow acts as a natural lattice, therefore, through which segments of sky and cloud can be appreciated. 

The artistic process

While Pierneef sketched obsessively in the veld throughout his career, the studies he made more often than not served as aides-mémoire for later, carefully-conceived, more stylised, monumental versions of the original scene. Compositions that might be remarkably similar, made from the same viewpoint, are transformed by the power of the artist’s imagination when back in the studio, always providing a convincing sense of place.

Each part of the scene – however near or distant – is treated with equal care. Pierneef colours the mountains and the clouds with his signature sense of drama. The foregrounds are often dominated by deeply-rooted, upward-reaching acacias, leadwood or baobab trees, which serve as powerful pictorial devices, creating a strong vertical aspect linking earth and sky, and creating tension in opposition to the horizon line. Their branches forming a graceful tracery through which can be seen a towering cumulus cloudbank.

A sense of structure

Pierneef developed an inimitable visual language and monumental style, particularly after the Johannesburg Station panels commission of the early 1930s. His compositions are characteristically organised according to simple geometry with linear clarity and convincing depth. This evident respect for structured, mathematical order had much to do with the teachings of the Dutch theorist Willem van Konijnenburg, and it adds to the sense of peacefulness and harmony that pervades the artist’s view of his beloved South African landscape.

Pierneef’s interest in the structure of the natural world is starkly apparent in richly descriptive paintings of mountain landscapes. In a work painted from a low vantage point, the artist invites the viewer to explore the varied textures and topography from the soft grassy foreground and lightly wooded slopes to the majestic folded rocky cliff face above, making full use of architectonic natural forms to generate a powerful ascending composition. Alternately, in a work surveyed from a high vantage point such as Valley in an Extensive Mountain Landscape (lot 380, Strauss & Co, April 2020, sold for R 477 960), Pierneef demonstrates his virtuosity in establishing aerial perspective with a harmoniously balanced choreography of colour, light, and form, with the valley bathed in a passage of light, illuminating red cliffs and allowing the viewer to roam among the monumental landforms and verdant fields below. Blue and purple shadowed peaks and trees punctuate the landscape, adding volume through natural architecture of these ascending forms. 

Inspired by geometric order and proportion, the artist staggers his pictorial planes, building to an overall sense of grandeur.

Pierneef’s sense of colour and light

Pierneef was a master not only of composition but also of subtle harmonies of colour and tone. His palette varied from restrained, almost pastel tones of cream, ochre, taupe, grey and russet, to vivid splashes of orange, red, purple and pink offset against the graduated cobalt blue backdrop of the sky. 

Pierneef returned from European travels early in 1926. Riveted and inspired by various modernisms, including Impressionism, Fauvism and Expressionism, the immediate work he produced back in Pretoria was thrillingly radical: he re-imagined his beloved landscapes according to shard-sharp geometric principles and enlivened them with a startlingly colourful fauvist palette. He also experimented with a personal brand of divisionism, building up an impressionistic effect on his canvas with flashy, expressive daubs of pure colour. While paintings from this period are now fabled and impossibly rare, they were unpopular sellers at the artist’s exhibitions from 1926 to 1928. Having to face up to commercial realities, by the end of the decade the artist reverted to his more familiar, monumental, and pleasingly linear aesthetic. This stylistic doubling back was a personal return to order.

Like Frans Oerder working on the east coast of Africa, or Hugo Naudé painting in the gardens behind Groote Schuur, Henk Pierneef continuously proved himself to be a masterful painter of weather. While searching primarily for geometric harmony in his landscape compositions, Pierneef also explored the atmospheric power of Impressionist and Divisionist techniques – with which he had acquainted himself on travels in Europe in the 1920s – to catch the illusive, fleeting effect of light at that moment before a deluge. In a number of works that depict an approaching storm, the clouds are heavy with rain, the mountainsides in ominous shadow, the air thick with moisture, and the moment still with anticipation. 

Pierneef’s travels

The artist travelled extensively in Southern Africa and this is evident in the expansive landscapes of the Free State, the Cape or Namibia, composed of hillsides sloping gently inwards and intersecting centrally, the foreground punctuated with the indigenous trees, shrubs and rock formations with which the artist was so familiar, and the landscape unfolding endlessly under a wide and brooding sky. 

His early mentor and instructor, Frans Oerder, had travelled along the East African coast as early as 1903, and he had no doubt told the young Pierneef about the exoticism of this region.

A golden period in Pierneef’s career was inspired by two trips to the then South West Africa in 1923 and 1924. He arrived in Windhoek late in April 1923 and was moved by the surrounding landscape: the astonishing vastness, the still air, and the peculiar quality of the light. He travelled the country extensively, worked breathlessly, and produced enough pictures over an eight-week period to mount a sell-out exhibition in Windhoek that opened on 20 June 1923. The paintings were characterised by their rich, dramatic, dusky pinks, their recognisable landmarks, and their small scale (his travelling painter’s box could only accommodate small boards). 

On their way back from Europe and England in 1926, Pierneef, and his second wife, May, travelled via the Mediterranean down the east coast of Africa, visiting such harbour cities as Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo).

Later in life, inundated with studio visits, embassy and consulate invitations, lecture requests, and exhibition openings, Pierneef’s time to paint was often limited. To avoid these obligations, and to clear time to work, he habitually travelled. Significantly, he made several trips to the Lowveld in 1952 and 1953, and Pierneef’s knowledge of indigenous trees is obvious in works from this era. Whether or not these trees naturally appeared in such a rhythmic formation is moot: Pierneef edited the scene, no doubt, but he painted a magic bushveld view one might conjure from happy memory.

After finishing a large-scale painting commissioned by the Pretoria City Council to commemorate the city’s centenary, Pierneef took a well-deserved holiday in the Seychelles between August and November 1954. The painting Cinnamon Mill, Seychelles (lot 291, Strauss & Co, May 2018, sold for R 4 552 000) is one of the unusual works that date from this visit, as the more tropical colour palette confirms. Instead of bushveld trees, the trunks of towering palms structure the composition, reflecting the architecture of the buildings beyond. 

The Johannesburg Station panels

Pierneef received a landmark commission in July 1929 to paint decorative and grand landscape panels for the newly-built Johannesburg Railway Station. Criss-crossing the country on a nationwide tour, he chose beautiful and prominent destinations that could be reached from the city’s impressive new transport hub, capturing a diverse and rich variety of pictorial splendour reflective of the South African landscape.

Pierneef recorded these compositional candidates in drawings and paintings from which he worked in the studio. Whilst the drawings are fairly plentiful, paintings in this style and from this period are rare. The artist’s style evolved, due to these time constraints and scale of the project, into what has been described as massive monumental and can be identified by generally large, flatly-painted dramatic compositions employing subtle, faceted tonal graduations, unifying the composition with precise and eloquent linear expression.

The breadth of concept, the stylistic harmony, the propaganda power, and the sheer decorative impact of the paintings arguably position the group as the most important state or parastatal commission in twentieth-century South Africa. Ultimately, the artist painted twenty-eight landscapes to decorate the station’s main concourse. The final panels were installed in the station and were on view for decades but they have since been relocated and are now on exhibition at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch.

On occasion, very rare oil studies related to the Station commission emerge on the market, such as Study for Klipriviersberg, Alberton (lot 187, Strauss & Co, May 2021, sold for R 2 048 400. Painted quickly, with confidence and swagger, these sketchy paintings are captured with looser and more spontaneous brushstrokes, the surface a gorgeous and swirling arrangement of streaking colours, sometimes with positioned tall trees at the edges of the picture – like columns or stage curtains – to best frame the view.

Pierneef’s printmaking

George Smithard introduced JH Pierneef to Japanese woodblock prints when he showed the young artist the ropes of the linocut printing and etching techniques. Not only did these prints influence Pierneef’s own linocuts, they also set the tone for many of the compositions of his varied and extensive landscapes. The artist also studied etching at the Rotterdam Academy and possibly experimented in printmaking with fellow artists Frans Oerder and Pieter Wenning back in South Africa. In Pierneef’s day, the convention of strictly numbered editioned prints was yet to be established, and he printed most of his prints himself, on-demand, which is why there are many impressions of some images and very few of others. Although they were usually signed, he seldom dated them, and so it is very difficult to be sure when specific works were created and to put his graphic output into chronological order.

Artists’ prints and works on paper usually sell for much less at auction than the large oils on canvas and so they can be an accessible entry point for novice Pierneef collectors. On occasion though, rare examples in pristine condition sell for prices well above their initial auction estimates. The etching Okahandjaberg sold for close to R80 000 in 2019 (lot 453, Strauss & Co, February) and the linocut Doringboom, Potgietersrust unusually realised over R 250 000 in 2020 (lot 447, Strauss & Co, April). ML/DM

For more information about the upcoming sale contact Strauss & Co, Johannesburg, at (011) 728 8246 or [email protected]

Virtual Live auction date:  19 July 2021, 7.00 pm

Venue: Strauss & Co, 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg,

Website: www.straussart.co.za

 

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