PRESS RELEASE ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------SEPTEMBER 2009
Trees have a special place in the work of Pierneef in general …
The tree is a potent and complex symbol: ‘the symbolism of the tree
denotes the life of the cosmos: its consistence, growth, proliferation, generative and regenerative processes’.
The Highveld and Bushveld were Pierneef’s own personal meditative retreat; he would set up camp to sketch and paint, sleeping in his tent as he felt most at home within these vast open spaces. He was intent on capturing the many moods and immense theatre of this dramatic landscape – the towering clouds, the waving grassplains, the blue Malutis and the sculptural trees that etched themselves against the vast canopy of sky. While most of these excursions were undertaken on his own he would on occasion take his wife and daughter with him. His daughter Marita recalls that he was “passionately fond of our trees, grass and rocks. …One day we were camping in the Bushveld. He was working, but to my surprise he put down his brush. Taking my hand he said: Come, see how a tree grows, my child, look at how beautiful it is. Find your own tree of life, then you will get your own roots.”
Painted in the last decade of his life; this work is a mature reflection of Pierneef’s skill and vision and is painted in the monumental-decorative style. As such the decorative elements are dominant and are presented in broad, clear and simplified lines and planes, with a subtle rhythmic rendering of simplified, organic forms, and strong linearity depicted in a subdued palette of pale colours, “usually tone values of the same colour.” Pierneef had developed this visual language based on the character of the land and the quality of light to be found in Africa. The unity achieved in his compositions “mainly by way of line – the rhythm of composition lines” was due to the Art Nouveau Dutch painter, printmaker, draughtsman and writer van Konijnenburg’s influence chiefly that ideal beauty is born from harmony; and that both ideal beauty and harmony react positively to mathematical laws. Although the majestic Baobab is slightly off-centre, the apex of the triangle formed by its large body, the Cumulonimbus cloud behind it and the smaller tree in the right-hand foreground is exactly in the centre of the composition although it occurs above the picture plane. This positioning of the Baobab within the picture format creates a more naturalistic feeling to the landscape. However this is not merely an observed scene but one which has been subjected to Pierneef’s strict ordering of pictorial elements. We are first drawn into the composition along the red-earth road to the powerful trunk of the Baobab – our eye climbs the rhythmic lines and details upon the trunk, then up through the branches. The eye then sweeps down the right-hand outline of the branches – attracted by the blue of the sky, and lands on top of the russet-coloured tree on the far right-hand edge of the picture format. It then zigzags down the picture through the rhythms of the tree branches to the grass along the road edge. The eye then sweeps across the road, drawn by the strong olive-green of the bushes huddling at the left-hand side of the road. In turn we are once again led upwards by the undulations of the grass into the tree branches and back up the left hand outer edge of the Baobab. The strongly accented and curved left-hand centre branch pulls us down into the forked branch occurring mid-way up the tree. Whether this was a naturally occurring formation or an element manipulated to conform to the design of the composition we cannot say, but the eye is then invited to take either fork and journey through the lower branches and along the rolling canopies of the trees in the mid-distance. We stop at the cold blue of the mountains and are again drawn forward by the warm autumnal hues of the tree foliage and baked earth. The eye keeps circulating around the composition finding one rhythm after the next like a thermal upon which to glide.
In the vast, dry spaces of the Bushveld he encountered the soul of the vision he was trying to express. This experience led him to define the essence of an African landscape that is so unique to his work and sets it apart from both South African and European artists.
Editorial and research courtesy Cate Wood Hunter BFA (R.U.) MFA (U.S.)
For further information on this and other consignments to our October 2009 auction,
please contact our Cape Town Paintings Department on 021 794 6461
Nel. P.G. (1990) J.H. Pierneef – His Life and his work - Tribute to my father, Hendrik Pierneef by Marita Bailey-Pierneef, Cape Town: Perskor. P 114.