BY CityLife Arts Writer
Strauss & Co is delighted to be offering J.H. Pierneef’s rare oil on board composition Study for Klipriviersberg, Alberton (estimate R1.8 – 2.4 million) at its forthcoming three-day live sale in Johannesburg (16-18 May). The Pierneef lot, which will go under the hammer on 18 May, is one of only a few oil studies by the artist known to exist that directly relate to his landmark Johannesburg Station Panels commission. This important work highlights the intimate relationship between travel, place and artistic statement, a recurring theme in many lots appearing in this sale.
In July 1929, Pierneef received a commission to paint decorative and grand landscape panels for the Johannesburg Railway Station. In the manner of so many artists before and after him, Pierneef criss-crossed South Africa in search of beautiful and prominent places to portray. Among the 28 landscapes he ultimately presented to decorate the new station’s main concourse, one painting depicted a red-roofed Transvaal farmhouse in present-day Alberton. As its title suggests, Study for Klipriviersberg, Alberton is a precursor of this panel, titled Klipriviersberg, Alberton and originally positioned in the north-west corner of the station’s main concourse.
“Painted quickly, with confidence and swagger, the surface has a gorgeous and swirling arrangement of olive and lime green, across which cuts streaks of pink, brown and terracotta,” says Strauss & Co senior art specialist Alastair Meredith of the Pierneef oil on offer. Meredith, an expert in early 20th-century South African art who holds a doctorate from Cambridge University, points to how Pierneef shaped the landscape to best frame the view towards the old farmhouse.
“What is rather special about this farmhouse is that Henk Pierneef knew it intimately,” says Meredith. “He was friends with the Meyers – the owners – whose family had established the farm in the 1840s. There are records of the artist working at the Meyer farm in the early 1920s – that he should return to the scene for his most important commission is heart-warming indeed.”
The sale includes five works by Pierneef, a vital moderniser and one of South Africa’s preeminent landscape painters. Kimberley Sunset (estimate R800 000 – 1.2 million), from the Late Toy Mostert Collection, is a striking dusk scene that highlights both Pierneef’s facility with colour and diverse itinerary as a working artist. Strauss & Co’s May catalogue includes a number of lots by historical and contemporary artists that are the outcome of travels to places both familiar and foreign.
Irma Stern’s Three African Women (estimate R4 – 5 million) is a tightly framed study of a trio of amaMfengu (or Fingo) women that the artist likely encountered during her little documented 1941 trip to the Eastern Cape. Still Life with Lilies (estimate R6 – 8 million) features a favourite flower displayed in a Chinese storage jar possibly acquired in Zanzibar. Stern frequently shuttled between South Africa and Europe by boat and developed a lifelong interest in the traditions and labours of seafaring cultures, as is evidenced in her beach composition The Yellow Hat (estimate R5 – 6 million).
Like Stern and Pierneef, Alexis Preller also travelled extensively, notably to the Belgian Congo and the Seychelles. Preller’s two oils depicting traditional Mapogga (Southern Ndebele) women in this sale – Grand Mapogga II (estimate R4.8 – 5 million) and Mapogga Terrace (estimate R3.8 – 5 million) – relate to a subject far closer to home. In the mid-1930s, after an encounter with a group of Mapogga women in Pretoria, Preller became fascinated with their culture and visited a rural village. Over time the Mapogga became one of Preller’s most iconic and spellbinding motifs in his enigmatic body of work.
In contrast to Preller and Stern’s portraiture, many South African artists preferred the genre of landscape to record their experiences of place and people. Maggie Laubser’s double-sided work Landscape with Trees/ Landscape with Mountains (estimate R300 000 – 500 000) draws attention to the Western Cape landscapes so often viewed as mere backdrop to her expressionist studies of farm labourers and animals. The May sale includes a great variety of Cape landscapes. No one style dominates.
Hugo Naudé’s Eikebos op Laborie et Picardie (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) presents a Paarl landscape rendered in a brilliant range of colours characteristic of this quintessential South African impressionist. The origin of this painting is a meeting in Onrus near Hermanus. By contrast, Wolf Kibel’s The Red Roof, Cape Town (estimate R250 000 – 350 000) is typical of this expressionist painter’s interest in inconspicuous urban vistas. As his wife, Freda, would later observe, Kibel had the capacity to extract the absolute maximum of expressiveness from the minimum of material.
The 17 lots from the Late Toy Mostert Collection reflect the eclectic and ranging tastes of this popular sports journalist turned empowerment entrepreneur, but nonetheless show a consistent taste for landscape. The collection includes a number of Cape scenes, by among others Robert Gwelo Goodman, Terence McCaw and Gregoire Boonzaier, but the highlight is Pieter Wenning’s Landscape with Farm Houses (estimate R300 000 – 500 000). In June 1916, Wenning took a leave of absence from his job as a bookseller in Pretoria to work on a new body of paintings in Cape Town. Wenning’s two-month stay in Newlands ultimately prompted him to become a fulltime artist, at age 41; he tragically died not long after. Works by Wenning are now highly sought after by collectors.
From the same collection, John Koenakeefe Mohl’s An Evening on the Vaal River, near Vereeniging (estimate R30 000 – 50 000) transports the viewer to a favoured weekend haunt of Johannesburg residents. Mohl, like Pierneef, was a recorder of atmosphere. The sun has just descended behind the distant hills in his composition, and the sky is aglow with rosy pinks and acid yellows that are reflected in the shimmering surface of the Vaal River.
While the southern African subcontinent dominates as subject and inspiration for the majority of the works on offer, South African artists have long been internationalists. This is evident in Maud Sumner’s two watercolours of Battersea Bridge in London (estimate R25 000 – 35 000 each), Walter Battiss’s watercolour of the harbour at Heraklion, Crete (estimate R50 000 – 70 000) and Irma Stern’s late oil, Repairing Fishing Nets on the Quay (estimate R1.2 – 1.6 million), which was likely made in the Spanish port city of Alicante.
William Kentridge’s Untitled Drawing Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (estimate R5 – 6 million) depicts the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The drawing was one of roughly 40 drawings Kentridge made for the very first opera he directed, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, commissioned by the organisers of the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels in 1998. Although best known for his drawings and films about Johannesburg, Kentridge’s sensibilities as an artist have strongly been influenced by his travels, notably to Italy.
“My connection to Rome and Italy was shaped partly by my father’s love for and enthusiasm for Italy and things Italian,” said Kentridge in 2018. “It was the first country outside South Africa I was taken to when I was six, and the memories of that trip are still stuck so deep in my consciousness: peach ice cream at the beach in Levanto, the terror of having my hand bitten off by the Bocca de la Verità, the Carabinieri hats, fettuccine Alfredo; remember, this was in 1961. And through the good fortune of working with the excellent gallerist, Lia Rumma, I’ve been able to do many projects here – operas, theatre, exhibitions – in fact, more than in any other country.”
“The range and breadth of the places portrayed by artists in our May catalogue is astonishing,” says Susie Goodman, an executive director at Strauss & Co. “Besides Hugo Naudé’s gorgeous riverine study of Port St Johns and various otherworldly Namibian landscapes by Keith Alexander, Adolph Jentsch and Maud Sumner, there is a wonderful Karoo landscape by Peter Clarke, an artist usually associated with Cape scenes. Another highlight has to be John Meyer’s remarkable photorealist rendering of an eastern Free State landscape at Golden Gate. All the works on offer are an invitation to travel with the eye, and to be replenished in the process.”
The John Meyer lot (The Golden Gate, estimate R700 000 – 900 000) is one of four lots by this artist and – along with four Namibian-themed lots by Keith Alexander – serves to highlight the endurance of landscape painting as a contemporary genre. The emergence of photography as a collectable in recent years has not altered the longstanding relationship between travel, place and artistic statement.
The photography selection includes Guy Tillim’s 2002 portrait of two brothers made in Kunhinga, Angola, and an architectural study of a mosque on Gorée Island, near the Senegalese capital of Dakar, by twin brothers Hasan Essop and Husain Essop (estimate R30 000 – 40 000 each). In 2005 Pieter Hugo travelled across Nigeria with a group of Hausa salesmen who use wild animals to animate their pitch; the sale includes two early portraits from his career-defining series The Hyena and Other Men (estimate R80 000 – 120 000 each).