Could there be art less political than a landscape?
Despite agreeing wholeheartedly with Toni Morrison that ‘All good art is political! There is none that isn’t’, on first viewing of Jacob Pierneef’s paintings at the British Museum’s ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’ exhibition I would never have guessed that they were used in the defence of apartheid.
One online biography describes Pierneef’s influences as follows:
His early works reflect the fashions of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly pointillism and the landscapes of the Dutch masters that he was exposed to when his parents moved to the Netherlands during the Anglo-Boer War. But the most patent and lasting influence on his work was his architectural studies at Hilversum. Still, he was not European, he was African-born, and was drawn to the palette of Bushmen rock painters and the pastel shades of his beloved Highveld surrounds.
So far, so neutral, right?
Even if you don’t pick up on Pierneef’s Dutch influences, you do immediately get a sense of how quiet and empty his paintings are. This is no accident—the absence of people in Pierneef’s landscapes is a central part of his nationalist message. As Jennifer Beningfield writes in The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century:
A member of the Broerderbond from 1919, Pierneef increasingly embraced the agenda of the Afrikaner Nationalists, referring to himself as a ‘Voortrekker’ for the arts during the 1930s and 1940s. It has been argued by the art historian N.J. Coetzee that Pierneef’s landscapes are inseparable from the contemporary political agenda n which they were produced. Coetzee maintains that Pierneef’s work offers a visual means through which the veld, and in particular the landscape of the Transvaal province, could be imagined as the fatherland of the Afrikaner.
Pierneef’s success in developing a distinctive style of landscape painting which resonated with the contemporary Afrikaner cultural and political concerns meant that his paintings were collected as status symbols by those who considered themselves to be ‘true Afrikaners’ The majority of Pierneef’s wealthy patrons lived an urban existence and the paintings became almost displaced fragments of the land itself; magical totems invoking the land in its purity and stillness. Not only were the landscapes representations of remote ‘natural’ places, desired from within the confines of the city, but also they became integrated into the narration of the past, the political ambition for the future and the construction of Afrikaner identity.
In other words, Pierneef ‘didn’t celebrate South Africa’s people, he celebrated the land itself’—land that, in his view, belonged to the white Afrikaners and not to its black, native populations. As John Peffer wrote in 2003:
In Pierneef’s painting the South African landscape is cast as God’s land, and by extension the providence of His Chosen People, the Afrikaner volk. His view of Apies River, Pretoria, is one purged of any evidence of the Ndebele and other African people who were defeated by Boer commanodoes and scattered as labor onto white farms near Pretoria after 1883. Also erased from the picturesque landscape of rolling hills and bubbling stream is any hint of the city of Pretoria itself, especially the Union Buildings, which would have been an irksome reminder of British rule. Pierneef’s landscapes represent a form of idyl more extreme even than the utopic fantasies of some of his Afrikaner Nationalist colleagues. […] For Pierneef the landscape was frozen in a state of empty apartness, perpetually ready for white settlement, and timelessly open for the prospect of white prosperity.
Pierneef’s art will be joining my repertoire of teaching texts that, while seemingly neutral, can pack an intense ideological punch.
If you’re in the London area, I highly recommend ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’. It runs until 26 February 2017, and features a wide selection of South African art, from a variety of cultural and political backgrounds.