J.H. Pierneef: A Space for Landscape
July 8, 2015


The work of Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957) was a dominant presence in South African art for much of the twentieth century. His works were displayed in public spaces, his paintings were prized commodities in the art market, his prints were a common sight inside homes, and he was studied by school pupils and art historians alike. But this prominence did not necessarily benefit his longer-term reputation. Associated (whether fairly or not) with the apartheid state and with Afrikaner nationalism, Pierneef's landscapes have been appropriated, parodied and subverted by other artists since the 1980s; his work has become largely neglected by scholars and institutions in the arts sector, even though private collectors pay huge sums for "a Pierneef" at auctions. Indeed, Wilhelm van Rensburg suggests that "public awareness of the art of J.H. Pierneef has never been at such a low point in South Africa".

J.H. Pierneef: A Space for Landscape brings together a wealth of paintings and prints, from numerous collections, to create the first major Pierneef exhibition in many years. It also includes a selection of works by artists who have responded to and undermined Pierneef's iconic status. This theme of iconoclasm is particularly timely given the renewed debate in South Africa about images, symbols and figures from the country's contested past. Pierneef's work, some of it commissioned by the Union government and much of it coopted by the apartheid state, has been criticised for its romantic or nostalgic representation of the landscape - ignoring a history of violent conquest and displacement, as well as the central questions of land ownership and "belonging".

Yet Van Rensburg seeks to challenge the assumption that Pierneef was merely an artistic stooge of the projects of colonialism and Afrikaner nationalism. Adopting a biographical or a formalist approach to the work reveals other aspects of Pierneef: an outsider and an experimenter, an opponent of empire who was nonetheless international in his outlook. His influences were wide and varied, and his style shifted "under the broad rubric of modernism" from "somber and realistic" to impressionist, abstract and "quasi-geometric".

If Pierneef can't be "pinned down" in terms of style, perhaps the same is true in terms of the historical contexts in which his work was produced and received. As we discuss other icons of South Africa's past, the time is ripe to revisit the work of J.H. Pierneef.

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