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Pierneef’s love of the land
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Since the 1980s, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s artworks have been increasingly associated with Afrikaner nationalism and the apartheid era in South Africa.   However, judging by the excess price tags attached to his paintings, his work has enjoyed a high level of international popularity and recognition over the years. According to auction data from 2010 to 2013, Pierneef outsold every South African artist except Irma Stern, generating a massive R54-million in those three years.


You can catch ‘Space for Landscape: The work of JH Pierneef’, at the Standard Bank Gallery in July. The exhibition hopes to reintroduce this iconic painter to the local public and recognise his contribution to South African art.

Looking at a Pierneef you can’t help but feel mesmerised by his picturesque landscape paintings. His works painted in South Africa in the early 20th century show an obvious passion if not obsession with the South African landscape that easily engages and captivates the eye.


Pierneef’s landscapes were an interpretation of what he saw - often exaggerated, monumental, unnaturally orderly, and empty of human activity. His abstract and geometric style has been described as modernist yet masterfully emotional and idealistic. Pierneef’s paintings easily transport you to the vastness of the South African landscape and remind you of its beauty.


Born in 1886 to parents of staunch Afrikaner ideologies, he was forced to finish his schooling in Holland during the Anglo-Boer War. He was also a member of a prominent group of Pretoria’s Afrikaner intellectuals. He spent much of his life dedicated to creating a genuine Afrikaner style of art and architecture that was neither Cape Dutch nor English. Ironically it was his desire to create a uniquely African style that made him take up painting fulltime.


But what did his work stand for? Art historians often call Pierneef’s work an expression of Afrikaner Nationalism and colonial ideologies. They talk about how his "controlling" gaze and sense of "gracious symmetry", express the 20th century Afrikaners' belief in the inalienable right to own, order and control the land. Pierneef was no doubt a man of his time, but whether his work was associated or reflective of Afrikaner beliefs and apartheid, is still open to debate. Could it be his art merely sought to celebrate and praise the land he knew so well? Land is an enduring obsession in Africa, and Pierneef managed to capture the awe of our mountains and valleys perfectly. It can also be argued that no matter our cultural or political differences, we can still identify with and appreciate Pierneef’s love and passion for the South African landscape and the uniqueness of our country.


'A Space for Landscape - The work of JH Pierneef’ runs at the Standard Bank Gallery in Simmonds Street, Johannesburg, South Africa from 8 July to 12 September 2015.


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