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The start of J.H Pierneef

J.H Pierneef

Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef.

Widely considered to be one of the best old South African masters. He had a distinctive style, which made him one of the nation’s most recognisable artists and notably influenced by the diverse landscape on offer.

Born and schooled in Pretoria. The Pierneefs moved back to the Netherlands as a result of the Boer War – round two. He was a mere teenager at the time. The Rotterdamse Kunstakademie would become his new home, if it were. This became his meeting place. The works of the old masters left a big impression on him.

It was not long before he made his way back to South Africa. He was eighteen. Meetings with the Anton van Wouws, Hugo Naudes and Frans Oerders of the time inspired him. The former was also his godfather.  George Smithard  taught him the intricacies of graphic mediums like etching and linocuts.

He held his first exhibition with van Wouw and Naude in 1902. A success it was. The young Pierneef went on to work at the State Library during the night and  worked in his own studio during the day. As he established himself as a premier South Africa artist, people had to wait their turn in order to have the name, ‘J.H Pierneef ‘at the bottom of their masterpiece. In 1929 he was commissioned to do the inside of the Johannesburg Station building. He did this so well that he was asked to do the South Africa house in London was next on his list.

Jacobus Hendrik proved himself as one of the nation’s premier artists; going about his business in his own unique way and writing his name in South Africa’s history books with much style.

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Irma Stern – Sold to the highest bidder

Irma Stern refused to travel to Germany at the height of the Nazi oppression. The South African – German artist instead opted to explore the unblemished African beauty. Stern had a picture of Africa as a fantasy of unspoiled nature, which she referred to as the ‘soul of Africa’. She commented that personal contact provided that insight into the ‘rich soul’ of the land, something she tried to portray in her pictures of South Africa.

As time went by and colonial South Africa was in ‘full bloom’ Irma Stern mentioned the change in certain aspects of native life which she ascribed to the European rulers leaving their heavy footprint on the people of Africa. She had a lofty picture of ‘unspoiled Africa’ and it seemed like her subject matter was being ruined in this way. As a result she started looking north, towards Zanzibar and Congo for the kind of landscapes she was after.

This would be the start of her travels as an accomplished artist, travels to Central Africa, Madeira, Spain and France would follow during the 50s and 60s. She passed away in 1966, an artist who managed to change a conservative South African audience to a more open minded and accepting group.

Irma Stern Art

Her home in Rondebosch was turned into a museum and opened its doors in 1971. The artist herself stayed in that house for close to 30 years, some of the rooms still looking exactly like it did in her time. Stern’s art broke several records, the latest being when once of her painting sold for R 34 million in London.

The Irma Stern Museum was established in 1971 and is the house the artist lived in for almost four decades. She moved into The Firs in Rondebosch in 1927 and lived there until her death. Several of the rooms are furnished as she arranged them while upstairs there is a commercial gallery used by contemporary South African artists.

The early years of Irma Stern

Irma Stern Art In a long list of exceptional South African artists , Irma Stern certainly ranks as one of the best and most well-known. She achieved various national and international accolades during her career. As one scans her biography, you might be surprised to find Schwiezer-Reneke listed as her place of birth; possibly wondering what this little town did right to produce an artist of her calibre. As if the name doesn’t give itself away, we know that the town was named after Captain Schweizer and field-cornet Reneke.

Born on 2 October 1894 in this newly formed town, Irma Stern was of German Jewish descent. The turn of the century proved to be tumultuous one for large parts of the ‘republic’. The outbreak of the Boer War brought the British to this little town. In 1900 Irma’s father and uncle were detained by the British. Her entire family headed for their homeland as soon as they were reunited.

Despite to and fro travelling, Stern stayed in Germany for the biggest part of her childhood. During the 1920s she had grown into a young adult and left Germany soon after World War I. After her arrival in South Africa she was identified as a German expressionist, something she continued to blend into the very traditional South African mould. Stern would spend a lot of time travelling through parts of Africa – an increasingly common occurrence for artists like her.

She used the places she visited and people she met as objects for inspiration. A captivating career followed – even causing some controversy with her modern style when she started exhibiting in South Africa.

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Christo Coetzee: From Turffontein to Japan

Christo Coetzee was a well known South African assemblage and Neo-Baroque artist. He is closely associated with the European and Japanese avantgarde art movements of the fifties and sixties. After completing his studies he held several mundane jobs, before turning to an art career towards the halfway mark of the fifties.

He was born at 54 Biccard street, Turffontein, to Josef A. Coetzee and Francina S. Kruger; the latter being a distant of former South African president P. Kruger. Coetzee senior was originally a farmer but after relocating several times, eventually ended up in the building industry. It was here that Josef discovered a talent for drawing; something that proved to be significant in Christo’s art career.

Christo Coetzee Art

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Christo’s love for art started as a teenager when he attended Parktown Boys High School, followed by his time at Wits University where he studied alongside the likes of Larry Scully, Cecil Skotnes, Esme Berman and Nel Erasmus. It was during this time that he would become part of the Wits group, known for their careers that followed their time at Wits. A career in art for the so-called Wits group, was prepared by their teachers; Maria Stein-Lessing, Heather Martienssen and Marjorie Long; the latter who would become his first wife. Coetzee also met another reputable South African artist, Alexis Preller during his time as a student. It seems that Wits was a stepping stone for any budding artist during the forties and fifties.

An exciting yet eventful time for this up and coming South African artist was on the cards following his studies at Wits. He spent a lot of time in Europe during the fifties, even extending his reach to Japan. Christo Coetzee seems to have been at the right place at the right time, as his time at Wits university was followed by a successful stint overseas before eventually embracing the South African art scene in the seventies.



Stanley Pinker, light-hearted politics

Stanley Pinker was renowned as one of South Africa’s most important “modernist” painters. He is remembered for his distinctive style of  ‘afro-surrealism’. A trademark for which he is fondly remembered in the company of Alexis Preller and Cecil Skotnes.

Pinker’s work was a breath of fresh air during the 70’s when art seemed to be stiff and clichéd as artists attempted to make sense of European modernist teachings within an African context. His paintings were often light and lyrical, drenched in colour.

Stanley Pinker

Typical to the South African scene of the 70’s and 80’s, the political climate of the time had a major impact on the artists of the time. Pinker offered the following thought about that time in his career: “…in the dark days of our country, there were times when one had to live with the reality of what one read in the newspapers and saw on TV, but when I went into my studio I did not want to paint those things.” His paintings were also often gently satirical in response to what they were experiencing in every day South Africa. His work was branded by colour and humorous detail which he used as a metaphor to navigate South African politics.

Stanley Pinker was a leading voice on the South African art scene, both as an artist and mentor. His legacy firmly entrenched in the heart of his followers.

Stanley Pinker’s Legacy

Stanley Pinker has been described as a wonderful teacher and great artist. In some admirers’ books he was a magnificent man; yet  intensely private. He was of Namibian descent and spent much time in Europe before making his way to Cape Town.

Stanley Pinker started painting at the age of 18 and went on to distinguish himself as an accomplished artist before entering his role as teacher of art. In 1969, after a stint in Europe, he returned home to take up a position at Michaelis School of Fine Arts. Throughout his career he managed to paint and lecture, even putting brush to canvas up until the time of his death in 2012.

He had the typical pedigree of a teacher and shared a passion for art with his students. One of his students was the now well-known Marlene Dumas to who he once wrote in a postcard, “My poor child, you are doomed to be a painter.” In her he recognised the same compulsion that drove his own life. Another well known South African on the art scene was curator Andrew Lambrecht who said, “Pinker had an immense impact on a generation of artists he taught.” He was an important South African artist whose influence as a mentor and guide could be the greater legacy.

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Stanley Pinker’s art contributed greatly to the Cape Town art scene. His ability to create new art during a time when his peers were struggling to marry modernist teachings to African landscapes, made him a bright light on the South African stage; something for which he is dearly remembered.


Alexis Preller: an African Modernist

Alexis Preller was a South African artist whose influences came from far and wide. He was known for his unique approach and ability to expose a different kind of beauty. Obviously not fond of labels, he rejected the “surrealist” tag. Another great South African artist, Walter Battiss, called him an expressionist. Battiss invited him to join the “New Group”, because of his innovative and different approach to art.

After completing tertiary education in England and France, Alexis Preller served in the South African Medical Corps during the Second World War. Spending two years as a prisoner of war was certain to leave a few scars in his mind. It was from this state that he returned to South Africa and the memory of horror and suffering formed the basis of his new work. The post-war Preller was adamant to show that even in the most gruesome sights there is some beauty, even if only in the colours.

Alexis Preller Paintings

His art had many influences; from European surrealism to the African art he encountered on his trips to Swaziland and Belgian Congo. Some of his later sculptures were the influence of the Dogon people, which were images of a reclusive tribe in an isolated region of Mali. Furthermore, his still life compositions bear testimony to his instinctive sense of perfection in every facet of his art. His absolute command over the media which he used inspired many.

Alexis Preller Sculpture

As one journeys through his art, the influence of various artists are clear to see. Preller’s “Florentine Head” reflects the seriousness with which he studied Pierro della Francesca, while other pieces illustrate his admiration for the Dutch post-impressionist, Vincent van Gogh.

A thoughtful look at his life shows why he is regarded as an important figure in the South African avant-garde movement of the time.

Alexis Preller, Imagination Gone Wild.

Creative genius and an affinity for being different are apt descriptors for Alexis Preller. This South African artist is remembered for his unique and counter cultural style. Similar to many artist of his time he spent a lot of time in Europe; travelling, exploring and learning the tricks of the trade.

The great South African artist, Pierneef, was partly responsible for Preller’s choice to study in Europe. A stroke of genius in many commentator’s books. It was in this time that he travelled large parts of Europe and even crossed the Mediterranean to set foot on North Africa. Visibly influenced by the works of Piero del la Francesca and the mystery of Egyptian pyramids, he came up with art works such as Hieratic Women (1956) during this time. Despite the European influence which may have been evident in his art, the African spirit had gripped him from a young age. This was after he went on a camping trip and safari to Swaziland and Congo. By his own admission, he was stirred by African customs, traditional rites, sculptures and fetishes of tribal Africa.

The mind of a creative genius
The mind of a creative genius

This combination of African heritage and European sophistication saw Alexis Preller’s own formulation of a primeval African art form, which resulted in the establishing of a compendium of iconographic imagery which would serve him well as his career progressed. The trajectory of his journey through the history of art became one of solitude. His worked seemed rather different and unfamiliar to the rest of society, but his brilliance was yet to be discovered.

Alexis Preller didn’t seem to care much about the status quo as he was focussed on expressing deep ideas through his art.




The South African Pranas Domsaitis

Pranas Domsaitis was an artist of Prussian descent, who opted for a Lithuanian passport in 1920. As Nazi Germany took control of Europe, artists like Domsaitis were seen as a threat to the Führer’s idea of domination and control. Refusing to give in to the oppressor’s tactics, Pranas Domsaitis continued painting “harmless still lifes”. The frontiers of South African art were furthest from his mind.

Life in war-torn Europe was a struggle at the best of times and for artists like Domsaitis this was a cause for concern. So when his wife, Adelheid Armhold, was offered a senior position at the then Cape Town college the couple were happy to make the move down south.

He undoubtedly made an impression on post-war South African art. He introduced some of the latest expressionist influences and brought a fresh approach to art. Some commentators note that he was deeply spiritual man, Elsa Verloren van Themaat said he was “an essentially spiritual man who needed to paint”. (quote credit

South African landscapes were some of Pranas Domsaitis' favourite places
South African landscapes were some of Pranas Domsaitis’ favourite places

He enjoyed painting landscapes and village life. His travels through the South African countryside, namely the Karoo, left Domsaitis in a state of awe; leading to various portraits of these vast landscapes. True to his religious beliefs, he often painted christian themes as well. Among them were portraits of the annunciation and crucifixion.

He passed on at the end of 1965. The following year he was honoured by the National Gallery in Cape Town with an exhibition of about two hundred of his art works. A large number of his works have since been transferred to the Lithuanian Art Museum and in 2001 the Pranas Domsaitis Gallery opened in Klaipeda, Lithuania; a fitting tribute to the life of this much adored artist.


Pranas Domsaitis: The Still Life

Pranas Domsaitis was a young man during World War I. He was also an artist who preferred to stay on his parent’s farm rather than doing military service. 1914 – 1918 symbolised a short break in the career of this Lithuanian artist.

The conclusion of the war meant a return to normality for most of Europe. This was true for Domsaitis as well, who was eager to resume his life as a travelling artist. He continued doing what he loved, exhibiting in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Romania and Turkey. His works were well received, by most. As the years rolled by, Europe was facing another decade of oppression. Pranas Domsaitis was flourishing as an artist until his work was disastrously included in a ‘degenerate’ art exhibition in 1937.

Degenerate art was a tactic of the Nazi regime to oppose and silence all creativity. The German majority classified degenerate art as all modern art that was un-German; in other words Jewish or communist by nature. This resulted in artists, like Domsaitis, being sanctioned. This proved to be a crippling blow to Europe’s community of artists. Individuals like this were dismissed from teaching positions, forbidden to exhibit or sell and even prohibited to produce any art.

Creating beauty in the midst of war.

Domsaitis, a Lithuanian citizen by now, thought this would be the best time to start with his “Lithuanian” signature. Preferring peace rather than persecution, he continued painting; only now he reverted  to painting “harmless still lifes”.

This kind of timeline was not uncommon for people in Europe.  Everyone was affected by political agendas which eventually led to much devastation. Art provided some kind of respite for the people of this time. Artists who ‘survived’ this period deserve a special mention for creating beauty when it was difficult to find.