“Before it can ever be the repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”
Ask a South African about landscape painting, and it is likely that one of the first images that will come to mind is of trees somewhere on the highveld, with typical imposing cloud formation, organised within the composition according to a modernist, geometric sensibility. The image will be reminiscent of the work of J. H. Pierneef. Although his earlier work contained a more sentimental outlook on the South African landscape, paintings from the 1940s onwards indicate a wholesale embrace of the Nationalist consciousness-building project. Pierneef’s belief that ‘true national art must be born out of your own environment and out of your own soil’, which he expressed through his idealised, ordered and de-humanised landscape paintings, resulted in his work being seen as ‘creating and reinforcing a powerful Afrikaner identification with the land, and the consequent inalienable right to its ownership.’ In recent years, this has led to contemporary artists specifically and subversively targeting Pierneef in works that interrogate modes of representation of the South African landscape. This ferocious reaction, as Michael Godby has pointed out, is provoked because ‘no other genre is so ideologically loaded.’ Despite this (or perhaps his cult status is aided by it) Pierneef remains an iconic figure of South African landscape painting of the twentieth century.
Taking the notion of the traditional landscape, and bearing in mind the South African version of the idiom, this exhibition presents a collection of works informed by the genre. While some of the works align easily with it, others complicate it. Throughout its long and complex history in Western art, the genre has served less as documentation of topography than as symbolic of something else, be it literary, emotional or psychological. The landscape stands in for a state of being, but is also instrumental in the formation of our understanding of what it means to be – as individuals existing within communities whose histories have played out on and been informed by the territories that we call home. In this sense, despite the historically clear boundary between the two genres, landscape emerges as portrait and as metaphor for memory and psychological terrain. As Dirk Klopper has put it, ‘Memories may accumulate in the passage of time, but they are fixed in a spatial way, through relations of association rather than of chronology. To pursue memories is to re-enter the situations in which they arose, their inter-leading locations.’
As an acknowledgement of the place Pierneef’s trees hold in the collective consciousness, a linocut depicting South African thorn trees by the artist hangs on the show. Images of trees form a rhythm throughout the show, most notably present in the new linocuts from William Kentridge’s Universal Archive series. Other artists included in the exhibition are Stephen Hobbs, Colbert Mashile, Mary Wafer, Sean Slemon, Nathaniel Stern, Willem Boshoff, Justin Fox, Don Pinnock, Julian Opie, Alastair Whitton, Alexandra Ross, James Siena, Andrzej Nowicki, Wilma Cruise, Mischa Fritsch, Dillon Marsh, Niklas Zimmer and Robyn Penn.
Text by Jacqueline Nurse, 2012
William Kentridge, Universal Archive (Big Tree)
Multi-plate linocut printed on 15 sheets of non archival pages from Encyclopedia Britannica mounted by a single tab attaching pages to backing sheet of Velin Arches Cover White, 400gsm
Image size: approx. 72 x 77.4cm / Paper size: 82 x 90cm / Edition size: 30
 S. Schama, as quoted in Sandra Klopper’s ‘Creating a Sense of Belonging: Sacred and Secular Landscapes in the Life Experiences of South Africa’s Rural Communities’. Lie of the Land: Representations of the South African Landscape, edited by Michael Godby, 2010. Cape Town: Iziko Museums.
 From the 1945 biography of Pierneef, as quoted in Federico Freschi’s ‘Afrikaner Nationalism, Modernity and the Changing Canon of ‘High Art’’. in Visual Century: South African Art in Context, edited by Lize van Robbroek, 2011. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
 Federico Freschi, ‘Afrikaner Nationalism, Modernity and the Changing Canon of ‘High Art’’
 Michael Godby, The Lie of the Land.
 From ‘An Unsettled Habitation: Narratives of South African Landscape’, in The Lie of the Land.
For installation images click here.