Notes on Elegie vir die Karoo
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." (Marcel Proust)
Perhaps the most pervasive theme to emerge in the genesis of South African painting since the 19th Century has been the topographical. From the first travellers’ idealizations and romanticisms of the Cape to the coincidence of place and idea in the local version of Modernism, the landscape and its habitations have been a consistent source of inspiration and evocation.
The huisie en die bergie en die karretjie – the stuff of popular sentiment around the picturesque and usually misleading metonyms of the nostalgic – take form in a diversity of styles, intentions and structures. From Volschenk to Pierneef, from Wenning to the Everards, the vehicle remains; it is just the baggage it carries that shifts and mutates.
There is a convincing school of thought that holds that there is no such thing as an entirely “innocent” landscape – that no matter how unpolemical the image may seem, the depiction will be charged with an intention, a conceptual assumption about what the landscape means. In the case of a hyper-naturalist like Volschenk, the attention to minutiae is not just about “getting it right”, but about demonstrating a kind of ownership: the landscape is a metonym for a sense of self in the world. In the case of Pierneef, the landscape is manipulated to serve the purposes of a particular style – a kind of decorative Cubism – that ironically transforms the way in which we see clouds, vistas and habitations in South Africa. Once one has seen a Highveld cloud construction by Pierneef, it is hard not to see Pierneefs in every cloud.
This is the nature of reflexion in our understanding of art forms. The presentational object – the painting – will contain the potential to shift understanding in ways that are generative, personal, historical, sentimental or prejudicial. In turn, those histories and prejudices feed back into the art work and shift its ontology in a continuous and ever-mutating way.
In her current exhibition, Elegie vir die Karoo, Van der Merwe is presenting three groups of Karoo scenes, each characterised by different intentional approaches. The largest group consists of twelve paintings depicting the interiors of empty and abandoned farmhouses. Except for one, Blinde muur, which was already derelict in her youth, the houses reflected in the paintings were all lived in and lovingly maintained at the time. She says, “They were like oases in the arid landscape. Now the farms have been incorporated into neighbouring farms and the land mostly used as game farms, because the large-scale traditional wool farming had become unprofitable and too difficult to pursue.”
In these works, there is a potent dualism present in the identity of the images. On one hand, there is a fastidious attention to the niceties of the buildings, interiors, exteriors and the evocative vagaries of decay, neglect and abandonment. One might be tempted to see the painter as a disinterested recorder of a discreet topography. On the other hand, there is, underlying all that putative disinterest, a compelling vein of something more than nostalgia for the spaces and their palimpsests of history. By her selections of the houses and the rooms within, the artist invites participation in an elegy for the ghosts and shades of those who once lived and died in those spaces. There is a sub-text of poignancy that goes beyond description, yet is entirely dependent on the verisimilitude for its power. There is the delight in recognition and association which the artist evokes through her astonishing attention to nuances of light, colour, atmosphere, texture and space, but more than that is the evidence of a carefully considered selection – an absence that infects and persuades a construction that speaks directly to an emotional recognition. The spacing of objects, the degree to which useful information is included and useless clutter left out are formal skills, but they are also elegantly tuned to the viewer’s deep-veined experiences of loss and abjection.
The second group, Richmond, Karoo, consists of eight smaller paintings that investigate exteriors of buildings from the artist’s youth in Richmond. Again, there is a powerful underlying sense of desolation, despite the presence in three of the works of cats and a dog. The implacable absence of humans, the flat and diagrammatic facades and stoeps, the Hopper-like blandness of the structures, settle in enigmatic ways on the senses. If it is possible to paint a quietness, a faint heat and a melancholic drone of insects, Van der Merwe has done that. The metaphors may not be as complex as they are in the larger paintings, but they are nonetheless as potent.
Finally, there is a small group of earlier works, Karoo-wolke, in which the artist has experimented with lovingly depicted views of the environment invaded by metonymic objects – two melons and a pumpkin – that provide three delightful and light-hearted tropes for the macro- and microcosmic experience of the platteland.
Van der Merwe has shown in her first solo exhibition, My Grand Tour (Cape Gallery, 2018) that she has the intellectual, practical and expressive skills to make work that is significant on a number of rich levels. What I wrote at that time applies to this show and I will leave off with a quote.
“…the fascination and the compulsion are more than just acknowledgement of a focused and enriched volition on the part of the artist, but ultimately dependent on the power of the enigmatic – the inexplicable – tenor of these paintings that suggest and provoke and tease and through all this give delight. Without the stern control and professional discipline, the myths could not survive, but without the myths, the discipline must needs be sterile. Aristotle made the elegant suggestion that poêsis (read Art) needs to be a perfect synthesis between mimêsis (imitation, discipline, practical sense) and mythos (the Dionysian world of the imagination). Without wanting to sensationalise the matter, I think that Annari’s marvellous journeys through both those worlds have paid off handsomely in this exhibition.”
14 February 2021
Van der Merwe keer terug na haar hartland
In haar tentoonstelling Elegie vir die Karoo in die Breytenbach-kunstesentrum op Wellington keer Annari van der Merwe, voormalige uitgewer en nou voltydse kunstenaar, terug na haar hartland, die Karoo.
Dit was die veteraan-fotograaf David Goldblatt wat haar half betigtend gevra het: “En wat van die Karoo?” Dié vraag het haar na haar geboortedorp en grootwordplaas naby Richmond laat teruggaan. Sy het drie jaar aan die tentoonstelling gewerk.
“ ’n Geruime tyd al het die leë, verlate plaashuise van die streek by my begin spook elke keer as ek deur die dorre landskap ry. Maar dit was David, self so buitengewoon aangetrokke tot die Karoolandskap en sy mense, se vraag wat my laat stil word en laat nadink het oor waarom ek, wat daar gebore en getoë is en nog altyd ’n liefde vir dié verlatenheid bely het, eers verre en vreemde elemente wou verken toe ek begin skilder het,” skryf Van der Merwe in haar kunstenaarsnota.
Van der Merwe is bekend vir die baanbrekerswerk wat sy gedoen het as stigter van die drukname Kwela en Umuzi in die plaaslike uitgewersbedryf. Sy het in 2008 uitgetree. Vir haar eerste solotentoonstelling, My Grand Tour, in 2018 in The Cape Gallery het sy geleen by die ou meesters wat voor 1800 in Europa geskilder het, waar sy stukkies van hul skeppings teen die agtergrond kon plaas van foto’s wat sy op haar reise binne en buite Europa geneem het.
“Miskien was dit omdat ek my toe nog nie tegnies opgewasse genoeg gevoel het om reg aan my hartland te kan laat geskied nie. Of miskien het ek bloot nie kans gesien vir die vernietiging van byna paradyslike herinneringe deur ’n konfrontasie met die huidige omstandighede nie,” skryf Van der Merwe verder. Baie van die plase van haar jeug het met ander saamgesmelt en dié land word nou as wildplase gebruik omdat grootskaalse tradisionele wolboerdery nie meer winsgewend is nie.
Intussen, skryf sy, het haar waagmoed toegeneem hoe meer bedrewe sy met kwas en verf geword het.
Sy wend in van die werke die glasuurtegniek aan, wat die opeenvolgende aanwendings van deursigtige pigmente behels. Dalk kon die “onvaste en verskuiwende aard van herinnering en verbeelding” met dié tegniek opgeroep word, skryf Van der Merwe.
“Hoewel my jeugwêreld baie helder en konkreet in my gees voortgeleef het, het dit onvatbaar, ontglippend voorgekom.”
Die kyker kan drie reekse skilderye besigtig: Verlate en vervalle plaashuis-binneruimtes in groot formaat; kleiner dorpshuis-vooraangesigte getiteld Richmond, Karoo uit die kunstenaar se jeug; asook vroeëre werke, Karoo-wolke, waar sy die omgewing uitbeeld met waatlemoene of ’n pampoen wat in die lug dryf in plaas van reënwolke. Sy dra Elegie vir die Karoo met waardering en in liefdevolle herinnering op aan Goldblatt (1930-2018).
– Saamgestel deur Laetitia Pople
Kuns & Vermaak, Saterdag, 13 Maart 2021
Excerpt from a personal email
Revisiting your images, I found myself haunted by the abandoned homes, the desolation that filled them. They seemed to be in the suspension, as if breathless waiting for whatever might happen next, who or what might walk in and take possession. The line of Gramsci came to mind about the past is dead, but the future is not yet born; it also reminded me of Na die Geliefde Land. In the painting where the light filters across the hall it suggested to me that the people who had once lived there were just adjacent or was it perhaps haunted by the ghosts of those who had passed on or moved out. It induced in me a sense of sadness and the loneliness that must have assailed all those who walk through those rooms, made stronger by the litter of abandoned items strewn around. Through the windows the surrounding veld, it too waiting, or preparing to move in.
On another note, seeing the food grown around the kitchen garden; the floating pumpkin towering over the veld alongside a melon and a celestial watermelon jolted me into thinking of a photograph I had seen a short while ago. It was a tanker sailing across the sky. This was no chicanery by the photographer, but an actual event which heat and light had conjured up. Previously these would have been seen in the vicinity of the poles, but this had been taken offshore of a fishing village.
Thank you, Annari, allowing us to see the paintings again, despite the fact it induced in me an awareness of what might be; the historical city overwhelmed by Vesuvius or the town occupied by mercenaries that I filmed in the Congo. Viewing them, the anxiety that first assailed me was relieved by the consolation of knowing it was in your eye and in the painting of it.
18 March 2021
Review of My Grand Tour
It is not surprising to learn that Annari has a long history in literature, especially in the editing of texts. Editing is both an exercise in punctiliousness and precision – a kind of disinterested wielding of the razor of Occam – and at the same time a challenge to the creative business of exegesis. The editor needs to have imagination and insight if she is to do justice not just to the letter of the text but perhaps a fortiori its spirit.
I say it is not surprising because even a cursory glance at the body of work on exhibition reveals a delightful and compelling dualism. On the topographical side there is an almost obsessive attention to the minutiae of the source material; fastidious research of textures, hues, atmospheres, and as careful a treatment of the alchemy of oil painting, especially the oracular mysteries of glazing.
On the iconographical side, there is a second dualism: the domestic versus the international. It is a charming side of Annari’s work that on one hand it reaches out very far for some marvelous and exotic locations and then on the other looks no further than the ubiquitous cat, Bijou, and other charming moggies. In the course of generating the ‘international’ pieces, Annari has delved into a huge range of locales, including I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (It’s Time) and his Louvre Pyramid (Pyramid), the Open Air Garden of Fine Arts in Kyoto (Suspended), the Chagall Museum in Nice (Looking Back), and some less famous sites such as the small gallery in Montmartre that shows up in In Rue la Vieuville.
It is an intriguing phenomenon in aesthetics that artefacts, whatever their physical elegance or gravitas, are profoundly affected by a kind of ‘insider knowledge’ in which the viewer is privy to some of the history, convolutions, human interaction, privation, exultation or whatever generative energy is part of the genesis of the piece. Thus, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows is famously resonant of a poignant slice in the life of the tormented artist. Without the biographical context, the piece might be mistaken as an otherwise unremarkable part of the oeuvre. Sometimes the context is circumstantial, but there is also a range of ways in which the intensity of focus, the idiosyncratic vision of the artist and the history might be suggested or revealed in the work. It doesn’t take a huge amount of sub–text to understand that in Annari’s My Grand Tour paintings, a rich and evocative almanac of experience, recording, cogitating, selecting, refining and ultimately executing has taken place. There is nothing quotidian about the bigger pictures, and the viewer is invited, actually co–opted, into a level of experience that is full of import and portent.
Did I say ‘nothing quotidian’? I did, but of course, there is that darn cat. Nothing more domestic and everyday than that! And it is perhaps this little character that ubiquitously acts as the delicious bathos to what might otherwise present as too solemn, too earnest while simultaneously linking all the works. It seems a pity that the paintings are likely to go to separate homes!
It is the nature of good story-telling that the narrator must beguile and seduce the receiver so that there is a lust for more information, a denouement, that will tie up the loose ends and solve the mystery. In pictures, this is not always a simple task and Annari will have to be the one to vouchsafe the kinds of information that her curious viewers will be wanting. Certainly, each painting has its own particular history and reasons: much can be said regarding the choices made and the processes followed. This will make for a rich excursion into a particularly complex mind.
But for my money, the fascination and the compulsion are more than just acknowledgement of a focused and enriched volition on the part of the artist, but ultimately dependent on the power of the enigmatic – the inexplicable – tenor of these paintings that suggest and provoke and tease and through all this give delight. Without the stern control and professional discipline, the myths could not survive, but without the myths, the discipline must needs be sterile. Aristotle made the elegant suggestion that poêsis (read Art) needs to be a perfect synthesis between mimêsis (imitation, discipline, practical sense) and mythos (the Dionysian world of the imagination. Without wanting to sensationalise the matter, I think that Annari’s marvelous journeys through both those worlds have paid off handsomely in this exhibition.
A last word on the Cats. These creatures are popular images in popular art and thus carry something of a burden, being vulnerable to over-sentimentality, and it is true that one or two of Annari’s kitties might appear to be straying into a land of cuteness. However, I would argue that the stern limitations and disciplines that the artist imposes on herself in all her undertakings prevent any embarrassing lapses. Some, indeed, are both revelatory and even metaphorical creatures. They may claw you should you neglect to take them seriously. A long acquaintance with these beasts has taught me to resist the temptation to see them as adorable. That some viewers will, is a response to be welcomed nevertheless.
Marli van Eeden : litnet
Annari van der Merwe se kuns is meer as die somtotaal van die elemente
“Ek is absoluut uitgeboul deur haar werk. Sy het heeltemal ’n nuwe manier van kyk na dinge,” vertel Breytenbach.
“Sy het ’n ander manier van kyk na dinge omdat sy ’n voëlkyker is. As jy ’n voëlkyker is sien jy die natuur anders, en jy leer om opnuut met ander oë na die alledaagse te kyk. Dít bring ’n uniekheid na haar kuns.” Só beskryf die outeur Vernon RL Head sy vriendin, die uitgewer Annari van der Merwe, se kuns. Hy verduidelik in sy toespraak by die openingsgeleentheid van haar kunsuitstalling in Kaapstad, dat haar kuns vol geskiedenis en lewenservaringe is.
Van der Merwe se kunswerke is tans in Kaapstad te sien, as deel van haar My grand tour-uitstalling by die Cape Gallery in Kerkstraat. “Haar kuns spreek van haar lewensreise. Dis interessant hoe sy al hierdie argitektoniese spasies van beroemde geboue van regoor die wêreld, wat sy self besoek het, gebruik en iets bekends byvoeg, soos haar kat. Jy sien haar literêre agtergrond in die werke. Dit gee my soveel plesier om die werk te besigtig,” verduidelik Head.
Die openingsgeleentheid van die uitstalling het Sondag 28 Oktober op ’n warm somersmiddag plaasgevind, met gaste wat spesiaal die geleentheid bywoon.
Adriaan van Dis, Nederlandse outeur, vertel hy kon dié geleentheid nie mis nie. “Ek ken Annari sedert 1972 as ’n student in Nederland. Sy was ’n merkwaardige student, reeds met ’n PhD agter haar naam op ’n jong ouderdom,” vertel van Dis. “Ek sal nooit vergeet hoe sy eenkeer vir ’n professor by die Universiteit van Utrecht vertel het van haar drome nie. Nou sien ek hierdie drome in haar kuns, en dit is vir my wonderlik om te sien wat sy bereik het. Ek het nooit getwyfel in haar vermoë nie.”
Die digter, skrywer en kunstenaar Breyten Breytenbach het ook die geleentheid bygewoon en is vol lof oor Van der Merwe se werk. Van der Mewe het op 25-jarige ouderdom haar PhD voltooi oor Breytenbach se digkuns. “Ek is absoluut uitgeboul deur haar werk. Sy het heeltemal ’n nuwe manier van kyk na dinge. Die kat is die een ding wat ’n mens herken, en dan natuurlik al die wonderlike verwysings,” vertel Breytenbach. “Haar werk is ’n wonderlike toevoeging tot die Suid-Afrikaanse kunste.”
Ook Gail Dorje, die eienaar van Cape Gallery, is opgewonde oor Van der Merwe se kuns en beskryf Van der Merwe as ’n bekende literêre reus wat groot spore in die uitgewerswêreld getrap het, en toe ’n heel ander koers ingeslaan het en onder leiding van die kunstenaar Greg Kerr begin skilder het. “Haar kuns is regtig fassinerend, speels en prettig.”
Van der Merwe beskryf die opening van die uitstalling as suksesvol en vertel dat dit vir haar aandoenlik is dat soveel mense, talle van hulle ook haar vriende, in die bloedige hitte die moeite gedoen het om die openingsgeleentheid mee te maak. Oor haar kuns sê sy: “Dis ’n reeks skilderye na aanleiding van dit wat ek by Greg Kerr se kunswerkswinkels geskilder het. By een van hierdie werkswinkels moes ons ’n argitektoniese agtergrond met ’n element uit ’n ander kunstenaar se werk, en ’n eie persoonlike element kombineer. Dit word toe vir my so interessant om op hierdie manier elemente in kunswerke te kombineer, in so ’n mate dat jy heeltemal ’n ander betekenis gee aan die oorspronklike elemente. “Ek het dié konsep toe verder gevoer. Al die kunswerke se agtergronde is gebaseer op foto’s wat ek op reise geneem het, so ek het my eie foto’s gebruik as verwysings; en dan voeg ek ook my kat by. Die kat is ’n interessante kat, want ander katte neem jy moeilik af, maar nie dié kat nie,” lag Van der Merwe. “Ek geniet dit sedertdien om verskillende elemente in my kuns te kombineer, want dit word meer as die somtotaal van die elemente.” Van der Merwe vertel dat haar agtergrond in die letterkunde en uitgewersbedryf ’n groot rol in haar kuns speel. Sy glo sy kyk fyner na dinge. “As jy poësie analiseer, kyk jy na elke komma en punt. Van kleintyd af is ek visueel ingestel. As ek nou terugkyk kan ek sien dat ek nog altyd meer ingestel was op wat ek sien, as wat ek hoor of voel. Ek het al geleer ‘there is no shortcut’, jy werk totdat iets reg is en jy tevrede is. Daai dissipline is so geïntegreer in my persoonlikheid, dat ek nie sommer so ‘slapdash’ werk nie.”
Van der Merwe het in die Groot Karoo grootgeword. Sy het letterkunde by Port Elizabeth studeer en haar PhD ontvang nadat sy haar tesis oor Breyten Breytenbach se poësie voltooi het. Sy het haar uitgewersloopbaan in 1978 by Tafelberg-Uitgewers begin.
Om die oorspronklike artikel te lees, klik op die link hieronder.
Irene Ansems : Goggas Blog
Journey to the Interior
“Come with me on an exploration from Paris and Japan to… the Karoo, that arid, neglected part of South Africa. Through some remarkable works of art.”
Annari van der Merwe is a Cape Town artist with a wealth of global experiences, yet her roots and her identity are South African. She started painting under the tutelage of well-known artist and former academic, Gregg Kerr, about five years ago. In the course of her exploration of the art of painting, she studied the work of artists whom she admires and regards as predecessors and mentors – the Old Masters who worked in Europe before 1800, and later generations of painters such as the Impressionists. She uses them in surprising contexts.
In an early series, Not by Bread Alone, consisting of eight paintings (mixed media, 600 x 800 mm), some of her favourite painters, from Caravaggio to Paula Modersohn-Becker, are depicted at a table laden with food and drink they either painted themselves or are likely to have enjoyed. So we have, among others, Frida Kahlo sitting behind a table spread with watermelon and various fruits, against a backdrop of tropical birds and creatures; Picasso at a table with sea food and a bottle of wine.
Annari takes her love of making composite images further in My Grand Tour. In twelve fairly large paintings (approximately 760 x 970 mm), she presents both familiar and lesser known figures, painted by the so-called Old Masters, against the backdrop of architectural spaces she photographed on her world travels. And just to spice it up even further, her Bengal cat, Bijou, appears in every painting as a leitmotif, or echo. These paintings formed her first solo exhibition in Cape Town towards the end of 2018. The My Grand Tour paintings are clever, delightful, intriguing, challenging. The artist is “playing” with other artists – and with the viewer. I can gaze at them for hours, puzzling over the references and the possibilities.
Meanwhile, Annari, always the perfectionist, has developed her technical skills to superior levels. She uses mostly oil paint, and currently she is exploring the painstaking process of glazing with transparent hues, which sometimes requires up to 20 applications to produce a wonderful luminous light effect. It is simply beautiful. As with all good art, I find it occupying a discreet space in my consciousness.
With her latest series, Elegie vir die Karoo, in which she makes extensive use of glazing, she enters a new phase, emotionally very compelling. The oil paintings (measuring 800 x 1100 mm) depict the interiors of deserted farmsteads which the artist knew growing up on a sheep farm in this semi-desert region of South Africa. Simultaneously, a parallel series of small paintings (300 x 400 mm) is taking shape, done in the conventional way where paint is mixed to the desired colour, rather than building up the colour by glazing layer after layer. Contrary to the Elegie series, these miniatures portray the exteriors of humble houses that have survived in her small Karoo town in the vast, arid, sun-soaked landscape.
There is profound emotional depth to these paintings, which mourn not only the desolation and neglect of homes once pulsing with human warmth, but also the universal loss of love, care, human community.
What makes these paintings so much more powerful is the restraint with which the sorrow is handled. Very clear geometric planes, emptiness, only slight suggestions of decay (dead flowers on the floor, guinea fowl inside the house). And then the incandescent effect of glazing, which transports the viewer to a dreamworld.
For me, these paintings are a moving and sublime tribute to the Karoo, to life and loss, from Annari van der Merwe, herself a child of the ancient dust of Africa.
To view the original article, click on the link below.