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Masterpiece of the Month: Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, N’tabeni (1930)

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, N’tabeni (1930), oil on canvas, 89 x 122cm

Anna Tietze unpacks Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s N’tabeni in the November edition of Masterpiece of the Month

About Masterpiece of the Month

Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collection this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection.

Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, N’tabeni (1930)


After years of occupying two annex rooms of the South African Museum, the gallery finally acquired a building of its own in 1930, opened with fanfare in November of that year. But it was a sign of the institution’s colonial past that the opening event was celebrated with a large exhibition of English art, loaned from the Royal Academy in London. Gallery holdings of South African art were meagre, even after nearly 60 years of collecting. There were however major artists emerging onto the South African scene in the early years of the twentieth century. One such artist was the Pretoria-born Jacob Pierneef (1886-1957), who by 1930 had established a distinctive and striking style. Among the admirers of his art was Princess Alice, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the Earl of Athlone, Governor-General of South Africa from 1924-31. Princess Alice was conscious of the gallery’s paucity of South African art and she visited Pierneef’s studio in 1930, with the aim of buying and gifting one of his works to the institution for its official opening. This recently-completed work was  the one she chose.

Analysis of the work

In a long and prolific career, Pierneef worked almost entirely in the field of landscape art, depicting either an uninhabited landscape or one where trees and landmasses parted to reveal glimpses of architecture. The human figure is absent from his art. In work after work, Pierneef focuses on monumental aspects of the natural world.

Landscape art always involves as much of the artist’s sensibility as it does of the facts of the natural scene: notable landscapists return time and time again to a particular way of seeing and representing what is laid out before them. This is true of all art of course but it is tempting, in the case of landscape, to suppose that little can be done with the raw materials of the scene except to transpose them onto the canvas. If we think of leading practitioners of the genre however – Claude Lorrain, Ruisdael, Constable or Monet to name but a few – what is striking is how heavily the pictured world is mediated by the artist’s personality or more broadly by a visual zeitgeist, a way of seeing and feeling particular to an artistic group or  moment in time. Major landscapists and landscape schools of art offer an image of nature that can be profoundly influential, conditioning us to see the world through their visual lens.

Pierneef offered such a way of seeing the natural world and his paintings have influenced generations of South Africans to do likewise. Unlike the Western Cape-based landscape artists of the period, he concentrated largely on the hot northern and eastern areas of the country so his raw material was different from theirs from the outset. But what was striking was how much he dramatised and drew out from this material distinctive stylistic features that contrasted with the work of the Cape artists. Where they had evolved a soft, painterly style, Pierneef eschewed this in favour of a stark and linear vision. In his work of the 1910s and 1920s, he sometimes revealed evidence of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist influence, using an impasto brushstroke which drew attention to the textured surface. By 1930 he had evolved a signature style in which a smooth surface took precedence and bold shapes predominated, delineated in striking outline. In these ‘classic’ Pierneef works, trees, rocky outcrops and majestic cloud formations are the basis of a decorative transformation of landscape into art.

N’tabeni is a fine example of this mature style. Quite devoid of figures or architecture, it derives its drama from the theatrical shapes of natural objects. A shadowed rockface at left plunges down into a valley and is intersected by a strongly lit sweep of land, sloping dramatically down from the right. Lines of vegetation and outcrops of rocks create striated bands that diagonally break up the lighted surface of the dry grass in the foreground. In the middle distance, a descending line of trees, brightly lit, mark the boundary between the land and the mountainside to the left. Typically of Pierneef, these trees are simplified, decorative forms, the trunks and twisted leafless branches topped by a canopy of green. One of these trees bisects the work almost exactly. Standing tall above a clump of others, it beckons the eye into the far distance where a low-lying plain stretches to the horizon. Like the foreground land, this distant plain is also conspicuously striated laterally into bands of light and shadow. At its furthest point, a nearly undifferentiated horizon line gives way to sky.

One of Pierneef’s inheritances from Impressionist landscape was a ‘blonde’ colour range. The Impressionists famously moved away from the reliance on blacks, browns and dark greens that had characterised much earlier landscape art and substituted these with lighter colour effects. Blues, greens, pinks, violets became the foundation of a sunnier vision and shadows were indicated with a darkening of the dominant hues rather than by recourse to earth colours. In this work, Pierneef restricts his palette almost entirely to blues, greens and warm grey; the deeply shadowed cliff-side is a deep blue, the more lightly-shadowed rocks in the foreground a blue-grey. Although black is avoided, contrasts between light and shade are very striking and in this work, as in so many of Pierneef’s paintings, these contrasts help to intensify the drama and clarity of the image. On the one hand, the light and colour of Pierneef’s works can be said to convey the hot sun of the Highveld and its bleaching effects on the landscape but it is interesting to note how these dramatic plays with blonde colour and stark shapes can be found in the work of other landscape artists of the time also, in English artists such as Pierneef’s almost exact contemporary Paul Nash (1889-1946), and in Nash’s one-time student Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). One such landscape work, Whiteleaf Cross (1920)by Paul Nash, was presented to the gallery in 1950 by the Contemporary Art Society.[i] Using the same bleached hues and tonal contrasts as Pierneef, it transforms its particular subject into a set of bold linear rhythms culminating in the ancient hillside icon of the title.  

Paul Nash, Whiteleaf Cross (1920), oil on canvas, 61×50.5cm

A glance at photographs of this landscape shows that Nash modified the scene profoundly in transcribing it into paint. Gone is the obscuring growth of the surrounding hillside and fields and gone too the gentle twists and movements of the terrain. It is true that this is a winter scene, the trees are bare and snow lies on the ground, but even allowing for this, it is notable that Nash has turned the landscape into a bleached and simplified geometry of forms, a geometry that gives it clarity and starkness. It is an effect similar to that achieved by Pierneef. What Pierneef, Nash and Ravilious had in common was an involvement in design and illustration; all were expert printmakers, Paul Nash was involved in the design of stage scenery, fabrics and posters, while Ravilious also worked in poster design, as well as producing decorative work for ceramic and glass. Very notably, Pierneef, in addition to his small-scale landscape paintings, completed major commissions in mural design, most notably for Johannesburg Station (1930-32) and for South Africa House in London (1933-35). For all these artists, the functional demands of posters, illustrations or large-scale mural work encouraged a geometrical clarity and absence of painterly detail that made their work striking. Applied to nature it produced a kind of landscape imagery that was very new. Pierneef’s mural painting for Johannesburg and London demonstrates this clearly but, on a smaller scale, N’tabeni likewise is the work of an artist whose landscape vision exhibits a very modern awareness of graphic art and design.

[1] The Contemporary Art Society (CAS) was founded in Britain in 1910. Its aim was to buy contemporary art on behalf of public museums, in emulation of the 1903 National Art Collections Fund which focused on historical art. Generally, CAS gifts were for British institutions but from the 1930s to the 1980s, the organisation also donated works to Commonwealth countries.

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