Sensuous art of winemaking

Winemakers are usually a tough agricultural species aligning their skills with soil and sun. Just occasionally one or two will mutter about creativity and are not then unwilling to think of themselves as, well (perhaps an uncomfortable shuffling of feet here) — ‘sort-of artists”.

Meanwhile the grander estate owners can, and do, make their own wine-art linkage through proprietorial claims on both. If it sates their aesthetic drives, or does something more mundane than that (at least helping them spend a lot of money), it also means art-lovers can increasingly find satisfaction in the Western Cape’s winelands.

There are formal galleries, for example, ranging from the Pierneef collection at La Motte in Franschhoek, to — a world away — the absurdities and delights of abstraction and conceptualism at Glen Carlou, on the Simonsberg’s Paarl slopes.

These two galleries satisfactorily reflect their origins, like good wine. La Motte, owned by Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg, is integrated into Afrikaner big business as part of the Rupert family empire, whereas Glen Carlou is just one of the international estates owned by Swiss-born entrepreneur Donald Hess. Hess is a major patron of contemporary art and has exhibition spaces at wineries in California and Chile too. The current focus in Paarl is on English land-artist Andy Goldsworthy, New York-based Ouattara Watts and Durban boy Deryck Healey.

The La Motte museum was part of a major winery revamp, which included a smart restaurant named after Pierneef, as is the top-tier range of wines, which feature his linocuts on the labels. This all amounts to a heavy ideological identification. At the core of the museum is the Pierneef family collection of artworks and memorabilia (including the artist’s paintbushes and easel), recently bought from the artist’s daughter and so returned from England. These are supplemented by a substantial collection of Pierneef woodcuts and, separately within the museum, other works borrowed from the Rupert Foundation.

Extensive collections

Some other wineries have spaces set aside for art exhibitions — Tokara’s varies from the slightly frivolous (like the recent works from their annual Art into Wine series — all executed in red wine) to the serious. Currently showing are 45 works by famous and less-famous names in Wat kyk ons? Selected artist’s views. The exhibition focuses ‘on the historical relevance of what the chosen South African artists select to represent and how they interpret it”.

Spier, that major tourist destination in Stellenbosch, not only has exhibition space (and sponsors the biennial Spier Contemporary exhibition), but in its hotel and conference areas also has an annually rotating display of works from its extensive collection of South African artists.

Integral link between art and wine
In fact, it’s the wineries that integrate their art collections into their living and working areas that are most interesting. Amid the striking contemporary architecture at Saronsberg in Tulbagh, for example, the sculptures — many by Angus Taylor — are as decorative and designed for immediate appeal as the wines.

The Cape’s strongest integral link between art and wine might be that forged by the late Graham Beck.

The controversial architectural modernism of his two eponymous wineries, at Robertson and Franschhoek (the latter now sold to the Ruperts), embodies his vigorous engagement and his unwillingness to settle for a pallid recreation of traditional Cape aesthetic values. Both include numerous and sometimes first-rate artworks.

The Robertson complex now makes a particularly valuable contribution to art in the winelands. There’s a selection from Beck’s great personal collection — both local works (Karel Nel, Irma Stern) and international ones (including Chagall and Léger and a splendid bronze Horse and Rider by Elizabeth Frink). These are mostly hung in the revamped reception area and a small gallery.

Julia Meintjies (also the force at Tokara) is the consultant here and the idea behind the conjunction of wine and art, she says, was to enrich the experience of those coming primarily for the wine by offering a space that ‘stimulates the senses and encourages visitors to a broader enjoyment of sensory pleasures”.

Another Beck property, Steenberg estate in Constantia, has sculptor Edoardo Villa as the dominant presence. The bright tubular works are mostly placed in vineyard settings — looking to me as though they’ve wandered (in search of Henry Moore?), bemused but cheerful, from some more urban setting among whose concrete and tar they might have felt more at home.

Graham Beck apparently consulted above all his own taste when buying art. He clearly couldn’t resist the lithe charm of Dylan Lewis’s lifesize animal sculptures and a pair of them stand tamed at the entrance to the Franschhoek cellar.

Implacably opulent
Lewis’s muscular bronzes are much in evidence at one of the most recent Cape minglings of art and wine — at the lavish complex (including hotel, spa and restaurants) of the Delaire Graff Estate, at the top of the Helshoogte Pass outside Stellenbosch. Two of a commissioned set of eight cheetahs flank the main entrance to the hotel, and others walk, sit and run in other parts of the beautiful gardens.

The implacably opulent external and internal spaces at Delaire (the reconstructed property since 2003 of diamontaire Laurence Graff) are replete with sculpture and paintings. Most of them are South ­African works, chosen by Graff himself, and reveal a taste for the serious ­decorative (if that’s a plausible ­collocation).

Deborah Bell is the dominant presence, mostly sculptural. Sculpture by Anton Smit (one of his large Easter Island-derived heads broods over the entrance driveway) and large paintings by his son Lionel combine in a family way to occupy second place. One
thinks with ­wonder about the cheques.

Fred Schimmel, Cecil Skotnes and Sidney Khumalo are also in the collection, with William Kentridge obviously de rigueur: a fine collaged and drawn Head has pride of place in the main restaurant. In the ‘wine lounge”, Kentridge is represented in a desirably large, curious and even pleasantly successful ‘collaboration” with Robert Hodgins and Debbie Bell (arising from their having had successive exhibitions at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town and each adding figures to one privileged sheet of paper in turn).

Happily, none of the artworks at Delaire is burdened with a label, but the staff are primed to tell curious visitors just what’s there, should they ask.

Sophisticated, unruffled and urbane

If metal animals are hard to distance from kitsch, that’s not a problem with metal vegetation, as two of the winelands’s largest and most satisfying recent commissions testify. Beautifully placed and paced at the entrance to the Tokara building is a massively elegant sculpture of vines by Marco Cianfanelli: windswept layers of grey, tempered steel, superbly engineered, the waving branches carrying a multitude of words and phrases relating to wine, the place and the culture of the vine. It is so sophisticated, unruffled and urbane; perhaps that is the only problem.

And at Waterkloof outside Somerset West, a (much more rugged) metal tree grows at the entrance to the cellar and restaurant building clinging to the slopes of the Schaapenberg, with views across vineyards and over the Strand to the mountain-rimmed blueness of False Bay.

Land artist Strijdom van der Merwe, a significant presence in the winelands, was commissioned after fierce winds definitively defeated the (all too real) tree planted there. With all due respect to nature, the tree of branching mild steel beams works aesthetically even better than a yellowwood, I suspect, its form and rusty surface mediating superbly between the unobstructed mountains and vineyards and the severity of the concrete and glass building.

Of recent winelands art commissions, one of the most successful, and possibly the most profound in its deep connectedness to a genuine, non-tourist-oriented culture, is the mural on the ugly, shed-like wine-cellar tucked out of common sight at Solms-Delta in Franschhoek. If one guesses that Cianfanelli wrestled with his Tokara vines in the studio before directing an engineering firm, nothing could be more different here. Here are direct aesthetic labour and all the human involvement one could wish for.

Less statement than story
Artist Joachim Schönfeldt first worked at night, transferring the projected lines of an old map of the Cape on to the large white facade. Incised lines were coloured with traditionally prepared red and yellow ochres and a black made from local charcoal. Just the superimposed roads are picked out in gold. Farm and cellar workers were fully involved in the work and their children helped choose and fashion the motifs on the ceramic discs (‘like jewels”) that mark and represent the main towns of the period — and Solms-Delta itself.

This art is less statement than story. It reaches back to a past before the times of misery (the remarkable museum at Solms-Delta does similarly, with due cognisance of the slavery on which the farm was ­established) and into a future touched by hope.

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