In 1919, as Johannesburg lurched closer towards a full-blown proletarian revolution, painter Robert Gwelo Goodman appealed to local artists to seize upon this country’s “untouched and unrecorded” landscapes.
It was not a reactionary statement, not entirely: Goodman wanted painters to see the landscape as it was, to stop rendering the fire-prone kloofs of the Cape as picturesque versions of Europe.
Although disposed to making occasional polite lounge pictures of his own, including a memorable sunlit study of the Drakensberg, Goodman did not ignore what was blatant and evident in Jo’burg.
In 1917, he painted one of the city’s mine dumps, including an unlovely industrial blue dam in the foreground. Seen in the late afternoon, as the city’s evening light goes fire orange, the painting made Jo’burg’s unnatural and man-made topography look fantastical, startling, even beautiful.
Nearly a century later, with mines and proletarian discontent still a feature of the land, photographer Mack Magagane has achieved much the same outcome as Goodman. A recent graduate of the Market Photo Workshop, Magagane’s anonymous urban landscapes — which introduce The Loom of the Land, a peculiar and not entirely satisfying group exhibition organised by artist Anton Kannemeyer at Stevenson Gallery — retrieve a hesitant beauty from Jo’burg’s elemental murk.
As with his earlier body of work, Light Hours, a series of night-owl pictures of the city’s different neighbourhoods and their built structures, Magagane made his new work when Eskom is meant to be hard at work. Instead of rocks, rivers and veld — all the standard motifs of a landscape tradition, which are more than catered to in this show — we see tree-lined suburban avenues lit by pools of yellow light, lampposts illuminating empty roads, walls and figures receding into mere silhouette.
Not all Magagane’s murky studies necessarily convince, but this is a minor quibble. Rather, it is their arrangement that is important. Hung in close proximity to Pieter Hugo’s three differently angled portraits of a homeless man wandering along a deserted pavement in the Maboneng Precinct, Magagane’s work introduces the show.
It is a smart move on Kannemeyer’s part, in effect allowing the proximate, a grubby and architectural cityscape outside, to infiltrate the show. It also niftily upends any preconceptions about the show’s polite theme.
Polite? Well, yes. Have a look at any recent art auction catalogue. Not an inconsiderable number of artistic careers locally have been based on the ability to describe and fictionalise the country’s landscape.
“We are in danger of too many veld yearnings, too much Karoo urge, too frequent sunsets on the Drakensberg and moonrisings on Groot Constantia,” wrote poet and novelist William Plomer in a letter to the editor of the Natal Mercury in 1925. “A little less landscape and a little more portraiture would be highly stimulating.”
I asked Kannemeyer, an artist who has repeatedly returned to the figure — often depicting them in a scurrilous state of undress or personal anxiety, or both — about his interest in landscape.
“I’ve been interested in landscape since my university days,” said Kannemeyer, whose technically superb pen-and-ink studies of the granite outcrops on Boulders Beach form part of his show.
“It was everywhere in the history of Western art and in my European comics. I was especially fascinated by Moebius’s ability to draw the landscape in his Airtight Garage and in the Blueberry series.”
Kannemeyer, who in 2003 and 2005 organised two large group exhibitions of comic-book artists, has allowed his interest in especially graphic art to influence his selection.
The show includes Brett Murray’s mockingly Disneyesque painted study of Nkandla (it has an enormous rainbow over it) and a number of small watercolours by Jacques de Loustal, a French comic-book artist and the only foreigner on the show.
“I suppose what draws me to the landscape is the abstract qualities,” added Kannemeyer. His stated interest in form, light and dark pervades the show.
Kannemeyer’s rock drawings, for example, strike up a conversation with a trio of small stone sculptures by Paul Edmunds, each stone covered by an elegant weave of colourful PVC-insulated copper wire. Obsession and precision are the hallmarks of both works.
Similarly, Ina van Zyl’s quartet of dark oil paintings, which correspond in tone to Magagane’s introductory work, are nonetheless more closely related to Deborah Poynton’s lush, vegetable kloof landscape. Both Van Zyl and Poynton describe unpeopled spaces, places of silence, topographies that are primal and obscure.
Some of the places depicted are more recognisable. Photographer Jo Ractliffe, arguably one of the country’s more interesting contemporary artists engaged with the idea of landscape, is represented here by her early West Coast landscape works made in Piketberg, Hermon and Port Nolloth. The work is underwhelming.
So too, in a way, is Daniel Naude’s photograph of the peaks at Jonkershoek, in his native Stellenbosch. There is no denying Naude’s technical virtuosity, but his Ansel Adams-like study, albeit in colour, is heir to a local painterly tradition that recalls the eye-pleasing work of Tinus and Gabriel de Jongh, arguably JH Pier-neef too.
Writing in 1988, William Kentridge — whose “amazing” urban landscapes from the early 1990s Kannemeyer lists among the obvious omissions on his show — took issue with Pierneef’s “vision of pure nature”, pointing out how such scenes emerged only after the “puffs of gunsmoke” silenced debate over who controlled the land. “These paintings,” wrote Kentridge, including Pierneef in his sweep, “of landscape in a state of grace, are documents of disremembering”.
Kannemeyer is not unaware of these readings, but preferred to stage his show in a looser, more idiosyncratic way. Politics is allowed a latent agency, unlike art historian Michael Godby’s 2010 exhibition on the same topic, The Lie of the Land (which included Goodman’s mine dump painting).
“In a way it’s unavoidable, the political aspects of the land will always surface,” said Kannemeyer. “From a formal perspective I may be interested in the abstract qualities of the landscape, but anyone walking into the gallery will interpret the works differently.”
At the Stevenson Gallery, 62 Juta Street, Braamfontein, until March 8