Revisiting our Landscape of Discontent: Walter Meyer at Oliewenhuis, Ten Years Later

Address by Andries Bezuidenhout at the opening of an exhibition of works by Walter Meyer at Oliewenhuis, Bloemfontein, 28 January 2010

Where Pierneef was the landscape painter of Afrikaner nationalism, Walter Meyer painted the landscapes of its demise.[1] This take on the work of landscape painter Walter Meyer by Lise van der Watt is often cited in descriptions of his work. In the work of Pierneef, she argues, “[t]he land is emptied out of any human activity, ready for the taking – a powerful representation of white ambition.” In contrast to this, Walter Meyer paints, “in the mid-1990s… almost anachronistically, the seamless and panoramic South African landscape once again. Similar to Pierneef, his landscapes too are empty of human activity, but unlike him, Meyer’s landscapes are also devoid of wealth and prosperity. Indeed, Meyer’s sparse landscapes are populated by ruins of farmhouses and vestiges of smalltown dreams, a land filled with abandonment, with failure and decay.”[2] To be sure, “Meyer’s art describes human displacement. His works retreat from narrative – they carry no promise for a brighter future nor are they nostalgic for a better past. Suspended in the ‘now’, his works proclaim not ownership and authority, but transience and temporary residence.”[3]

These quotations come from two articles published in 1997 and 2001, roughly ten years ago. Now, a decade later, does this assessment still hold? In ten years the geology and much of the geography of the South African landscape has remained the same, but a lot has also changed. Our cities and rural towns have been in constant flux. These are the sites of protests over a lack of service delivery, as well as grotesque public killings of people seen as foreign. In places like Wuppertal, members of the Rooibos cooperative are concerned about the impact climate change may have on their livelihoods.

But Walter Meyer has also produced new work in the past ten years. Now, fifteen years into post-colonial South Africa (to use the term “post-colonial” rather loosely), should we still see him, as Lise van der Watt argued, as the landscape painter of Afrikaner nationalism’s demise?

Some time ago I found myself mesmerised by a Pierneef painting in the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch; a modest piece, simply called “Dorpstraattoneel”. Strangely enough, unlike Pierneef’s massive station panels, it reminded me of Walter Meyer’s work. The oil paint is thickly applied to the canvas, almost chaotically so. Up close it looks like a stew of unrelated colours, but when you step back, the harmony of the composition draws you in. Given my familiarity with Lise van der Watt’s argument on Pierneef and Walter Meyer, I felt quite awkward. Am I becoming an Afrikaner nationalist like my father? Why am I attracted to a painting by Pierneef?

Already a sufferer from insomnia, this kept me awake, until I read an internal memorandum written by a fictional character, H.K. Khoza, the chief executive officer of an unnamed company, to a certain Ms Williams, the art curator of the unnamed firm. The memorandum deals with the matter of a painting by Hendrik Pierneef, titled “Mountain Landscape”, which the art curator wants to remove from the boardroom to be replaced by a work by struggle artist Willie Bester. Williams sent the CEO an article on the work of Pierneef and highlighted, for his benefit, words such as “dispossession”.

Khoza writes his memorandum in response to this. He points out to her that he personally replaced a photograph of Tokyo Sexwale and a soccer team with the Pierneef, which, after enquiries from his secretary, he had found behind a filing cabinet in a dusty office. He writes:

“I have spent some time looking at Mountain Landscape. Occasionally, I bring a cup of tea in here, turn my back on our much envied city panorama, and simply gaze at that square of paint on canvas. There are golden foothills, soaring peaks in purple and mauve, storm clouds advancing or retreating. I get quite lost in it… Afterwards, when I return to the present… I feel as if I’ve been away to some high place where the air is purer. I feel quite refreshed. I cannot speak with authority – one day at the Louvre will hardly atone for a lifetime of ignorance – but I suspect this capacity to refresh the senses and the spirit is one of the marks of great art.”[4]

Khoza’s colleagues seem to agree with him. Leo Mbola from Telkom is convinced the landscape represents the Winterberge near Queenstown, where he grew up. Another colleague, Eddie Khumbane from Spoornet, describes the painting as “a prime piece of real estate”. Writes Khoza: “He stood there with his hands behind his back, gazing at the painting as if he owned it, and not just the painting but the mountains themselves, the lofty reaches of the Winterberg.”

He returns the article on Pierneef to the curator, with highlights of his own, particularly the phrase: “the proprietorial gaze”, which he sees as the nub of the argument in the article. Based on his colleagues’ response (and Eddie Khumbane’s assessment of the painting as a prime piece of real estate), Khoza feels the painting “is not at odds with our corporate culture”. He’ll keep the Pierneef with him in the boardroom, and the Willie Bester can be placed in the lobby for everyone to see.

Khoza, as mentioned, is a fictional character, in a story by Ivan Vladislavić published in the journal Art South Africa. Like all good art, it lends itself to a number of readings. On the surface it is a critique of easy political correctness. But there is also a more menacing reading, one that points to the fact that the African nationalist gaze of the new ruling elite on the South African landscape sits quite comfortably with that of Afrikaner nationalism. I’m sure Ms Williams, the art curator, would support the latter reading, and upon the dawning of this insight would probably make arrangements to emigrate.

The way we look at art has changed in the past ten years. Maybe I shouldn’t use the plural here. Maybe I look with a more guarded gaze, not unlike the security cameras at residential estates on the periphery of Johannesburg. I see less black and white; more shades of grey. But it is not only a decade’s altered perspectives that make us look differently at the work of the same artist. Walter Meyer’s work has also changed in the past ten years. The scenes we paint come to us depending on where we choose to live and travel. Meyer has chosen to paint new landscapes. I recognise the Kalahari to the north of Upington, the road past Groot Mier to the Namibian border, through Keetmanshoop on to Lüderitz. And then there is Cape Town, a number of seascapes. His beach scenes in Kalk Bay remind one of the Cape Town of J.M. Coetzee’s character Michael K. In addition to landscapes, we can also see a number of works in two of the other traditional genres; portraits and still lifes. It is almost as if Meyer mocks the avant-garde art scene, with its rising stars dancing on Pierneef’s grave. (I guess a Blom on a grave is appropriate.) It will be hard to parody Meyer, because he already does it so well himself.

But some things remained constant, such as the seemingly chaotic brush strokes, almost like stabs, and the slits of canvas allowed to breathe freely through the oil paint. When you stand really close, it is nearly impossible to imagine a picture emerging from such a bredie, a stew of colour. Yet, if you stand back, a truck roars around a bend in the national road near Upington, or you recognise that vintage Mondrianesque red Citi Golf parked in Kloofnek Road in Cape Town. Then you find your eyes are drawn to the sky. People often forget that the sky is one of the most important elements of a represented landscape. To paint light is the most difficult of all. Where, before, I admired Meyer for the fact that he was able to capture that bleak quality of the Highveld sky, he is equally adept at rendering the sky above the Kalahari, the township at Reitz in the late afternoon, and dusk in Kamps Bay. Indeed, I am in awe of Meyer’s landscapes in part due to his knack of getting the quality of South African light right. His is not an imposition on an African landscape of clouds hovering dramatically, yet politely, over the pastoral villages of John Constable. Our clouds look different, and differently so in different parts of the country.

In conclusion, Lise van der Watt’s description of Meyer’s landscapes in opposition to this romantic tradition of landscape painting: “Decay, neglect, abandonment, dereliction rather offer a more appropriate vocabulary to describe the mood of this work which seems ominously close to our present, in fact, too close for comfort.”[5]

I’m not sure if this description of the previous decade still captures his paintings over the past ten years. There is still the choice of unconventional scenes in his landscapes. Yes, it is possible to look at Table Mountain, one of the clichés of colonial landscape painters, from a different angle. Meyer paints the colossus as seen over the cusp of Signal Hill, with Duiwelspiek and Leeukop not even within view; almost like a tourist giving the landmark a last glance before departing for the airport. Rather than being too close for comfort, I find comfort in many of these landscapes, the pure brilliance of the technique and the beauty of the Kalahari, the Free State planes, and the township in Lüderitz, which you will find in the permanent collection of this museum. I lose myself in them, like the fictional CEO often loses himself in Pierneef’s “Mountain Landscape.” I wonder if my gaze is a colonial gaze. Maybe it’s a post-colonial one. When I look at some of Meyer’s landscapes, I feel nostalgic. But that is too vulgar a word for the enchantment one experiences when engaging great works of art. I don’t feel like someone in transit, I feel a sense of recognition and belonging. Call it a proprietorial gaze if you will, but one without the expectation that Jerusalem will descend from the sky on a land that is neither green nor pleasant. Up close it seems chaotic, even muddled. Yet, if you stand back, you recognise something of the beauty in the bleakness of our skies and the trauma on our landscapes. This is not about ownership and authority, nor is it about transience and temporary residence. It is an engagement of a different order altogether. Maybe we require new ways of looking, even eccentric perspectives, not unlike Walter Meyer’s landscapes.


[1] Van der Watt, Liese. 1997. “Exploring the art of Walter Meyer: Now is the landscape of our discontent.” Vuka, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 25-31.

[2] Van der Watt, Liese. 2001 “Making whiteness strange.” Third Text, no. 15, p. 63.

[3] Van der Watt, 1997, p. 31. Van der Watt argues: “His [Meyer’s] work is a response to traditional landscape painting because it champions realism. For this reason, his art seems unfashionable, conservative even, in relation to contemporary artistic production here and in the rest of the world where realism, and indeed painting itself, have gone out of vogue. This penchant for realistic portrayal as well as the fact that Meyer prefers to work in the very traditional medium of oil painting, is quite surprising for an artist who received his training in the 1980’s when neoexpressionism, conceptual- and installation art dominated most academic institutions such as the University of Pretoria and the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf where Meyer studied for four and three years respectively between 1982 and 1989 – and indeed produced abstracted works… But it is through the kind of realism which he utilises now that Meyer manages to break away from the medium of traditional landscape painting. In contrast to early landscape painters like Volschenk, Hugo Naudé, Pierneef and even more contemporary ones, Meyer’s is a realism that is completely devoid of glamour or beautification and instead focuses on the ordinariness and banality of the South African landscape and platteland.”

[4] Ivan Vladislavić. 2007. “Mountain Landscape.” Art South Africa, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 47-48.

[5] Van der Watt, 1997, p. 31.