Pierneef Analysis

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Examples of his work

Background to the panels

Johannesburg Station Panels (1929–1932)

Johannesburg Station Panels (1929–1932)

Both Stellenbosch and Rustenburg Kloof  were part of the Johannesburg Station’s 32 panels. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country. As is characteristic of monumental art the paintings had to form a synthesis with the architecture of the building and give expression to the idea contained in a building which in this case was a railway station from where people departed to the different landscapes of South Africa depicted in paintings. The Station Panels were executed in the formal, ordered style for which Pierneef has become best known. The technique that Pierneef used on the panels was to make numerous field sketches that were blocked off and enlarged onto the canvas. Dark outlines of forms were then drawn in, followed by flat areas of colour. A cartoonist would use exactly the same method and it is this technique that gives the paintings such a graphic feel and suited the requirements for the murals in his monumental-decorative style.

As monumental mural paintings, the paintings had to flow together with the architecture and at the same time emphasise it. The panels had to be placed in arch-shaped niches and Pierneef echoed the arches of the building in the panels. The arch is reflected in the composition of the paintings; even in the lower part of the panels the arch is reflected in the light and shade effects in the foreground – symbolically drawing heaven and earth together in a cosmic circle, reflecting Pierneef’s personal philosophy.

The size of the panels was a problem to Pierneef as they had to be slightly higher than they were wide and this resulted in a vertical quality that dominated the whole. The verticality meant that Pierneef could not give full expression to the “ver verlate vlaktes” (distant desolate plains), the wavy fields and endless horizons which are so typical of South Africa, however, he was, however, still able to capture atmosphere so unique to the varied parts of the country.

Old Johannesburg Station

These pictures shows some of the station panel paintings with real photographs of the scene it represented.

He was also limited in what colours he could use in the paintings, as the colours had to be “wall colours.” The colours in his paintings match the soft tints of the marble columns in the hall. To emphasise the unity he used only a limited number of colours and repeated them in different panels. Blue, green, red and purple were used for the landscape and a mixture of whitish grey, silver and gold for the clouds. The same colours were subtly combined to create a warm or cold atmosphere or to suggest certain morning or evening moods, desert-scapes, or mistiness. In this way he mixed reddish purple with grey and blue, cold colours in themselves, into sunset moods and created warmth.

Careful, mathematical composition is a hallmark of the panels.
His fine sense of proportion can clearly be seen in these paintings. An analysis of Stellenbosch shows that he constructed his work along square and diagonal lines. It is based on the proportions contained in the golden section,used since the Renaissance times, by many artists and architects, who have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio, especially in the form of the golden rectangle, in which the ratio of the longer side to the shorter is the golden ratio, believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing. Basically breaking down the composition down into thirds.

Fibonacci Tiling

Stellenbosch (1932)

Fibonacci spiral which approximates the golden spiral, created by drawing circular arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in the Fibonacci tiling and a tiling with squares whose sides are successive Fibonacci numbers in length.

Fibonacci spiral

Fibonacci spiral

Rustenburg Kloof (1925 – 32)

This is the actual Rustenburg Kloof – you can clearly see how Pierneef Stylized the scene to make it more dramatic.

The mathematical composition of the panels is also clearly visible in this painting, as well as their circular structure. The arch of the clouds is echoed in the ochre earth forming a circle . The circle is reinforced by the use of tone, so that the eye is drawn to the centre by the pale yellow of the cliffs behind the Camel thorn tree. The darker shapes of the trees in the foreground help to form a frame for the light mountains in the background. The cliff seems immense behind the contours of the central wooded dark areas as there’s no middle ground to give a sense of its scale. Looking at the photograph it seems as if Pierneef made the cliffs proportionally much higher and more dramatic than they really are.

Mondrian (1913) Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, 1913.

As is true of Pierneef’s characteristic landscapes, he also reduces his subjects to their essence (stylize), leaving out unimportant details and emphasising only the main features in this painting. The broken linear vertical and horizontal treatment of the rock face is reminiscent of Mondrian’s non-representative style of white ground, upon which was painted a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and the three primary colours. Some writers do say that Pierneef was familiarized with Mondrian’s work during his second visit to Europe and that he was intrigued by it. In some of his preparatory for Rustenburg Kloof drawings this aspect is especially clear.

The trees and the landscape are rhythmic and balanced. The long horizontal skyline, the strong vertical element and the arch of the open sky form the basic pattern of the composition, which can also be interpreted symbolically.

The composition is well balanced in both colour and line. The colours emphasise the geometrical outline and separate the different levels and planes from one another. The light purple shadows of the cliff in the background is echoed by the mountain in shadow at the right of the painting. The vertical lines of the trees and the rock formation is rhythmically repeated to gently lead the eye through the painting. The vertical and horizontal lines in the painting emphasize the geometric structure underlying the composition, as well as the geometric structure of the rock formation that forms the basis of the mountains.

His intellectual approach and structure strengthens the mood of African scenery. Pierneef often within a single image, combined different perspectives and different times of day of the same scene. For example the light in this painting is based on an early morning light, and in reality you wouldn’t see those clouds early in the day at Rustenburg Kloof. The foreground area also is depicted at the angle which will give the overall composition the most drama rather than how it actually is. This aspect is both an element of the multiple perspectives/the multiple view-point of the Cubists and Romantic landscape artists but it is synthesized into a uniquely South African style.

We take it for granted that the camera shows us what is “real”, but it only captures a moment. Pierneef gives us a highly stylised version of the world, that conveys a reality far truer to our memory and our emotional recall of the South African landscape. What he shows in a landscape is how a particular moment impresses upon our senses and emotions when we first encounter an awe inspiring scene in nature. Often when we take a picture of what we see we are disappointed because it lacks the drama we remember.

Composition in Blue is one of Pierneef’s more abstracted and heavily stylized works that was rejected by the public and after which he reverted back to a more representational style. In this painting has taken his favourite Highveld landscape, trees and clouds and fragmented it into geometric forms using a limited palette of colour, reminiscent of the Cubist style, but he used the Cubist style to describe the illusion of reality and used it for a different aim.

The eye is drawn to the central source of light in the clouds and then back to the tree in the center of the composition from where your eye is guided by the other trees deeper into the background and back up the the mountains into the sky. The dark vertical shapes of the trees diminishing in size almost forms a path that rhythmically leads the eye into the painting.

Composition in Blue (circa 1928)

Composition in Blue (circa 1928)

It is composed according to strict mathematical principles and philosophy where the cosmos is seen as a geometrically ordered whole and the artist is seen as striving to make the rules of this higher reality visible through mathematics.

The composition is divided into the golden thirds both by the vertical and horizontal lines as well as by his use of colour. In the foreground the warm colour of the earth is divided into thirds horizontally by bands of purple-brown and ochre. The background and the middle ground forms a harmonious whole in graded blues divided into thirds by the horizontal lines of the trees emphasized by the tonal values of the blues. The strongly emphasized  horizontal lines in this painting can be seen as a visual expression of the national anthem’s Die Stem words

Uit die blou van onse hemel, (From the blue of our heaven)
Uit die diepte van ons see, (From the depths of our sea)
Oor ons ewige gebergtes, (Over our eternal mountains)
Waar die kranse antwoord gee, (Where the cliffs echoes answers)

If you took away the strong contrasting vertical lines of the trees, especially the one in the foreground, however, the painting would have lacked the drama.

To Pierneef the clouds symbolically represented “clouds of our Dear Lord,” an omnipresent creative force. In the centre of the composition is the umbrella shaped Camel thorn tree. To Pierneef the tree is not simply a natural object, it was a means of expression, thought, and a feeling.To Pierneef the tree was both a psychological projection of man and a symbol of life, forming a link between heaven and earth. In this painting the dominating tree is both a symbolic link between heaven and earth and a stylistic device that links the sky of the background to the earth in the foreground. The leadwood tree in particular was a symbol of eternity to him.and the Camelthorn symbolized the Bushveld. The Camelthorn in this painting is stylized through omission of detail and simplification of its large shape to its basic shape to fit in with the shapes in the sky.

Pierneef (1928)

Pierneef (1928)

The clear association which Pierneef creates between heaven and earth in this painting gives shape to Van Konijnenburg’s philosophy that the task of art creation as the bearer of of the idea was to realise this harmony and that geometry was the vehicle whereby it could be done – art begins where nature ends.The forms of reality had to be stylised to give expression to an idea. This can also be called Realistic symbolism or an art in which symbols are expressed realistically. Pierneef however, took the philosophy and visually synthesised it into his own, reflecting his vision of the spirit of Africa.


Architecture, African Light, Structure, Stylization, Geometric structure, flat planes, Cubism, balance, clouds, trees, Symbolism, Romantic landscapes, Afrikaner Nationalism, Highveldt landscape

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