TEXT NICK VAN DER LEEK, PICTURES NICK VAN DER LEEK AND SUPPLIED
Widely considered the forerunner of Cape Impressionism, Pieter Wenning’s dreamy, poetic scenes point towards a longing for a home and a peaceful place to live out his life, in the safety and bounty of natureIn my journey to find Pieter Wenning I head to the Cape. But Pieter Wenning is not easy to find. His life and works predate those of great artists that followed him, including the likes of Pierneef and Tinus de Jongh. I soon labour under the impression that the subjects he painted have long since disappeared.
It’s easy to believe, driving through the suburbs of Cape Town, that his serene country homes and farmyards – the centrepieces of the first farms, places teeming with life, and brimming with Frontier Feel – have disappeared entirely. These were homes hewn by hands, their materials drawn from hillsides and surrounding brush; the floors unearthed from nearby clays and cow dung, the first roofs invariably yellow thatch skirts rising towards a smoking chimney.
These were the days when streams could be used for washing, and irons were heated in a fire. When passers-by were red-coated soldiers, sailors, or slaves and getting around was on foot, by horse, by train or by ship. Meat had to be shot for dinner. Cows had to be milked for cream and butter. Bread was home-baked. Eggs, still warm, had to be fetched from the coop.
Wenning’s work was all about painting an expanding frontier. But unlike Tinus and Pierneef, he was less preoccupied with monumental backdrops. Instead, Wenning became absorbed, even intoxicated, by the almost fairytale simplicity of the frontier. Its beautiful, humble beginnings. Its deep, rustic connection to nature.
His pictures have the dreamy quality of being filled with colour and light, yet remain somehow unfocused and vague. Yet his subjects are unmistakably the first homes of the earliest settlements. Nature is abundant. Green is splashed everywhere. He depicts slowly decaying homesteads beneath fluffy white clouds hanging in dreamy blue skies.
Genuine frontier homes no longer exist today because so few wild landscapes are left. But when you stare at it for long enough, his daydream speaks to you. And in time I came to see that many abandoned homes still litter lonely countrysides today. There is something in the neglect, the half-broken walls, the yielding timbers, and the overgrown gardens that surround these structures, that is distinctly Wenning.
If Wenning represented humble beginnings perhaps it is because Wenning himself came from beginnings humbler than most. In Friesland during the 1880s, Wenning’s father made a modest living trading in art prints and materials. Even at a young age, Pieter Wenning’s art teacher encouraged his drawing and painting efforts, but his parents persuaded him to join the Dutch Railways. He married at age 25 but four years later lost his job following a strike against the company. Three years later he found work in a bookstore in Amsterdam, which transferred him to a franchise in Pretoria.
In 1908 Wenning bought a home in Sunnyside, and painted and studied art in his free time, supplementing his modest living with translation work at the Supreme Court. In 1909 he began to paint in oils. Although Wenning experimented with etchings, and held an exhibition, his efforts to sell his work (displayed in the windows of his bookshop) were not very fruitful.
In 1913 his company sent him to Cape Town, where he met DC Bonzaaier, who became a lifelong friend. After a second visit to Cape Town in 1915, Wenning returned to Pretoria, and began working in an art stor
“Wenning struggled more than most artists, and thus his dreams were more earnest than most."
The self-critical Wenning, who often painted in the rain, almost destroyed all his work during one of these early visits to the Cape, but his friend Bonzaaier convinced him otherwise.
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