Vivian van der Merwe's art concentrates almost exclusively on still-life which he abstracts to varying degrees. He normally uses an actual still-life, carefully arranged from a handful of familiar objects which he has collected over the decades, as a starting point. Although he has an exceptionally fine gift for naturalistic painting and drawing (which is evident in his preliminary oil studies as well as in his large output of nude figure drawings) his art has a strong tendency towards abstraction of a predominantly geometric nature.
Van der Merwe's art has strong affinities with Cubism. It is significant that he first started developing his style in the late seventies, when Modernism was on its last legs and when Post-Modernism was still an unknown phenomenon at the Michaelis School of Fine Art (University of Cape Town) where he was a student. Although his artistic development coincided with the heyday of Post-Modernism - the defiance of Late Modernist taboos - van der Merwe never saw himself as a Post-Modernist. Late Modernism's tyrannical demand for constant and radical innovation, which ironically had the effect of virtually paralysing the creative impulse, producing an international crop of artworks curiously uniform in their bleakness, had little or any impact on van der Merwe. He felt no need to break free from Modernism's shackles because he had never succumbed to them.
Painting like an early Modernist might have seemed disgracefully retrograde to his fellow students, bent on being at the cutting edge of the vanguard, but to him it was simply a matter of pursuing his artistic instincts. And while those who tried hardest to be revolutionary in their art generally ended up producing works which dutifully conformed to the requirements of their lecturers and professors, and the art establishment in general, he quietly produced paintings which are creative and original in the best sense of the word.
All his creativity has been poured into works which express a world of classical equilibrium and profound beauty. Looking at his paintings one is never given the impression that that it is a tired and worn-out tradition. On the contrary, they strike one as a fresh, vital and perfectly attuned to today's artistic needs. The artistic sincerity and integrity with which these time-honoured forms are given new life makes Vivian van der Merwe's art stand out in today's art world. The unique character expressed by every subtle shift of tone or hue, every profoundly considered shift or interval, is the product of an artist who has honed his skills with undaunted intelligence for a quarter of a century without ever yielding to the pressures which the art world has brought to bear upon artists over this period.
1st July 2003