Vivian van der Merwe - Solitary Genius of South African Painting

Vivian van der Merwe will go down in the history of South African art as one of its most important painters. His work is deeply considered, refined, strong and monumental, and from the perspective of postmodern painting  internationally, he will be hard to supersede. His work translates the classical virtue of gravitas into a painterly whole that shifts between painted reality and sculptural force. The image asserts itself as an entity, contained by the unfailing presence of the format. The classical stillness of Vermeer, the palette of Rembrandt, the sometimes playful balance of coloured, contained spaces in Mondrian, the flattening of shapes a là Ben Nicholson,  the delicacy and whimsy of Klee, the intuitive precision of Joseph Albers’ saturated colour with a deep deference to Henri Matisse – all these elements come together in still, massive wholes which encapsulate that most prized pictorial and spatial quality in painting: that of monumentality.

Monumentality is the quality that Picasso achieved in his portrait of Gertrude Stein (1909). She envelops the space she occupies, she is rock-like and weighty.  It is the quality of monumentality in Giotto’s subjects, who seem to occupy a stage-like space, that separates the intersecting flat planes of Byzantium from the perspectival and mathematical conception of pictorial space of the Renaissance. Monumentality arises through three-dimensional mass being given form by our sense of weight and gravity.  It is the sense of substance we grasp in everyday life. The immutability and certainty of these monumental forms evokes a quality of calm and composure; they impart a sense of immense stillness. This confident expression of being or existence is played out against a vivid record of African light: strong, clear, streaming, plane-defining light.

Many art theorists have commented that it is near-impossible to write about Van der Merwe's work. Richard Dorment said recently of the abstract work of Tomma Abt and others on show at the Tate Modern: ‘these painters certainly make life hard for journalists … the critical vocabulary that can adequately describe the art of Abt does not yet exist because no painting by her can be said to be like anything we recognise from our experience – visual or emotional.’   The point of modernist painting is precisely that of doing what only painting can do or that which is integral to the act of painting. That is, if a work needs to tell a story, would it not be better to write it rather than paint it? To say that an artwork cannot be written about is the highest compliment. It is where it belongs, in a non-verbal space in which it is perceived visually rather than being open to (florid, often endlessly tortuous) verbal rationalisation. The calm that Van der Merwe’s work manifests is like a deep sigh too low to be heard, safely beyond the unutterably trivializing flim-flam that is the stock-in-trade panegyric of so much silly art criticism.  In a sense Van der Merwe’s work is the apotheosis of Ludwig Wittgenstein's  proposition: 'whereof you cannot speak say nothing'. His work is a sublime record of calm.

Small, single-object still-lifes (micro-masterpieces) gleam with a rare sense of intellectual control. These modest notations of everyday ellipses and glistening surfaces are the basic information that informs the larger paintings. They are not an ersatz reality, they exist only in the realm of art. In a self-portrait that quotes Rembrandt, a small area of the ground shows through. This is a clear homage to that artist who had done the same in his self portrait as an indication of the self-reflexiveness inherent his craft.

Van der Merwe’s  work has most notably a radiant sense of quiet confidence. This is the quality the viewer most clearly can and indeed must share. The repeated presence of the metronome, the implied regularity of its beat plays against and reinforces the certainty of the relationship of one shape against the other. They rest, jostle and lie against each other.  Although there is a strong sense of a deeply considered deployment of pictorial strategies, the lightness of palette and deft brush strokes preclude any of the turgidity of overworking or the rigidity of a too-explicit delineation of form. All these paintings have a sense of airiness and exhibit the orderly rhythms of a well-trained gymnast in full flight.

John Berger argued in 'Ways of Seeing' that the bourgeois impulse to own that which is beautiful reflected the owner ‘s need to express their good taste and social standing.  The work proclaims the amount of beauty he can afford, and his importance. To have a work of art on the wall is to change one's immediate environment for the better. It is the closest some of us can get to peace. To own this work would be to live near its assertion of peace in relation to a deep sensuality. It is a painterly assertion of the former achieved in relation to the latter.

Vivian van der Merwe is a very fine painter. His work, in all aspects, is redolent of quality. It appears indestructible and timeless. The paintings are brilliant records of colours seen in bright, in this case, African light. They are strongly sensual as licks of paint or deeply caressed colours. They  are the visual equivalent of listening to Bach or Mozart. They have the same, not quite predictable, embracing of forms we grow instantly to love. Karl Marx cited the artist as the quintessential, and therefore to be emulated, dis-alienated man in that he has developed a sense of being at one with his work. This sense is afforded to us as we engage with Van der Merwe's work.

Zoe Earle Storrar Molteno.
October 2013.