Vivian van der Merwe: Master of Stillness & Form

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.

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Lize van Robbroeck on the 2013 Stellenbosch Exhibition

Some observations on VIVIAN VAN DER MERWE’s exhibition FORM / STILTE

Vivian van der Merwe’s art can be described as a return to an early 20th century concern with the pure properties of painting. His works resist interpretation and invite the viewer to simply look. The title of the exhibition: Form/Stilte, hints that there is no narrative to decode, no deeper meaning, no allegory or symbolism – what is required is nothing more than the time and quiet to look and appreciate the pure properties of these paintings: light, colour, tone, line, form, edge, texture.

At a time where busy multi-media installations, pure concept-art and one-liner parodies predominate, Vivian’s art requires nothing but time and openness to perception. His own processes are time consuming – old methods such as wax encaustic and gesso are revived, pigment is applied slowly, in layers, taken away and reapplied again and again. It is not surprising to hear that some of these paintings took decades to complete. This slow, contemplative process is akin to meditation, an act of being in the moment, with nothing more than the movement of the artists’ hand and eye, and the integrity of the painting’s surface with it’s particular demands guiding the entire process. In this sense, Vivian’s painting constitutes a sedimentation of time, and results in the kind of works one wants to look at again and again, works that never exhaust the eye.

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Francois Smit Exhibition opening speech by Vivian van der Merwe

Exhibition opening speech: Francois Smit Exhibition (Johannesburg 2004)

I have been looking at the art of Francois since 1986. That equals twenty years of aesthetic scrutiny, twenty years of professional admiration, and twenty years of artistic fascination. And twenty years later, there is no doubt that Francois is widely respected for his formidable imagination, skill and artistic rigor, and especially for his idiosyncratic pathos. All these qualities are compellingly obvious in the works on show here.

But upon seeing Francois' art hanging together, in close proximity, for the first time ever, one also senses something else: It is like a persistent theme that is less obvious, like a complex leitmotif in a large symphony. At its very core this exhibition engages a fascinating contradiction, and it is a contradiction that is central to visual art of our time.

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Melvyn Minnaar review in 'Die Burger' 19 September 2013


A sense of compelling intrigue drawing one into an almost unreachable innermost aesthetic realm - this is one of the most rewarding experiences a visual artist can share with the viewer. Vivian van der Merwe's art is about art; there is nothing in this expansive and partially retrospective exhibition that allows one to escape this awareness.

The fact that he also makes the most beautiful paintings is proof of a dynamic that can still be conjured from the classical - by an individual who, in the studio, brings virtually all aspects of the art of painting into play, literally and figuratively. What pleasure it is then to give oneself over to this game.

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Julia Meintjes on Vivian's Painting

From the exhibition catalogue published to coincide with the inaugural exhibition of the Tokara gallery, Stellenbosch

'There is nothing, or very little, utterly new in the world:

what is vital are the unique, diverse viewpoints from which each artist

observes and interprets both that which we consider reality,

as well as those works of art, already created by others,

which particularly interest him.'

(Giorgio Morandi 1962, translated from the Italian)

Each painting presents itself with the quiet expectancy of a stage on which the curtains have just been drawn. Again and again Vivian van der Merwe assembles his still-life subjects, arranging them on an ordinary wooden table positioned to the left of his easel. The players begin their painted performance as familiar objects collected and kept in his studio – a tea tin, an enamel jug, a metronome, a creamy vase, a coffee pot, a patterned cloth... Their positioning on the table is precisely controlled by the artist – for each choreographed arrangement becomes the inspiration for a complex structure which develops through a series of paintings. Each is more removed from the physical appearance of the still-life than the one before it, yet each form in the paintings contains the residue of its ancestor: tin, jug, metronome or vase.

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A selection of critical reviews

"Pervading the paintings of Vivian van der Merwe is a sense of living order - imperceptible, mysterious in its complexity, flexible and yielding. Van der Merwe is a painter with a profound respect for the technical, formal and aesthetic aspects of painting. To some extent the exquisitely sensitive distribution of elements, their delicate balance and gentle vibration in pictorial space can be recognised, analysed, and thus understood. But the process that transforms the media and elements into beautiful paintings which are capable of stirring unplumbed depths of feeling is far more mysterious since, it is informed by the artist's spirit."
[Benita Munitz; art critic, Cape Times]

"Far from being detached from moral issues Vivian's art is a confirmation of the power of painting to move the spirit in its own unique way, without the aid of topical imagery, and is the all the more admirable because it was developed in a milieu where there was very little faith in art's ability to stand on its own feet. He is one of the finest painters at work today."
[Deon Liebenberg; author and art theorist] Translated from Afrikaans

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Vivian van der Merwe on Illustration

Portion of a Jane Commin interview with Vivian van der Merwe, March 2001
(Edited and abridged in May 2005)

JC: What role does something like illustration play for you?

VVDM:  I’ve always liked the idea of illustration and doing illustration. Ironically, when I was a student and wanted to enrol to do illustration as one of my minor undergraduate subjects, but that happened to be the very year in which they dropped illustration from the curriculum. It is interesting how illustration still gets tagged on to graphic design, or sometimes fine art, as an idiosyncratic little realm within which peculiar bookish people work. It’s odd that illustration is still stigmatised in this way. I wanted to do illustration, because I’d always been interested in language and literature and poetry. I spent my teenage years reading hundreds of books, and I mean literally hundreds of books. The idea of a marriage between text/language and visual art really appealed to me, but the more I think about it, the more I realise it’s a very, very complex relationship. In recent years I’ve become much more aware of the danger of over-simplifying these things through trying to force analogous relationships onto them.

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On the Art of Vivian

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.

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Nina Botha interview


(This interview was intended for publication in April 2004 but following the cancellation of the London exhibition in the wake of the Prof Brendan Neiland RA (Keeper of the RA Schools) controversy in 2003, the interview was not published. In January 2003 Brendan Neiland was dismissed from the Royal Academy amidst a controversy that made front page news in Britain.)

Q: You’ve been invited to do a solo show at the Royal Academy of Arts Schools in London in their summer of 2006. That’s prime-time right in the middle of the London art gallery district. You must be very excited and this surely represents a big achievement in your career.  How did this happen?

A: Well yes, I’m very pleased about this. It feels like a vote of confidence, and yes, it does amount to what one might call a career-break. But it’s all still new news and I haven’t really had time to think carefully about what it might mean – but yes I feel very optimistic. In fact that’s an understatement – I feel positively excited.

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On the Death of Painting

Painting is dead! This is a grand claim which rings with a certain kind of journalistic urgency and existential authority. In art discourse it assumes the level of mythological significance and grandeur, the kind which philosophers ascribe to Nietzsche's now famous "God is Dead" which first appeared in print in 1884. Barely 25 years passed before the Dadaists in Zurich (in 1916) exclaimed that "Art is dead!"

It does not require much imagination or scholarly knowledge to see how closely related these statements are. Statements like these once challenged the status quo; and they definitely were intended to. They served as the battle-cries of enlightened and progressive thinkers. Both have their origins in nineteenth century Romantic consciousness. And the "Painting is Dead" epitaph is a direct appropriation from Nietzsche; consciously or otherwise. How and why?

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