I learned about the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch by mistake – and I’m glad I did. While looking up something about a Rupert gallery in Graaff Reinet, I saw that the philanthropist family also had a gallery in Stellenbosch that exhibited the famous Pierneef panels from the old Johannesburg railway station. Knowing that, I had to go there.
For anyone who likes Pierneef or art or South African art in general, the Rupert Museum is a must. Not only is it a beautiful and beautifully laid out gallery near the bottom of Dorp Street, but it has a collection of famous South African artists, plus some old European works, which are set out in no particular order. And for someone who prefers a kind of lucky packet gallery, where you get 17th century next to modern, it’s great.
But the pride of place in the gallery, for me at least, is the Pierneef panels or the Johannesburg Station panels. I had heard about the panels before, but I didn’t realise that Transnet, the owners, had given them over to the Rupert Museum several years ago.
In 1929 Pierneef got a commission to do 32 panels for the new Park Station in Johannesburg, which was replacing the old Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek Park Station.
The paintings had to be places of natural beauty and historical value. Because they were meant to be seen from a distance in the vast station – and make an impact – Pierneef knew he had to make the forms simple with bold colours.
In the end, he did 28 almost-square paintings and four panels of indigenous trees. The distribution between the provinces, as they were at the time, was not equal, and Pierneef obviously had a liking for the Transvaal, which got 12, the Cape 9, Natal, Lesotho and Namibia 2 each, and the Free State only one.
Standing in front of each painting today, you will probably be able to immediately guess what you are looking at – so perfectly did he capture their essence – Mont aux Sources, Stellenbosch, Hartebeespoort Dam, Heidelberg, Houtbos, the Malutis and the Swartberg Pass.
The department of railways and harbours in those days also promoted tourism, so the paintings – which were to be displayed in special niches kept for them in the station – were meant to promote South Africa.
Yesterday, coincidentally, the Department of Tourism announced a panel to rethink South Africa’s tourism priorities of the future. Maybe they could begin by reopening the old Park Station, rehanging Pierneef’s panels, and promoting South African tourism (and art) at the same time. Just a crazy idea.
For more information about the Rupert Museum.