Wesley Pepper – portrait of an engaged artist

I believe in people, art, poetry, music, creativity and love … my art is an interaction between me and my surroundings.” – Wesley Pepper

What is the meaning of art in the South Africa of the 21st Century? Wesley Pepper is answering that question by doing art, not theorising about it.

The Johannesburg-based artist was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape

“Dark skin” – a drawing by Wesley Pepper which was included in a collection of poetry by local writers

Province of South Africa in July 1978. He studied art, majoring in oil painting and drawing, at the Free State Technicon in neighbouring Bloemfontein before moving to Port Elizabeth where he studied computer graphics at a Further Education and Training (FET) college, before moving on to Cape Town.

After a short stay back in Kimberley where he was active in an arts-and-crafts collective Pepper moved to Johannesburg in 2002.

I sold a piece within five hours of arriving here,” he says with characteristic enthusiasm.

A concern that Pepper expresses is about the commercialisation of art: “People look at the price tag before they look at the work.”

He would like with his art to challenge the conservative world-views of many South African communities with regard to art, the conservatism of blue suits and ties!

“We are a beautiful concept” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

The challenge Pepper makes is through his engagement, through postering and workshopping, through involvement with other artists, musicians and writers.

“I call my art ‘open spaces’ coz exactly of that, I involve myself in various spaces and my art is about what I experience,” says Pepper.

Together with local writers Pepper has produced three collections of poetry for which he has provided art works. He has also facilitated creativity workshops and been involved with artists’ collectives.

“I love organising people,” he says.

The collective with which he is currently involved is planning a large exhibition for 2013 – which he says will take art out of the gallery and into the street.

I asked Pepper about his views on what constitutes art, on what an artist is. His

“Hair” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

reply: “An artist (according to me) is someone who is conscious about their creativity and has the talent to ‘make art’ and make a living off it.”

“As an artist you are measured by your work and hopefully my work made a statement and that’s what defines me.”



Aimez-vous Picasso?

Picasso. Image via Wikipedia

Modern Art – do you dig it?

Much has been written about modern art. Many people seem not to really like it, claiming that they don’t understand it, or that it’s ugly. Now I know one’s taste in art is a very personal thing. And people can become very defensive about their tastes – in art and everything else they can have tastes about!

This article is just to say, hey, what we like is often about what we know, and knowing a bit more about modern art might just open our eyes and our minds to some great experiences – tactile, visual and emotional.

Modern art has a long history now, and over that history looms the larger-than-life figure of the man from Spain with those piercing, almost hypnotic eyes, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso, known to the world simply as Picasso.

To me Picasso is the Beethoven of modern art. I know, I know – wrong era, wrong style, etc., etc.

Let me try to explain why I say this. Beethoven was really sui generis , one of a kind, although in a way all composed music since Beethoven, at least until the start of the 20th Century, is judged on his terms and against his towering work. In a similar way Picasso, for all his many faults and his wide range of styles, remains the gold standard for modern art.

Beethoven did not start all of the musical styles which followed him, neither did Picasso start all the artistic styles which followed him, but without these two great artists the history of musical and artistic expression would have been very different. In fact it is impossible to imagine music, at least that genre which is mistakenly called “classical” for want of a better shorthand term, without the brooding figure of Beethoven.

Likewise modern art would not have been what it was without the sometimes puckish, sometimes brooding, always fascinating figure of Picasso.

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why don’t we try to understand the song of a bird? Why do we love the night, the flowers, everything around us, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people think they have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only an insignificant part of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world though we can’t explain them; people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” – Picasso

Another reason why Picasso is like Beethoven for me is that everything he did, however trivial or unimportant it might seem, had the quality of rightness, as if the way Picasso did it was the only way it could be done.

Leonard Bernstein, writing about Beethoven, could have been writing about Picasso, in my view. Just change a word here or there and the following passage could, mutatis mutandis, be applied to Picasso:

“The real function of form is to take us on a varied and complicated half-hour journey of continuous symphonic progress. To do this, the composer must have his inner road map. He must have the ability to know what the next destination will be – in other words, what the next note has to be to convey a sense of rightness, a sense that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can happen at that precise instant. As we have said, Beethoven could do this better than anyone, but he also struggled with all his force in the doing.” Form Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 1960. (Emphasis in the original)

The eye of the hawk; the cunning of the alchemist

Picasso created some 22 000 works (more than 16 500 of these have been catalogued and are viewable on the magnificent On-Line Picasso Project, http://picasso.csdl.tamu.edu/picasso/), some of which were sublime, others pretty tacky. They range from delicate, almost wistful drawings of birds and Don Quixote to what is arguably the most powerful anti-war statement in modern art, possibly in all art: the massive mural Guernica, expressing Picasso’s horror at the bombing of the little Spanish town by planes of the German Condor Legion under the command of Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the infamous “Red Baron” of the First World War.

Picasso was born in Malaga in October 1881 and died in France in 1973. From his earliest days he was a great draftsman, following initially in the footsteps of his painter father Don Jose, who taught at the local School of Fine Arts and Crafts. By the time Picasso was 13, his father acknowledged young Pablo’s superiority as an artist and handed over to his son all his brushes, paints and palette.

In an interview published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1957, the journalist Carlton Lake responded to Picasso’s saying that “I don’t paint pictures in the hope that people will understand them,” by asking the artist if he thought critics and others who tried to explain art were performing a useless function.

Picasso responded with a vigorous “no”: “The critic or any intermediary must build a bridge people can walk over to join the artist.”

I guess I’m trying to build a bridge like that, because Picasso is so important to me and I would like others to understand him and appreciate him. What I think Picasso meant by building a bridge is for the critic or whoever, not to try to explain Picasso, but maybe to explain what Picasso means to them. Indeed it is presumptuous for one who is not even an artist to try to explain a great artist’s work.

In the same interview Picasso said: “Perhaps it would be better if all critics were poets and wrote poetry instead of pedantry.”

So I’m going to try to be a poet and share my feelings about the great man, feelings that have meant much to me over the years.

The Three Musicians (1921)

One of the first of his paintings which grabbed my attention was one of the two famous “Three Musicians”, a cubist painting from the so-called “synthetic cubism” style, painted 1921. I saw this work (in reproduction only, unfortunately!) in a small book about Picasso which my brother Chris brought home one university vac. It grabbed me because I reacted immediately to the mysterious feeling of the painting. What was that strange figure to the right of the painting? He seemed to overshadow the other two and yet I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked him. There was something ominous, something brooding about him, and yet the colours and composition were pleasing, even light-hearted. What was going on here?

I loved especially the way the pages of music looked, the blue and white background with the black notes.

Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs)) painted in 1905

The next painting that I loved was the Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs))painted in 1905. This group of circus people just moved me – it had to do with the colouration, those pale muddy colours with the contrasting reds and blues, the static feel of the image which made it feel to me somehow sad, nostalgic for something I didn’t know. They just looked and felt right to me, as though they just should be like that.

And yet the painting also had a feeling of mystery for me – what was the story behind this picture, who were these people and what held them together, apart from the frame of the picture? Two things in particular fascinated me – the little girl with her basket and the almost transparent classical-looking jar at the right knee of the seated woman. And why was she seated when all the other figures in the painting are standing?

Then I started reading about Picasso living in the squalid tenement known as Le Bateau-Lavoir (the laundry-boat). And so many other artists as well, whose names I was coming to know through reading about Picasso. I became aware also of the periods of Picasso’s art – the Blue, Rose, Cubist and neo-classical, to mention some of the labels that have been applied to his art.

Bull’s Head (1943)

Picasso used a sometimes bewildering variety of styles throughout his career, now figurative showing a clarity of line which has been compared with that fine master of line Ingres, to a total abstraction or what has been called by some a deformation. The great Picasso expert and critic Roland Penrose (in The Sculpture of Picasso, 1967) wrote that Picasso “has always been willing to probe our complacency about the identity of an object by showing that in certain circumstances it can mean something surprisingly different from the accepted interpretation.” So that ordinary, everyday objects can take on a wholly different aspect and meaning. Picasso used a bicycle saddle and handlebars to create a bull’s head (Tête de taureau) in 1942/3, making it impossible for me ever since to see either the bicycle components or a real bull’s head without seeing the other.

Penrose continues in the same paragraph: “With the eye of a hawk and the cunning of an alchemist, Picasso assembled a series of important sculptures made from a rich variety of objects collected from beaches and rubbish dumps. Apart from their aesthetic values they induce a metaphysical enjoyment that is not far distant from the doubt and disquiet provoked by Hieronymus Bosch.”

The effect of the radical changes brought about by World War One

Another artist brought to mind by this kind of assemblage of artefacts not normally thought of as “artistic” which we find in both the painting and the sculpture of Picasso is that great poet Thomas Stearns Eliot who similarly brought many different things together to create his art, notably the poem which so dramatically, so eloquently and “rightly” captures the zeitgeist of the first half of the 20th Century, “The Wasteland.”

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – the painting which ushered in the cubist style

Critic Mary Karr points out how this poem expressed the way technological advances, particularly in warfare as seen in the First World War, “heaped lifestyle changes on the Western world more radical, perhaps, than written history ever recorded” (in The Wasteland and Other Writings, 2002).

Karr points out that these cultural shifts and revolutions have a deep effect on the art of the time: “So expect a text as fragmented as a clattering, bouncy ride through London or New York must’ve been; a text disorientating as a modern battle was to the soldiers of the Great War. The poem’s made of bits and overlays, snatches of speech and song – various dictions and noises and tones. Just as cities were.”

Picasso, like Eliot, Beethoven and even Bosch, was a person very much of his times and so his art accurately reflects those times, and his struggles to come to terms with them. As anyone with any sensitivity must struggle with what is going on around them.

What makes an artist great, whether Beethoven or Eliot or Bosch, is the authenticity that they achieve in responding to the world around them, how honest and vulnerable they are. And Picasso is totally himself, can never be other than he is. And this shows in every line he draws, every spot of colour he applies, every bronze or clay shape he creates.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t at times play with his audience. Obviously he has a sense of humour which comes through – who would have thought of a toy car as the head of a baboon (La guenon et son petit)? And yet how right that is now that Picasso has done it!

The last word from the master

For me the fascination of Picasso is in much more than his obvious skill as painter and sculptor – it is in how, with his constant changes and sometimes grotesque juxtapositions of objects and ideas, he constantly keeps the viewer awake. As Karr said of Eliot, he “meant above all to keep the reader riveted to the text and concentratedly alive.” Picasso seems always to be saying to the viewer, “Don’t be taken in or seduced by what you see – think about it and make something of it for yourself.” Anything less in art is dishonest. Or as he said himself, rather concisely: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Appropriately, I think, the last word belongs to the great man himself:

“The different styles I have been using in my art must not be seen as an evolution, or as steps towards an unknown ideal of painting. Everything I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it would always remain in the present. I have never had time for the idea of searching. Whenever I wanted to express something, I did so without thinking of the past or the future. I have never made radically different experiments. Whenever I wanted to say something, I said it the way I believed I should. Different themes inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress; it is a matter of following the idea one wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it.”

References and works consulted:

Bersnstein, Leonard (1960): The Joy of Music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Daix, Pierre (1965): Picasso. London: Thames and Hudson

Karr, Mary (2002): The Wasteland and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library

Lake, Carlton (1957): Picasso Speaking. The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1957 Volume 200, no. 1 (pages 35 – 41). Accessed 30 December 2008:  http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/picasso/speak.htm

Moffat, Charles (n.d.): Pablo Picasso from http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/cubism/Pablo-Picasso.html retrieved on 30 December 2008.

Penrose, Roland (1967): The Sculpture of Picasso. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Read, Herbert (1965): A Concise History of Modern Painting. London: Thames and Hudson

Copyright Notice

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

St Petersburg comes to the Highveld – the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sergius of Radonezh in Midrand

Gleaming golden onion-shaped domes are not common sights on the Highveld – or anywhere else in South Africa, for that matter.

The ones that caught my eye while driving from Pretoria to Johannesburg on the N1 highway one day belong to the parish church of St Sergius of Radonezh in Midrand, Gauteng, and I could not ignore their call though I had no idea what these strange visions were until I went closer.

I found the church and met the parish priest, Fr Daniel Lugovoi, who told me something of the history of this beautiful church.

The church, which was designed by well-known (in Russian circles at least) St Petersburg architect Yuri Kirs, was completed in 2003 and consecrated for worship on 2 March of that year. It was built by local builders under the supervision of the architect.

It is the only Russian Orthodox church

The bell tower to the west of the church

building in South Africa and serves about 200 people from the Commonwealth of Independent States who now live in the country. It falls under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Egypt.

Fr Daniel Lugovoi

Fr Daniel Lugovoi

The church is dedicated to much-loved St Sergius of Radonezh, a 14th Century saint who did much to reform the monastic tradition in Russia and whose feast day is 25 September.

Fr Lugovoi, who has been the priest in charge since January 2010, trained at a seminary in Moscow, his home town.

Kirs, who has designed churches in

Attention to detail is obvious in every aspect of the building

Russia and the United Arab Emirates and supervised the refurbishment of many churches in and around St Petersburg, designed this church to include homage to both the culture and history of the Russian Orthodox Church and this particular church’s home in South Africa. His design of this church won him the Order of St. Daniel of Moscow.

The east wall of the church

The church has a character of simplicity in its white walls and yet with great attention to detail in the many artistic features such as the mosaic icons on the exterior walls and the calligraphy decorating the exterior vaulting. The nod to South Africa’s history is found in the Cape-Dutch-style “gables” just above the roof line of the vaults.

Inside the church seems much more spacious than one expects, due to the light and airy space created by the central dome and the light pouring in through the windows in the tower above it. At the top of this lantern tower is the icon of Christ Pantokrator – the Creator of everything.

Every wall is covered with icons and other decorations, all created by artists from the academy in St

The central lantern tower with the icon of Christ Pantokrator

Petersburg, who also created the external mosaics and calligraphy. The gold leaf which tops each slender Byzantine column, the domes

The nave with its brightly-coloured murals

and other details, was also created by Russian craftsmen.

The iconostasis or templon

Dominating the interior is the dark imbuia iconostasis with its many bright icons and beautiful carved details. The contrast between the dark wood and the brilliant colours of the icons creates a rich texture which itself contrasts with the overall simplicity of the building.

In the centre of the iconostasis (also called the templon) is the double door known as the “beautiful gate” through which only clergy may pass into or out of the sanctuary which is behind the iconostasis in the eastern arm of the cruciform building. Doors at each end of the iconostasis are known as angel or deacon’s doors and allow acolytes and deacons access to the sanctuary.

Fr Daniel beside the “beautiful gate” in the iconostasis

The choir loft

Viewed from the nave the icon to the right of the beautiful gate is of Jesus and the icon to the left is of the Theotokos or Mother of God (the Virgin Mary) holding the infant Jesus.

Surrounding the church are well-kept gardens and a building which houses a church hall and bell tower to the west of the church.

Altogether this church is an embodiment of harmony between art, culture and spirituality, every element designed in detail to contribute to an uplifting experience for the church-goer.

A gallery more oif of my photos of this lovely church can be found here.

Anglican Cathedral to Presbyterian Church – the fascinating journey of a church with a history

Main door of St Saviour’s, Randjesfontein, 2012

Echoes of a Victorian theological controversy which played out in the British Natal colony are heard in the Presbyterian Church of St Saviour’s in Midrand, Gauteng.

In 1853 Anglican divine and mathematician John William Colenso was appointed Bishop of Natal by the then Metropolitan Bishop of Cape Town, the Right Reverend Robert Gray. Colenso came to his new bishopric, centred on St Peter’s Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg, in 1854 and was quite soon involved in controversy around two issues – the first was his liberal interpretation of certain Biblical texts and the second was his, for the times, radical approach to the black people of the colony, the amaZulu of King Cetewayo kaMpanda.

Bishop Colenso’s views on these matters, especially his Biblical

St Saviour’s Cathedral, Pietermaritzburg, 1870

liberalism, brought him notoriety (or fame, depending on one’s point of view) throughout the English-speaking world. The High Church party in Britain was particularly worried about the theological and political ramifications of Colenso’s opinions and Gray in December 1863 deposed Colenso after a church trial for heresy.

Colenso successfully appealed against this action but he was opposed by the Dean of his Cathedral, Dean James Green who on Colenso’s return left St Peter’s with his followers and set up a parallel Church in St Saviour’s in 1868.

Another Bishop was appointed by Gray, Bishop W.K. Mcrorie, who took his throne in St Saviour’s. Thus for a number of years there were two Church of England dioceses in Natal Colony, a situation which only came to an end after Colenso’s death in June 1883.

Looking up the nave towards the sanctuary.

The two church buildings however continued to function, with St Peter’s being an ordinary parish church, until St Saviour’s was de-consecrated in 1976 and set for demolition in 1981.

The lovely woodwork of the ceiling

Two men associated with the development of a residential township on the historical former farm Randjesfontein in Midrand, Gauteng, Charles Lloys Ellis and Keith Parker, heard of the imminent demolition of St Saviour’s and decided to buy the sanctuary, transepts, nave, chapter room and library and transport the fabric to Midrand. Here the former Cathedral was re-built under the guidance of architect Robert Brusse.

The north wall of St Saviour’s with the baptistry

The re-constructed church is beautifully simple and elegant, retaining much of the Victorian Gothic of the original. The roof is high with lovely Gothic-style trusses and the floor of red tiles is also remarkable.

On one side of the nave is an organ loft and on the other a small baptistry chapel. The entrance to the church looks still very much as it did in 1870.

St Saviour’s, Randjesfontein, was consecrated for worship on 16 May 1985 – appropriately, the Feast of the Ascension.

The beautiful grounds of St Saviour’s

The church is surrounded by beautifully-maintained gardens shaded by high conifers.

The building is still privately-owned and is rented to the Midrand Presbyterian Congregation. The beauty of the building has also ensured that is popular as a wedding venue and a venue for musical recitals and other cultural activities.

A gallery of more of my photos of this beautiful church can be found here.


Anatolia comes to Midrand – the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere rises on the Highveld

The Nizamiye Mosque seen from the north

Travelling north on the N1 highway from Johannesburg to Pretoria a sight can be seen which might have students and lovers of architecture rubbing their eyes – a three-quarter replica of the famous Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey, stands on a rise to the east with its four tall minarets like rockets ready for launching into space standing around an imposing dome.

Built in a period of 2-and-a-half years the Nizamiye Mosque was constructed by some 300 workers from South Africa and Turkey and is the result of the generosity of an anonymous man from Istanbul who wanted to build a masjid where the Ottomans had been unable to – in the Southern Hemisphere.

The building was supervised by South African architect Ahmed Shabbir Bham and follows the style of the original, which was designed by famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan (c1490 – 1588) in the late 16th Century. He set out in the design of the Selimiye Mosque to disprove a saying common among architects in the Ottoman Empire: “You can never build a dome larger than the dome of Hagia Sophia and specially as Muslims“.

The dome of Selimiye Mosque was indeed slightly larger than that of Hagia

Looking up into the dome with its rich calligraphic decorations

Sophia and is characterised by a sense of airy space due to the positioning of the interior supports close to the walls.

“The sense of unity is likewise emphasised on the exterior by the placing of four high minarets close to the rising mass of the central dome,” – from the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architecture & Technological Change (London, 1979).

The minarets of Nizamiye are 55 metres high while those of the Selimiye are 83 metres. The dome of Selimiye is 83m high and that of Nizamiye is 62.25m.

The ceiling of the colonnade around the courtyard is richly decorated

The materials used in the construction of Nizamiye Mosque were locally sourced except for some specialised items such as the tiles, marble and carpets used.

The workers recruited from Turkey were specialists in calligraphy, art and marble work.

I asked Orhan Celik, director of the Aksan Property Development company why Midrand was chosen as the site for this imposing building and he told me it was because it was the only place they could find appropriate land of the required size located close to a city.

“Also Midrand is half way between Pretoria and Johannesburg and it is the seat of the African Parliament, so it has historical significance too,” he added.

Like its model in Turkey, Nizamiye Mosque stands in a külliye, a complex comprising a school, shops and a clinic.

The courtyard of the mosque. A huge banqueting hall is underneath this marble paving.

Under the beautiful courtyard of the mosque is a banqueting hall which can seat up

Basmala (the Bismillah phrase) – image via Wikipedia

to 1000 guests. In the centre of the courtyard is an ablution facility (wudhu khana) topped by a skylight for the hall below.

All worshippers who wish to enter the masjid need to do wudhu before entering. This is a ritual cleansing involving the intention to cleanse oneself and then washing the hands, face and feet, often accompanied by recitation of the Bismillah (in the Name of God).

The prayer hall of the mosque is always entered without shoes and there is usually

Looking across the prayer hall towards the qibla wall. The mihrab can be seen to the right of the picture

place provided for the shoes to be kept while the worshipper is inside the prayer hall.

In the prayer hall itself there are no pews and the hall is orientated towards the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine. The main entrance to the prayer hall is opposite the qibla wall, or the wall in the direction of Mecca. Worshippers kneel on the rich carpeting of the hall facing the qibla wall in

The wudhu khanna in the centre of the courtyard

which there is no door.

The direction of the Kaaba in Mecca is also indicated by the mihrab, an alcove in the qibla wall. This wall is at right angles to a line leading to Mecca.

Also against the qibla wall is the minbar or pulpit from which important prayers will be led by an imam or other spiritual leader. In the Nizamiye the minbar is raised quite high and is very ornate.

The minarets symbolise the striving towards Allah by the faithful and also had a practical purpose – they were used by muezzins to call the faithful to prayer. When raised up high the muezzin could be heard

Nizamiye from the north east

further than if he were standing on the roof of the mosque.

Cherif Jah Abderrahmán, president of the Western Institute for Islamic Culture, said in 2007, “… the architectural shape which best and more clearly indicates the presence of Islam, is the minaret, whatever its current function and whichever may be the social reasons which led to its construction.”

Certainly from a distance the minarets of Nizamiye are striking.

The mosque is due to be opened officially on 4 October 2012.

A gallery of my photos of this magnificent mosque is available at https://picasaweb.google.com/108214824979962624680/NizamiyeMosqueMidrandSouthAfrica. Please feel free to visit!










Falls of Halladale – a colourful ship’s story captured by Jack Spurling

The “Falls of Halladale” painted by Jack Spurling

Two mutinies, a man presumably lost overboard, two women crew members and a wreck off the coast of Australia are just some of the colourful incidents in the life of this four-masted, iron-hulled barque which was painted in 1927 by marine artist Jack Spurling.
The painting by Spurling, while spirited, gives little indication of the rather dramatic life of the ship itself, which started at Greenock on the river Clyde in Scotland in 1886, where she was built for the Falls Line of Glasgow by shipbuilders Russell and Company.
The ship was just over 2000 gross tons and had a length of 83.87 metres, a beam of 12.64 metres and a draught of 7.23 metres. Her hull was of iron and her masts and rigging of steel instead of the more usual wooden spars and hemp ropes. Another innovation included in her design was the provision of “bridges” which allowed the sailors to move in relative safety even in rough weather when seas would regularly break over the decks.
The Falls of Halladale was built to carry general cargo, a highly competitive and rather rough trade in those days.
In 1896 under the command of a seasoned sailing ship skipper Captain William Fordyce from Lerwick in Shetland made a record-breaking run from Swansea in Wales to San Francisco in California, taking only 39 days from Cape Horn to her destination, which was,

Captain Fordyce

as reported by the San Francisco Call of 24 January 1896, “equal to steamer time.”
On that same trip a seaman, Charles Anderson, reported for duty when the ship sailed, but was somewhat inebriated and on the first watch call the next day was missing. It was presumed that he had during the night gone up to the forecastle and been washed overboard.
In March 1899 the Falls of Halladale sailed from Tacoma in Washington State bound for Cape Town and the crew mutinied, claiming they had been “Shanghaied” but after about five hours the men went to work and the ship was under sail for South Africa.
On route to South Africa more incidents occurred – first the mate was washed into the scuppers by a large wave and suffered a broken collar-bone and a dislocated shoulder; then four of the crew became ill.

The ship sailed from Hamburg, Germany, in June 1900 with the two women in the crew. They were Capt Fordyce’s wife, who was 58 at the time, and her daughter Jeanie who was at the time in her 20s. They were signed on as “Purser” and “Assistant Purser” with wages of one shilling a month. They apparently spent much of the two years they were aboard the ship doing needlework!
On 25 July 1903 the ship, now under the command of Captain D.W. Thomson, sailed from Liverpool with a cargo of pig iron, salt, soda and some general merchandise, according to the San Francisco Call of 14 March 1904. The ship ran into rough weather in September 1903 off the islands of Diego Ramirez south west of the notorious Cape Horn. The weather continued foul for three weeks and they struggled to round the Cape.
At last in January 1904 they made land at Invercargil in New Zealand by which time the crew was becoming mutinous. Eight crew members, under the leadership of on Thomas Mooney, had to be put in irons and, after the ship had received fresh water and supplies from the shore, anchor was weighed and they set sail once more for San Francisco.
To the newspaper Capt Thomson said of this experience: “I have been going to sea for a great many years and this was one of the most tempestuous voyages I have ever experienced. The storms off Cape Horn were of terrible violence and for three weeks we were almost practically at the mercy of the terrible succession of hurricanes we ran into. Of course the vessel must have suffered from the terrific strain she was labouring under, and from the terrible seas that kept pounding on her decks. It is impossible for me to state anything about the cargo, but naturally it must be more or less in a damaged condition. We have a quantity of salt in sacks on board and this, of course, has suffered. The soda must also be damaged. The experience at Invercargil was a bitter one, and it was a hard fight for me to keen the crew in order.”

People from the nearby town of Peterborough came out to see the wreck of the Falls of Halladale. Image via Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for Capt Thomson an even more bitter experience was to befall him two years later. On 14 November 1908 Thomson, on a voyage from New York to Melbourne, Australia, estimated he was safely off the coast of Victoria but could not verify his position due to heavy fog. By the time the fog lifted he could see he was much too close inshore but it was too late to do anything about it and the ship ran onto the rocks under full sail.
All 29 crew members were able to get ashore, but there was no hope of salvaging the cargo and the ship sat on the rocks with all sails still set, becoming a sight for the residents of near-by Peterborough. They would come out to picnic on the hills above the wreck, which has since been declared a historic wreck site.
Capt Thomson was charged by a Court of Marine Inquiry in Melbourne which found him guilty of gross misconduct and imposed a small fine and suspended his master’s ticket for six months.
A sad end indeed for a colourful ship.
The painting is in oils on canvas laid on board and measures 86.4 cm. x 106.7 cm.

Art and the search for meaning

“A picture is worth a thousand words” – this is a popular and frequently-heard saying. And yet it cannot be taken at face value. Philosophers and artists have during the past hundred years or so argued about the purpose and content of art, ever since art theoreticians like Roger Fry, Clive Bell and Herbert Read contended that art should not convey any message other than the formal contents of the work of art itself, the form, line, colour, texture of the work itself.

These three philosophers of art were reacting to the extreme sentimentalisation of art of the Victorian era, where art became the servant of “prettiness” and bland subjects that did not require any depth of thought but just a superficial reaction of pleasure, much like what we would today call “comfort food” gives us when eaten – no nourishment for body or mind, just a pleasant taste.
Which brings us to the question of the “purpose” of art – or does it not have any purpose outside of itself? What would life be like without beauty around us? What is beauty?

Painting of bisons in the caves at Lascaux

Painting of bisons in the caves at Lascaux

Indeed there is also the question, “Is art good for us, or bad for us?” The Puritans and some fundamentalists would argue that art is a distraction which takes our minds of the serious business of life, and feel this so strongly they would ban it from any places where this seriousness is pursued, like places of worship or work.
The answer given by such people gives us a clue that art has an impact, quite a big impact, on our lives. The earliest people made paintings and drawings of sometime haunting power on the walls of caves, depicting the life around them and their responses to that life, practical or spiritual. They clearly needed to surround themselves with these images, the images enriched their lives in some way, they invested these images with meaning which could not be gained in any other way.
Likewise mediaeval monks in their monasteries created works of art in the manuscripts that they wrote out, embellishing the words with exquisite miniatures of scenes from life or myth, which added to the meaning of the words themselves. Clearly these monks in the otherwise austere lives found these embellishments not only added to the manuscripts but to their own lives as well.
With the dawn of the modern era in the 19th Century art became more and more separated from this kind of context and came to be pursued as “art for art’s sake.” This is a concept which would have been unthinkable to the cave artists or to the monks creating those magnificent manuscripts.


From the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

In the 20th Century this was taken to extremes, but perhaps necessary extremes, when one thinks about the poor, meaningless stuff that was favoured by the Victorians, the “comfort food” type of art.
magritte26The ultimate challenge to the “comfort food” art was the art of the modernists like Hans Arp and the surrealists like Rene Magritte who painted a tobacco pipe and then labelled it Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) and did the same with the painting of an apple. This is a direct challenge to the viewer’s normal interpretation of such a painting, or image. If asked, “What is it?” the viewer will naturally respond, “It’s a pipe.” However, clearly it is not a pipe. Asked about it the artist said “Try stuffing it.” It is an image and can be read in many different ways – it can be appreciated for the colours, the lines, the texture, the “feel” of it. But it cannot, ever, be used. Likewise the apple could never be eaten, only looked at.
So what is meaning in art? Another artist, Paul Gauguin, painted a huge canvas which also took on the issue head on. This painting is frankly philosophical in intent: “I have completed a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the Gospel,” he wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfried in 1898. He called the painting “Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” and the painting was large, like its theme. It measured six metres in length and almost two metres in height.
Gauguin had high aspirations for the philosophy expressed in this painting, which he saw as having a definitive and moral result, “the liberation of painting, already freed from all its fetters, from that infamous tissue knotted together by schools, academics, and above all else by mediocrities.” It is a painting dense with meaning, but the meaning needs to be teased out, it cannot be simply assumed. It is, in Herbert Read’s words, “a correlative for feeling and not an expression of feeling.”

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

This painting would seem on the surface at least to be light years away from paintings such as those of Piet Mondrian, which are simply grids made on the canvas by lines of grey or black, with the spaces between filled with white or primary colours, seemingly at random. These paintings cannot be “read” like a story, so what are they about, what do they mean? Mondrian called his style “neo-Plasticism” and it related to the neo-Platonic “positive mysticism” of Dutch philosopher (Mondrian was also Dutch) M.H.J. Schoenmaekers and the teachings of the Theosophical Society. This philosophy was an attempt to penetrate the reality behind nature and to give it expression. As Herbert Read said of Mondrian’s approach, “Art becomes an intuitive means, as exact as mathematics, for representing the fundamental characteristics of the cosmos,” (in A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames and Hudson, 1959).
Mondrian_Composition_II_in_Red,_Blue,_and_YellowSo while the surfaces of the two paintings are worlds apart, the meaning coming from the intentions of the artists can be seen to be related, in that both artists saw their works as having a spiritual dimension, the meaning was external to the painting, though neither literal nor literary. The paintings referred to no external “Gospel” or myth, but to the understanding of the artist.
The viewer’s life and understanding is therefore enriched by contemplating the work of art and connecting his or her experience and situation to that of the artist. This is no “comfort food” but good, wholesome, hearty fare, well-cooked and needing to be thoroughly digested for the goodness to be available to the consumer. And like such wholesome food, time and effort put into the contemplation is rewarded with a sense of completion, of healthy and lasting fullness, quite different from the quick and transient satisfaction which comes from “comfort food”.