Hugo’s Flowering Namaqualand

The Flowering Namaqualand of Hugo Naudé – Nick van der Leek searches for the springtime of the artist’s soul…

Pictures: Nick van der Leek and Supplied

09169 - Hugo NaudeI’m looking at a modest-sized painting, 13.5cm x 17cm. Namaqualand Daisies is a masterpiece but it’s hard to say why. Pieter Hugo Naudé, a contemporary of Volschenk, has a gorgeous Van Gogh-like style. His simple brushstrokes and courageous palette imply a slumbering genius. But if this is more than mere Impressionism, what is it?

In Namaqualand Daisies, the field of flowers rises almost imperceptibly to the left, while simultaneously there’s a deepening intensity of colour, as subtle, guiding lines move the viewer towards the horizon. What secret lies beneath these compelling, open-air, perpetually springtime scenes?

To solve this puzzle we must start from a great distance away, and then we must look at individual pieces. All artists worth their salt have territories. Pierneef (1886-1957) had the monumental thunderstorm skies, arching camelthorn trees and geometric strata of the Northern Transvaal.

My great-grandfather Tinus de Jongh (1885-1942) luxuriated in the sun-drenched Cape Dutch homesteads and gold-plated mountains of the Western Cape. Claerhout (1919-2006) captured the sweaty, earthy characters inhabiting the sunflower fields of the Free State. WH Coetzer (1900-1983) assailed the Drakensberg, the rural backwoods and their local inhabitants, and the Great Trek.

For Pieter Wenning (1873-1921) it was the overgrown pioneer farms of early South Africa, for Boonzaaier (1909-2005) the streets of Cape Town, Bo Kaap and the coast, and for Keith Alexander (1946-1998), the shipwrecked dystopias of Namibia. There was occasionally an overlap, but for the most part, our legacies of original art were not just distinctive in their own right, but targeted to specific landscapes.

Namaqualand Daisies main image option

While Volschenk (1853-1936) was staking his claim on the lovely Langeberg around Riversdale, his next-door neighbour (not only geographically but historically) was Hugo Naudé. He was born in 1869 on the farm Aan-de-Doorns, and bred in the towering orchards of the Hex River Valley, and his world was the world of the farm. And what’s the most blessed time of year on a farm? Springtime, of course.

After attending school at Overhex and in Worcester, the 20-year-old Naudé joined the celebrated writer Olive Schreiner in 1889 on a trip to Europe. Schreiner not only recognised Naudé’s talent, but was actively involved in introducing her charge to an excellent network of artists, patrons and intellectuals.

One of these was Havelock Ellis, an English writer (and physician) who co-authored the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality, in 1897. Ellis recommended that Naudé attend the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. Naudé also studied portraiture at the Kunstakademie in Munich under Franz von Lenbach. And so it goes on…

Of course there’s only so much you can learn about an artist in books. To really get to know these creative heads of state, we have to invade their territories. We have to have a first-hand experience of some quintessentially South African scene, and that means driving out into their distinctive territories, armed to the teeth with curiosity, our hearts and minds flung open.

It’s only once we’re outdoors and far from our domestic concerns, out of context as it were, that we’re awakened to some slippery but exquisite essence. Something resides here and only here. But where’s Naudé’s magical ‘here’? Worcester?

Naudé’s countless farmyard scenes were painted around this Western Cape town perched on today’s N1. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this is where he grew up and where he settled with his wife. But I’m looking for a world that Naudé would have still recognised. It’s not here; it’s beyond traffic lights, parking lots and strip malls glowing beneath the stern faces of Worcester’s looming purple mountains.

self portrait (1)If he were driving with me in the car, where would he have demanded we stop? Where would he have bathed in the absolute beauty of the countryside? And so I drive north, leaving behind the Cape and its grapes, its towers and its traffic, towards drier, dustier climes.

I spend the night at my aunt’s home in Velddrif, beside the Berg River. An artist herself, Joan Schrauwen finds the constant fluctuations of light on the water, on the sedge, and the liquid tides of birds, a kindling for her creativity. The next morning, equipped with instructions on where the best swathes of flowers are hiding, I set off.

On my way out of Velddrif I can’t help thinking there’s a clue to this mystery of Naudé’s Namaqualand Daisies in Joan’s fluid twilight scenes. The medium is different, but there’s something going on here that’s both deeply tangible and frustratingly intangible. What is it?

As I make my way up the West Coast, past Elandsbaai and the mountain cauldron of Vredendal, I feel a sort of slippage. Not just the day slipping but a lifetime, not just a lifetime but an entire generation. As I wander into the fringes of Namaqualand the day becomes a daze of flowers. The world transforms into a natural Garden of Eden, endless blooms stretching on and on for miles.

I drive all the way to Kleinsee over several days (about 100km short of Port Nolloth and the Namibian border) and, as each new floral landscape unfurls into view, I find myself struggling to fit it all into the camera viewfinder. That rich intensity of colour – even the world’s most powerful cameras struggle to comprehend such penetrating and pervasive lavishness. Surely it’s not real?

Increasingly I want to know Naudé’s technique for capturing these lovely scenes. This is the first time I’m seeing the Namaqualand flower show and it truly is a wonder. While I’m using a wide-angle lens, Naudé reduces the size of his canvas to something small and manageable. Then he infuses this with nature’s buzzing, oozing, beautiful diversity. This seems an almost mischievous trick, but it’s really a master craftsman, who has transferred his skill at portraiture to this loveliest of all landscapes. Instead of obsessing over technicality, instead of working within a particular school of art, Naudé focuses on the quality of what’s in front of him. His art goes beyond Impressionism and becomes intuitive.

self portrait (8)Like in the face of a supermodel blown up, where we suddenly see freckles, pores, the curve of a nostril, and beneath her eyes a few tiny wrinkles. But none of that matters. What matters are the lines of her face, the light in her eyes. And so Naudé dispenses with details and finds the essence in the simple brushwork – colour, liveliness, the ebb and flow of the underlying fields.

There’s a turbid quality to some of his work. It speaks to the soul about how these flowers are suddenly here, there and everywhere, and then disappear entirely from the landscape. They must die in order to leave behind seeds that will bloom again next year.

The road lifts, revealing seams of colour. I find myself in high spirits here. I wonder, was Naudé a particularly happy artist that he loved these landscapes so? As struggling artists go, he was one of the luckier ones; his talent was recognised early and supported.

Others, like Pierneef, Tinus, Claerhout, Wenning, Baines and arguably even Keith Alexander, didn’t have it so simple or so easy. If it wasn’t parents who objected to the artistic dreams of their progeny, it was catastrophic setbacks, sabotage, fire or premature death that made life hard for most of them. Even Naudé’s neighbour Volschenk voluntarily sacrificed decades to a career before resuming his artistic journey.

In Esmé Berman’s excellent encyclopaedia, Art & Artists of South Africa, we see that ‘there were probably few artists in South Africa who were more popular as individuals than was Hugo Naudé. Even in his youthful days, pupils and friends would cluster around him and often in the evening he would entertain them at the piano, singing in a soft, melodious voice. As an artist he was more solitary, following his own direction and divorcing himself from current… practice’.

Naudé’s convivial personality also meant he would naturally gravitate towards people and portraiture. Some notable commissions included President Marthinus Steyn, General Louis Botha and Reverend Andrew Murray. But despite Naudé’s hoity-toity schooling in Europe, and even though he could easily have settled into high society when he returned to Cape Town, he preferred to paint farmyard scenes, especially the Cape coloureds going about their everyday chores.

hex main image option

What makes Hugo Naudé a standout star among the nine or so artists we’ve highlighted in COUNTRY LIFE so far, is he’s one of precious few (Naudé died in 1941) whose work has sold for well over R1 million. In 2011, a typical, bright, beautiful 40cm x 55cm oil called Namaqualand in Spring was auctioned by Strauss Art in Johannesburg for R1 559 600. Two years later a different scene, the smoking, darkly domestic Cape Kitchen Interior brought the hammer down at R891 200. Only one other landscape artist is comparably expensive, in my view, and that’s Pierneef.

Esmé Berman has it right when she says, “It’s somehow always springtime in Naudé’s small canvases.” Perhaps this is because Naudé was the first South African artist to adapt his style to the idiosyncrasies of the local landscape – in other words, the sunlit atmosphere, the vivid colours, the penetrating blue skies and expansive, heartbreak-beautiful vistas. It takes great courage, of course, to do this, and a lot of nerve to take on flowers en masse as he did.

A Maggie Laubser still life of a flower in a pot or a vase is one thing; a field of flowers is a sort of sensory overload that requires a special eye, and a special soul to capture it in an authentic way. If Hugo Naudé was the first to adapt his style to the sunlight, others soon followed, but none could do Namaqualand quite like he could.

Now I’ve left Namaqualand and her unbelievable fields far behind, yet they linger in me like a dream, like a good meal. On my way back, when I reach Langebaan, the emerald lagoon – with its flamingos in the shallows and flowers bobbing on the adjacent peninsula – calls to me. I stop. I look and listen. And then come the nagging questions, ‘This is more than mere Impressionism, but what is it? What secret lies beneath these open-air, eternally spring scenes?’ When the answer steals on me there’s no pang of revelation, just a soothing sense of knowing, after a long and eventful journey.

farmyard scene

What is it in Naudé’s art that’s more than Impressionism?

Besides intuition, there’s beauty in modesty. There’s beauty in telling without embellishing. The best photo needs no enhancements; it is perfectly what it is. When the unembellished can’t be improved on and yet its beauty is unparalleled, that is something rare. And that’s what I think Naudé found here, in heartbreaking abundance.

Reality inspires us more eloquently than anything else, and art that is true to the inner as well as the outer landscape evokes this inspiration best. It calls to us. It says come out here into the world and see; see for yourself, and see yourself here. See how beautiful the real world can be just as it is, and see how beautiful you are in the world, just as you are.

What secret lies beneath these scenes?

The soil of simplicity. Naudé’s Namaqualand is down-to-earth, sunlit and spacious. It doesn’t need to be more than that to be majestic. What can be more magnificent than the bursting of spring in full blush?

Naudé didn’t take weeks to complete his masterpieces but made them in a flourish at a single sitting. He allowed a fleeting moment to overtake him, to awaken him. And in a single energetic session he put it all in there, the oozing life, the subtle, guiding lines, the distant mountains and elevated horizon. What he’s doing is evocative rather than imitative, but it’s sufficiently imitative that if you went in search of his intuitions, you’d find them, just as I have.

I think that, because Naudé was a happy artist who led a good and fruitful life, Namaqualand as a muse made absolute sense. What Naudé recognised was the springtime inside himself, inside everyone. It comes and goes and yet its seeds are always there.