John Kramer: Solo-tentoonstelling by die Irma Stern Museum

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John Kramer, portrait in studio

John Kramer se eerste solo-tentoonstelling in 25 jaar het op 6 September by die Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank, Kaapstad geopen. Lien Botha het hom hieroor uitgevra.

Jou eerste solo-tentoonstelling in 25 jaar – waarom die lang wag?

I had two solo shows in the 1980s, one in 1981 and another in 1988 at the Association of Arts in Church Street. Both were successful. By the end of the 1980s I was taking on more responsibilities at the South African Museum, where I had worked since 1970. The museum had many exhibition spaces to fill due to new extensions that had been recently completed. With deadlines to fulfil I felt I simply couldn’t cope with the stress of running a solo show of my paintings at the same time. Having always loved to paint and create things I carried on painting at night and over weekends, quietly working away in my home studio, sending out work to galleries when it suited me and participating in small group shows such as Rose Korber’s annual salon, Art South Africa Today and the Cape Town Triennial.

My paintings over the years have been exhibited in small numbers in galleries like Joe Wolpe’s gallery in Castle Street and Riva Cohen’s Atlantic Gallery. They always sold well, but I was under the radar, so to speak. So over a period of 40 years I have had a large body of work out there, but got the feeling of late that the younger generation hardly knew I existed anymore.

Dit is duidelik dat die Suid-Afrikaanse kunspubliek sterk aangetrokke voel tot jou werk, soos afgelei uit die besoekersboekkommentaar en ook Facebook-reaksies soos “You are a rock star” (Pippa Skotnes) en “travelogue, historical, magnificent” (Cheryl Baratt).

I’m just looking forward to getting back in my studio again and starting some new paintings. Essentially I’m a loner and certainly don’t crave public attention. Yes, it’s gratifying that I have had a good response, and while the exhibition is on I’m happy to engage with the public and those interested in my work. Maybe it has something to do with not showing for such a long time. The solo show at the UCT Irma Stern at least lets a body of my work be seen together in one place. The one thing that has struck me from 25 years ago and today is that the exhibition in the ‘80s elicited a response of, “Why are you painting these ordinary buildings?” to “This is part of our heritage and look at what has been lost. It’s Africana!”

"Dormehl's Supermark, De Aar," 1993, oil on canvas, 91 x 151.5

I think when I started on the project I had a feeling that a lot of the buildings I painted would in fact disappear with the coming of more aggressive selling methods. The impact of the Mall was yet to be felt. These would have a devastating impact covering a wide radius, even affecting smaller dorps 100 km away. Now that we live in a digital age I am aware that online shopping and new technologies will again disrupt and change the High Street forever.

Voorts was dit bemoedigend om te sien dat ’n leeftyd se produksie so mildelik beloon is met knap verkope. Was jy die reaksie te wagte of het dit jou verras?

In 2002 the museum institution underwent restructuring and we had to reapply for “a job”. I had been working on large exhibitions at the museum for 32 years; I was 55 at the time and felt if I could get early retirement I would just go and paint full-time, which is something I’d always wanted to do. It was granted. I carried on sending out work to galleries as I could not face the thought of another large exhibition. I was in a rut! In about 2011 Penny Dobbie, who had dealt with my work in the past, suggested to me that I should have a solo exhibition and told me she was booking a space whether I liked it or not and we were going to do a book. That’s how the exhibition and book at the UCT Irma Stern came about in September 2014. The exhibition was a chance to show a body of new work done over a two-year period. Yes, it is heartening that so many people who had bought and collected my paintings over the years and were curious to see what I was up to came to the show. In the current economy I was simply hoping to recover costs and make up lost income after having withheld work from the market for over two years. The good sales that resulted helps one to go forward again. It also gives one impetus to create new work and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in again.

"Doornbaai Handelshuis," 2010, oil on canvas, 80 x 130

Tussen die openingstoespraak van Martin Welz en die katalogus-essay van Hayden Proud word die werk knap onderskraag - sowel op ’n intieme wyse  (“Sense of fighting the good fight” – Welz) as op ’n meer akademiese wyse (“Kramer’s kinship with Hopper, especially in his paintings where the forms are parallel to the picture plane, is very clear in this instance” – Proud). Voel jy dat die twee here aan jou reg laat geskied het? Dalk is daar iets wat jy nog wil byvoeg?

Let’s deal with Hopper first. People often allude to Hopper when they see my work. In the early 1960s I first became aware of Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning,which was published in a small book, Modern American Painting and Sculpture by Sam Hunter. I don’t recall much else being available to view, as colour illustrations were not as freely available as today. This painting did strike a chord in me and it still lingers in my memory. If I really think about what inspired me in the early 1970s it was not Hopper at all. I don’t think that apart from the work referred to above I was really that aware of his work. That awareness only occurred in the 1980s, after the show “Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art and subsequently travelled to European galleries. For the first time ever, this show presented Hopper's oil paintings together with preparatory studies of his works. This was the beginning of Hopper's popularity in Europe and his large worldwide reputation. (See Wikipedia.)

In the late 1960s I was more aware of the new pop artists emerging – artists like Chuck Close, David Hockney, Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Richard Hamilton’s collage, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? made a deep impression on me. In the early 1970s I read an article in Art News on the new photo-realist painters and I was struck by the work of Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Robert Cottingham and Malcolm Morley. Having honed my realism skills after art school I felt ready to give it a go. Instead of commenting on the American scene I began to look for something more local that was first suggested to us by Michaelis Art School lecturer Neville Dubow – what at that time I called the search for “the real South Africa”.

Martin Welz, a Worcesterite by birth and a year above me in school, sketched out what life was like growing up in a small town in the 1950s and ‘60s. His address hit the nail on the head and I was delighted with what he had to say.

"The 20th Century," Worcester, 2014, oil on canvas, 61 x 98.7 cm

John Updike was van mening dat Edward Hopper altyd “op die punt van ’n verhaal” was. Met jou werk bespeur ek dieselfde. Benewens die stilistiese ooreenkomste, waarna Proud dan ook verwys, voel dit vir my of jou werk dikwels die begin of volslae einde van iets is. Sien jy dit enigsins so, of is dit vergesog?

I’m not sure if my work is about a story as such. Of course, for the viewer a particular painting might trigger an idea or emotion that he or she has had in relation to a particular place. This reaction could be positive or negative. I deliberately omit any presence of human beings or other animals in my paintings. The idea is to let the viewers feel they are part of the scene and are on the other side of the road gazing at the building, so to speak. I often notice a strong response to the paintings of corner cafés, bioscopes, small family shops, petrol pumps, signage, motor cars and bicycles. I think it reminds them of the temporary nature of material things which change over time. They are echoes of another time and often evoke emotions and memories of that more distant past.

Staan jy ooit terug en wonder of ’n skildery werklik voltooi is al dan nie – maw is ’n werk ooit afgehandel? En hoe weet jy dit?

Not really. I have a good idea of what the finished painting should look like long before I even start. The method that works for me is to collect or photograph what I call “source material” on field trips that I go on (let’s call this my sketchbook). Many years might pass before I select one of these images that will form the basis of a painting or series of paintings. I’m looking for qualities inherent in the photo, colour, shape and texture. That is what I paint. Not the reality out there, but this two-dimension surface of the photographic print. Proceeding in a series of steps, starting with the initial layout, design and composition, I work in a series of stages, starting with thin paint and building up to a final impasto until I have reached my goal. I often leave the work unfinished for many months, looking at it occasionally and when inspired, will do the final touches and sign. Once signed and dated the work is finished.

"Instamatic Family Group," acrylic on canvas

 

Wie is die mense in "Instamatic Family Group"? Hulle sien daar so gelukkig uit. Het jy grootgeword met onderskraging tot jou werk?

This painting was an early attempt at a photo-realistic painting based on an idea that Neville Dubow had suggested some years before, that as young new artists we should stop looking to Europe or New York for inspiration, and that we young emerging artists living on the southern tip of Africa away from the forces at work there should explore themes that we were more familiar with, “in our own backyard”, so to speak. So I picked up a happy “Kodak moment” snapshot of my parents that I had taken when on a visit to my great-uncle and his wife, who lived in the Little Karoo at Buffelsdrift near Ladismith, and used that image as the subject for my large realist painting. Scale was important. It contained the ordinary and mundane elements I was looking for of what in those days I called “the real South Africa”. In a largely non-figurative art world at the time it created quite a sensation!

Wanneer mens na hierdie werk van 1974 kyk waarvoor jy die eerste prys in die Crown Cebestos-kompetisie ontvang het, kan mens nie anders as om te voel dat jy met gerief die portret-tema sou kafdraf nie. Het jy nooit die behoefte gehad om weer met die onderwerp te woeker nie?

In the early 1970s I had a large studio on the top floor of the Corporation Chambers building on the corner of Corporation and Darling street overlooking the Grand Parade - thanks to the generosity of my uncle, Gus Muller, who owned the Lite-Kem chemist below. Anyway, I had embarked on a series of large photo-realistic paintings of people to which you refer to in your question. Most of the works have disappeared or are lost and I don’t know their whereabouts. I also did some portraits of family and friends at the time. When the Parade studio came to an end in 1974 I moved to a bachelor flat in Mouille Point and my work became smaller due to lack of space and I embarked on a series of paintings that I have pursued for a 40-year period. Recently I did do a large figure portrait of my brother David to enter in the Sanlam portrait competition in 2013. I thought it turned out rather well, but it was rejected. Such is the nature of competitions.

"Garage Murraysburg," 2014, oil on canvas, 55 x 89 cm

Soveel skilders gebruik fotografie as vertrekpunt vir hulle werk, en dan is die kyker bewus daarvan, sodat dit ’n mate van kunsmatigheid verkry. In jou werk voel die proses egter soomloos. Jy het ’n instinktiewe aanvoeling vir die lens, en onlangs op Facebook het jy dan ook gevra of die digitale era die einde van die medium kan beteken. Wat is jóú mening hieroor?

Ever since the birth of photography, introduced by Louis Daguerre in 1839, artists have been incorporating elements of this new medium into their work. We think of Degas and Delacroix, Cezanne, Gaugin, Bonnard and Picasso, among others, who all made use of photographs at some stage in their paintings. Today we live in a world that is awash with images taken with iPhones, iPads and the like. We have these amazing new tools at our disposal and increasing ease of access to the world’s finest examples online. Just try searching Google Images or Pinterest. This is a gift to us. Artists will use the new tools and digital media like Photoshop and Lightroom to create ever more wonderful images. It’s part of our age. The question I often ask myself is why I still use oil paints and brushes to convey my message. Although I enjoy the new media, and use it every day on Facebook and Flickr there is still something wonderful and tactile about painting. The “feel” of working on a flat canvas with traditional tools and creating illusions never stops being fun and interesting. Essentially I am painter. I just love to paint!

"Supermarket, Strydenburg," 2014, oil on canvas, 50 x 80 cm

Wat resoneer vir jou die sterkste omtrent jou reise en ervaring van die Suid-Afrikaanse landskap? Hoe het dit verander?

Generally, from the perspective of our short life here on earth the landscape appears timeless apart from man-made interventions of roads, bridges, pylons and the odd farm building dotting the landscape. It’s this aspect that I enjoy looking at and enjoy commenting on. What really interests me is the intervention made by human beings in the form of the built environment and all the elements that go with it. Signage, advertising, telephone poles, cars, trucks and all the detritus plastered on to facades. These things are of a temporary nature and when I see something that gels with me, I want to capture that exact moment and communicate it to the viewer in the form of a painting. That’s why my work is about a specific moment that once existed in time.

Op Facebook plaas jy gereeld fassinerende foto’s van ontheemde binneruimtes. Was jy nog nie genoop om jou skilderblik na binne te rig nie?

No, not really. When I travel around looking for material to paint I see wonderful things. In fact, seeing through the eye of the camera is a very rewarding experience. With digital photography it costs nothing to just record whatever comes into view. My wife is busy with a project on the corbelled stone structures in the Karoo. On our travels in the Karoo we get to see a lot of remote places. I just snap away and take pictures of some of the interesting things we see along the way, some being interiors of abandoned farm houses. I’m happy to share these on social media sites to give people a chance to see that which is generally inaccessible to the general public. At this stage of my painting career I have not felt the need to paint interiors, but who knows …

"Uniondale Trading Company," 2014, oil on canvas, 55 x 89 cm

Jy het seker al by tye teruggekeer na strukture wat nou nie meer bestaan nie en dit maak jou versameling Africana des te meer gewigtig. Maar wat gaan dan deur jou gemoed?

In the late 1960s I began to record the shops and buildings in my hometown of Worcester with my camera, knowing they would change and disappear. The supermarket was coming to town and TV was yet to make its presence felt. I wanted to hang on to the memory. In the mid-1970s these images became the source for my paintings. I had found a subject. Over the years I have returned to certain places to see how things have changed. This is a natural process. Of course I feel a sense of loss when an “old friend” has been demolished or replaced with a branded store. As long as I have a record of it I have captured a moment in time. That makes it worthwhile for me.

Worcester is inderdaad ’n besonderse plek, soos ook uitgelig in Welz se toespraak. ’n Broederskap van kreatiewe geeste is daar ontkiem. Waaraan sou jy dit toeskryf? Is dit die water?

Worcester was a “Goldilocks” town when I was growing up – not too big, not too small, not too far from the big city, not too close. With its grid-like footprint designed as a new administrative centre in the 1820’s, it was positioned between two freshwater streams, so it was well supplied with lei-water. Maybe this was the secret to your question. It was an easy town to comprehend and as a boy growing up one got a rounded picture of general life in this Boland centre with its diverse population of farmers, shopkeepers and professional people, doctors, lawyers etc. Walking its broad streets designed for the ox wagon of a previous age one got to see a microcosm of the wider world. In the town there were many sights, a sawmill screeched out shrill sounds in the afternoon, a vinegar factory permeated the air with acidic smells. Caps and Dolls, a factory that made Christmas crackers and party hats, was on the outskirts of town. The shrubs in the veld were often littered with colourful shards of crinkle paper. We had a textile factory, Hex Tex, with its large French-speaking community, a school for the deaf, a school for the blind. There was a co-ed high school and a trade school known as the Drostdy. Worcester even had a cultural side, with an art centre left to the town by artist Hugo Naudé. It had the Little Theatre, and ballet was taught. The two bioscopes and a drive-in brought the glamour of Hollywood and a view of a wider world to us. As Martin Welz pointed out in his opening address at my exhibition, Worcester even had its own rock band, the Off-Beats. If a stranger or a motor car came to town from afar, we would know.

"Boerewinkel, Loeriesfontein," 1991 (selected for inclusion on the 1991 Cape Town Triennale), oil on canvas, 92 x 137. Collection: Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Deel asseblief ’n staaltjie uit jou dae by die Suid-Afrikaanse Museum – dalk ’n anekdote oor ’n spokende olifant of selfs iets oor die debakel rondom die verwydering van die opspraakwekkende San-diorama.

Two incidents come to mind, one involving a glass-fibre specimen of the Great White shark and the other about the famous Bushman Diorama.

In 1991 the Great White shark was declared a protected species in our waters, South Africa being the first country in the world to do so, and it was decided to mount a special display to commemorate this event. The museum had just completed a large fibreglass replica of a Great White that was cast from an enormous shark caught at Gansbaai some years earlier. Taxidermy staff were tasked with hanging this specimen, which we dubbed the “submarine”, from the ceiling in the gallery. Anyway, after much hoisting and securing to suspend the beast, everyone stood back to admire the display, when a cable suddenly snapped, and the enormous creature with its mouth wide open and all dentition exposed, hurtled towards me. How I survived that day is still a miracle to me, and I can still imagine my epitaph: “Exhibition designer killed by Great White shark in museum.”

My second story … Ah yes, the famous Bushman Diorama that simply refuses to go away. It is best described as a “human habit group” in which the Drury Bushman plaster figures, first cast in about 1910, until the mid 1920s, could be displayed as a family group. They were to be engaged in communal activities against a background of country in which Bushmen had lived in 1800 AD. A Karoo landscape near Beaufort West was selected for the purpose. This would be the showpiece of the then new Hall of Man. The diorama was set up in the summer of 1959/60 by display artist Anne Schweizer, taxidermists Charlie Thorne and Clive Booth under the guidance of ethnologist Margaret Shaw. The whole of Room 2 was taken up by this exhibit. From that time the diorama was one of the most popular exhibits in the South African Museum. It was a superb example in the South African Museum of the art of the diorama. At some point the diorama fell under the spotlight of certain individuals and it was felt that displaying these plaster figures of Bushmen was no longer acceptable. This matter raised its head every now and again over the years and if I recall correctly, things finally came to a head when Parliament instructed the then head of Iziko Museums of Cape Town, Jack Lohman, to get rid of the diorama once and for all. The problem was where to store the plaster figures, as they would occupy a lot of space, which the museum was short of. I was head of the exhibitions division at the time and after some thought suggested that we simply make the problem disappear from public view. Why destroy what was essentially a fine installation of the art of the diorama in one afternoon? I then instructed the carpenter to build a false wall in front of the diorama with a door for easy access to do maintenance when needed. To the best of my knowledge the diorama (in all its glory) is still there – behind the scenes at the museum – hoping to one day see the light of day again.

Images published with the artist's permission.

Exhibition of new work
by realist artist, John Kramer
First solo exhibition in 25 years
At: Irma Stern Museum
Dates: 6–27 Sept 2014

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