Art, Johannesburg and the Poet's Embroidered Lie

Posted on February 09, 2015 by Cape Rebel

by Herman Charles Bosman

Fiction is different from history. At least, I suppose, that is what an historian would maintain, ignoring for the moment the immortality that is in good fiction. Because when all is said and done, it is not dull fact – recorded in terms of historical truth – that survives. If you wait long enough, you’ll see that in the end historical fact, carefully checked and audited by the historian, cedes pride of place to the poet’s embroidered lie.

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Frankly, I believe that as a source of new cultural inspiration to the world, Europe is finished.

Europe has a background of unrivalled magnificence. Almost every town and city of Western Europe is impregnated with ancient splendour, but as far as the spirit of the peoples of Western Europe is concerned, these glories have run to seed.

For this reason it is most depressing to find painters in this country – some of them not without a good measure of creative talent – slavishly following the tricks of technique that contemporary European artists are employing with ever-increasing complication of subjective subtleties, as a substitute for individuality. Nothing can take the place of the raw inspiration of life itself, expressed with all the strength of a creative personality. And nobody knows this better than the European artists themselves. They’re not glad that their inner force has decayed; it’s just that they can’t help themselves.

It is therefore all the more regrettable that our South African artists, as a whole, should have no clear sense of values in this matter. You can learn all the technique you like from Europe – that’s what Europe is there for – but if you don’t put your own spirit into what you paint, either because you have no spirit of your own or because you don’t know how to express it, then what you produce cannot be anything more than synthetic rubbish.

I believe, however, that this is only a passing phase. South African artists are not trying to meet Europe on her own ground, which in itself would be an impossible enough task, they’re actually trying to copy Europe on her own ground. This is pure clownishness.

But this stage will pass. After that, I believe, South Africa – with Johannesburg as its cultural centre – will find itself in an era of inspired creation, sprung forth from the passion of love for this country. Then we’ll produce art that reaches real heights of grandeur because the note it strikes is authentic, and this beauty will endure because it is our own.

We have everything for it here. What has already been achieved in Afrikaans literature augurs well for the future. America has produced Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, two sublime literary figures whose true influence is being felt only today.

But Africa has not yet spoken.

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I believe it is possible to see Johannesburg as it really is only when we view it as a place of mystery and romance – as a city wrapped in mist. Is there any other city that is less than sixty years old, and the origin of its name is already lost in the shadows of time?

People who were present at the christening of Johannesburg say the town was named after the second baptismal name of President Kruger. Others with equal authority say it was called Johannesburg after Johan Rissik. Other candidates – and in each case their names are put forward on the most excellent authority – include Christiaan Johannes Joubert, Veldkornet Johannes Meyer, Johannes Lindeque, and Willem Gerhardus Christoffel Pelser (the latter, possibly, because his seemed to be the only set of names that didn’t have Johannes in it).

There are at least another dozen claimants. And you need have no hesitation in supporting any one of them. The evidence in each case is indisputable.

With its skyscrapers, Johannesburg is today no mean city. These tall edifices of concrete and steel would look highly imposing anywhere, let alone just being dumped down in the middle of the veld. But we still bear one or two traces of our mining-camp origin.

Take, for instance, the Public Library.

[Circa 1940]

Posted in English