Commentary

These notes are rather like the  explanatory labels you find in museum galleries, though with some personal commentary too. They provide context for pictures that need it: for instance, identifying  quotations in titles, allusions to other pictures, place names that might be unfamiliar, or telling things unknown except to anyone except the artist and her close circle or even just me, but which might help interpreting what are often strange and enigmatic works.

All the framed pictures are from known private collections. Some of the unframed ones are taken from the original photographs for the illustrations in the article by Anna Tietze mentioned in the biography; those are the ones that are dated, titled and have size and medium given. The others are from photographs of record for an exhibition at the Karen McKerron gallery in Johannesburg in 1993. I have been unable to trace the owners of any of these pictures. They obviously cannot have been painted any later than 1993, and I have simply said ‘early 1990s’ (on stylistic grounds none are earlier than 1990, though one was started in 1989 and finished in 1990, but belongs to the 80s in style). Where there was no authentic title I have left the pictures untitled; in some of them the title was written on the back of the photograph in the artist’s hand. All are oils; she didn’t paint in any other medium. The order of these undated pictures is uncertain;  I’ve arranged them based on style and topic and my memory of what she was doing when.

From Persephone’s Garden. In Greek mythology, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the Harvest-Goddess and bringer of fruitfulness. She was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld, and during her stay down below mistakenly ate six pomegranate seeds, which made it necessary for her to stay underground with Hades for six months of the year. During that time Demeter wandered the earth in her sorrow and forbade plants to grow, hence the origin of winter. Persephone also became Queen of the Underworld.

September. This was left untitled, but I took the liberty of giving it a name because it suggested to me a poem Jaime loved, and which has the same mood. September (the German word for September too) is the title of another poem by Hermann Hesse, the text of the first of Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), among her favourite music. The poem is about the death of summer, and begins ‘Der Garten trauert’ (The garden is mourning) and ends with the line ‘In den sterbenden Gartentraum  (In the dying garden-dream).

The White Calf. This began as a technical exercise, with no model but a cow’s skull she wanted to draw as perfectly as she could and learn about by drawing. (Knowing how an animal is built inside can help you interpret its outside better.) But it turned into an exercise in metamorphosis, and then into a ‘vegetarian painting’. She had drawn cattle from life, and she could easily remember them accurately. The rest is of course imagined, but incorporates memories of having our own calf, and the culture-shock of moving to Scotland in the 70s and seeing sliced up animals hanging on the walls of butcher shops. This had long had been replaced by emotion-free sanitary plastic packages in the US by the time we left.

But … This and the preceding are her only two ‘political’ paintings, with anything like a ‘message’, painted under an inner compulsion (well all good art is) and violating her own principles. She profoundly  detested political art, which she considered a kind of treason; and in South Africa in the 1980s got a lot of flak for saying so and making the kind of pictures she did. Art for her was about art, not ideology, though it of course reflected her feelings and preferences. This is probably the most structurally complicated picture she ever made. It has a peculiar feature I only discovered after years of looking: it has no internal space, only the breasts and feathers thrusting out at the viewer, the latter in an almost vulgarly thick impasto (the only time I know she ever put paint on like that). There is no way of getting inside, for instance deciding whether the end of the butcher’s table, the window, the sign on the window, the setting sun, the mountains,  are in the same plane or not. She abandoned perspective just where it was designed to be, so the picture is strangely inverted and exclusionary.

Battledress. A portrait of a World War II British Army jacket. She found it at a flea-market stall on the Portobello Road in London and fell in love with it. She bought because she knew that some day she’d paint it. Many people have noticed the odd quality of this picture: the jacket is empty, but inhabited.

The Red Carpet. An early portrait of the Junior who appears later, with our living room rug laid over the garden in imagination. This is a jeu d’esprit and is not supposed to ‘mean’ anything.

The Old Blind Cat. A portrait of an actual cat of ours and a modified person and blindness. The letters behind the figure’s glasses are from the underpainting, which was an experiment in making a picture out of a text. It failed, and she started to paint it over with undercoat, but saved some of the letters  when the idea of the picture came to mind.  What fascinated her was the peculiar luminous density of cataracts which one doesn’t often get a chance to figure out how to paint. And she adored the cat as well, who sat still for ages while being sketched and painted.

The Still Centre. This title is a misremembering, either by Jaime or me, of a word in a line from T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton.  I don’t know if the poem played a part in the genesis of the picture, but the picture called  up the passage for both of us, and picture and poem seem to be about the same thing:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered.

Palm Tree Mosque. This is the only picture of Jaime’s I know in which there is motion. But to the right of the motorcyclist there is a recurrent theme: the old bravely battling the new, the little old mosque crushed between brash, ugly modern buildings and with the motorbike unheedingly rushing past.

Palace of Dreams, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. These are portraits  of a 1930s cinema we knew, fallen into decay, its coming destruction signalled by the ‘sold’ sign. The artist said in an interview that the pathos of this picture is that ‘this was once somebody’s pride and joy’, and we stand and wait for its dissolution. The theme of decay and destruction of what was once beautiful occurs in September as well, though there the loss is of something natural rather than man-made.

Libertas Flats. A surreal portrayal of real block of flats, with the perspective characteristically stretched impossibly into the distance.  This picture has a disturbing feature that many of her works have: the sky (something you’re taught in art school not to do) is the darkest part of the picture, and presses down on the lighter parts, creating a feeling  of claustrophobia and anxiety.

Untitled 1. A real building again, but impossibly isolated and clean. Rather unpleasant shadows and again that lowering, oppressive sky. There is an Escheresque touch here, as in George’s House: there is no way of getting onto the staircase.

Untitled 2. I am not sure whether this is a reimagining of a real building or totally invented by the artist. There is no way one could naturally get that view of an actual building. This is another of her meditations on death and decay (compare SeptemberPalace of Dreams, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road). The windows are the empty eye-sockets of the dead.

Edwardian House. Again, the beauty of the past triumphing over but also crushed and shadowed by the vulgarity and bad architecture of the present.

Untitled 3.This is one of Jaime’s favourite cats named Albert, who also appears in the last of the pictures in this collection, held by the figure. Perhaps the two things she loved most in the world were fine architecture and painting, and cats.

Untitled 4. This is another of our favourite cats named unimaginatively Kitty (we rescued her and she came with that name).  The two cats are lying on the same garden pathway in different lights, and the lighting is chosen to reflect the intensity of their own colours.

Oggendmetgesel. Afrikaans: ‘morning companion’. Jaime was in love with snails, and our house is full of snail ornaments. I’m not sure why she named it in Afrikaans, but it seemed to make it more local and belonging to our South African garden. There’s sometimes a special magic and freedom in using a language that’s not  your native one. She was particularly fascinated by the translucency of the snail, and the diffused but brilliant light of a low easterly morning sun, slightly above perpendicular to the snail, which is slightly above the painter’s eye-level.

On the doorstep. I seem to remember our finding the nest in front of our house, obviously blown out of a tree. Jaime was fascinated by it, and the difficulty of painting it. This is perhaps her most self-consciously virtuosic picture. Like the later George’s House, it has a comic element: there is no way a bird big enough to lay that egg could possibly sit in that nest.

City Guns. A stripped down and isolated version of an actual building in the centre of Cape Town.  It serves as a vehicle for joy in painting light and shadows and sharp angles. It also has the feeling of profound isolation that appears again and again in her work through  her use of unpeopled landscape (Through the Gate, At Wynberg Station ,the Florida pictures, SAL).

At Wynberg Station. The incongruity of a 19th –century mosque at a (relatively) modern railway station. Look at the minarets.

Woodstock. Another light painting, this time a wall in an old part of Cape Town.

Key of the Flats. A splendid somewhat crumbling old building (that name is written on the door lintel), at present buried in traffic and slums. The painter hoicked it out of its current degradation and put it down, refurbished and glowing,  in an ancient imagined version of the place where it stands now, part of a sandy, arid region called the Cape Flats. A reviewer in one of the local papers remarked that one should not actually try to find any of the buildings in her paintings: she had made ‘a Cape Town of the heart’.

Junior. A dual study of a cat in all its softness and plumpness against the sharp edgy light so typical here. The same light as Key of the Flats.

 The Last of the Sun. A portrait of George, one of Jaime’s iconic cats, in process of dying. A surreal, impossible rendition of ‘the valley of the shadow of death’.

George Remembered. A loving recall of George in his prime, years before the previous one but of course painted a year later, with sun and shadow not then images of death.

Elysium. Very personalised portraits of nine of our deceased cats, in a version of the Greek Land of the Blessed Spirits. This image returns with The Land of Lost Content in the last picture.

Through the Gate. Another of her strange, lonely paintings, dominated by light and angle. Note that there is no way of getting out the back of the picture except falling, which gives some people vertigo if they look hard enough. There is also a major shadow which has nothing to cast it, a motif she returns to.

Groote Schuur Angel. Groote Schuur is the hospital in Cape Town where Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplant in 1967. It had a stunning Victorian cemetery full of life-sized figures, as good as the best in Glasgow which is saying a lot. It was vandalised in the 1990s to build neo-Brutal rubbish. This angel is a remembering of one of the marble ones in the old cemetery; the ugly buildings had not been completed yet but Jaime devised ones to suit the enormity of the desecration. The angel, like so many Victorian ones in that pose, originally stood on a plinth with the inscription ‘Gone Home’. There is only one other noble character here, the timeless mountain (Devil’s Peak) behind the angel. This picture powerfully portraus her isolation from the present-day world which she did not really live in,  her wish to see the rising of the Old out of the ashes of the New.

Our Quiet Street. Junior in an apparent rendering of a small Victorian streetscape. But there is something else in the picture which is not so innocent. The shrubbery is looking too. There is another character in the picture, created only by direction of gaze.

George’s House. A fantasy based on impossible perspectives and designed both to be comic and induce a feeling of discomfort. The best way into it is to try and climb the stairs. There is a touch of Escher here, but less evenly geometrical.

South Carolina. One of the very few naturalistic portraits of a human being she ever made (though it too fades strangely). She met this girl on a visit to the Carolinas (one of her favourite places in the world) and was just utterly taken by her.

Hollywood Florida Early Morning 1, 2. Another aspect of her most typical work, of a piece with City Guns and Through the Gate. She was more drawn to empty landscape than almost any other subject, either fading into the dimness or blazing in southern light.

SAL. Stands for Suidafrikaanse Lugdiens (South African Air Service), now SAA. The colours are still those of the pre-Mandela days. She was fascinated by the machinery, which she painted in enormous detail without being clear what most of it did, but in love as so often with light and shape and the joy of the intricate and difficult painting. The mountains could not be that colour under any natural light.

Birkenhead Road. An inverted and transformed version of the street we lived on. It seems to be a study in light, but there’s more. Look in detail at the shadows dominating the picture and try to figure out what casts them.

This is the Land of Lost Content. The title is from a poem by A.E. Housman (quoted below). The figure is an allusion to a famous portrait of a Spanish court dwarf,  don Sebástian de Morra, painted by Velázquez around 1645 and now at the Prado in Madrid. There is a good reproduction of the picture on Wikipedia under his name. The two figures are very different emotionally – the Velázquez has a certain rigid anger, Jaime’s is crushed by its deformity. As well as by its exclusion from the scene behind it, which is another version of Elysium, this time separated by a river. Here, judging from the lotus flowers which stand for oblivion in Greek mythology, the river is Lethe, one of the five rivers of Hades. Crossing it allows the dead to forget the horrors of life. When I was watching her work on this picture I asked her whether the river was Lethe and she said ‘of course’. Then she added ‘this is a very  Greek picture’. The picture seems to be about exclusion  and loss – the figure shows us the unreachable world behind the curtain. But there is a strange connection between the two worlds: the cat the figure is holding also appears on the other side of the unbridgeable curtain and uncrossable river, the frontmost cat. There is a straight imaginary line at a shallow angle to the left connecting their two faces. Here is the poem that the title was taken from

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

This is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A Shropshire Lad, XL (1896)

RL