Kramer vs Kramerby Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Photography by Ed O'Riley)
Like his brother the more famous David, John Kramer is recording the fast-disappearing gems of the platteland. Only, he does it on canvas.
It's no coincidence that in his previous artistic existence, John Kramer was the South African Museum's chief exhibition designer. For John, the past has never been a foreign country. So naturally, the double-storey where he lives in Gardens is more than 100 years old, and the studio he paints in was once the hayloft above where the horses and carriage were kept -now his garage.
It's full of cosy clutter, with several unfinished works on the walls. 'I like to have anything from 10 to 15 paintings going at the same time. Then I can say "That's the one I feel like working on today," says Kramer with that same small warm grin that first endeared his brother to South Africans decades ago, in the same platteland accent. The paintings are mostly of ordinary tin-roofed buildings: the corner café, the general dealer, the butcher and the barber. Some close up, some from unusual angles. All done in an unashamedly realistic style, with a quiet directness that's so appealing that the South African National Gallery in Gardens has three Kramers in its permanent collection.
'It's the very ordinariness of these platteland buildings that I'm drawn to.' says Kramer. 'Certain buildings have a personality, a spirit - nothing to do with their architectural value. That's the feeling I try to capture. The mood of a building can also depend on the light, the time of day, or what happens to be in front of it a bicycle or truck or whatever - some quirky, funny, little thing that catches me. I'm very drawn to signage. It immediately evokes a feeling of the period.'
John and his brother, who's five years younger, grew up in the Western Cape town of Worcester in the 50s and 60s. 'It was a time when nothing ever changed. Looking back, it seems the place always had that Sunday feeling. That wonderful, boring stillness when everything is shut and nothing happens. A quiet, static peace which at the time, I suppose, growing up, one didn't like, but now seems quite romantic.'
'I've never been interested in restored buildings, that old gabled Cape Dutch vernacular. I'm more interested in the look of real life. There was a wonderful naïvete about those rural towns. The way they looked. People used bizarre colours in weird combinations. Their gates were wagon wheels, their letterboxes giant golf balls. Then along came television and killed it. Everyone bought into Taste.'
John only became aware of the uniqueness of small-town South Africa when he went to visit his brother in Leeds, where David was studying textile design in Britain on a scholarship. 'People there lived in red-brick houses with no spaces between them. It was a completely different architecture. No single-storey houses with dusty gardens and fences and gate saying Pasop Vir Die Hond. I suddenly saw South Africa with new eyes. It struck me as quite surreal.'
By the 70s, John had got his fine art degree at UCT where he'd been influenced by Professor Neville Dubow's comments about the need for artists to look to their roots to make an impact rather than to simply copy what was being done overseas. The poetry John's brother was writing was rooted in the South African experience. David, by that stage, was putting it to music, performing songs like Hak Hom, Blokkies! at the Barleycorn Folk club. John designed the cover for David's first record Bakgat. It harked back to what they'd grown up with; the letterbox made from a kettle and welded chain, the house with the artistically angled street number.
John remembers the Sunday recce trips the brothers would do together into the country. 'David would sit in the car writing, and I'd be out there with my camera.' John went on to photograph thousands of buildings all over the platteland. 'I'm sorry now I didn't record them more systematically. I was much too selective.'
In 1970 he went for an interview at the museum. The job turned out to be so much more than just painting scenic backgrounds that he stayed for 37 years, and became involved in absorbing major projects like the planning of the new building to house the Whale Well.
On the side he painted his portraits of platteland streets, influenced by the new realist painters of the US like Edward Hooper. Realism hadn't yet reached South Africa. It was only when Clement Greenberg, enfant terrible of New York art criticism, saw some of John's work in a competition, and commented on its freshness, that it began to take off. One of the advantages of working at the museum was that he could paint whatever he wanted. 'I didn't have to paint for a market. Luckily though, people like my work.'
In the 80s he had two one-man exhibitions at the Association for Visual Arts, and was soon selling as fast as he produced. In 2002 he left the museum, and now paints every day, including weekends, and often evenings. But he's so painstaking and meticulous that his work still sells out before he can get enough together for an exhibition. Whereas two decades ago he would've sold a 30x50cm acrylic on board for about R350, he now gets around R25 000 in 2008. Most of his work today is oil on canvas.
It's almost a surprise to hear that he has a family - wife Patricia, a senior book editor at Reader's Digest, and sons Steve and Philip - because when he climbs those stairs to what was once the hayloft, he enters another world. A world where they haven't yet knocked down the old Scala Cinema and Van Vuuren's milk bar, and where he's obsessed with getting truth on the canvas.
'You see the way the light hits the ground here:' he says, pointing to a painting that's all purples and yellows, a house with a stoep in Philipstown. 'See how it bounces up under the tine roof? To paint that you must understand how lights flows. There must be truth to it. That's what people respond to.'