Brother of the more famous Davidby Maureen Barnes, Fairlady, 18 August 1999
Every South African has heard of David Kramer, irrepressible entertainer and impresario; his brother John is less well known. In the art world, however, the name John Kramer is greeted with respect and enthusiasm.
If you're ever exiled from South Africa, don't look at a John Kramer painting - you'll weep with homesickness. For in his oil-on-canvas portrayal of the cafés, stores and houses standing in the sharp sunlight of a sleepy dorp, John encapsulates the very essence of this country.
Although most of his work is flown overseas to be hung in the homes of international art lovers and the aforementioned weeping exiles, there are some local galleries where you can see Kramer's wonderful paintings. Parks restaurant, in Cape Town, decorates its walls with an ever-changing exhibition of local art. Here you may find, along with pieces by Skotnes and Laubscher, the occasional Kramer. A few years back, restaurateur Michael Olivier fondly remembers, a businessman arrived for dinner, stopped dead in his tracks and stared at a painting. 'That looks just like Riversdale;, he said with emotion. 'It is Riversdale,' answered Michael. The man stood for a moment, lost in reverie.
"I grew up in Riversdale and my dad had a red bakkie just like that one,' he said wistfully, and bought the painting on the spot.
That red bakkie might very well have been the one the belonged to his dad - Kramer's paintings are inspired by a collection of photographs he's taken over the past 25 years in towns and villages. 'The camera is my sketch pad,' he says. 'I may not start a particular painting for years, but suddenly the time is right. By then the building might have been destroyed or changed, but I paint it as it was on the day I photographed it.'
John and David grew up in Worcester in the Cape, where their father was the manager of a furniture store. John was interested in drawing from a very young age and remembers being inspired and encouraged by his uncle Theo, who owned a silkscreen-printing factory. After John matriculated he studied fine art at the University of Cape Town's Michaelis School of Art. In the mid-Sixties the school had a particularly rich roster of artists on its staff, Maurice van Essche, Carl Buchner and sculptor Bill Davis among them. John was strongly influenced by May Hillhouse and Stanley Pinker.
It was while he was at Michaelis that John began his collection of photographs. 'I'd go home in the holidays and find that buildings like the old Scala cinema or Van Vuuren's Milk Bar, which had been part of my life, were gone or changed,' he says. 'It was quite a loss, so I started photographing buildings to keep them alive in my memory.'
After graduating in 1968, he went home to Worcester (he recalls how tolerant his parents were about this), taking with him the coveted Michaelis Prize for Painting. Although he never stopped painting, he wasn't sure where his work was taking him. 'During my years at Michaelis, I was exposed to many influences and "isms" - realism, abstract impressionism, surrealism,' he says. 'The art scene was so exciting in the Sixties, with artists like Jasper Johns and David Hockney, that it was some time before I could find a way of expressing myself, I tried all sorts of things.'
After six months of painting and living at home, he joined a Cape Town advertising agency as a junior artist. A year later, in 1970, he found a niche with the South African Museum, planning and designing exhibitions - and he still enjoys the work. He's since married Patricia Cairns, an archaeologist, and they have two sons, Stephen (18) and Philip (13).
Painting remains an essential part of John's life. Back in the early Seventies he was, he tells, 'secretly preparing myself for what I wanted to paint', and after a trip to Europe to visit his brother, it all came together. David had won a scholarship to study textile design in Leeds - art, apparently, is in the Kramer genes - and John was fascinated by the buildings in the old working class city, which in those days were encrusted with the soot of decades. 'I found them interestingly textured, and so different from anything I'd seen in South Africa,' he says. 'David and I discussed what was the "real" South Africa, and I concluded that it was something that hadn't been expressed by many artists - the ordinary things: the tin roofs, the little stores, the sleepy Sunday afternoons.'
So John embarked on a photorealism adventure that has grown more exciting over the years and has earned him the respect and admiration of critics and art lovers. 'Some people find it strange that there are no people in my paintings,' he says, 'but this is deliberate. In a way, the buildings are portraits that tell you something about the people who live there'
It's true, John doesn't portray deserted towns - just places where people aren't present for a moment. It's easy to imagine that the door of the Zanzibar Restaurant will soon open to reveal the proprietor, replete after a hearty lunch; the owner of that bicycle will walk up and pedal away; the newly shorn farmer will leave the barber's shop and, brushing a gnarled hand across his bare forehead, climb into his bakkie and drive off in a cloud of dust.
More than representing history on canvas, John captures personal stories and freezes them in time. On July 3, 1978, at precisely 4 pm, for instance, that's how a particular situation was. And because of John Kramer, that's the way it will stay.