John Kramer’s paintings bring to mind long, hot, lonely Sunday afternoons in the platteland. The images of slightly dilapidated buildings are both achingly familiar and strangely foreign. Inevitably they evoke feelings that hover somewhere between warm comforts and quiet despair.
This piece was first published in Cape Review July 2001. I’m posting it again because I love John’s paintings and also because he is having his first solo exhibition in 25 years at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town and there are only 5 more days to see it as the exhibition ends on the 27 September and I need to go and see it within the next day or so because art is feeds the soul and sometimes you take it for granted and then one day it’s no longer there, like beautiful exhibitions and old corner cafés…
(I love this painting so much. The Princess Cafe in Hermanus was where we used to buy soft-serve ice creams. We drove passed it last week and it's been replaced by a R5 store.)
A conversation with John Kramer
John Kramer’s paintings portray the everyday ordinariness of our country. Old buildings and corner cafés embody the spirit of a community and times that has almost been erased from our memory. He paints with compassion and affection, affection, I suppose, born out of a familiarity with the scenes he paints.
He explains, ‘It helps to paint what you understand. I’m not saying I completely understand these communities, know exactly how a shop is run or who the owner is, but I certainly understand or can relate to the scenes I paint. I can recall those quiet, boring Sunday afternoons. I’ve sat under verandas in small towns as a child, wishing something exciting would happen. I remember those moods and remember hating it.
‘You must paint from this place inside yourself. And I’m interested in the places I know; the idiosyncratic little towns which are rapidly disintegrating and I suppose a lot of my work today is to hang on to those memories because I actually did experience the end of that era.’
The passion for what John sees as typically South African architecture, stems from his having grown up in Worcester. ‘In a town like Worcester in the 50s, nothing much ever happened but there was the old Van Vuuren’s Milk Bar, a real American Milk Bar with a juke box and soda fountain and there were two bioscopes, the La Scala and Twentieth Century Fox. In the 60s when I left Worcester to go and study art at Michaelis there was an economic boom and things started changing in Worcester. This was the time when TV came to South Africa and inevitably things started changing. La Scala closed and places that I’d associated with my childhood started disappearing. I felt an awful sense of loss and I wanted to hang on to some of those memories, so I went around and photographed some of these buildings, just to have a visual record.’
These photographs would eventually form the basis of John’s early work. In 1971 he went to visit his brother David who was studying in Leeds and it was here that John realized the significance of these seemingly ordinary and almost forgotten buildings. ‘David and I were talking about our search for what we called The Real South Africa, whatever it was in those days. We were looking for something that was essentially South African. Obviously we were looking at it from our white middle class perspective, but we still felt that there was something uniquely South African that wasn’t being commented in in the arts. I returned to South Africa and noticed for the first time the quality of the light and the vast space. In contrast to the red brick and industrial architecture I had seen in Leeds, I was now confronted with buildings in an assortment of colours and houses with gardens and fences. What I had always thought was normal now seemed quite bizarre. And then I realized that it was this ordinariness that was the essence of The Real South Africa. The South Africa of the Cape Dutch kultuur where little architectural gems that were being preserved by the various cultural societies in the small towns were all historical buildings but I felt, and still do, that the Brody’s Hardware Shops and the Van Vuuren’s Milk Bars are the more realistic representation of the architecture of our country.’
John paints buildings that still exist in modern South Africa but which also echo layers of the past. For him, the buildings must have a feeling and this feeling has nothing to do with architectural beauty. It’s how the viewer relates to the building that gives it its significance. Those who respond to his work, do so because there is something in their collective memory that sparks recognition. It may be the building, a windmill or a metal Joko Tea plaque which reminds them of their past,
There is something melancholic about these paintings but still they manage to celebrate the very ordinariness of that society has begun to reject. It is no wonder that his works are highly sought after by South Africans living abroad. Looking at them, you can almost hear the call of the cicadas and smell the small town dust. For some it is the Afrikaans lettering on the buildings that remind homesick South Africans of their heartland. But it isn’t only the images of the platteland which conjures up memories. John’s body of work depicting the corner cafés awaken a long forgotten suburban memory of old chocolates, glass jars filled with loose sweets, brown paper packets and magazine racks where Scope magazines were furtively read by schoolboys behind the trays of warm government loaves of bread.
The demise of the suburban corner café almost caught John unawares. ‘I never worried too much about the corner cafés until one day I realised they were almost all being replaced by franchised cafés. I don’t think any of us could have imagined how fast they would have disappeared in the past 10 years. These are real losses and I’m glad that I managed to capture some of them.’ The Imperial Café with its corrugated iron roof and wooden structure was a Cape landmark; nestling underneath the incomplete flyover at the entrance to the Waterfront. It was a source of irritation to some but a source of joy to others. It burnt down a year or two ago, but John’s painting managed to capture the mood of this late night convenience café. Then there was the exotically named Zanzibar Café in Voortrekker Road. It was one of John’s favourites reminding him of the legendary Baghdad Café (of the film of the same name) where anything may happen.
I remember the Onrus Cash Store. It now longer exists, but then much has changed in this small seaside village near Hermanus. Looking at a painting of it, I’m transported back to cold wet Cape winter weekends in a village with few inhabitants, even fewer playmates and where a visit to Mrs Hen’s café would mean sticking your grubby hand into a jar filled with Apricot sweets, Wilson toffees and cheap peppermints. Hot summer days would necessitate a similar barefoot journey to but ice-lollies which then dripped orange syrup all over warm sunburnt arms.
This is what John Kramer does best. He captures a moment in time.
Driving through a town you may or may not notice the tin barrels converted into garbage cans, or the car tyres now used as a planter for the Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, or the windmills, or the short picket fences painted in oranges and browns, or the wire garden gates. It is only in a painting that our attention is focused on these details that convey the soul of a place.
According to John, ‘ I’ve always maintained that the small town is much more interesting than New York. For me a Karoo town is special. You don’t know what’s going to be there. You look and at first you don’t see anything and then you notice the dryness and even though everything is rundown, there’s an honesty about the place. People often ask me why there aren’t any people in my work but this omission is deliberate. My paintings are actually portraits and the buildings with their faded advertisements, mix of architectural styles and peeling paint do convey the history and the personality of the locals.’
John Kramer tells the story of how having spent the day exploring Sutherland, the town famous for its observatory and icy winters, he was ready to check into the local hotel. The receptionist welcomed him warmly, asking him what he was doing in the area. ‘I’m looking around, taking some pictures; it’s a wonderful town this, ‘ he assured her. He recalls her wistful expression, and her skeptical ‘gmff.’
Things aren’t always what they seem.
But for how long will these small towns continue to be an example of Real South Africa? John believes that their time has almost passed.
‘The slow demise of the railways has killed these places. With the railways pulling out of the towns, the economy collapsed and the Karoo fell apart far quicker than one would have imagined. The arrival of television also signaled the end of an era for small town South Africa. Suddenly the whole world was being beamed into everybody’s living room, including the people who lived in these small towns. For the first time they became aware of how the rest of the world lived and those fantastic naïve combinations of colour and whatever they did décor-wise that was perhaps regarded by those more sophisticated people as being in bad taste, disappeared. ‘And then of course city folk bought up houses for weekend homes. New designer colours appeared on the scene, new broekie-lace was put up and while the houses may now look lovely and small town appear on tourist maps, they’ve lost their authenticity and soul.
‘But I suppose that’s what my paintings are about. Memory and loss.’