Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

A Return to the Picturesque: Reading the Landscape in Lettie Viljoen's Landskap Met Vroue En Slang

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

A Return to the Picturesque: Reading the Landscape in Lettie Viljoen's Landskap Met Vroue En Slang

Article excerpt

From the Soothing Blue Landscape of the Peninsula to the Subtropical Chaos of Durban

Lena Bergh, the protagonist in Landskap met vroue en slang (Landscape with Women and Snake), is a visual artist that relocates with her husband, Jack de Leeuw, from Stellenbosch to Durban. After an acrimonious divorce (from her first husband) and the sudden death of her father, one would expect Lena to be excited, if not anxious, to start a new life elsewhere with her second husband. It soon becomes clear, however, that she is battling to adapt to her life in suburban Berea. Lena is what Coetzee (1988: 38) calls "an enthusiast of landscape", (2) that is to say an observer who views terrain as a potential subject of painting, and whose observation of terrain is in turn educated by her experience of painting. For example, Lena remarks the following about the tonality of the subtropical landscape that surrounds her:

   Groen is hier die norm. Groen is die konteks. Groen is nie een van
   Lena se gunstelingkleure nie. Sy het 'n voorkeur vir warm kleure:
   vir lewerrrooie en alisarienpienke; gryspienke, grys- en
   Napelsgele. Groen in kombinasie met rooi sou sy nie by voorkeur vir
   haar werk gebruik nie. Die spektrum van kleure hier, die
   kombinasies van groene, gele en rooie, vind sy onsubtiel. Sy moet
   die groen aanvaar, of sy moet dit vertaal. Sy kan haar daaraan
   oorgee, of sy kan dit vertaal na iets wat dit nie is nie. Sy kan in
   swart en wit werk, soos sy deesdae doen.

(Viljoen 1996: 173) (3)

   (Here green is the norm. Green is the context. Green is not one of
   Lena's favourite colours. She has a preference for warm colours:
   for liver reds and alizarin pinks, grey-pinks, grey- and Naples
   yellows. By choice she would not use green in combination with red
   in her artworks. The spectrum of colours, the combinations of
   greens, yellows, and reds, lacks subtlety. She has to accept the
   green, or she has to translate it into something it is not. She
   could work in black and white, as she does these days.)

Lena therefore experiences a decline in focus and inspiration, on the one hand because she finds the surrounding landscape overwhelming, confusing and uninspiring, and on the other, because she is paralysed by an obsessive yearning for the more familiar (and "soothing") landscape of the Western Cape. The sheer abundance of the coastal landscape of Durban impedes her observations:

   Wanneer Lena oor haar linkerskouer by die venster van haar
   werkkamer uitkyk, word haar uitsig op ongeveer honderd meter deur
   bome belemmer hoofsaaklik mango-, palm- en papajabome. Alles is
   hoofsaaklik groen om haar. Deur die digte lower is die huise aan
   die oorkant van die klein vallei net-net sigbaar. Die lug hier (in
   teenstelling tot die Wes-Kaap) is warm en dig, saamgepers tot 'n
   ongewoon hoe, broeiende konsentrasie en die aanwesigheid van
   tallose kruipende en vlieende insekte. Die sensasie van beklemming,
   van 'n gebrek aan ruimte, het nie net te make daarmee dat die
   koepel van die hemel hier oenskynlik swaarder, drukkender op die
   aarde rus nie, maar met die gevoel dat daar 'n groter
   verskeidenheid uiteenlopende vorms en manifestasies van bewussyn om
   suurstof en leefruimte in hierdie troebel sop meeding. (p. 39)

   (When Lena looks over her left shoulder through the studio window,
   her view is obstructed at about a hundred yards by trees--mainly
   mango, palm, and pawpaw trees. In the main everything around her is
   green. Through the dense foliage the houses on the far side of the
   small valley are barely visible. In contrast with the Western Cape
   the sky here is warm and thick, compressed to an unusually high,
   humid concentration and filled with countless crawling and flying
   insects. The sense of heaviness, the lack of space, results not
   only from the fact that the dome of the sky apparently rests
   heavier on the earth here, but also from the vast range of forms
   and manifestations of consciousness competing for oxygen and
   breathing-space in this muddy soup. … 
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