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“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" – L.P. Hartley

Katrine Brink Claassens’s painting are rooted in a deep nostalgia, but it is a nostalgia of a very peculiar cast. (That they are also simply beautiful is not the least of their charms.) For South Africans (both black and white) of Katrine Claassens’ generation the past was literally a different country, and the break with it radical. That it was an illusory country to start with – at least in its white suburban fantasy - makes the nostalgia for it no less real: nostalgia is always a sort of phantom pain for a past that was never there, and childhood has always felt more idyllic than it was, an innocence that was never really present, or present – at any rate – only in the consciousness of its loss.

To look at this past at all honestly is to face the challenge of simultaneously giving a true account of the wonder felt at the time, and to wonder at it now with the experience of hindsight; it is to try and recapture an image which melts away even as it is being composed, which is already shifting even as the paint is drying on the canvas. To be able to picture this, and to paint it both nostalgically and as false – to see the wonder in it, while wondering at it – is one of the great virtues of these paintings; loss may be all the greater when what is lost was never had, especially if the illusion of having had it meant something nonetheless.

All of this is there in the lavishly shed petals of a fading summer in a painting like Jacaranda Girls, but even more so in the way that all these paintings blur and bleed, fade out and decompose (or recompose?) themselves. Even in the more contemporary North American paintings, there is a predominance of snowy landscapes, a haziness, and a distance created by the way the images are framed within the painting: none of these paintings fill the canvas – they are always seen as if through something. In all of them the artist is removed from the scene. And yet this is not the distance of alienation: there is enjoyment and wonder in these scenes, for all their evident unfamiliarity. And perhaps there is something in wonderment which can only be experienced from the outside; perhaps being able to experience wonder is only possible once is able to stand outside and wonder at it, but also wonder about it, and that is the achievement of these paintings.

Johan Hugo
M.Phil. University of Sellenbosch

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