Johannes Meintjes   (South African 1923-1980)
Young man with lilies, 1945

oil on canvas
81 x 57.5cm
signed and dated bottom right ‘Meintjes 1945’

Johannes Meintjes was a prodigy in the 1940s. He held his first solo exhibitions in Johannesburg and Cape Town in 1944, when he was 21 – the same year in which he wrote a book on Maggie Laubser. A successful exhibition in 1945 raised sufficient funds for him to study abroad, and from late 1945 to 1947 he studied etching at the Central School, London.

Even when Meintjes painted from a model, his subject invariably takes on the appearance of a self-portrait. He was conscious of this inclination to self-representation: in a diary entry for 17 April 1945 he noted, ‘My groot nuwe werk, Sebastiaan, is nou voltooi. Iemand het daarvoor geposeer, maar dit lyk soos a selfportret’ (Dagboek van Johannes Meintjes, vol 1, Molteno, 1961, p106). A read through his diaries affirms a sense that he lived in a self-centred world focused around his art. As his biographer Pieter Marincowitz writes in a monograph published in 1948 (when Meintjes was 25 – perhaps another illustration of narcissism), the artist as a child disliked schooling because:
‘it encroached on and disturbed the world he was coming to believe in and trust to the exclusion of all reality – a solitary and private world, but solitary only because of extreme shyness and the resultant difficulty in establishing friendships, and private because his extraordinary sensitivity precluded the sharing of dreams with those who might not have understood his enthusiasm for the indiscernible purity of something as commonplace as an arum lily …’ (Johannes Meintjes: lyrical work, Cape Town, 1948, p12).
In this large and important work, painted in what is arguably the most interesting period of his art, these melancholic and introspective elements are immediately evident. The subject’s gaze is downward and inward, absorbed with the self and the senses – represented by the beauty and fragrance of the St Joseph’s lilies that surround him.

© 2005 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.