Vivian Van Der Merwe (1956- )

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Vivian Hubert van der Merwe (born 29th May 1956 in Cape Town, South Africa) spent his childhood and school years in the Cape Province, Transvaal and Natal regions of South Africa. Despite having had no early art tuition, Vivian’s earliest work demonstrates clear artistic prodigy. In 1980 he completed his undergraduate studies in fine art, studying painting under Stanley Pinker at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. He was later awarded the Master of Fine Arts Degree in 1983. Apart from his politically charged prints and drawings (1973 and 1974), Vivian’s early works (1976-81) expressed a remarkable aptitude for high realism, and at times extreme naturalism; a sort of twentieth-century tribute to his own Dutch and Flemish heritage.

During the decade from 1978 to 1988, Vivian’s painting became increasingly abstract, with a gradual, yet highly conscious deconstructing of the rules, norms and conventions of pictorial representation. This affirmation of the structure of pictorial space and the abstract and plastic language of the art of painting was an expression of his increasing preoccupation with the nature and meaning of Form in painting. What we see in these works is much more than a mere re-invention of the reductionist wheel of Modernism.

In later work, the still-life objects are no longer obvious. They exist as highly refined residual, or structural elements, resonating discreetly through shape, colour, light and texture. It is this later work for which he is best known and respected. Despite his eclectic and somewhat postmodernist re-affirmation of Eurocentric precedents, his art remains difficult to place in a particular stylistic category. It has been said that “artistically he occupies a place somewhere beyond Morandi and Ben Nicholson.”1 And while other commentators have pointed to the influence of Malevich, Parisian Modernism, Tapies and African artefacts, Vivian’s unrelenting concern with Form locates his work outside the postmodern orbit and the Eurocentric mainstream.

“He is acutely aware of the long history of the concept of form in art as well as in philosophy and theology, which dates back to ancient Greek times and still plays a crucial role in modern science, contemporary aesthetics and theory. Despite this fact, or perhaps precisely because of it, his art is predicated on the possibility of the rediscovery of the true meaning of form in that silent realm beyond contemporary preoccupations with the semantics of the language. For this reason, Vivian eschews politically engaged or ‘narrative’ art in favour of the genre which allows him the greatest freedom and experimental range with regard to formal or structural possibilities, namely the still-life. Paradoxically, however, instead of proving to be merely sterile formalism, his treatment of form establishes its autonomy in a way that does not leave our moral sensibility untouched. In the final analysis, therefore, his works are a powerful reminder that art opens up a fissure in the obviousness of the every day – an opening within which new possibilities dislodge what is merely given.”2

This idea is expressed in the artist’s own words:

“When language is pushed to the limits of its expressive form, it reaches a threshold beyond which it can no longer cope. It comes, as George Steiner put it, to “the shores of silence”. Speaking as a painter, it is my conviction that it is at these shores where disciplines such as mathematics, physics, music and painting begin, and the conditioned perspectives of history, style and semantic lineage are transcended and sloughed away. It is in these moments of potent silence that Form is rediscovered and affirmed . . . yet man cannot create ex nihilo.”3

Since 1995 Vivian van der Merwe has lived and worked in Stellenbosch, a small, picturesque university town in the Cape Province.

1 David Lewis; Art historian, artist and associate of Ben Nicholson describing Vivian’s work in 1998
2 Professor Bert Olivier; Philosopher and art theorist, from “A Selection of Eastern Cape Art”, pub. 1994
3 From an interview with Gerda Coetzee on SABC (S.A. Broadcasting Corporation), 1995



Solo Exhibitions:

2013 Form | Stilte: Mid-career retrospective exhibition. Sasol Art Museum, Stellenbosch

2006 Exhibition of nude drawings, Grande Provence Gallery, Franschhoek

2001/2002 Exhibition of paintings and drawings, University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery

2001 Exhibition of paintings and drawings; inaugural exhibition of Tokara Gallery, Stellenbosch

1998 Dorp Street Art Gallery, Stellenbosch

1992 Exhibition of drawings, Central Art Studio, Port Elizabeth

1986 South African Association of Art Gallery, Cape Town

1985 E.P.S.F.A. Gallery, Port Elizabeth

1985 Wellington College, Cape. (Invitation exhibition)

1985 University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery. (Invitation exhibition)

1984 Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town. (Postgraduate exhibition)

1980 Michaelis School of Fine Art. Exhibition of figure drawings

1980 South African College of Music, University of Cape Town. (Conceptual event)

1979 Arena Theatre, University of Cape Town. Interdisciplinary installation

1977 Caledon, Western Cape region (Large-scale land artwork)

Selected Group Exhibitions:

2013 Back to the Future. Abstract Art in South Africa. Past and Present. SMAC, Stellenbosch

2008 10 Philosophical Questions. Stellenbosch University Gallery

2008 Cabinet Reshuffle (curated by Julia Meintjes), Tokara Gallery, Stellenbosch

2001, 2002, 2005 SPIT I, II & III Exhibitions, Stellenbosch University

2000 The Art of Drawing (national exhibition), Dorp Street Gallery, Stellenbosch

1999 Exhibition of four South African artists’ work, University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery

1999 The Sutherland Experience, Worcester Art Gallery, Worcester

1999 Stellenbosch Gallery, annual Salon for invited artists, Stellenbosch

1997 Invitation group exhibition, Johannes Stegmann Gallery, University of Bloemfontein

1996 – 1999 Beeldende Kunste Personeel exhibitions, Cape Town

1996 Guild Gallery selected artists’ exhibition, Pretoria

1993 Commemorative exhibition: 120th year of Faculty of Art & Design, Port Elizabeth Technikon

1992 GAP exhibition, King George VI Art Museum, Port Elizabeth

1991 Exhibition of works nominated for Vista University public commission

1990 Inaugural exhibition of the Cuyler Gallery, Port Elizabeth

1988 Artists for Democracy, Walmer Civic Centre, Port Elizabeth

1986 – 1991 School of Art and Design staff exhibitions, Port Elizabeth

1986 Annual exhibition of emerging South African artists, Gallery 709, Cape Town

1985 Everard Read exhibition, Johannesburg

1984 – 2007 George XVI exhibition of South African art, Strydom Gallery, George

1984, 1988 Volkskas Bank Atelier exhibitions

1984 Inaugural exhibition of Battswood Art Centre, Cape Town

1981 New Names exhibition, South African Association of Arts, Cape Town

1978 Inaugural exhibition of the Watershed Gallery, Cape Town


The South African National Gallery, Cape Town

University of Cape Town Collection

University of Stellenbosch Collection

Port Elizabeth Technikon Collection

Vista University; Port Elizabeth

ABSA Bank Collection

De Beers Collection

SASOL Collection

Telkom Collection

Prolantic Telecommunications Collection, Johannesburg and Cape Town

Cologne Reinsurance Company Art Collection

Collection of late Jacques Derrida, Paris

Harry Oppenheimer Collection, Johannesburg

Collection of Toshio Kanamaru, Tokyo

Tokara Corporate Collection, Stellenbosch

Buchanan Collection, Los Angeles

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Museum, Port Elizabeth

Works by Vivian Van Der Merwe (1956- )

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