Jani on Art

‘Art has been the needle that has pulled the tapestry of my life together’

Jani Allan at home, Kallenbach Dr, Linksfield Ridge. Painting 'Apartheid' by Norman Catherine (Gordon Schachat Collection)

Jani Allan at home, Kallenbach Dr, Linksfield Ridge. Painting ‘Apartheid’ by Norman Catherine (Gordon Schachat Collection).

I started Art lessons when I was 9. I was taught by Betty Clur in Linden in her tiny dining room. Margaret Brewer, another little girl in the class has gone on to become a famous botanical artist and lives in Canada.

One of my drawings – a dog and a kitten entitled ‘Me and my tiger’ was published in the Blairgowrie school yearbook – along with an essay I wrote about ‘Road Safety Depends on me.’

The latter was a bossy little tract about how you should help little children to cross the road safely. It won some prize as I vaguely recall.

My mother had her heart set on me becoming a concert pianist. I was supposed to do a B Mus at Wits. Instead I enrolled for a Fine Arts degree.

I wanted to wear hand-tooled leather sandals and Indian kirtas. My mother relented. She was a painter herself. She was related in some way to Pierneef.

My days in the Fine Arts Department of Wits were the happiest of my life.

I loved the History of Art Lectures especially. There was something magical about sitting in the darkened auditorium and have Professor Elizabeth Rankin explain the world to us through art.

She had a little pointer which she would use to guide to what we should be looking for.

Composition, contrapposto, chiaroscuro….I was enchanted.

Professor Rankin’s explanation of Hatshepsut’s Funerary Temple, of the architecture of Gothic Cathedrals – the apsidal chapels, the clerestories, the nave and the sculptures are embedded in my memory.

I recall the difference between Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Greek Sculpture.

When I was lucky enough to go to the Arena Chapel in Padua I remembered her lectures about Giotto Di Bondone 1266 – 1337.

I always loved the cool, blonde colours of the Northern Italian painters. Piero della Francesca was my favourite.

Later I was to discover the 17th century Dutch painters and I fell in love with Vermeer. I loved the way he transmogrified the everyday into the timeless and the iconic. Glimpses into quiet, ordinary rooms, a quietness – the patina of familiarity ennobled.

I was lucky enough to have extraordinary teachers.

Cecily Sash taught us design. Robert Hodgins, painting. I was even fortunate to have the matchless Judith Mason as a teacher for a while.

When my apartment was bombed I lost two wonderful Judith Mason drawings. If I could own one work of art in the world it would be a Judith Mason.

Once Judy offered to swop one of my paintings for one of hers. I was too bashful to accept such generosity.

The painting she had taken a liking to was a pomegranate seed swirling in Prussian sea. Now it is in an attic somewhere.

Judy bequeathed to me a little lecturing job that she had held. Once a week I would lecture the girls at Greenoaks College.

I tried to emulate Elizabeth Rankin, but of course I couldn’t. Instead I found the fine art references in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I loved sharing my passion for art with those young women, some of whom went on to become scions of business.

At Bryanston High School, I also taught Art. I am afraid I was young and caustic and hope I didn’t deter any would be artists.

I do remember Keith Calder being in my class. He is now a wildly successful sculptor.

As a columnist I was blessed to be able to interview some of the most remarkable painters.

Walter Battiss (who conferred on me the status of The Scribe of Fook Island), Norman Catherine (Norman, King Norman of Fook Island), Tretchikoff, Eris Silke, Edoardo Villa, Beezy Bailey, Gordon Vorster…

Gordon Schachat to whom I was briefly married, has become a pre-eminent art collector in South Africa. His late uncle Louis had Die Kunskamer in Cape Town.

Art has been the needle that has pulled the tapestry of my life together.

Soon before he passed Andy Warhol was supposed to do a portrait of me.

Who knew that I would come to America and live in the 17th silk mill, that Andy Warhol used to come to every weekend from New York?

Later I would work for Jim Hamilton, the Broadway set designer who had originally restored the Mill.

I have fetched up in an historic town which Forbes magazine lists as one of the prettiest towns in America. It is full as a pomegranate is with pips with art galleries – and artists.

While walking the Poms I come across Luis Vilela or Robert Beck of Miles Cavanaugh… (I get a kick out of the fact that Michaelangelo is said to have had a Pomeranian too!)

When the weather is fine, the canal tow path and streets are dotted with plein air painters, hoping to capture the light dappling on the water or the tree-lined avenues and the manicured Federal homes.

Through art one understands the world.

Through art, artists express the nature of the societies in which they live.

Watch “The Duellists” by Ridley Scott. Every scene in the movie is composes like a painting. The light is extraordinary, since he shot either at sunset of dawn.

Few things can move me to tears. Kindness to animals is one. Great works of art is another. I remember seeing Las Meninas, by Velasquez in Madrid. I wasn’t prepared for the size of the work, nor the impasto that dances on the picture plane.

When I saw a Leonardo da Vinci painting in Washington DC I also wept silently.

The creation of art ennobles man.

The one painting I yearn to see is Rembrandt’s Night Watch in the newly restored Rijksmuseum.

If I had a ‘do it again?’ chance, I would have been a painter not a scribbler.


This piece was commissioned for the new creative arts magazine, Arty Elephant