Willem Hermanus Coetzer (South African, 1900-1983)
The Bloukrans Massacre signed and dated 'W.H. COETZER '62' (lower left and again lower right) oil on canvas laid to board 50.8 x 76.2cm (20 x 30in).
This powerful scene depicts the 'Bloukrans Massacre', a moment in South African history which stands as testament to the hardship endured by the Afrikaans pioneers. It holds great significance in the shaping of the history of South Africa and many of the families involved in 'The Great Trek' remain as a result of their ancestors' bravery. It was an instance of great cruelty on the part of the Zulu leader Dingane. After having signed an agreement with voortrekker Piet Retief, who had approached the Zulu capital, Umgungundlovu, with diplomatic intent, Dingane betrayed the agreement and proceeded to execute the group of 70 trekkers. The Zulus were instructed to also seek and kill those of the settlers which had moved to the midlands of Natal from the Cape colony.
The Bloukrans Massacre lasted two days: 16-17 February 1838; and saw 482 of the voortrekkers, including their children and accompanying servants, murdered. They travelled in family groups and were attacked throughout the 25km range of land where they were situated. They attempted to defend themselves and each other, a few brave individuals even tried to run ahead to warn neighbouring families. Their heroism is still present in modern day South Africa, their names have been monumentalised and are seen daily on street and building names across the nation.
Coetzer had a passion for the depiction of these scenes of great hardship and strength. He was inspired by the volumes, 'Voortrekker Mense' by Gustav S. Preller, that told of the trials and tribulations of the Dutch settlers. His appreciation for his own heritage and national history provoked him to produce some of the most respected homages to South Africa's Afrikaans forefathers. Some of his best known works are his marble friezes and tapestries contained within the 'Voortrekker Monument'. The tapestries of the 'Great Trek' containing fifteen scenes took eight years for a group of nine women to finish. The Voortrekker Monument stands on a hill overlooking an expanse of Pretoria. It is a strong, sturdy structure which appears quite grandiose and intimidating, it was designed to be tightly woven with symbolism of the spirit of Afrikanerdom. W.H. Coetzer's work compliments this extremely well as his creativity has always favoured the dramatic tales which he chronicles in his paintings. The epic stories within the monument are enlivened and supported by the epic proportions and efforts endured in the making of the tapestries and in the weight of the marble used for the friezes.
This artwork differs to his well-known style of landscapes drowned in the scorching sun and trekkers battling against steep, rocky terrain. Coetzer's paintings often have the feeling of exasperation and desperation, instead this painting is dark and dramatic. There is desperation at hand but it is adrenaline fuelled. Coetzer was known for his attention to detail and while this painting isn't done with the microscopic precision for which his best known still life 'Dusty Shelf' is known, there remains an emotional conveyance of confusion, survival, destruction and also of loss. The darkness conceals the enemy, although there are silhouettes dotted in the bursts of flames the direction of the attack is unknown. It was for this drama that Coetzer took to further his artistic education and travelled to London to study, although he could little afford to do so. He was keen to do justice to these histories and to the people in them that he so admired.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Berman, Art and Artists of South Africa, (Cape Town, 1983) W.H. Coetzer, W.H. Coetzer 80, (Roodepoort, 1980)