Reality with a capital R

Reality with a capital R

It’s a very rare person who doesn’t have some art somewhere in their home. Granted, sometimes it’s just to fill a blank wall or pick up the colour of the carpet, but it can be so much more. Estate Living chatted recently to the wildly creative and ever-so-slightly wacky artist Peter van Straten about the nature of reality and the reality of art. In an era in which we are saturated with photographs, he says, every image has to be an attempt at saying something beautiful and profound. “Paintings,” he continues, “are reminders of more. There is more to life than your daily routine and your job and your stress and all of that. A painting should be a reminder of all the beauty that lies within and beyond the confines of your life, and the restraints of the normal.”

Peter’s paintings are technically representational, in that his people, plants and animals are accurately and realistically depicted in colour, shape and form. In fact, probably the first thing you notice about them is the quality of light. It gives his subjects a depth and an inner glow – life, almost. And that’s thanks to technique. “It’s all about glazing,” he says. “Glazing allows you to get the maximum luminescence out of oil paintings. That’s really the best thing about oil paint – its potential for luminosity. You can obtain a nearly spiritual glow. It’s almost a crossing-over thing – crossing dimensions.”

Vermeer, Peter tells me, is the artist most famously associated with glazing. “But he had no imagination,” he adds. “I mean, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Girl with a Red Hat …”
But maybe, he concedes, Vermeer secretly did have an imagination – but he never let it show in his paintings. He painted pretty much what was in front of him – reality undistorted. He never got around to painting Girl with an Elephant Necklace or Woman Reading a Banana. Which got us talking about the nature of reality, which can be a dangerous thing to discuss with a surrealist, or, as Peter prefers to be described, a magical realist. He sees faces and landscapes in things. His “reality” is totally elastic.

“Actually,” he concludes, “I prefer to think of my paintings as windows – windows into all the potential “Elsewheres”, and into the profundity and magnificence of reality.”
That all sounds very nice, but then we looked around at his paintings, and could not shake off the sense that, rather than depicting reality, he distorted it. After all, roads are not usually rivers, school children don’t commute by elephants, and beds are, in my experience, subject to the force of gravity.

“That,” he retorts, “is because there is “reality” with a small “r” and “Reality” with a big “R” – which includes the spiritual and the intellectual and the emotional and the mind-boggling library of scientific fact.” He hesitates, thinks. “Or theories,” he continues. “That’s better. Because fact … I mean, define fact.”

“It’s the purpose of the imagination to imagine what could be,” he says. “We know what is … or do we? The so-called mundane is unfathomably rich. Go into the ocean or look into a microscope; universes within universes. So, in order to represent Reality with a big R, you need to distort reality with a small r.”

While Peter doesn’t call himself a surrealist, because there was so much more to the surrealist movement than art, his work shares many of its characteristics – and even its intention. The aim of surrealism, in the words of Brazilian designer Fábio Sasso, is to “expose psychological truth by stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance, to create compelling images that exist beyond ordinary formal organisation, in order to evoke empathy from the viewer.”

And that’s pretty much what Peter does. He doesn’t paint just for the sake of making a picture; almost every element is carefully placed to create some form of symbolism. So, if you hang a Van Straten on your wall, you’re not just filling a blank space (although it will do that with style and aplomb), you’re creating a focus for reimagining your life. It’s a window into worlds that could be, or could not be – that may happen or may never happen. Or may have happened somewhere. If nothing else, it will get people thinking and talking.


At the age of fifteen Peter had an epiphany – complete with lights and the whole Road-to-Damascus special-effects scenario. The revelation was that he was meant to paint. But his teachers and his parents told him he still had to do maths because, as he recalls their telling him, “if you don’t do maths, you can’t go to varsity and do a decent degree, and get a decent job. You’ll end up in a ditch with flies in your orifices.”

Well, he gave up maths, but he did go to university (to study art, but not for long enough to actually graduate). And then he took the most classic of gap years. For his twenty-first birthday he asked his parents for one year at home, with board and lodging and no pressure. For that year he wrote and gardened, and worked out what he wanted to do. Since then he’s been painting, and he’s never had a “real” job. But who needs a “real” job if you can make a living from doing the one thing you do better than anything else, and that you love doing? Actually, it’s surprising he has managed to do so because, while he is a phenomenally talented artist, he doesn’t have much business sense, and he’s far from the classic, driven entrepreneur.

But his wife, Ciska, does have an entrepreneurial bent. So she’s given up midwifery and started marketing signed, limited-edition, high-definition, archival-quality giclée prints of Peter’s paintings. The giclée process almost manages to reproduce that incredible quality of light the glazing gives the paintings, but at a fraction of the cost of an original. So check out, or browse to see a bigger range, including some recent work. Even better, you can view some originals in selected Cape Town galleries. At the moment Peter has works in Everard Read and The Cape Gallery in the city, Grande Provence Gallery and Is Art in Franschhoek, and Agapanthus and Artvark galleries in Kalk Bay.

In the words of the John Lennon “Surrealism had a great effect on me because then I realised that the imagery in my mind wasn’t insanity. Surrealism to me is reality.”

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