You can immediately recognise a Walter Meyer painting on a wall of landscapes. His is the one that is shimmering, alive with heat and dust or the steam from a wet road. His is the one with the luminous, spreading sky and the scrim of distinctive southern light. His is unsettling, melancholic, desolate. His is the one with genius.

When Meyer was murdered by his wife in 2017, South Africa lost one of its great artists, described by eminent gallerist Mark Read as “one of the most profound landscapists of his generation”. The art world was shocked that he had died in such squalid circumstances, on the kitchen floor of a filthy, low-cost house in Upington at the hand of his estranged wife Sophia. In a drunken argument she had plunged a kitchen knife into his chest. He was just 52.

Now Meyer’s younger brother Frans, a farmer and pilot, has written a quiet memoir about him titled Impossible Skies a reference to the artist’s rare ability to render the colour of the sky. He relates their loving, stable Pretoria upbringing with two sisters and a gaggle of cousins and extended family. He never goes looking for an explanation for Meyer’s alcohol addiction other than referring to his “artist’s temperament” and the fact that his shyness and social awkwardness became more acute as the years passed, and alcohol assuaged it. Meyer’s years at Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool in Pretoria, a tough sporting high school, could have been catastrophic were it not for an understanding and inspiring art teacher.

As it was, they were merely unhappy years of canings and mockery, and Meyer withdrew into himself and his art. For the rest of his life, he would detest unfairness and bullying.

Theirs was an outdoorsy, practical family. They caravanned and camped and built aviaries and vegetable beds in the back garden. Meyer’s first love was birdlife and when he showed a facility for drawing and painting birds, his father built him his own outside room-cum-studio where he and Frans hung out, listening to Bob Dylan, painting, and reading. But underneath the seeming containment of family life, there was a tearing void in Meyer that began to spread.

He started studying fine arts at the University of Pretoria and dedicated himself entirely to painting. He was only happy working or being out in nature, and began to drink to cope socially.

In the middle of his degree, he persuaded his parents to send him to study in Düsseldorf, the eye of the new German art scene. Lonely and homesick, he drank more. His work became darker, influenced by the weather and the punk scene, and he wrote longing letters to his brother, who had been called up to the army. They railed against their strict Christian upbringing, which forbade premarital sex.

Whereas Meyer had once found God in nature, he said he became a non-believer in Germany, and his spiritual struggle lasted for the rest of his life. Back from Germany and utterly obsessed with his art, Meyer continued to drink, alarmingly, dangerously, blacking out and injuring himself and on one occasion cutting off a piece of his ear, like Vincent van Gogh. But his style and subjects began to take shape: abandoned houses, plattelandse dorpies, desolate vistas.

He met and married his great love, fellow artist Catharina Scheepers. They moved to a succession of small towns and had two children. Meyer’s paintings began to sell well, but the couple eschewed the art world. “He was in his element driving on dirt tracks in the middle of the wilderness, with just Johnny Cash and the endless horizons as company,” writes Frans, who had begun farming in the Karoo. He remembers idyllic times with all their children on the farm, but even as he unspools the memories, we sense how fleeting those times were.

In one moving telephone conversation Meyer tells his brother, “I’m going to take a drive with the Kombi to see the wet veld, everything looks thankful after the rain. The roses are beautiful and grateful and wild. Reminds me of a [Tom] Waits song.”

As his life became more and more unmanageable, Meyer went into rehab eight times, but he was never able to stop drinking. He and Catharina divorced but stayed close, and Meyer then married a young local woman named Sophia in Upington, who shared his weakness for alcohol. They had two children but lived apart, and it was while Meyer was visiting his children that evening that she killed him.

There is a yearning in Meyer’s work that sets him apart from other landscape painters and touches the viewer deeply. It’s the sadness of abandonment, of neglect, of dreams that have died, of hope exhausted. Some critics maintain that he painted the downfall of Afrikaner nationalism, but he was uncomfortable with such theorising.

Frans says simply, “Trying to paint the sky, to capture its colours and depth and getting the mood exactly right, was what Walter aspired to… What he saw, he painted. Only that.”

• From the September edition of Wanted, 2023.

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