Gallery F, Cape Town.

By Lin Sampson

Vanessa BerleinAs an artist, Vanessa Berlein, works predominantly in paint medium on board, paper, and canvas. She walks a fire bridge when it comes to themes. Having done time in the service of paint, she can tackle almost any subject from the strict metrics of the present to the frail filigree of the past, always eliciting a textured emotional response that is most evident in her latest circus pictures.

Vanessa Berlein is as tall as a tree and a serious empath, inviting confidences, sharing stories of adventure, of love and destiny, of tragedy and longing, and lost continents. She has worked as a maid in Hollywood, been involved with witchcraft, intimately explored her own country, Southern Africa, taking in the landscape with her acute eye, done paint effects to make money, been married, and has a son fallen crazily in love – and crazily out of love.

And all the time she has kept on painting, day after day, 9 to 5. “For me, it is like a world I can go to and no one can come with me and it all just goes quiet. It is a place where everything makes sense. I used to bitch and moan about it but no, you get up every day and that is what you do. You paint. And in order to make a living you have to do grunt work.

“Painting.. technically it is how mathematicians understand numbers, how they work. I don’t understand numbers but with paint, I get it, it’s like sewing. I get sewing, how clothes are put together.” She approaches her work pragmatically. The witchery of her paintings is that they span women’s magazines while keeping a sporting foot in the trenches of real creativity. She has ignored the fact that the twentieth century has been called an ironic age, and her paintings are often unfashionably romantic, flowers, portraits, the circus.

“Probably the most I ever learned about paint was in the nineties when I was doing paint effects on the walls. I have had a few calls lately for paint effects so perhaps they are coming back. I have been given colour swatches of fabric and asked to paint a picture. My work hangs in many hotels and homes. “Circuses and the detritus they leave behind have fascinated me ever since I came across what I thought was an abandoned circus in a forest I was walking through. The paintwork had faded and the chrome rusted and there were broken objects lying around then rounding a corner I came across a film crew making a film on circuses. But I never forgot that sense of abandonment in the forest or the absurdity of the circus on the beach.”

“With my circus paintings, I have tried to recreate that lost feeling, a place devoid of humans and resting in the golden dark landscapes I know so well. It is not a feeling I can name but all true travellers will recognize it in my paintings. “Below where I currently live in Observatory was a circus tent. It had been there longer than I had been there. It was a place offering hope and the tutoring of acrobatics to so many children, a lot of whom are living in these streets in the shadow of Devil’s Peak. When my son was small I used to take him to the circus school there.

“The owners struggled to keep it going. I passed by it every day. The grass had grown long around the tent pegs and the nets needed repair. I thought about it often as I watched it slowly collapse until one night a Cape storm ripped it from the ground and for a while, it lay dormant, candy striping the earth in a final bow. Luckily, many of the students were absorbed by the uniquely professional and social circus, the Zip Zap which has a worldwide reputation as a socio-economic experiment that has brought brighter futures to so many of the underprivileged young adults of Cape Town.

Vanessa is used to mining her surroundings for information and creative clues. “It is both the magic that a circus engenders and the feeling of abandonment when it moves on, that is what I have tried to capture in my circus paintings.”

“When I was a child my father bought an old gold mine in Pilgrim’s Rest. It had been mined during the gold rush and a settlement had grown up around it and there had once even been a hotel. You have no idea the thrill of finding forgotten objects strewn around, old glass perfume bottles, pieces of old pottery, old glassware.

In South Africa we have been lucky, the landscape dotted with small towns fed into the circus iconography. Few children brought up in South Africa in the last twenty years would not have visited the Boswell/Wilkie circus which was internationally acclaimed or the much newer Zip Zap circus with its spellbinding local talent.

As Vanessa says, “Because I had done so many road trips across the country from when I was very small going back and forth to boarding school, the landscape of so much of South Africa always reminded me of going home. It had this nostalgic thing for me and then I started imagining what the circus could have left behind in this deserted African landscape. The series is called “ What the Circus Left Behind “. These desolate, recognizable landscapes really pull you in but there is something quite melancholic about them and that is what I am working on at the moment. “I mean just imagine if all the animals from the merry-go-round suddenly came alive.”



Old Nellie




‘neath Devil’s Peak


For all the tea in China


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