Tribute by David Pountney

Posted on 4th April 2018 Under Tributes

We are here to celebrate and say goodbye to a great African artist. I think that is how Johan should be remembered. Africa means many things, but one of them is space, and Johan the Afrikaner knew about space. Of course he occupied quite a bit of it himself, and topped with that wiry brush of red hair, he filled the space round him, not only with his generously proportioned self, but also with his own natural generosity, his instinct for companionship and his astounding ability to collect friends and acquaintances from all over the world. Very often these friends and acquaintances turned out to be highly advantageous contacts – this one had a vineyard, that one a unique antiques shop, another, more dubiously, issued Mexican visas, but Johan was generous, not predatory – he talked to these people and perhaps most of all listened to them, and then they were happy to help him. That is a great and generous personal gift: to enable others to help you.  

But of course I am not really talking about filling space, I am talking about creating it – which was, to my mind, Johan’s greatest professional gift. The space that he created was not space for its own sake, it was space for action, for emotion, not a frigid space guarding its purity and resisting intervention, but a generous space created to be used, exploited, celebrated, trashed and, above all, transformed. It is no accident I think that in what should have been one of his climactic creations, The Ring, the concept of the design keeps returning to an empty stage – a pregnant, fertile space waiting to be used, played with, violated. 

My first foray into the Aladdin’s cave that was Johan’s studio near Bath … a converted stable that has become over the years not merely an astonishing library of brilliantly chosen art books, but a collector’s paradise with a strong flavour of Jaffa Market – a cornucopia of objets trouvé that meant that wherever you allowed your eye to wander, it would alight on an object – a wreath, a mask, a textile, a feather, which might or might not inspire the answer to the problem of the moment. Would the third act of Rigoletto be helped by reference to a stuffed pheasant, a papier-maché hoopoe, a male model with improbable muscles or a Taiwanese mask? Being in that room taught one to appreciate Johan’s humorous relish and delight in any fragment of anecdotal visual detail.  

I will never forget the cataclysmic moment when I informed Johan across that vast table that the completely designed Showboat would have to be shelved and substituted for Zauberflöte: there was a brief silence, and then two large gin and tonics appeared on the table. “So, Mr. Pountney”, he said, “how ARE we doing the Magic Flute?” “I don’t know” I said, rather feebly, and then, clutching at straws, “it’s something to do with strange animals in the water.” The next three objects on the table were three papier-maché dogs. We were off. The clutter had its purposes! 

Johan drew almost as continuously as he talked, with great flair and invention and, especially, humour. He was an architect, a draughtsman, a stylist, a decorator, but most of all a man with a gift for friendship.

That happy flair for the trivial and the decorative combined with Johan’s gift for companionship was what got him to that beautiful corner of North Somerset in the first place. The estate belongs to Pamela Harlech, and she had commissioned him to design a folly for her garden. The architectural result is a gazebo to end all gazebos – a magnificent tower built on a shell-encrusted grotto, adorned with griffins. The personal result was that they became close friends and companions, and Johan made his exotic and overflowing studio in the former stable.

The very special relationship that he and Pamela created together is something we have all admired, at the same time as benefiting from their mutual generosity with each other and us and sharing in that ease that makes hard work a pleasure, and pleasure a delightful and serious pursuit.

Johan knew how to spend money, and was very generous with his own, and he was not ashamed of liking to be treated well. He knew how to live, if not, sadly, how to protect his own life, and his special pronunciation of the word “huge” to describe favourite hotel rooms, plates of oysters, slabs of foie gras, applied also to his appetite for life.

In the places which have been the focus of my professional life since ENO, Zürich, Bregenz, Wales and Chicago, Johan has been my most significant partner. For Welsh National Opera Johan created the fanatically religious and political spaces of Khovanshchina and Don Carlos, the erotic playground of Lulu and Pelléas, the playful and witty environment for Chorus! … He and I made over 20 productions together and I can only be eternally grateful that I enjoyed those experiences alongside him, with his friendship, support, his incredible talent, his genius and unstinting creativity, and devastated that all that has been so abruptly cut off.

On the Sunday after his death, I sat for a few minutes at that table in his studio. His notebook still lay there open – an unfinished idea perhaps hung in the air? – his wallet lay there too, flopped open, so I suppose he paid his fare. The great creator of space had left behind a particularly awesome black hole, a void, a crater, an abyss. Or so it seemed then. But now, with the benefit of a few days to reflect, perhaps I do see, at the bottom of that abyss, in the distance, an impish smile and hear what must be one of those wonderfully pungent and thankfully untranslatable Afrikaans expressions? That is how I would like to remember him – smiling – Johan the African!