South Africa’s art giants command the heights of Bonhams R25m Spring Sale in London

Bonhams R25m sale of South African Art earlier this week in London was once more led by powerful prices for the country’s two artistic icons, Irma Stern and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef. Works by these artists took seven of the top ten results in the sale. The Stern highlight titled ‘Fisherman, Madeira’ sold for £338,500, (R6.1m) and Pierneef’s , ‘The bush camp of Anton van Wouw, Rooiplaat,’ made £146,500, (R2.7m)

These two artists stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of their work and the value it commands. Stern, a great portraitist, holds the world record for South African art, closely followed by Pierneef, a landscape specialist.

‘Fisherman, Madeira’ by Irma Stern (1894-1966) executed during a particularly difficult period in the artist’s life in 1931, was regarded by the former director of Pretoria Art Museum, A.J. Werth, asone of Stern’s “finest oils”. Before this auction, it was the highest priced painting achieved for South African art this year, sold by world record holders for South African art, Bonhams, the international fine art auction house headquartered in New Bond Street.

Stern’s visit to Madeira coincided with the collapse of her marriage to Johannes Prinz. Shortly after arriving on the island, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Many of Stern’s Madeiran paintings reflect her anguished mental state. When exhibited in Cape Town in 1935, a critic commented on the work’s “sinister” colours and “hectic, feverish atmosphere”.

The top work in the sale by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957), is a painterly praise-poem to his great artistic benefactor, the sculptor Anton van Wouw. Godfather, tutor, mentor and friend: the sculptor Anton van Wouw was many things to the painter J.H. Pierneef, who had spent his formative years in Van Wouw’s studio in Pretoria, emulating the older artist’s techniques of drawing and close observation.

Pierneef often remarked on the debt he owed to Van Wouw. They shared a deep love of nature, and spent time sketching and painting in the veld. A.P. Cartwright published an article in The Star on ‘The life and work of Pierneef’, May 30, 1960 and a specific reference to the bushcamp outings is made:

“Pierneef acquired a motor-bicycle and a side-car and in this he and his godfather, Anton van Wouw, used to go on sketching and camping expeditions to Pienaar’s River. On these outings young Hendrik did all the work while the sculptor expounded the principles of art. I wish I could have been present at one of these camps where Van Wouw and Pierneef talked, sketched, fished for kurper and drank a great deal of coffee.”

Bonhams holds the world record for an Irma Stern, ‘Arab Priest’ which sold for £3.1m

Image: Irma Stern (SOUTH AFRICAN, 1894-1966), “Fisherman, Madeira”, 93 x 67cm