Christopher Peter, director of the University of Cape Town Irma Stern Museum, discusses the life and work of the pioneering South African artist, whose 1946 masterpiece, The Watussi Chief’s Wife, will be offered on 14 December

‘Irma’s epic life spans the most extraordinary South African years — and the most extraordinary years of the 20th century,’ says Christopher Peter, director of the University of Cape Town Irma Stern Museum.

Stern was born in 1894 in Schweizer-Reneke, a frontier town in the former South African province of Transvaal. The child of Jewish-German parents, Stern’s father made his fortune as a cattle farmer and goods trader to South African gold miners, and Irma and her brother Rudi grew up in relative comfort.

Her peaceful childhood came to an abrupt end with the internment of her Boer-leaning father during the South African War (1899-1902). This initiated a period of constant travel as Irma and her family sailed between South Africa and Germany on mail ships. It was on these journeys that Stern first experienced the cultures of Zanzibar, the Congo and Madeira, which left a lasting impression and instilled a lifelong desire for travel.

On the eve of the First World War, Stern was in Germany with her family, unable to return to South Africa. It was here that her formal art studies began, both privately in Berlin and at the Academy in Weimar. During this time, she met and was greatly encouraged by Max Pechstein, the German Expressionist painter and founding member of the November Group. His influence would prove of vital importance to her development as an artist of Africa and Europe. Read more