Sean O’Tooles  opening speech at Irma Stern’s nudes Show at Sanlam Art Gallery

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This an edited version of a speech delivered by Sean O’Toole at the opening of Michael Godby’s exhibition Irma Stern Nudes 1916 – 1965 at Sanlam Gallery (until 15 July 2022).

Irma Stern would be disappointed. I am pretty confident of this, as in one hundred per cent sure. Stern liked to have terribly important people open her exhibitions. Throughout her career, she asked prominent individuals to open her exhibitions. Mostly they were political and cultural grandees. In the 1930s alone, Stern’s exhibitions were opened by, among others, Sarah Gertrude Millin, Edward Roworth, Sir Cecil Robert Fforde, Sir William Clark and Dudley Aman, 1st Baron Marley. Stern’s nous for publicity dates back to her explosive 1922 exhibition at Ashbey’s Galleries in Cape Town.

This year marks the centenary of Stern’s debut exhibition in South Africa. That exhibition, titled An Exhibition of Modern Art by Miss Irma Stern, thrust the artist into the local spotlight. She would continue to occupy that position throughout her life. F. W. Reitz, a well-known statesman and Afrikaner cultural, was meant to open the exhibition but cancelled at the last minute. So, G. F. C. Faustmann, a churchman who had once ministered in Schweizer-Reneke, the place of Stern’s birth in 1894, delivered the opening address instead.

I begin my address at the opening of Michael Godby’s wonderful exhibition, Irma Stern Nudes 1916 – 1965 at Sanlam Gallery, by mentioning the artist’s – let’s call it – fondness for publicity for a reason. Sometimes the bullshit has a way of preceding the bull. In subsequent retellings of Stern’s controversial 1922 debut, an outraged priest arrived at the exhibition with the constabulary. “Nudity! Call the police!” To be clear, Stern’s exhibition was a spectacle.

“There is a constant stream of visitors throughout the day, and once at least during the lunch hour the crowd was so great that waiting queues had to be formed”, reported the Cape Argus. There is another legend that has grown like vine around Stern’s debut exhibition. Stern liked to tell the story that her exhibition was unanimously panned. It enlivened stories of her rehabilitation from perpetrator of the “cult of the ugly” – as critic Bernard Lewis liked to always wail – into “La Picasso”, to quote just one example of the fawning press from her later years.

Godby might dislike the analogy, but his exhibition, which I had the pleasure of seeing in Stern’s museum in Rosebank during its brief run in 2021, does something important: it puts the horse in front of the cart, or to revisit something I said earlier, privileges the bull over the bull dust. If we are to believe the market, which is less a democracy of taste than a plutocracy of received ideas entrenched habit, Stern is defined by a handful of portraits derived from her travels to Belgium Congo and Zanzibar (1939–46), supplemented by a few eruptive flower studies from the later 1930s and 40s.

This is a gross distortion of Stern’s interests, activities and talents. Stern’s artistic output includes a substantial archive of female nudes spanning the entirety of her prolific career. The nude was an enduring subject, and frequently a site of bold formal experimentation. Stern’s depictions of naked (or nearly naked) female subjects range vastly in style and media. They include ambitious nudes in oil and gouache, as well as notational descriptions in ink, pencil, charcoal and wash. She also made works in bronze, fired clay, terracotta and cement. Her subjects were both studio models and women encountered in the world, during her travels across Southern and Central Africa, as well as on beaches in South Africa and the Mediterranean.

I still find it truly strange that this substantial archive has only recently been asserted, in 2021, and not by a dynamic revisionist historian with an intersectional understanding of gender, race and colonial history, but rather by an aging pale male. I’m picking at low-hanging fruit here. Godby, a retired professor but very much a working art historian, is to be commended on his efforts to highlight an important facet of Stern’s extraordinary and complicated bequest as an artist.

Exhibitions are important. They provide an opportunity to encounter works in the real, to see ideas and experiments enacted in material form. Exhibitions, though, have a short lifespan. All that remains of Stern’s 1922 exhibition is a folded card listing the contents of the presentation, many of which went unsold, and are currently dispersed. It is a measure of Godby’s commitment to his project that he also produced a substantial book. It is a testament to his patient and focused scholarship. It is also ridiculously cheaply priced. Buy it!

“Stern’s nudes may be counted amongst her most significant work,” writes Godby in his book. Stern, he tells, was introduced to the nude – as both compositional problem and genre subject linked to a grand European tradition – during her academic training in Berlin, which included life drawing as a subject. The Expressionist movement’s contradictory uses of the nude to celebrate themes of ugliness and primitivism further enriched Stern’s understanding of the uses of the nude. Notwithstanding Stern’s many stylistic shifts, the nude remained a subject throughout her life, serving both as “a trigger for her practice and her most common subject”.

Scholarship and taste are divisible. In the main, I was unmoved by Stern’s superheated romanticism and early quest to portray mythic fertility through the bodies of others not of her class and race. In bleaker moments, I likened Stern to Wednesday Friday Addams, the entitled little goth invented by American cartoonist Charles Addams (most memorably played by the actor Christina Ricci). Wednesday got her name from the nursery rhyme line, “Wednesday’s child is full of woe.” Stern could be full of woe, as her letters in Mona Berman’s 2003 book make clear.

One of the things that fundamentally shifted my blinkered perception of Stern while writing my book for Prestel was her archive of nudes. These works offered a key to another, completely different Stern, Saturday’s child, if you will, who as the rhyme goes “works hard for a living”.

Stern was particularly active in her studio during the 1940s. In 1943, for instance, she worked on material towards an unrealised book of nudes, a fact detailed in Godby’s important book. A sun worshipper whose feminist inclinations were channelled through her love of sunbathing and swimming – benign rituals that were frowned upon in 1920s Cape Town – Stern’s nudes from the 1940s possess a remarkable candour and intimacy.

Godby is a fan of these works. He describes them in his book as “magnificent” and “extraordinarily mature”. They possess, he states, the same vigour and iconographic appeal as Stern’s esteemed flower studies of the 1940s. This exhibition is an opportunity to test an art historian’s tastes in the context of his great scholarship – and let me add energy and sacrifice in ensuring this project has visibility.

This exhibition opens at a time of roiling cultural debate. We live in angry times. The past is in the dock. “Is It Time Gauguin Got Cancelled?” provocatively asked the New York Times in 2019. Revisionist historians and critics have indirectly asked the same question of Stern, whose class privileges and racial biases informed her idealised representations of Africa’s diverse peoples. Artistic legacies, though, are complicated.

I say this thinking of Stern’s audacious nudes from the 1940s. They show a woman seeing another woman without libidinal intent. They powerfully speak of the arid protestant and patriarchal culture of South Africa’s bleak post-war years, when sensuality, let alone sexuality, was feared, nudity censored and homosexuality condemned (it was long criminalised). Stern’s nudes from this period hint at the possibility of private rituals beyond the proscriptions of moralists, priests and legislators. They speak of a vision that was excessive and extravagant, but also grounded in the body, woman’s bodies especially, bodies that age and refuse idealisation, bodies that are vessels of life. Now, more so than ever, it is good to be pinched and reminded: life, goddammit, life. Live it.