February 2020, Cape Town: This February at the Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, Sotheby’s will host an exhibition of works charting the journey of one of South Africa’s most important artists. Irma Stern: A Life Well Travelled will feature nine outstanding pieces which together chronicle the artist’s lifelong quest for inspiration across Africa, Europe and beyond. Each bearing testament to Stern’s unique vision and unrivalled artistic skill, the works will be exhibited at the Irma Stern Museum from 11-15 February, before they are offered in Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art Auctions in London over the course of 2020. None of the works have been seen in public for over ten, or in some cases twenty, years.
Speaking about the exhibition, Sotheby’s Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Hannah O’Leary, said:
“Stern was at the top of her game from the very beginning. Although her personal life was often affected by low self-esteem, she never doubted her artistic ability. A radical force to be reckoned with, as a young avant-garde artist Stern contested and criticised traditional aesthetics, creating a visual language all her own. Today, with a truly international collector base and a presence in public museums across the globe – not to mention the inclusion of her work in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II – she is one of the most valued artists from the entire African continent and one of just a handful of African artists whose works achieve prices in the many millions of pounds. It is an honour to showcase these works in the artist’s South African home and studio, the wonderful Irma Stern Museum”.
Born in Transvaal to German-Jewish parents, Stern spent her childhood in South Africa before moving to Europe with her family in 1913, where she began her formal art training. A truly international creative force, Stern never felt restricted by physical or cultural boundaries, travelling extensively in search of new inspiration and subjects. From striking portraits of the people she met on her travels, to the rolling vineyards of her hometown, Stern approached each work with unwavering dedication and fervour.
Madeiran Man | 1931
Seeking an escape from her troubled marriage to Dr Johannes Prinz, Stern spent three months in Madeira in 1931. Far from finding refuge from her personal problems, she was treated for a nervous breakdown shortly after arriving. As a worldly Jewish woman, she felt further isolated by the traditional Catholic society and the patriarchal nature of Madeiran culture of the time.
Nonetheless, Stern was incredibly prolific in Madeira, and for the first time her portraits from this period are predominantly of men. Her mental anguish translates clearly in the harsh colour and turbulent rhythms of the work, but she also masters her use of light and colour. Her Madeiran paintings are considered among her best.
Portrait of a Zulu Girl | 1935
Irma Stern’s search for the Africa of her dreams, which had fuelled her imagination as a young woman in war-torn Germany, was frustrated by Cape Town and its colonial English society. Soon after she returned to Cape Town in the early 1920s she began a quest for ‘her’ Africa. This led her to the east of the country: Pondoland, Zululand and Swaziland. In lonely rural areas she found the indigenous people she longed to depict. She worked tirelessly in situ and brought finished drawings, gouaches and sketches back to her Cape Town studio. By the mid-1930s, these expeditions had become a well-established custom of Stern’s. She delighted in the grace and elegance of subjects like the Zulu girl shown here.
An Indian Woman | 1936
A dignified portrait, the sitter in An Indian Woman wears a fine green sari, earrings and necklace, suggesting she is a woman of some social standing. The sitter is most likely a member of the modern South African Indian colony of Natal (now Kwa-Zulu Natal) who arrived from the Indian sub-continent from the 19th century, initially as labourers on the sugar plantations, and later as traders. The work is painted with the bold handling of paint and colour that is so characteristic of Stern’s mature style, after her seminal 1931 stay on Madeira (see Madeiran man, above).
Mangbetu Children | 1942
“The Congo has always been for me the symbol of Africa, the very heart of Africa. The sound ‘Congo’ makes my blood dance”.
The outbreak of the Second World War prevented Stern from returning to Europe. By March 1942, she was planning to visit the Congo to seek out the Watussi and Mangbetu people. The young girls depicted in Mangbetu Children bear the unmistakeable characteristics of the Mangbetu people: their almond-shaped eyes, famously elongated heads, and headdresses identifying them as members of the ruling-class. Stern had admired the artistic taste and talents of the Mangbetu people for many years, crediting them with ‘exciting and stimulating the art world of Europe’.
Woman with Fish | 1951
Fisherfolk feature in Stern’s painting throughout her career, the fishing industry being of great economic importance in Cape Town, Madeira, Zanzibar and the fishing ports of the Mediterranean. In 1951, Stern appears to have stayed in South Africa, so this subject is most likely Capetonian. The woman’s monumental form – descriptive of the very physical nature of her manual labour – fills the frame to the point of bursting.
The Cape Malay fishermen and women lived primarily in the neighbourhood of District Six, within sight of the docks. In 1950, the National Party announced that District Six would be redeveloped for White occupation, resulting in the forced removal of over 60,000 of its inhabitants. While Stern was not outspoken on her political views, she would have recognised their plight. She herself had spent most of her life displaced, as a young child by the Boer War and by the two World Wars that followed.
Grape Packer | 1959
Grape Packer is an important example of Stern’s mature works from the 1950s and early 60s, and her increasing focus on labourers as subjects. The youthful woman’s gaze is averted from the viewer, as is usual in Stern’s portraiture and figurative painting, but the infant looks directly out. Stern rarely painted children; after her divorce in 1934, she remained unmarried for the rest of her life and never had children of her own. Her looks and weight were often derided in the press. It is possible that at this stage in her life, as she turned 60 and her health began to fail, she was particularly drawn to such timeless figures of youth and fertility.
Irma Stern Museum: 21 Cecil Rd, Rosebank, Cape Town, 7700
Sotheby’s London: 34-35 New Bond Street, W1S 2RT