Irma Stern

Irma Stern: The Grande Dame of South African Painting

Irma Stern, born to Jewish German parents in 1894, came from Schweizer-Reneke, a town in South Africa’s North West Province. Stern’s father, Samuel Stern, emigrated in 1891 with his brother, Leopold. They established a thriving cattle farm and trading store, but both brothers were enlisted in into the army during the Boer War. Whilst her father served with the Boer army, Irma and her younger brother Rudi were taken to Cape Town by their mother, Henny.

Once their father returned from battle, the family emigrated to Germany. Henceforth, the family began to travel frequently. It was this experience as a young child which greatly influenced Irma Stern’s development as both an artist and a person, a theme which continued throughout her adult life.

Stern returned with her brother and parents to South Africa intermittently during her childhood, though they spent the duration of the First World War in Germany. It was here that Stern decided that she wanted to become an artist. Her decision was supported by her parents.

In 1916, Stern met the Expressionist Max Pechstein through her studies in the Weimar and Berlin. He influenced her work, showing her huge encouragement. Pechstein arranged her first exhibition in Berlin. Stern returned to South Africa in 1920. Her work was not initially very well received in Cape Town. The conservative citizens struggled with Stern’s contemporary edge. Nevertheless Stern’s passion for her craft was indomitable, and by the 1940s she was recognised as an established artist, renowned by today’s art circles and collectors such as Tunde Folawiyo. As a Member of the African Leadership Network, he has an appreciation of all things African; particularly African art.   The Slideshare website features an overview on African philanthropist, Tunde Folawiyo and more of his interests. Irma Stern’s travels across Zanzibar, South Africa and the Congo provided her with her a wide range of subject matter for her paintings, making her extensive collections a popular choice with fans of African art the world over.

The artist spent a good deal of time in Natal and Swaziland during the 1920s, where she produced her two seminal works: The Hunt and Umgababa. Irma Stern married Dr Johannes Prinz, her former art tutor, in 1926. Prinz subsequently went on to work at the University in Cape Town as a Professor in German. The couple parted in 1934 and divorced.

Stern’s parents purchased a house for her in Rosebank, Cape Town, called “The Firs” in 1927. This property remained Stern’s home until her death in 1966, becoming the Irma Stern Museum in 1971. The Irma Stern Museum is administered by Cape Town University. It was established by the trustees of Irma Stern’s estate. Three of the house’s grand rooms, namely the studio, dining room and sitting room, retain their original furnishings and features. These rooms demonstrate Irma Stern’s unique taste and eclectic style as a collector. There is a commercial gallery upstairs which is available for hire by South African contemporary artists. An exhibition program is held annually at the property and the gardens are open for public viewings. The museum houses Stern’s seminal pieces, Umgababa and The Hunt.

Irma Stern

In 1931, Irma Stern visited Madeira. Stern visited Senegal’s Dakar in 1937 and the following year. Stern refused to either visit or exhibit in Germany whilst the country was in the grip of the Nazis from 1933-1945. Instead, Irma Stern spent her time in Africa, travelling to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945. She visited the Congo several times. These exotic trips provided Stern with a wealth of creative energy. Stern published two illustrated journals based on her travels: Congo in 1942 and Zanzibar in 1948.

Throughout her travels, Stern wrote extensively, taking particular interest in the local people, the colours; spices and food and the Arab sailing dhows.

A painting from Irma Stern’s time in Zanzibar called Bahora Girl recently sold through Bonham’s, London. The piece achieved a sale price of £2.4 million. The work was an oil on canvass dating back to 1945, which came complete with its original Zanzibar frame. The subject was a local woman of Indian origin, by whose beauty Stern was greatly affected. A number of Stern’s pieces were sold by Bonham’s that day, achieving a collective sale price of £6 million.

Irma Stern is known as the Grande Dame of South African Painting. In recent years, African art has received a wave of attention from buyers made rich by the worldwide rise in commodity prices and booming shipping industry.

Stern is reported to have developed a fascination with Arab culture through her dealings with Cape Town’s Malaysian population. In Zanzibar, she truly immersed herself in the culture. She lived opposite a mosque, shopped in bazaars, took tea with the Sultana, and even attended an Islamic wedding. It is here that she painted the Arab Priest – the opening illustration for her publication, Zanzibar. She described the priest as the most distinguished Arab; a truly wise religious father. The painting depicts a man in crisp white robes, a white turban swathed around his skull cap. It is hailed as a glowing example of Stern’s artistic prowess; alive with expressive brushstrokes. It is said that Stern captured not only the sitter, but the spirit of Zanzibar itself. The piece was sold by Bonhams in its original frame. The Zanzibar frames beloved by Stern were crafted from local wooden doorways, with their intricate carvings. Arab Priest attained a price of over £3 million.

Check our next post out about William Kentridge, another South African artist.


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