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The legacy of Irma Stern

irmaThe Irma Stern Museum

The Museum, established in 1971, is governed by the University of Cape Town and the Irma Stern Trust. It aims to promote an understanding and appreciation of the life, work and travels of Irma Stern, a major South African artist, by displaying a collection of her art and artifacts in the domestic setting of her home. The collection shows Irma Stern’s development as an artist, who worked as a painter, sculptor and ceramist. Her life-long interest in depicting people is evident in the predominance of portraits and exotic figures interspersed with lush landscapes and vibrant still life’s.

Her two illustrated journals published of travels undertaken in Zanzibar and the Congo vividly convey her experiences, while the private writings in German kept during the period (1917- 1933) were translated into English and published posthumously; provide another insight into her personality.

Irma’s zest for life expressed in her love of abundant colour is evident everywhere in each of the rooms in which she lived, worked and enjoyed entertaining. Visitors to the museum can experience this uniquely furnished interior when viewing the sitting room, dining room and studio retained in the manner left by the artist. Miss Stern, as she was often called, conducted interviews from her own special throne – a winged 19th Century German neo-Renaissance armchair (No 479), carved in oak and upholstered in brown velvet, with which she had started her collection of rare furniture. From the crown of the back of the chair a winged cherub looks on, carved in high relief above a cascade of ornate feathery tendrils, a Christian motif also found in much Indo-European furniture and works of art following Portuguese trade contact with South and Southeast Asia in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Some say from this seat her feet did not quite reach the floor. The Star reporter Madeleine Masson remembers a meeting with Irma Stern: “She sat opposite me on a carved throne-like chair, resembling first Henry VIII and then Irma Stern and finally an opulent portrait by a Flemish artist. This is part of Irma’s charm; that feminine fluidity which is her presence in her conversation and her work. At all times she is vital, concentrated and driven in upon herself, childishly naïve and sometimes selfish in her commerce with human beings who have not the patience to get the heart of the matter…”

The creativity of Irma Stern was reflected in her home ‘The Firs’ and many friends, artists and journalists recall visits where food and challenging conversation were pursuits enjoyed with as much passion as painting and drawing in the studio next door. Irma’s dining room was often described as the second most important room in the house – second to her studio. Tales abound of splendid Sunday breakfasts that developed into Sunday lunches without anyone leaving the table.”

Artist and friend Merle Freund remembers a particular dinner: After drinks were served, domestic bickering interrupted the conversation because Charlie the cook was drunk again! He had swallowed the wine instead of adding it to the sauce. Irma negotiated loudly in the kitchen and the disaster was averted. The guests were seated in the dining room on embossed leather chairs around a huge refectory table and I barely had time to steal a glance at the marble font in the corner, the carved wooden Spanish figures on the wall, the high-roofed pew behind Dudley’s seat, before experiencing the religious event of the evening – the meal. Spicy soup was served with croutons, followed by a huge platter of exotic cannelloni (Cape Town had not yet embraced Italian pasta).

The beef was tender and the sauce tasty, despite its depleted liquor content. The wine flowed and the tropical fruit spilled from a large basketware cornucopia. Over it all the High Priestess Irma dominated – serving large portions, merrily sounding out her opinions and eating with gusto. Guests at Irma Stern’s dinner table remember the formality her exotic table arrangements lent to the evening. Colour schemes were carefully coordinated: there was the delicate embroidered linen from Madeira and a particularly favoured set of navy blue linen place mats, green Italian glassware and a turquoise Florentine dinner service. Plates of fine bone china and engraved silver cutlery were complemented by pink and white magnolias, fresh from the tree, placed at the centre of the table.

Irma Stern was a controversial figure as she had many feuds with the art establishment, with fellow artists, with bureaucracy or with any or all the myriad forces incurring her infinite capacity for displeasure, recalls Neville Dubow. Another long-time friend Joe Wolpe observes that Irma could be excellent company and appreciated those who stood up to her. Irma was the butt of jokes herself, of course, and public ones at that, he remembers. Poet and artist John Dronsfield composed lines often quoted in Cape Town: “When confronting Irma, there’s more terra than firma.”

About the Artist and her work: Almost one hundred solo exhibitions were held during her lifetime both in South Africa and Europe: including Germany, France, Italy and England. Although accepted in Europe, her work was unappreciated at first in South Africa where critics derided her early exhibitions in the 1920s with reviews titled “Art of Miss Irma Stern - Ugliness as a cult”. Gradually Irma became acknowledged as an established artist and from the 1940s achieved success locally.

Her method of working in her studio demanded intense concentration. She often put up a sign saying “Do not disturb” and proceeded to paint while chain smoking and drinking strong black coffee. She generally framed her own work, packed exhibitions and arranged sales herself. Apparently, when working on a portrait she would observe the model very closely, step back and view them through half closed eyes and aim to complete the painting in one sitting. Irma described the process of art production as follows: “I work a long time at a picture in my head... I never touch the canvas after it is finished.” Her style evolved over the years. A very versatile artist, she worked in a range of media including oils, water colour, gouache, charcoal as well as ceramics and sculpture. Often the outline of a composition was delineated in blue. The use of thick paint sometimes applied with a palette knife creates a sense of emotional intensity expressed in the choice of subject matter, be it landscape, portrait or still life.

According to Hannah O’Leary, Head of South African art at Bonham’s in London, Irma Stern was a world-class artist whose German Expressionist training, international travel and quality of artwork combine to create a highly collectable body of artwork. “She held major solo exhibitions in England, France, Holland, Belgium, Austria and Germany, and enjoyed favourable reviews from European critics long before she gained recognition in South Africa. During her lifetime, her paintings were exhibited at the Tate in London, the Venice Biennale, the Bienal de São Paulo, and the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. Yet after her death, she was all but forgotten outside South Africa.”

“The surge in prices for Stern’s work over the past decade can largely be attributed to the fact that her work had never been offered for sale in any serious manner outside her home country until May 2007, says O’Leary “when Bonhams in London held the first ever auction of South African art held outside South Africa. At the beginning of that year, the world record for her artwork was R2.2million, or £160,000, for ‘Lady of the Harem’, sold in Johannesburg. By the end of that year that record price had more than trebled, when ‘Congolese Woman’ sold in London for £569,300. This escalation in price proved there was a worldwide demand for this worldclass artist outside the domestic South African market.”

irma2Eight of the ten most expensive Irma Stern paintings have now been sold in London, confirming that global appeal. They are now included in some of the greatest public and private collections of Impressionist and German Expressionist art. They see her not as a provincial artist, defined by her home country’s geographical and socio-economic boundaries, but as a world-class artist whose work was informed by her contemporaries in Europe and beyond. These collectors are delighted to purchase the best examples from her oeuvre for what they perceive as reasonable prices; in international terms they still represent excellent value compared to the tens of millions of pounds demanded by other modern artists.

We asked Anton Welz, Auctioneer and Specialist at Stephan Welz & Co in South Africa on what he thinks is driving the market prices for Irma Stern’s works. “The Stern market appears to have reached a plateau over the last year or two. It would need to be an exceptional work to achieve a price in the high millions, as the pool of local collectors for works at high values is relatively small and unfortunately South African art does not have the appreciation it deserves from enough international collectors.

Although Stern’s top end works will always command a premium, there is a relatively small pool of local South African collectors who can afford these high value pieces. It is our observation that it is uncommon for these collectors to have more than a couple of high value Sterns in their collection and it is therefore likely that the trend of high value Sterns at auction will settle as those collectors hold onto their pieces and limited high value pieces become available on the market.”

UCT Irma Stern Museum, “The Firs” Cecil Road Rosebank Cape Town W 7700 Telephone (w): 27 (0)21 685 5686 Fax: 27 (0)21 686 7550 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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