Irma Stern: One of the world’s leading female artists who captured Africa as the birthplace & melting pot of culture – African, Chinese, Arab and European

04 Jun 2018

Aspire Art Auctions is offering two ‘fresh to the market’ Irma Stern paintings which beautifully capture her vision of Africa as the home and melting pot of cultures – African, European, Arab and Chinese – and which pay tribute to all these influences.

The paintings are part of a sale of Historic, Modern & Contemporary Art which will take place on 17 June at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), in Johannesburg.

Emma Bedford, Senior Art Specialist and a director of Aspire Art Auctions, says: “Given the international interest in Irma Stern, we are delighted to bring these two beautiful works to the market. They both embody her style and her philosophy which was such a rich mélange of the cultures we are heir to here at the southern tip of Africa. What is particularly interesting in the one painting is the presence of a Chinese pot and an Arab influenced table cover. The most valuable Stern ever sold, Arab Priest, bought by the Qatari Government for £ 3,044,000 (US$ 4,109,209) in 2011, also has this mix of elements.”

Modern and Contemporary African art is having a long overdue moment in the spotlight of international interest and prices for a number of top artists from Africa, including Stern, have performed strongly over the past decade. This long overlooked continent and its artists are being discovered afresh, and the influence they have had on Modern and Contemporary European artists is realized once more.

Leading South African artist Irma Stern was ahead of her time in her appreciation of the ‘melting-pot’ nature of culture in South Africa, as the painting of magnolias shows. In it are clues to the multi-ethnic nature of society in the region.

The artist shows the evidence of human creativity that have enriched the local cultural mix – the martaban in which the flowers are placed, and a small post-Sung period Chinese celadon bowl.  The martaban, a Chinese storage commonly used on trading vessels, is listed in the Irma Stern Museum catalogue as Southern Chinese, provincial prototype Yüan or later.  Then there is the linear patterns of a large, woven Zanzibari mat on which everything is placed, evidence of the Arab Muslim influence. This artful construction evokes a long history of human cultures in southern Africa, and one that is mixed, not a story of racial purity which a decade later would lead to such political unrest in the country.

Stern scholar, Dr Marion Arnold, of Loughborough University in the UK, says: “Stern produced still life paintings throughout her career, invariably depicting natural and cultural forms. Flowering plants and fruits, often from her garden at The Firs in Rosebank, feature prominently as do artefacts she collected. Comments by Stern’s friends affirm her love of gardening (issuing orders rather than digging holes one suspects) and vases of flowers adorned her home and studio. Mona Berman in Remembering Irma (2003), recalls being invited to lunch with Stern and notes, ‘Pink and white magnolias, fresh from the tree, were placed informally in the centre of the table’.

Magnolias are an ancient genus pollinated by beetles before the evolution of bees. To avoid damage from pollinating beetles, the carpels of Magnolia flowers are extremely tough. Used as a botanical term ‘primitive’ carries none of the derogatory connotations conferred on ‘primitive’ in references to people; Magnolias are primitive, beautiful survivors. In Stern’s painting the cut flowers, removed from their natural environment, will last only briefly but they establish a dialogue between the procreative life force of flowering plants and evidence of human creativity.”

The second Stern work on offer is also a still life featuring flowers, a great passion of the artist.

Titles can silence the evocative power of paintings and inhibit a search for meaning beyond the picture frame. This painting is auctioned with a descriptive title because the only evidence of what may have been Stern’s title is a 1980 exhibition catalogue entry: ‘Chrysanth(a)mums (sic)’.

We can see that chrysanthemums provided Stern’s source material but she chose not to portray these flowers in the realist-expressionist style she developed successfully throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

The descriptive title provides a reason for her decision; this is a painting with ‘the artist’s handmade jug’. The artist’s creative practice as painter and ceramist suggests that the painting represents Stern using pictorial language to reflect on her complex artistic identity in 1950.  Her handmade ceramic jug, dated 1949, features the back view of a nude woman against white drapery, and Stern’s signature and date are prominent images in the upper right space. The dates are relevant. Stern remained in Africa during WW2, and on her return to Europe in 1946 and 1950 she reconnected with her European heritage and studied current European painting. This still life painting is about Stern, woman and artist in a post-war era, confronting change. This boldly simplified painting asserts pictorial language and evokes the issues of how different cultural contexts influence art practice, and whether artists embrace or reject change in their physical and cultural environments.

Professor Sandra Klopper, Art historian and former deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town, commenting on these paintings, says: “As Irma Stern’s Still life with Magnolias (1949) and Still Life with Chrysanthemums (1950) attest, her paintings almost invariably include not only fruit and flowers, but objets d’art from her collection and, in some cases, her own ceramics.   A highly inventive painter, she repeatedly transcends the constraints imposed by traditional genres to produce works that are often exuberantly energetic, but always carefully composed. While most of her still life paintings are intensely voluptuous, celebrating the lyrical potential of colour and the organic lushness of impasto oils, some also pay homage to the more constrained, geometric abstractions associated with the work of her local and international contemporaries.”

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