Artist Dossier: Irma Stern

In continuation of our analyses of well-recognized Nigerian and African artists, this week, we will examine the life of widely acknowledged South African painter, Irma Stern. We will also review her impressive auction results from international auction house, Bonhams.

Irma Stern is unarguably a pivotal figure in narratives of modern art in Africa. She was born in 1894 in Schweizer Reneke, Transvaal, in South Africa. She studied in Weimar and Berlin, Germany winning several awards in her long and illustrious career including the Prix d’Honneur at the Bordeaux International exhibition (1927), the Peggy Guggenheim international art prize (1960), and the Oppenheimer award on Art in South Africa in 1963. She was also awarded a medal of honour for her paintings by the Suid- Afrikanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (1965).

Stern’s oeuvre embraces several themes from exotic figures, to portraits lush landscapes and stillifes conveyed in different media ranging from oils and water colours to gouache and charcoal. She died in 1966, and a posthumous exhibition was held in her honor at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1967. Art historian, Hayden Proud observes, ‘Many of Stern’s paintings of people from other cultures are concerned primarily with the culture rather than the individual. The essence of the person studied becomes a generalization for the society because, although the painting is created from contact with particular models, Stern interprets according to a mental construct about the culture of origin. Thus many of her portraits are ambivalent, presenting both stereotypical and individual characteristics.’

One of her paintings, The Malay Bride, sold for £1.2 million (N312.2 million including premium) at Bonhams The South African Sale in October 2013. This is a fine example of Stern’s output from the 1940s and is considered one of her most accomplished paintings. Typical of her work created during this period, the subjects are imbued with a refined serenity and appear isolated. The artist’s fascination with Islam and the splendor of Muslim women in their finery and  adornment developed from her exposure to the Cape Malay culture. This enchantment grew with her two trips to Zanzibar in 1945.

Irma Stern is still considered by many to be South Africa’s foremost artist and her works continue to fetch record prices at international auctions. Her top 5 sales at Bonhams auctions of South African art are listed in the table.

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