The South African Modernist Irma Stern

In the Economist:


Irma Stern was born in South Africa, but studied under the German Expressionists. Her adult life was spent travelling widely, particularly within Africa, and her sense of being of the continent and yet outside it pervades all her work.

When she died in 1966, Stern was indisputably the grande dame of South African painting. But her reputation stagnated from then on, and it is only since two Sterns from Jack and Helene Kahn’s collection sold in an auction at Sotheby’s in Cape Town last February for £256,000 ($507,000) and £469,000 that her work has begun to gain significant international renown. The two star lots of Bonhams first South African sale in London last May were also both Sterns.

In Bonhams’s upcoming South African auction on January 31st, 32 of her works will go under the hammer, including a rich-red portrait of the timid but passionate-looking wife of a rich Indian merchant from the Cape. Dirty and unframed, the picture has lain for a generation in the attic of its British owner who did not know what it was. Bonhams estimates the painting will sell for £80,000-120,000.

Most white artists of Stern’s generation, Modigliani and Picasso included, painted Africans as objects—exotic, long-limbed and indistinguishable from each other. Stern, herself an outsider, both because of her Jewish heritage and her lifelong reputation for being rude, crotchety and mean, portrayed Africans as individuals. In an era that has begun to regard even Gauguin as a neo-colonialist, Stern had a fresh and prescient eye on another culture.