Irma Stern was born in 1894 to German Jewish parents at Schweizer-Reneke, in the North West Province of South Africa. During the Boer War her father, and two brothers were imprisoned because of their pro Boer sympathies. Irma and her young brother, were taken by their mother, to Cape Town.
After the war the children went to Germany with their parents. Although the family returned to South Africa for short periods while Irma was growing up, they spent the years of the First World War (1914-1918) in Germany. Her stay in Germany during the First World War had a major influence on how she perceived Africa compared what she experienced in Germany during the war. In comparison Africa appeared idyllic, and her work reflect this view of Africa as “Paradise.” Irma decided to become a painter and was supported in her decision by her parents.
She studied in Berlin and Weimer. Her first independent art work The Eternal Child, was rejected by her first teacher and she left to study with the Expressionist, Max Pechstein in 1916 who encouraged and influenced her work and helped arranged her first exhibition in Berlin before she returned to South Africa with her family in 1920. She was initially derided as an artist (culture of ugliness) in Cape Town and her work was not understood by the conservative South African art establishment. Irma Stern remained passionate and was regarded as an established and excepted artist by the 1940s.
She was both a pioneer and rebel in South African art circles as she introduced the conservative South African to Modernism during the 1920’s and managed to shift the prevailing perceptions about art over the following four decades. She traveled widely throughout Europe and Africa. She worked in a wide range of media including oils, water colour, gouache, charcoal as well as ceramics and sculpture. She died on 23 August 1966 in Cape Town at the age of 71.
Max Pechstein, an important member of ‘Die Brücke’ and a leader in the German Expressionist movements introduced Irma to German Expressionism. The Expressionists, in their intense identification with their subject matter, whether natural scenery or human situation, they conceived their paintings not as recoeds of events and scenes, but rather as vehicles for communicating an emotional experience from one psyche to another; it was not the mere appearance of the subject, but the sensations it aroused within the artist that were given form and colour in their compositions. Their works were also characterised by violence of colour.
Max Pechstein had a strong influence on her style and artistic philosophy, helping her to express her emotions in a personal visual language. The Expressionists also introduced Irma to nature and ‘primitive’ man as a source of artistic expression. Although the Expressionists were her formative influence, her work and the themes of her work did not reflect the “angst” of the Expressionists, but rather the idealised and romanticised view of the Fauvists and Gauguin. She also used the loose expressive brush strokes of the Expressionists, arbitrary colours, unusual angles in compositions, and distorted and stylised representations of her subjects. It was therefore more the visual devices of the Expressionists that influenced her work. Her work were nevertheless, immensely more subjective in approach than anything the South African public had seen before. The South African public and critics were not yet ready to accept the raw exposure of an artists’s personal emotions.
Her African heritage became important to her and through her later travels she explored her personal myth of exotic Africa as ‘Paradise’. The exotic other was an important feature in her work. Irma Stern travelled extensively in Europe and explored Southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo. These trips provided a wide range of subject matter for her paintings and she collected artifacts that featured in some of her Still Life paintings. These African and Medieval artefacts could have represented to her, as it did to European collectors, the idea of Otherness, the exotic.
The following video taken in the Irma Stern Museum shows the collection of artifact she collected.
However, while most European 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 “difficult”, portrayed Africans as individuals. In an era that has begun to regard even Gauguin as a neo-colonialist, Stern had a fresh outlook on another culture. (Ref)
Aim and Characteristics of Art
Irma Stern did not regard her models as mere objects. To her the human figure is not merely an impersonal form behind a picture plane; it is a human personality. The two subjects that occur most frequently are people, of every occupation and complexion; and fruits-and-flowers, of equivalent diversity. All her works are characterised by her vital use of line and colour. When Stern depicted a cluster of flowers in a vase, it was not depicted as a lifeless array of shapes and colours, but as an expression of organic growth and vigour.
“Painting paintings through my heart’s blood.” – Irma Stern
The central theme of her art is the struggle of how to relate to the other. – Who are we, Who are we in Africa? She saw Africa as the incarnation of freedom and painted a romanticized Africa. It is speculated that for her Africa represented the idealized self as well as the sensual aspects that was missing in her own life. She colonized her African experience and transformed the experience through art.
Stern “identified with her subjects in one specific sense: their grace was for her more than just a metaphor for freedom; it was the very incarnation of freedom that she sought and which was denied her in her private emotional life, she’d “‘colonise[d]’ that part of African experience that she could use in her work [and] unashamedly seized it and brought it back to her studio where the exotic raw material was processed into her art” – Dubow.
She used expressive brushstrokes, thick paint and bright colours to show her idealised, view of the world, rather than the suffering of Africa. In her portraits of the African peoples, she identified with the spiritual and emotional beauty she encountered, finding artistic freedom in her emotional and sensual response. Her subject matter included still life compositions, landscapes and portraits from the different regions she visited. 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. She used her painting as a means of self-discovery and personal revelation. Irma Stern never did any self-portraits, and it has been suggested that she projected her inner self-image as an exploration of her own sexuality.
An interest in primitivism and exoticism was an important component of European Modernism, but primitivism obviously had other implications or connotations for the South African spectator. The significance of primitivism in Stern’s work was frequently minimized in contemporary criticism, possibly since this was felt to be one of the major alienating aspects of her oeuvre.
In Europe the taste for the primitive had been a “search by weary sophisticates for the primal essence, the life force that reposed in traditional primitive art” (Dubow 1974). In Germany in particular, primitivism, with its notion of harmony with nature, was believed to be able to counter the effects of modern psychic stress . In South Africa the primitive was a definite reality and not an illusory, Edenic fantasy. The depiction of black people that granted Stern recognition in Europe, led conversely to estrangement in South Africa.
The Rand Daily Mail reported that the “critic Fritz Stahl of Berlin… said that she had done for South Africa what Gaugin had done for the South Seas”.
Like Gauguin, she saw the civilization as threatening the primitive culture. Disillusioned with Europe with Hitler’s rise to power, Stern looks for an alternative to European ‘civilisation’ in what others consider darkest Africa. In the process, she inverts the colonial relationship to Africa, equating Africa with civilisation and Europe with barbarianism.
“I get terribly frightened when I think of Germany’s future – so much hatred that has to be overcome and so much blood that still has to be shed! The foreign countries stand shuddering with horror and wonder about the barbarism of the twentieth century,” she wrote134, clearly identifying with “the foreign countries’” horror. “I am going to the “savages” [den Wildern] and probably I shall meet cultured people there,”
The difference between Stern’s exoticism and that of Europeans was that as a (South) African she was believed to embody “the primal essence – that life force that was perceived as the gift of tribal society in general, and African tribal art in particular” In other words, Stern symbolized the exotic and was felt by Europeans to have immediate access to a quintessential spirituality. The contrary supposition may also be true – that South African spectators had no place for the celebration of the primitive, precisely because it was for them an ominous force that had to be subjugated. (Ref)
Examples of Paintings analysed by previous students:
The Hunt was a product of her journey to Swaziland and Natal during the 1920’s. A group of hunters are it seems preparing for a hunt. All of them are either naked or just wearing a loin cloth. Stylized hunting dogs are in the foreground. In this painting one can see the the idea of the idealized other; the subjects serves as a source of visual inspiration to her. She does not consider the social, political and economic implications of their situations. Details are exaggerated and stylised to create an ideal image of a “noble savage”
There are loads of books about Picasso on Stern’s book-shelves and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon(1907) and the influence can clearly be seen in The Hunt (1926). We get the mask-like flatness and two dimensionality but Picasso’s renegade glee, his sexualised sense of attack, those razor-like breasts and angles, has declined in Stern’s hands into genteel decorative curves, lines and S-shapes. (ref)
The composition is busy and almost bursting at the edges of the frame. A feeling of activity is created by the use of lots of angular lines often intersecting with each other. The use of colour gives a feeling of joy and excitement which reflects the Fauvist use of colour rather than the feeling of anxiety that one feels when looking at German Expressionist works. She also use arbitrary colour mixed with local or real colour, loosely applied creating gestral, expressive marks. She also made use in this painting of juxtapositioning of complimentary colours. (colours that intensify each other when placed side by side, that is yellow and purple; red and green; blue and orange). She also uses the strong outlines in black so often found in Fauvist paintings. The shadows are also heavily accentuated so that it almost becomes part of the pattern.
Although there is a feeling of depth in the painting, the perspective is distorted as there is little difference between foreground and background space. The colours does not become less vibrant in the back ground and some figures in the back ground are out of proportion in relationship with each other on the particular plane of depth. The area of focus appears to be the three figures in the foreground. The overall impression of the painting is one of vibrant colours and pattern, but one does not feel any emotions in the subjects and they almost appear like bored models posing for a fashion shoot. They are stylized to resemble the angularity found in African sculpture.
Irma Stern often used her Still Life painting to experiment with technique and composition. Her technique in her still lifes are much freer than her paintings of human figures. In still lifes she could also arrange each object to reflect the idea she was trying express. In this still life we see featured two African sculptures which must be part of her collection from her travels through Africa. Along with it is a blue spotted jug with what seems to be two paint brushes in it. Next to it is a can of beverage and a bowl that could contain either floating petals, or soup. Behind the figures is a bright red hanging cloth with white African print.
She uses arbitrary colours in African sculptures, that just gives an impression of aged wood rather than a realistic representation. Bright blue, purple, and red in loose brush strokes highlights the shapes and form of the sculptures, rather than the western traditional use of carefully graded colours to indicate shadow. The rest of the objects are treated with realistic colour but shows clear mark making, rather than blended and one does get a feel of realistic texture.
In my opinion the central sculpture is the focal point as it is more defined in both colour and line than the figure next to it and the red cloth in the background is contrasted with the cooler colours of the figurine. The yellow colour of the wall is juxtaposed with the red of the cloth, creating a feeling of depth as the background appears cooler than the foreground. Overall the perspective is realistic but with distorted forms.
One gets the feeling that this still life represented a slice in her life. It feels homely because of the introduction of the seemingly random can and bowl of containing what looks edible. Yet there is a feeling of sadness in the way the two figures relate to each other and the central figure’s hands are broken off.
Repose was inspired by her trip to Swaziland and Natal. The Swazi women are placed in a colourful and decorative setting with naturalistic details like St Joseph lilies and pawpaws that gives the painting a feeling of exotic. The two semi naked women are lying in the forest. at ease with their nakedness. Their warm bronze like colours makes their bodies feel as if they are glowing, which are emphasized by the copper jewellery they are wearing.
Your eye is drawn to the white of the lilies in the foreground which stands out against the darker colours of the rest of the painting. Traditionally white lilies are a symbol of purity which may also be a symbol Irma Stern placed there to show how she feels about the subject – the African paradise before “the fall” – where like in the Biblical Eden they were not yet aware of their nakedness in their innocence.
Your eye is also lead all over the place because the painting is very busy.with bright rich colours. There is a feeling of foreground and background in the painting mainly because the objects in the foreground are more in focus in the foreground and the background images are more blurred and she uses loser brush stroke in the background and cooler colours. The trees at the back of the women, and the bushes and leaves are very blurry. It seems as if the background is shallow, almost like a backdrop on a stage.
The brush strokes she uses in painting the women is gives a feeling of the real texture of smooth skin but in the rest of the painting it is looser almost washed. She also uses tonal modeling on the bodies which contrasts with the stylised treatment of the rest of the painting. The figures are also clearly outlined in black.
The painting reminds me of the warm rich colours of Gauguin as well as his paintings of the tropical islands as an idealised primitive world..
Pondo Woman, which was painted in 1929, may not appear today to be sensational in either style or subject matter, but during the twenties, exhibitions of similar works were investigated by the police on grounds of immorality. And when Irma Stern exhibited in Johannesburg in 1933, the editor of the Sunday Times called it “Irma Stern Chamber of Horrors.”
Her critics felt that she simply could not draw and had no right to foist her her graphic deformations on the public. Viewers were quick to seize on details like the hands. Her colour colour, too, offended, as to the public it appeared haphazard in application as compared to the traditional art they were used to.
Thus far, the attitude od most South African painters towards their subjects had been cool detachmant. This was especially true od so-called ‘native studies’, which were treated either as dry ethnographical descriptions or as loftily rhetorical, ‘noble savage’ presentations. Irma Stern in contrast, identified herself emotionally with every subject that she painted; this subjective involvement is one of the most forceful features of her style. The revolutionary quality of works like the Pondo Woman was therefore as much as a result of the concept as in method.
The influence of German Expressionism is clear in this painting, specifically regarding the conjunction of (nude) figure and lush landscape. Pondo Woman was the result of Stern’s frequent visits to Pondoland (the Transkei) during the 1920s. It shows a woman with downcast eyes in an introspective or self-absorbed mood, and it exudes that gentle eroticism that was commonly believed to be a metaphor for primitivism and exoticism.
(From Irma Stern’s first exhibition in Pretoria, 1933 – Jeanne van Eeden)
Typical Stern stylistic elements were the merging of foreground and background, the overall treatment, the strong colours, the use of dark outlines and line for decorative effect, and the simplification of form. The naturalism of the figure is contrasted by the stylised treatment of the background. The figure is represented in a state of contemplation.
Irma Stern painted many Still life paintings With still life compositions artists can plan and arrange each element deliberately to bring across a particular emotion, atmosphere or message. Irma also used still life painting to experiment with colour combinations, and composition, and technique. She often used her still life paintings to express something, which often reflected a part of her life.:To me the colour of her still life paintings show her feelings; they are sometimes good and they are sometimes bad. In this painting I feel warmth and peace in the painting because of the warm colours of the flowers and the brightness of the fruit and vase.
The first thing that draws my eye is the basket on the table with the fruit in it because the colours of the fruit stands out against the contrasting purple background (juxtaposed) bringing out the yellow and greens of the fruits. The yellow fruit especially stands out and my eye keeps on being drawn between the the different tone of yellow in the vase and the yellow in the fruit basket. The brightness of colour is found throughout the painting and each colour emphasized by using complimentary colours to each area of particular colour.The red-brown of the table makes all the yellows, purples and greens seems brighter. The over-all effect is that the painting has an exotic tropical feel.
Her brush strokes and mark making is much freer in this painting than when compared to her earlier works, where she used shaded form, tonal values of colour to achieve convincing three-dimensional form. In this painting the background is treated in a 2D way using only loose brush strokes, in an almost abstract expressive way, with no blending of the colour. Like in Fauvist painting it almost feels unfinished compared to traditional Western Art where the brush strokes were carefully blended. There is no attempt to create realistic texture in any of the objects. Shading and texture are just implied by simple rough strokes of colour.
I get the feeling that in this painting she just let go of all rules and just enjoyed painting the riot of colour found in the flowers and fruits, almost like the brightness of colour found in Spring after a grey winter. Most of the flowers in her still life paintings were from her own garden or from friends.To Irma Africa was the land of colour and this she expressed in my opinion in this painting.
The painting dates from 1929, Stern’s most sought-after period. The muted landscape and the plain white of the woman’s robe and head-dress draw the viewer’s eye intensely to the sitter’s face. Her eyes look away, but her look, despite the stylised decorative markings across the cheeks, has something about it that could be haughty or just intensely private. Its power lies as much in its strength as in its mystery: you can’t really tell what she is thinking, but thinking she is. (Ref)
“Her mode of speech was so polite and well-formulated,” Stern once said of her subject, according to a Bonhams press release. “It was a lovely harmony in this young girl, slim and tall, with the gently movements of a well-bred race. Her eyes were like dark pools, swimming with the glance of tragedy curious in so young a face, yet so common in the eastern woman.” (Ref)
Sill Life with Magnolias and Pumpkins – (The Huge Magnolia trees are still in her garden, now the Stern Museum)
Key Words for Irma Stern: The exotic other, colonization, struggle, identity, primal nakedness and innocence, colour, pioneer, rebel, romanticized Africa, alienation/loneliness
Claudia, B. Braude – Beyond Black and White; Rethinking Irma Stern
Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa
Brandon Edmonds – Various Artists at the Irma Stern Museum
Alan Crump, Irma Stern – Expressions of a Journey
Irma Stern’s first exhibition in Pretoria, 1933 – Jeanne van Eeden
Irma Stern Museum
Josh Trapper, Irma Stern Painting Sells for …
Johan Borman Fine Art
Leslie Back, Memories of Irma Stern