Irma Stern’s bold portrait of a modern woman presents an opportunity for collectors

1 Nov 2022

Tastes regularly shift in the art world, but over the last half century Irma Stern has remained highly prized among collectors of South African art, outperforming all other artists at auction.

Following on from its highly successful June sale exclusively devoted to Stern, which saw all 140 lot sell, Strauss & Co is delighted to be offering seven works by this historically important artist in its marquee summer auction in Johannesburg (3-9 November 2022).

Led by a singular portrait from 1940, African Woman (estimate R5 – 6 million) portrays an unnamed sitter with crossed arms wearing a head wrap and embroidered blouse. This impressive portrait was produced during a key moment in South Africa’s urban transition. It forms part of a small but important body of work by Stern depicting urbanised women of colour in contemporary leisure and work dress. Other examples from her oeuvre include Young Malay Maiden with Black Hair (1938) and Maid in Uniform (1955). Works in this style have generated strong interest from contemporary art historians and curators interested in the body and representation.

Feminine rituals and ceremonial dress are abiding themes of Stern’s work and dominate her composition Indian Women (estimate R3 – 4 million), a dynamic group study from 1959 portraying brightly clad Indian women socialising on a wedding day. Strauss & Co is also offering works that show the importance of the female nude in Stern’s output. Glass Fireplace Panels (estimate 900 000 – 1.2 million) is a glorious multi-part work from 1943 depicting frolicking Matisse-like naked figures. Nude Bather, Riviera (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) is a late work from 1965 and appeared in art historian Michael Godby’s thematic exhibition Irma Stern Nudes (2021-22).

Recent Stern scholarship has drawn attention to the importance of the artist’s small output of sculpture, notably in ceramic. Vase (estimate R250 000 – 350 000) from 1949 features two petite handles and is decorated with a figural motif of a veiled woman. The lot has an impeccable provenance.

All the works mentioned above, including African Woman and Indian Women, will be offered for sale on Tuesday, 8 November 2022 at 7pm. Responding to collector interest in smaller, thematic sales, Strauss & Co will host three consecutive evening sales of art, starting on Monday, 7 November 2022 with a 47-lot sale of South African sculpture. Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg sale season concludes with a single-artist sale of fresh-to-market works from the Estate of the Late Robert Hodgins on Wednesday, 9 November 2022.

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