Live Virtual Auction, 14 September 2021
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About this Item
Irma Stern had been looking forward to a two-week break in the south of France after her successful exhibition at Galerie André Weil in Paris, which had run from 12 to 25 January 1965. After that she and Dudley Welch, her lifelong companion, planned to drive to Alicante for another painting trip to the artist’s beloved Spain. Stern fell ill, however, and the short vacation at the Hotel Méditerranée in Cannes turned into a protracted six month’s stay. She frequently wrote to her good friends Frieda and Richard Feldman in Johannesburg, telling them all the news. Besides quirky titbits of their stay – such as not being able to buy hats and gloves (‘Quite unnatural for any woman’); not being able to scour the local antique shops (‘Dudley drives past everything and says no parking!’); and daily excursions to the Cannes Film Festival and the St Tropez Art Museum – she also had important information to share: she had been awarded a Medal of Honour by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, and had received an invitation to mount the inaugural exhibition at the Walter Schwitter Gallery in Pretoria.
Most significantly for the present lot, Stern describes the view from her hotel window: ‘We are in Cannes and have rooms facing the sea and harbour – all packed with yachts and boats, one jungle of it’ (10 February 1965). ‘From the bedroom we have a good view of the harbour and the little ships very attractive’ (11 March 1965). ‘I like painting the harbour … and they are very colourful paintings’ (19 May 1965). ‘I have not painted any still lifes here yet. I have done mostly sea and landscape so far’ (28 May 1965).1 The present lot was undoubtedly painted in Cannes at this time, and, in all likelihood, was exhibited at the Walter Schwitter Gallery upon Stern’s return to South Africa.
The work is characterized by a new approach to painting. ‘She began to favour lighter, finer canvas which she often allowed to show through, both as background and highlight,’ wrote Neville Dubow. ‘Her palette lightened tonally as her paint was applied less densely. The brush strokes became more gestural, more calligraphic, with a quick luxuriant scrawl, establishing the line of a profile, the gesture of a hand or a foot. The rapidity of her numerous graphic works – monotypes, etchings, ink drawings – found
reflection in the rapidity with which she produced full-scale oil paintings.’2
The composition is dominated by the dramatic semi-circular Cannes harbour, with ‘little ships’ bobbing on the sea, executed in the very
characteristic Mediterranean azure blue, also evident in other examples painted from the same vantage point. The three nudes in the foreground are rather curious, but perhaps are allegorical, even mythical, possibly referencing the Three Graces of classical Greek mythology. This work is a masterpiece of Stern’s late style.
1. Quoted in Sandra Klopper (2017) Irma Stern: ‘Are you still alive?’– Stern’s life and
art seen through her letters to Richard and Frieda Feldman, 1934–1966, Cape Town:
Orisha, pages 219 to 223.
2. Neville Dubow (1974) Irma Stern, Cape Town: South African Art Library, page 21.