Modern and Contemporary Art
Live Virtual Auction, 16 May 2023
Modern and Contemporary Art
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About this Item
signed and dated 1944
The early 1940s was a period of remarkable professional accomplishment for Irma Stern. Notwithstanding a calamitous war raging in Europe and the abrupt cessation of her nearly annual visits to the continent of her youth, Stern found opportunity to travel, exhibit and publish. In 1942 she extensively toured the Belgian Congo, including present-day Rwanda. That same year Joseph Sachs published Irma Stern and the Spirit of Africa, the artist’s first and only South African monograph published during her lifetime. In 1943 Stern authored Congo, the first of her two highly collectable artists’ books. She also maintained her clockwork pace of solo exhibitions, exhibiting in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi). Stern’s serious output from this time was evenly split between portraiture and still life. Her exuberant and vertiginous flower studies of the 1940s match the ambition and acuity of her disciplined portraits made in Congo and Zanzibar. The early wrestling with stylistic influences, notably post-impressionism, was eventually surpassed by an authentic personal idiom characterised by Stern’s confident use of unbridled colour as both form and detail. Stern’s knack for what Sachs called ‘sonorous colour harmonies and daring contrasts’1 is visible everywhere in this outstanding composition. It informs the diverse treatment of her dahlias, which encompass many chromatic hues from yellow-flecked whites to profuse reds. It is visible too in the blue-green details of the stem hanging over the creamy white surface of the sectioned pumpkin, which is fondly described. Even the mottled surface of the stoneware vase reveals Stern’s relinquishment to colour. Colour was a major talking point among the critics when Stern showed 24 new oils – among them three flower paintings titled Magnolias, Tiger Lilies and Dahlias, priced at 75, 40 and 55 guineas respectively – at André Bothner’s spacious new gallery at 76 Pritchard Street, adjacent to the Johannesburg High Court, in October 1944. ‘The luscious colour and heavy impasto of an Irma Stern canvas are enough to make the mouths of other colour-hungry artists water as tubes become emaciated and palettes lighter,’ reported The Star, whose cover leaders detailed raging battles in Holland and the Philippines. ‘Miss Stern, in fact, has reached a stage of wizards with colour that puts her in a place by herself among South African artists.’2 The Sunday Times was cooler in its overall praise but acknowledged that Stern’s canvases were characterised by ‘striking and clever colour composition’.3 Although largely unremembered now, André Bothner perfectly fulfilled Stern’s exacting tastes in dealers. He persuaded the Stellenbosch town council to open an Africana Museum in the recently restored V.O.C. Kruithuis in the early 1940s. Bothner was installed as curator and general organiser of the short-lived museum.4 His tastes as a dealer closely matched those of Stern and his gallery showing both prehistoric and modern art, including a well-received exhibition of contemporary American art in 1947. Stern exhibited with Bothner twice, in 1944 and in 1946. Bothner closed his gallery sometime after showing Edoardo Villa in 1949. He remained invested in heritage affairs, contributing insights to numerous biographies of union figures. He also collected art, notably acquiring J. M. Rogier’s large oil Groote Schuur, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1903, which he donated to the University of Cape Town.1. Joseph Sachs (1942) Irma Stern and the Spirit of Africa, Pretoria, J.L van Schaik Ltd. Page 36.
2. (1944) The Star, ‘Paintings by Irma Stern’, Wednesday, 25 October. Page 2.
3. R. N. B. (1944) Sunday Times, ‘Fine Works Displayed at Art Exhibitions’, 29 October. Page 11.
4. Francois Smuts (1979) Stellenbosch Three Centuries, Stellenbosch, Town Council of Stellenbosch. Page 406.