Flowers are a major theme and subject of Irma Stern’s life and work. Writing in Umgababa Buch (1923) about her return to South Africa from Germany in 1920, Stern listed among the joys of her homeland: “The endless sky. The splendour of its flowers saturated with colour. The fruit with its sweet and yet so sharp fragrance.”1 The artist made this “splendour” part of her daily life when, in 1927, she moved into The Firs, a large Victorian home previously owned by prominent Cape architect John Parker. In a 1928 letter to her childhood friend, Trude Bosse, Stern described how her garden included “larkspur, stocks, enormous geraniums, all shades of pelargoniums, great balls of white and also yellow daisies, violet and yellow poppies, sunflowers, and many, many roses, carnations, petunias, fuchsias”.2 Her joy in this botanical abundance is palpable.
But Stern’s floral studies are not just proxies for personal pleasure; they played a vital role in innovating her painterly practice. “She did not attain the fluent and evocative style that characterizes her mature paintings, from about 1935, without effort,” notes art historian Marion Arnold. “Object painting enabled her both to experiment with paint application and to determine how she related to empirical reality. The physicality of objects – their materials, surfaces and forms – presented a challenge: description had to be balanced with expression.”3 Stern would also use her popular still lifes to experiment with colour, and apply these lessons across her work.
Dating from an active period of work and travel, this lot portrays a flowering shell ginger (alpinia zerumbet). This herbaceous perennial from East Asia is known for its attractive foliage and tender pink or white pendant flowers, which have a distinct, spicy fragrance. Presenting in drooping clusters, the flower is perfectly suited to Stern’s coolly exuberant treatment on canvas. Presented in a celeste jug, flanked by an arrangement of fruit, her white flowers are bruised with flashes of pink and purple. The product of purposeful brushstrokes and painterly restraint, her composition nonetheless tests the bounds of the frame – the canvas is barely able to contain the painter’s exultation.
- Sean O'Toole