The still life genre provided Irma Stern with a fitting outlet for her passionate interest in colour. In the 1930s she became dissatisfied with her limiting palette. At her 1930 exhibition in Paris, while hanging her artworks, ‘she found that she had difficulty in giving a total impression of her work without repeating her colour schemes. The brown bodies of the natives, with orange, red and green, were domineering colours in her canvases, and this made her think that her palette was limited, except for a few still lifes in which she saw a wealth of colour scheme, and on those still lifes she determined to build her career.’1
The present Lot attests to Stern’s embracing of a much more exciting colour palette. It is especially evident in the splashes of red, pink, purple and orange of the zinnias. The thick paint application echoes the texture and shape of the colourful stiff petals. The vase of flowers is placed on a red table, which seems to have been a favourite studio prop. The artist depicted the same table in other still lifes auctioned by Strauss & Co – Still Life with Red Flowering Gums (1936), which sold for R3.8 million in 2009, and Gladioli (1939), which sold for R12 million in 2010.
The still life genre gave the artist an ideal opportunity to experiment with the formal qualities of painting such as colour and texture. It seems to have been a counterpoint to her portraits of family and friends, and the exotic ‘others’ she encountered on her travels in East Africa. And flowers were the natural fulcrum for her still life compositions – her house, The Firs, in Rosebank, Cape Town, has an extensive garden, and its bounty was a constant source of inspiration in the studio. Esmé Berman maintains that ‘Stern’s ebullient brush was frequently occupied by the flamboyant brilliance of sub-tropical blooms.’2
Marion Arnold considers Stern’s still lifes to be ‘more than a decorative statement of vigorously applied, strong colour: they speak of the hybridisation process that makes these flowers unlike the delicate blooms of indigenous species. But despite the fact that flowers within still life painting possess meanings related to environmental concerns, flower painting has come to epitomise a very popular subject, the antithesis of arcane and serious avant garde imagery.’3
1. Karel Schoeman (1994) Irma Stern: The Early Years, 1894–1933, Cape Town: South African Library, page 99.
2. Esmé Berman (1983) Art and Artists of South Africa, Cape Town: AA Balkema, page 168.
3. Marion Arnold (2001) South African Botanical Art: Peeling Back the Petals. Cape Town: Fernwood Press, page 148.