Important South African Art & Furniture, Decorative Arts and Jewellery

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Irma Stern; Composition
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Lot 710

South African 1894-1966
signed and dated 1923
oil on canvas
139 by 95.5cm excluding frame

Sold for R 8 500 000
Including Buyer's Premium and VAT R 9 662 800

Estimate R 9 000 000 - 12 000 000

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This exceptional painting was produced three years prior to The Hunt (1926) which now hangs in pride of place at the Irma Stern Museum. They were clearly both inspired by Stern’s visit to Umgababa near Durban in 1922. In 1923, she wrote her ‘Umgababa Buch’ and, en route to Europe on the Usaramo, met the enigmatic Hippolyto Raposo, an author and professor from Beira, whose impact on her romantic imagination was nothing short of tumultuous.

This visualisation of an African paradise is not only infused with Stern’s passion for the exotic but with her own evolving sexuality and her yearning for love. The central figure, a young woman with beaded hair, cocooned in a flame-coloured orange cloak, draws on Stern's Umgababa experiences. The girl at left reclines with her eyes closed as if dreaming while the child holds a yellow butterfly in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other. These symbols of transformation, fertility and good fortune are reinforced by baskets of fruit and flowers.

Surrounded by Proteas bursting through green foliage, framing glimpses of the mountains and ocean beyond, all are contained in a shallow pace which, pressed against the picture plane, owes much to the vision of the German Expressionist painters whom she met in Berlin in 1917 and with whom she associated and exhibited.

Die Kunskamer

Irma Stern Museum, 1994

Catalogue. (2003) Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey, Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery. Illustrated in colour on page 100.

Dubow, Neville. (ed.) (1991) Paradise: The Journal and Letters (1917-1933) of Irma Stern. Diep River: Chameleon Press. lllustrated on page 88, captioned:

'the nubile girls, flowers and fruit in this work were to become key elements in Irma Stern's emerging style'.

Arnold, Marion. (1995) Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye. Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press. Page 49, illustrated in colour on page 56:

'Throughout the twenties Stern's work was experimental. She began to locate African subjects ... but also sought ways of expressing her responses to the world through a visual language which satisfied her own complex temperament. Two main approaches to painting can be identified: she worked from the subject - models, landscape, still life - translating sense perceptions and emotion into colour and mark, and she worked from her imagination, responding to the image emerging under her brush. The difference in approach is clearly demonstrated in two works from 1923, Still Life with Books ... and Composition ...

In contrast to the still life, Composition is not based on observation. It is literally a composition, an exercise in organizing forms and colours in a decorative manner. A contrived arrangement of shapes, the painting shows the young artist trying to transfer local subject matter - brown bodies and proteas - to the bathers theme. The frank eroticism of the female bodies is diffused by the bright, jarring colour. In its self-consciousness the painting is typically Modernist. It has elements of German Expressionism in the shape stylization and overtones of Cubism in the faceted organization of planes. Moreover, it shows the influence that Pechstein continued to exert over Stern. Indeed his influence was significant in this period - despite the fact that Stern was in South Africa - for she acquired Osborn's monograph on Pechstein, published in 1922. Reproductions of works and Osborn's interpretation of Pechstein's pursuit of primitivism stimulated her own quest for exotic subject matter and modern style, enabling her to forge her identity as South Africa's most significant pioneer Modernist painter.'

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