Irma Stern is one of South Africa’s few modernist painters to receive serious international attention. A revisionary Irma Stern solo exhibition held at the Bielefeld Kunsthalle in 1996 – the first time that Stern’s work was seen in Germany since the early 1930s – drew the attention of European audiences to this artist who had played a seminal role as co-founder in 1918 of the revolutionary November Group.
Irene Below, the exhibition’s curator notes that Stern’s ‘closeness to the reality of life in Africa’ allowed her to ‘creatively process’ her experiences of a colonial South Africa.1 Her paintings of people from diverse cultures were one of the ways in which the artist came to terms with living in and experiencing the extremely different worlds of Europe and Africa.
One senses that the artist was motivated by the particularities of the encounter with this woman in the real world. Swathed in drapery that concentrates all attention on her expressive face, this is at once a thoughtful portrait of an individual and an evocation of the many cultures that have enriched Africa and the place Stern called home.
While Stern made greater use of naturalism in her portraits as she strove to capture the likeness of her model, her overriding concerns lay in exploring modernist concerns with the nature of paintings as two dimensional surfaces by limiting the spatial depth and heightening colour and surface texture. Though the subject is keenly observed, the painting in nevertheless exploratory and expressive – the result of a passionate engagement with the medium.
1. Claudia B Braude, ‘Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Irma Stern’ in Focus, The Helen Suzman Foundation, Johannesburg, Issue 61, June 2011, page 48
Mrs Elizabeth Mark
Joseph Sachs, Irma Stern and the Spirit of Africa, J L Van Schaik Publishers, Pretoria, 1942, illustrated as Psychic: An old Malay Woman.