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Irma Stern - Still Life with Dahlias and Fruit

  25 March 2010     Archived

A magnificent Irma Stern painting entitled Still Life with Dahlias and Fruit is one of the many impressive works coming up for auction at Strauss & Co's Johannesburg sale on 24 May 2010.

Stern Gladiolus

Irma Stern

1894 - 1966

Still Life with Dahlias and Fruit

Signed and dated 1960

Oil on canvas

100 by 92,5cm

R4 000 000 – 6 000 000

For Irma Stern, still life painting was a genre that allowed her to explore colour combinations, spatial dynamics and composition, without being constrained by mimesis. While portraiture required some degree of similitude, still life was for her the ideal genre in which to experiment. When compared with earlier interpretations of the same subject, this painting ably demonstrates how far she was able to push the medium.

Two earlier versions of the same subject have been sold by Strauss & Co’s much admired auctioneer, Stephan Welz. A Still Life with Fruit and Dahlias, painted in 1946, sold at auction in November 1999 in Johannesburg and Still Life with Dahlias, painted in 1947, which is included in Marion Arnold’s handsome monograph, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye.

Reflecting on the two earlier paintings in relation to the later work, Welz says, “It’s rare that one can trace an artist’s development so clearly. Throughout my many years in the art field, there’s been an assumption that earlier works are superior to later works. Yet the versatility of this later work disproves that. In Stern’s many travels she must have come across Abstract Expressionist paintings and the European Lyrical Abstractionists and she would have been excited by the freedom with which they approached painting. I’ve no doubt that she revisited this subject with renewed passion.”

In both earlier works, Stern employ modulated colour, tonal values and shadows to achieve convincing three-dimensional form. However, in this later version of the same subject, painted in 1960, the brilliant colours and complementaries are splashed across the canvas revealing a freedom of expression not evident in her earlier paintings.

Her colour was never freer or bolder. An almost delirious explosion of brilliant, hot colour - vermillion, cerise, peach, Naples yellow, pink, mauve - holds the centre of the painting while complementaries of blue, green and purple reverberate with visual excitement at the edges. Painting the dahlia petals with thick impasto and radiating lines gives the impression of whirling dervishes confirming the artist’s palpable enjoyment of paint.

By contrast, the saturated, luminous citron yellow of the vase continually draws the eye back to the pulsing heart of the picture. Beside it, the unexpected clash of papaya on a pink cloth, with magenta highlights and green swirls, is entirely unpredictable.

Painted in 1960 when the artist was 66, and clearly demonstrating her confidence to paint with abandon, this is one of the finest examples of her later paintings where she luxuriates in the pleasure of paint. Her lack of interest in persuading the viewer that these are ordinary objects existing in convincing space and her commitment to treating the picture plane as a flat surface on which to enact her painting, suggest that Stern was closer in spirit to her international, post-war contemporaries than she has been given credit for.