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Another Irma Stern Still Life Poised to Break Auction Records

  23 July 2010     Archived

Following Strauss and Co's extraordinary success in selling Irma Stern's Still Life with Gladioli and Fruit for R7 575 200, another still life with Gladioli by Stern has come to the market. Painted in 1939, five years after Stern produced the painting that excited so much heated bidding at the Johannesburg auction on 24 May earlier this year, this painting with estimates of R5 000 000 to R7 000 000 is sure to rouse wide interest at Strauss & Co's 11 October sale at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands.

Irma Stern, Gladioli
signed and dated 1939
oil on canvas
99 by 92,5cm
R5 000 000 - R7 000 000

By 1939 Irma Stern had garnered international recognition and local notoriety for her remarkable paintings. She had enjoyed the success of several solo shows and exhibited with a number of Europe’s leading Modernist artists, won the prestigious Prix d’Honneur at the Bordeaux International Exhibition (1927) and travelled widely on the African continent to places such as Dakar and Zanzibar.

This painting exemplifies the work of Irma Stern at the height of her powers. All the elements are rendered with sure draughtsmanship and confident paint application. Still life painting was one of the artist’s favourite genres, not least because it offered her the opportunity to experiment with the medium of paint without being tied down to mimesis as in a genre like portraiture.

Here the flowers appear to burst beyond the confines of the canvas. The pliable leaves and the large soft petals painted with thick, impasto textures that catch and reflect the light, contrast with hard ceramic surfaces. The orange Hubbard squash, the bunch of grapes and the pomegranate spread across the red table, add richness and depth of colour and become pivotal points in the balanced composition. Softer colours seduce the eye while unexpected colour groupings create visual excitement in a symphony of subtle and complementary colour combinations.

Interestingly, the Gladiolus genus was indigenous to the Cape and not found in Europe before 1700. As a result of growing interest in Cape bulbs during the late eighteenth century, foreign travellers took examples of the delicate Cape Gladioli back to Europe and bred them into the large hybridised blooms that became very fashionable and are now seeing a return in popularity.

The vase may well have been a locally made pot but the bowl laden with fruit is quite possibly one of the celadon dishes which Stern is thought to have acquired in Zanzibar. The oriental stoneware would probably have come to Turkey overland via the Silk Road or by sea via the Spice Route and then been traded down the east coast of Africa. Made in China around the early fifteenth century, this bowl is typical of the Sung Dynasty monochrome wares, when form was favoured in contrast to the highly decorated Ming Dynasty porcelain. Its generous shape and luscious grey-green glaze are the perfect complement for the warm tones of the fruit.
Stern’s love of flowers is given free rein in this unusually large canvas. The result is a celebration of so much that she loved – fresh flowers, ripe fruits and vegetables and favourite ceramics, brought together under her astute but loving gaze.

Text: Emma Bedford, Senior Specialist, Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings and Prints