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Lost painting by Stern recalls one of South Africa's greatest musicians

  10 May 2011     Archived

The publicity we have put out for this remarkable painting by Irma Stern has elicited response enabling us to identify the sitter – a distinguished, if not one of the greatest South African musicians ever.


Vera Poppé (1885-1968) was one of the most brilliant cellists of her day. Throughout London, New York, Chicago and several European cities she was celebrated by critics who acclaimed her dazzling performances. After a stellar career this Cape Town-born cellist of Russian descent returned to her home town during the war years. It was at a performance at Ben and Cecilia Jaffe’s home, The Boltons in Hermitage Avenue, Rosebank that Poppé played to an audience that included Irma Stern. The artist was so inspired by the cellist’s performance that she produced this vivid painting, capturing so much of the gifted musician’s extraordinary impact.

Poppé gained the university certificate with honours at an early age, won the South African University scholarship for music and went on to the Royal Academy of Music in London. After completing the course and visiting Paris, she made her debut in London. Engagements as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall, the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, the Cardiff Orchestral Society and many others, followed in the 1920s.

At the Orchestral Hall, Chicago, she proved the artistic delight of the evening. According to Mr W. L. Hubbard of the Chicago Daily Tribune, “the rich, full, true tone she draws from her instrument, the technical finish and precision characterize all she does, and the musical taste, feeling and intelligence she displays make her a player of uncommonly attractive powers. In short, Vera Poppé possesses every mechanical requirement plus the divine spark”.
Across Europe and America she played to rapturous applause with many an audience calling for encores. In Petrograd, Russia, Alexandre Glazonow declared, “Vera Poppé has a natural musical talent, a splendid schooling that can be seen in her technique; her tone is powerful, masculine, and very beautiful; her renditions are full of expression and temperament”.

This remarkable painting by Irma Stern, hidden from public view for over thirty years, has only recently come to light and will go under the hammer on Monday 16 May in Strauss & Co’s Evening Sale of Important South African Art to be held at the Country Club Johannesburg, Woodmead. With her astute eye for capturing the essentials, the artist has portrayed a woman playing her cello in such a way that she appears to envelop the instrument, transforming the musician and cello into one whole. Her head leans forward and her body hunches over the instrument so that all attention is focused on her hands – the left hand with fingers arched to achieve the perfect chord and the right hand elegantly drawing the bow across the strings.

Her sensitively painted face is a study in concentrated energy while her taut body is draped in a golden gown with warm tones and fluid brushstrokes evoking the flow of music. The result is a strong cultural statement forging the sublime sounds of music with the dynamism and vigour of one of South Africa’s finest painters.

The cello is most closely associated with European classical music and has been described as the closest sounding instrument to the human voice. From Bach’s Baroque works for the cello through Classical concertos by Haydn and Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and pianoforte to the Romantic repertoires of Schumann, Dvorák and Brahms and twentieth-century compositions by Elgar, Debussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten, the cello has been a critical part of orchestral music.

Stern was at the height of her powers as an artist when she produced this painting in 1943. As leading academic, art critic and former Director of the Irma Stern Museum, Neville Dubow, maintained:
The point is simply this: in the period between the First and Second World Wars, Irma Stern’s work achieved a peak of excellence that could stand comparison with representational paintings anywhere else in the West. ... judged purely by the yardstick of dynamic painting – perceptual and sensual, rather than conceptual and intellectual, sheer picture-making, in fact – one could claim international stature for her work of the 1940s. Nationally ... there was no one to touch her in terms of her impact on the local scene.

Text by Emma Bedford, Senior Paintings Specialist

Neville Dubow, Irma Stern, C. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, 1974, p 20


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