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A feast of Irma Stern paintings head Strauss & Co’s March sale in Cape Town

24 February 2017   *Archived

Painting remains the benchmark medium for South African art collectors, with quality works by Irma Stern, J.H. Pierneef, Alexis Preller, Walter Battiss and Robert Hodgins commanding reliably firm prices at Strauss & Co live auctions.


Painting remains the benchmark medium for South African art collectors, with quality works by Irma Stern, J.H. Pierneef, Alexis Preller, Walter Battiss and Robert Hodgins commanding reliably firm prices at Strauss & Co live auctions. The forthcoming Cape Town sale, which will be held at the Vineyard Hotel on 6 March, includes a robust offering of quality paintings.

Stern, one of the ten most expensive women artists sold at auction globally between 2005 and 2015, remains the gold standard. The highlight of Strauss & Co’s upcoming sale is Stern’s 1942 oil Young Arab (estimate R12 000 000 – R16 000 000). This gestural portrait of a young man was produced during the artist’s visit to Congo in 1942. It was exhibited at the Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, in December of the same year where it was sold for £40.

Strauss & Co art specialist Wilhelm van Rensburg, who in 2003 curated a survey of Stern’s work at the Standard Bank Gallery, says of Young Arab: “As an essay in the exploration of shared human experience it is rarely matched in Stern’s oeuvre”.

Last year, Strauss & Co sold Stern’s Still Life with Lilies, a colour-drenched 1947 botanical study of orange tiger lilies and a Buddha figure, for R10 572 240. It was the highest price paid locally for a single artwork at auction in 2016. The forthcoming sale includes another exceptional Stern botanical, Flowers and Fruit (estimate R5 000 000 – R7 000 000).

Produced in 1937, this lavish oil has been described by art historian Marion Arnold as a particularly fine example of the artist’s use of the “expressive power of colour and her knowledge of its inherent optical capacity to create the illusion of space on a flat surface”.

The March sale also includes Stern’s Still Life with Figs (estimate R1 800 000 – R2 400 000), a symphony of contrasting greens, and A Small Canal, Venice (estimate R1 – R2 million), produced during a 1948 visit to Venice.

Maggie Laubser, who like Stern spent time in Berlin, played an important part in modernising the language of South African painting. Strauss & Co is offering a number of works by Laubser, including Shepherd Seated with his Flock (estimate R2 – R2.5 million). The work was painted during the artist’s retreat to her family farm, Oortmanspoort, and was acquired by its original owner at the 1936 Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg.

Strauss & Co’s sale also includes a fine selection of works by J.H. Pierneef. Painted in 1956, Bushveld Landscape (estimate R1.5 – R2 million) features Pierneef’s beloved acacias as central subject with dramatic clouds on the horizon. The work was originally exhibited on the Pierneef Festival held in Johannesburg in 1964. McGregor (estimate R1 000 – R1 500 000) is an appealing  description of Western Cape farmlands.

Other notable landscapes on offer include The Mountain behind Groote Schuur (estimate R800 000 – R1 200 000) by Cape impressionist Hugo Naudé. Strauss & Co art specialist Alastair Meredith singles out the “dewy luxury” and “atmospheric light” of this Cape Town picture as part of its “sheer delight”. Erik Laubscher’s 1989 oil Drought, Namibia (R500 000 – 700 000) is a transformative study of Namibia’s arid geological landscape.

While Peter Clarke’s Morning at Bo Plaas, Teslaarsdal, Caledon District, C.P. (estimate R700 000 – 900 000) includes landscape elements, the work is important for its place in this much-loved Cape Town artist’s early biography. “Tesselaarsdal is Clarke’s Pont-Aven or Le Pouldo,” notes literary scholar Hein Willemse, referring to the Breton villages where Gauguin lived before his first visit to Tahiti in 1891. It was at Tesselaarsdal that Clarke in the late 1940s learnt the ways of small-scale farmers and their families. The March sale also includes The Fence (R600 000–R800 000), a work of social commentary with an important place in Clarke’s visual language.

Robert Hodgins, whose star has risen at auction in recent years, has three noteworthy works on offer. The Old Boxer (estimate R600 000 – 800 000) depicts a subject first observed by the artists during his London youth in the 1930s, while Naked in Solitary (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) is powerful portrait marked by what art critic Ivor Powell describes as “formal dysfunction”. An Old Couple (estimate R300 000 – 500 000) is vintage Hodgins, a satire of domestic strife grounded in what Powell describes as the “felicities of colour, texture and brushstroke”.

Strauss & Co continues to achieve notable results for a range of established living artists, including Norman Catherine and William Kentridge, both represented on the March sale. Untitled (Drawing for Felix in Exile) (estimate R800 000 – R1.2 million) is a charcoal drawing of an East Rand landscape from Kentridge’s fifth stop-animation film, Felix in Exile (1994). The nearly nine-minute film was made between September 1993 and February 1994.

Photography collectors will be able to acquire an important early work by Mikhael Subotzky, Preacher, Dwarsrivier Prison (0053) (estimate R80 000 – R120 000), a panoramic study of a Sunday church service in an outlying Cape prison. Also on offer is a 2012 charcoal drawing by acclaimed sculptor Wim Botha, A Thousand Things part 45 (estimate R50 000 – R70 000).

All the works will be on view at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands on the weekend before the sale on Monday, 6 March. “Strauss & Co’s sales are not just auctions but much anticipated social and artistic events,” says veteran British auctioneer Dendy Easton, who will handle the evening sale.


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