Irma Stern has captured the attention of art lovers and serious buyers alike with her paintings achieving phenomenal prices, including the highest price ever paid for any work of art at auction in South Africa when the painting, Two Arabs, was sold by Strauss & Co for R21 166 000 in September 2011.
Arab, also painted in 1939, comes up at Strauss & Co's 11 June 2012 auction in Johannesburg.
Will these high prices be sustained, some wonder? How can they be explained, others ask?
Let's consider some factors impacting on these prices. For an artist who fetches higher prices at auction than any other, her career leading up to the production of these paintings is significant.
Irma Stern was born in 1894 in Schweizer-Reineke in the former Transvaal. She spent 7 years in Berlin from 1913 to 1920 making the acquaintance of the leading Expressionist painters of Die Brücke group. She was especially drawn to Max Pechstein who had admired her 1916 painting, The Eternal Child, now in the Rupert Art Foundation.
In 1918 she became a founding member of the revolutionary Novembergruppe and in 1919 had her first featured exhibition at Gurlitt Gallery, Berlin's most prominent art salon. Stern established herself in the male-dominated avant-garde of Berlin.
A clear indication of the high regard in which Stern was held by her European contemporaries is her inclusion in 1927 in the Junge Kunst series of monographs on leading modernist painters such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Pechstein, Schmidt-Rotluff and Grosz. Volumes 49 and 50 were devoted to Picasso and volume 51 to Irma Stern.
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 several 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.
As a South African of German-Jewish descent Stern clearly felt at home in Europe. She was instinctively drawn to the German Expressionist search for utopia in 'the primitive', as Daniel Herwitz expounds in his fascinating essay 'Modernism at the margins'. While she may have been heir to the exoticising line that can be traced from Gauguin directly to her mentor, Pechstein, her paintings show a "poignant attachment and identification" with the people with whom and amongst whom she grew up.
Herwitz delineates the drama central to her work as one that plays out between exoticisation (about being distant) and locality (about being close). While this may create tensions in the way that she and we view the subjects, it made her works more genuine and less generic.
When Stern viewed her subjects from close up, rather than placing them in an exotic landscape as favoured by the German Expressionists, she achieved a genuine subjectivity that foregrounds them in ways that compel the viewer to engage directly with the individual portrayed.
Faced with the rise of National Socialism and increasing anti-Semitism, Stern deliberately chose to stay away from Europe after 1933.
Interestingly, it is during this period that she developed her own visual language quite distinct from German Expressionism and produced works that many critics have hailed as her strongest.
A major factor in the success at auction of any painting is its quality. Stern's Arab is an exceptional painting exemplifying the work of the artist at the height of her prowess. Interestingly, it was painted in 1939, the same year as Gladioli which set a new record in October 2010 for the highest price ever paid for any South African painting at auction when it was sold by Strauss & Co for R13 368 000.
Since her first visit to Zanzibar in 1939, Irma Stern was captivated by its peoples and cultures. In passages from her book on Zanzibar published in 1948, Stern makes several pertinent observations, 'The most distinguished Arab - "the truly wise and religious father" - is dressed in a pure white robe with a white turban around his white skull cap'.
Describing those attending a reception hosted by the Sultan of Zanzibar, Stern wrote, 'White bearded figures belonging to another age - a thousand years or more back; gold glistening on their coats, silk woven into their rainbow-coloured turbans, wound artfully ...'
However, Stern offers us a portrait that conveys her interest in a specific person rather than a generalised type. By cropping the picture fairly closely around his head and shoulders, the viewers' attention is focused on the face revealing all the characteristics of a very specific individual.
Light, peace and tranquillity radiate from this remarkable portrait of wisdom. With incomparable mastery, Stern has chosen to focus all attention on this single figure, his contemplative face infused with kindness and bathed in glowing light. The background shades ranging from the creamiest whites to Naples yellow are calculated not to detract from his memorable face. Like The Golden Shawl in the Permanent Collection of Iziko South African National Gallery, the subject is centrally placed, emphasising his iconic status. This centralised placement also creates a balanced composition that produces a calm atmosphere of meditation and reflection.
Remarkably, through her understanding of her subject as much as through the formal elements of painting, Stern has managed to integrate the spiritual and the sensual. The rich skin tones of his face are surrounded by an aureole of cloth and beard threaded through with the subtlest hints of lilac grey and soft green. The burgundy-black stripe in his turban accentuates his arched eyebrows that lead the eye down his aquiline nose to the gentle curve of his lips.
Purchased directly from the artist by the present owner over 70 years ago, Arab has been in the same family since and has never before appeared on the market. It is still in its original Zanzibar frame embellished with flowers and foliage that are intended to invoke good fortune.
Rediscovery of Irma Stern in Europe Irma Stern is the only South African modernist to receive serious international attention. In 1996 Kunsthalle Bielefeld mounted a major survey exhibition and a substantial publication entitled Irma Stern und der Expressionismus: Afrika und Europa. Interestingly, two Stern paintings are in the collection of Kunsthalle Bielefeld, acquired in 1965 by its founding director, Joachim Wolfgang von Moltke "because I wanted to represent the worldwide impact of Expressionism". Dr von Moltke had become acquainted with Stern in the 1950s, when he was Director of the South African National Gallery and working at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts.
It is also worth noting that the National Museum of Modern Art, Centre Georges Pompidou owns the painting, The Sultan's Palace in Zanzibar, painted in 1944. Many of her works are held in local and international public and private collections and demand for her work continues unabated.