LIFE FORCE: THE STILL LIFES OF IRMA STERN

The Still Lifes of Irma Stern

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As the an­nual RMB Tur­bine Art Fair ap­proaches, there’s much to be ex­cited about. An ex­hi­bi­tion of still lifes by Irma Stern, how­ever, is al­ready get­ting people talk­ing. Dave Mann spoke to Strauss & Co’s Dr Alas­tair Mered­ith, Susie Good­man, and Wil­helm van Rens­burg to find out a bit more.

As the an­nual RMB Tur­bine Art Fair ap­proaches, there’s much to be ex­cited about. An ex­hi­bi­tion of still lifes by Irma Stern, how­ever, is al­ready get­ting people talk­ing. Dave Mann spoke to Strauss & Co’s Dr Alas­tair Mered­ith, Susie Good­man, and Wil­helm van Rens­burg to find out a bit more.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, pre­sented by Strauss & Co and ti­tled Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern, will fea­ture a host of works by the painter from a num­ber of pri­vate col­lec­tions. The ex­hi­bi­tion also seeks to ex­pand on the no­tion of the ideal col­lec­tor and what can be achieved in a life­time of col­lect­ing. But with many of the artist’s works sit­ting in cor­po­rate or pri­vate col­lec­tions, Stern’s life and works aren’t widely known. So just who was the painter Irma Stern?

Born in 1894 at Sch­weizer-Reneke in the Transvaal to Ger­man-Jewish par­ents, Stern spent much of her younger years trav­el­ling with her fam­ily to Ber­lin and to small towns and ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in South Africa. She lived and stud­ied in Ger­many, where she was heav­ily in­flu­enced by Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ism, be­fore mov­ing back to South Africa in 1920. From there, Stern trav­elled to des­ti­na­tions across Africa – in­clud­ing Zanz­ibar and the DRC. In 1926, Stern was mar­ried in Cape Town and ac­quired ‘The Firs’, the house that is now known as the Irma Stern Mu­seum. She con­tin­ued to travel and paint, and built up a strong re­la­tion­ship with her friend and muse, Frieda Feld­man over the years, of­ten stay­ing in the Feld­mans’ Jo­han­nes­burg home. By the mid-1940s, Stern be­gan to gain recog­ni­tion as an es­tab­lished artist and her works were ex­hib­ited in shows across South Africa and abroad. Stern passed away in 1966 at the age of 71.

Just how much of Stern’s life and his­tory can be gleaned from her still life paint­ings? Ac­cord­ing to Strauss & Co’s

Dr Alas­tair Mered­ith, Susie Good­man, and Wil­helm van Rens­burg – quite a lot.

‘When she got her first house at The Firs in Cape Town, she im­me­di­ately started gar­den­ing, plant­ing trees and flow­ers,’ ex­plains Van Rens­burg. ‘They all flow­ered, and her garden was this pro­fu­sion of colours, and so she would paint what she saw.’

‘And when she would stay at Frieda Feld­man’s house,’ adds Good­man, ‘she used to take over the din­ing room. She lit­er­ally painted the fire­place. She and Feld­man used to throw these bril­liant themed din­ner par­ties, too, of­ten based on colour.’

All of this and more can be found in her still lifes. To look at a still life by Stern is to be of­fered a brief vi­gnette of the artist’s per­sonal life. Ob­jects and ves­sels such as bowls or vases ap­pear fre­quently in her paint­ings, pro­vid­ing a glimpse into what would oth­er­wise be a very in­ti­mate space – Stern’s pri­vate stu­dio and home. Sim­i­larly, items such as African masks speak to Stern’s trav­els across the con­ti­nent and her in­ter­est in var­i­ous cul­tures and arte­facts. These things, as well as Stern’s use of colour and com­po­si­tion when paint­ing ob­jects like flow­ers and vases, can give view­ers some in­sight into the per­son she was – a lover of all things bright, vi­brant, and ad­ven­tur­ous.

‘This ex­hi­bi­tion will serve as a re­fresher on her work, and on the var­i­ous forms of still lifes and what they rep­re­sent,’ says Mered­ith.

Ahead of the ex­hi­bi­tion at this year’s Tur­bine Art Fair, Van Rens­burg has been vis­it­ing var­i­ous ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tional

“To look at a still life by Stern is to be of­fered a brief vi­gnette of the artist’s per­sonal life. Ob­jects and ves­sels such as bowls or vases ap­pear fre­quently in her paint­ings, pro­vid­ing a glimpse into what would oth­er­wise be a very in­ti­mate space – Stern’s pri­vate stu­dio and home”

in­sti­tu­tions to present lec­tures on Stern’s work and the works of other still life artists over the years.

‘For the Pierneef ex­hi­bi­tion we held last year, we in­vited Artist Proof Stu­dio stu­dents to make prints in­spired by Pierneef,’ ex­plains Van Rens­burg. ‘They were ex­hib­ited, they were up for sale, and they sold like hot­cakes. So now we thought “okay, let’s broaden it to painters and sculp­tors, and ce­ramic artists, too”. I’ve al­ready ad­dressed the UJ stu­dents, the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria and Tsh­wane Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy. It’s pri­mar­ily to in­tro­duce them to Stern, to still life, and putting that genre into con­text, glob­ally.’

Art stu­dents from ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions across Gaut­eng have been in­vited to sub­mit their works, with win­ning works be­ing ex­hib­ited and up for sale along­side the Stern ex­hi­bi­tion.

‘Sup­port­ing ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes is very im­por­tant to us,’ con­cludes Good­man. ‘We do a lot of school vis­its, which are great fun be­cause we’re not just show­ing them a slideshow of these works. We’re ac­tu­ally bor­row­ing the works from col­lec­tions and bring­ing them to the stu­dents to see, which I think is in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing.’

If, like many, you’ve al­ways been cu­ri­ous about the story of Irma Stern then Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern is your chance to catch a first-hand glimpse into the trea­sured artist’s work and life.

This ex­hi­bi­tion is proudly spon­sored by Strauss & Co, ITOO Artin­sure, The Fo­rum and City Lodge.

Irma Stern, Dahlias. Es­ti­mate R8 000 000 – 12 000 000. From the Labia Fam­ily Trust To be sold at auc­tion in Cape Town on 15 Oc­to­ber 2018

White Lilies, Irma Stern, 1936. Oil on can­vas Sold by Strauss & Co, Novem­ber 2010

Still Life of Del­phini­ums, Irma Stern, 1938. Oil on can­vas laid down on board. Sold by Strauss & Co, March 2011

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