Four scintillating Stern paintings are set to seduce the local art market when they come to auction this month. Following recent international interest in the artist, the paintings to be offered at Strauss & Co’s 21 October 2013 auction at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, Cape Town, establish Irma Stern as a leading Modernist painter and, furthermore, as an intrepid collector of top quality African art.
Stern’s 1923 painting, Composition (estimated at R9 000 000 – 12 000 000), confirms the South African-born artist’s close links with German Expressionist artists, says Emma Bedford, Senior Art Specialist at Strauss & Co. Stern spent seven years in Berlin from 1913 to 1920 making the acquaintance of the leading Expressionist painters of Die Brücke group and was especially drawn to Max Pechstein. 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.
Composition encapsulates Stern’s visualisation of an African paradise. The central figure, a Zulu woman with beaded hair, is cocooned in a flame-coloured orange cloak. The young girl at left reclines with her eyes closed as if dreaming while the child holds a yellow butterfly in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other. Surrounded by Proteas bursting through green foliage that frames glimpses of the mountains and ocean beyond, all are contained in a shallow space which, pressed against the picture plane, owes much to the development of early Modernism that Stern encountered during her years in Berlin.
Buli Stool with Fruit (estimated at R4 000 000 – 5 000 000) is a remarkable still life painting, foregrounding the Buli stool that remains one of the most valuable items in Stern’s collection. This Luba caryatid stool originated from the village of Buli in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a number of exceptional carvings were produced in the late 19th and early 20th century by a master craftsman and his school. Comparable to the Prestige stool of the Buli master in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Stern’s Buli stool confirms the artist’s unfailing eye for quality and her instinctive response to objects of rare beauty.
As art historians have suggested, it is likely that Stern would have acquired her stool in Europe through her contact in the 1920s with a number of German Expressionist artists, several of whom had begun to collect carvings from Africa soon after the turn of the 20th century. This powerful female figure that literally and symbolically supported the seated chief, towers above an array of gourds and papayas – forms expressive of fertility and continuity.
Magnolias and Fruit (estimated at R8 000 000 – 10 000 000) was painted in the late 1940s when Stern, by critical consensus, was at the height of her powers. The substantial size of the painting gains even more impact from the scale of the flowers that appear to burst beyond the confines of the frame. Their creamy, fleshy petals are accentuated by Stern’s superb impasto applied expertly with a palette knife. The deep green leaves with their contrasting sculptural forms and the bowl of fruit with ripening figs heighten the sensuality of this painting, embodying Stern’s visceral response to flowers and fruit.
Madeira clearly mesmerised the artist as she returned to it to several times throughout her life to paint its characteristic houses and capture its beauty.
Strauss & Co is the global market leader in South African art and has sold the five highest-priced Stern paintings in South Africa, according to Stephan Welz, Strauss & Co’s MD and auctioneer.