Portrait of a Pondo woman signed 'Irma Stern' and dated '1929' (upper left) oil on canvas 58.5 x 44.5 cm. (23 x 17½ in.)
The foundations for Irma Sterns career were her travels both within South Africa and other countries in the continent (as well as occasional trips to Europe). Africa, and in particular African people, would become the primary features of her oeuvre, and the application of her German Expressionist training ensured that her treatment of her subjects would evolve into a powerful, highly individual style of portraiture.
During the early decades of the 1920s and 30s, the excitement of her observations manifested itself in a series of breathtakingly vibrant and colourful portraits, of which Portrait of a Pondo Woman is a wonderful example. It shows the artists ability to imbue her portraiture with a combination that captures natural beauty with stylistic strength and painterliness. The powerful focus on the sitters face, accentuated by the monochrome white above and below and the muted landscape behind, make for a hauntingly unforgettable image.
Stern was fascinated and stimulated by the exotic nature of Africa and its people, and while changing attitudes have come to question this, it should be compared to the inspiration Gauguin found in painting the people of Polynesia. But, crucially, part of the strength of Sterns images derived from her feeling of belonging in Africa, not from just being a visiting observer. Drawing upon her training in Germany which encouraged such sensual imagery, she fed her own feelings and emotions into the paintings so that they were more than just personal representations.
Stern recognised beauty in people, landscape or cultural artefacts and her drawn and painted images reveal a deep commitment to the transformative power of image-making. She took her subjects as the starting point for drawings and paintings that follow the modernist preoccupation with medium, method and formal language.
Irma Stern received recognition throughout her career and when she died in 1966 she was indisputably the grand dame of South African art. Her enthusiasm for African subjects had waned in the 1950s and, having become disillusioned with the changes wrought by time and politics in Africa, she sought peasant communities in Europe in an attempt to locate her romantic ideas of idyllic existence in nature. She remained, however, committed to portraying the human form and it is upon this that her reputation was built and upon which it has been sustained. And for a rich period of some two decades, her passion and talent was immersed in African subjects, such as in Portrait of Pondo Woman, to produce a body of work that marks the pinnacle of her career.
We are grateful to Marion Arnold for her assistance in the preparation of this catalogue entry.