Swazi Youth signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1929' (lower left) oil on canvas 98.5 x 97.5cm (38 3/4 x 38 3/8in).
LITERATURE: M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg 1995), illustrated p.68
The foundations for Irma Stern's 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.
In the 1920s, Stern began embarking on the journeys that would shape her future artistic endeavours, expanding her personal and geographical boundaries deeper into Africa than any of her artistic contemporaries, and providing her with the inspiration for her later travels into the Congo and Zanzibar. During this decade, she visited Umgababa, the northern Transvaal, Zululand, Natal, Swaziland and Pondoland. The excitement of her observations manifests itself in a series of breathtakingly vibrant and colourful portraits, of which Swazi Youth is a brilliant example.
Stern had been heavily influenced by the German Expressionist painter Max Pechstein, who, like his contemporaries in an increasingly industrialising Germany, was turning to nature as the authentic source of artistic expression. In her own career, Stern was able to turn her African heritage into authority over this natural ideal and her own derivative style of Expressionism. "Africa was considered a 'dark' continent but Stern saw it as a rich mine of light and colour that could intoxicate, challenge and arouse her vision. It allowed her to escape from the constraints of the world around her and take refuge in self-expression. A freer vision of gesture and a greater sense of spontaneity had begun to define her work" (Lewis, 2006, p.28).
Via her travels, Stern also grew a fascination for the dress and customs of the various native people she observed, often faithfully including details of jewellery, hairstyles, tattoos and dress in her sketches and portraits, abandoning the more fanciful imagery of German Expressionism and branching into her own more representational version of Expressionism.
The light and colour of the South African landscape had made an indelible mark on Stern's psyche, and in the late 1920s she often combined portraiture and landscape. This is evident in Swazi Youth, the subject placed in a carefully composed Edenic landscape marked by lush green hills, rich red soil, and lustrous blue sky. Stern has used great swathes of colour throughout the painting, symphonising them into a pure nature of curvilinear forms unmarked by the harshness of straight lines. Swazi Youth symbolises of all the light and colour of Stern's Africa, representative of the vibrancy and light she found on the great continent upon fleeing a Germany that was descending into darkness.
There are many similarities, in style and subject, between the present lot and Swazi girl, sold in these rooms on 10 September 2008, lot 313.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye (Vlaeberg, 1995) A. Lewis, Journeys to the Interior: Unseen works by Irma Stern 1929-1939 (Cape Town, 2006)