Young Madeiran man wearing a hat signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1931' (upper left) oil on board 56 x 44cm (22 1/16 x 17 5/16in).
In 1931, Irma Stern travelled to Madeira, where she spent three months. Stern had spent much of the late 1920s working and painting portraits in Zululand, Swaziland, and Pondoland, and she had begun to feel that her work was repeating itself and that it was time for a change of scenery. She was, as always, seeking out inspiration from new visual experiences and Madeira did not disappoint. In October Stern wrote to her friend Roza van Gelderen: "I have made a good many pictures I think you will like...Now I am working in a little delightful fisher village am a bit overworked as I have not had much to distract me. I go on working all day... But how I ever can go away from here and feel happy again I do not know it is so full of beauty and colour and life."
This excerpt does not reveal the full extent of Stern's experience in Madeira. While she loved the light and colour of the island, she was also working extremely hard and became troubled by her perceptions of the position of the local women in the island's traditional patriarchal Catholic society. She wrote her thoughts in her texts from the time: "The women are like the cows - they work in the fields - in the houses - they drag heavy loads... A woman is not a person, she is a female - a sexual being, and must be protected carefully against the lust of men."
It seems that at least some of Stern's difficulties in Madeira were due to her outsider status. She was a cosmopolitan in rural society, a Jew amongst Catholics, a woman on her own in a patriarchal society and she found it difficult to access the types of subjects she had previously focused on. Several works from her time in Madeira are among her darkest, in particular her views of harlots and other societal outcasts, and reflect the emotional upheaval Stern was experiencing at the time unhappily married, reckoning with the memory of her Portuguese lover, and perhaps not warmly welcomed by the locals.
However, despite the dramatics, Stern painted some of her best works during her time in Madeira, in particular bright landscapes and portraits of men which celebrate the light, colour, and simple way of life of Madeira. One can surmise that through the lens of her previous Portuguese lover Hippolyto Raposo, Stern viewed the men of Madeira with a certain romantic enthusiasm. Translated onto canvas, Portrait of a man wearing a hat is a rare, touching and haunting portrait of a male that is rarely seen in Stern's oeuvre.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995), p. 20 K. Schoeman, 'Irma Stern: The Early Years 1894-1933' in Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey exhibition catalogue, (Johannesburg, 2003), p. 21