'Zulu girl' signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1935' (upper left) oil on canvas 58 x 48cm (22 13/16 x 18 7/8in).
PROVENANCE: Acquired in Johannesburg between 1946-1950 by the current owner's father
LITERATURE: Joseph Sachs, Irma Stern and the Spirit of Africa, (Pretoria, 1942), illustrated
The 1930s were a decade in which Irma Stern found much inspiration in 'nearby' Africa, drawing on the rich and varied cultural heritage of South Africa. During her Expressionist training, Stern had been influenced by the concept of the importance of nature and the native as artistic tools. In the 1920s she used nature in an overt way in her portraits, setting her subjects in lush landscapes. The hunt (1926), in the collection if the Irma Stern Museum, typifies Stern's use of verdant jungle as a setting for her native subjects. By the end of the 1920s she had simplified the landscape setting somewhat. However, by the late 1930s, Stern would move away from this overt representation of nature, and for a time in the 1930s of which Zulu girl is an example, moved into a period of personifying nature within the portrait subject itself.
In 1935 Stern executed a varied series of stripped-down charcoal portraits of South African women with native dress and adornments. "Stern celebrated their beauty through sensuous depictions of curved lines, expressive marks and enhanced lips. In fact, she utilised a similar voluptuous format for the mouth and nose of most of her female models. The charcoal drawings reveal her exploration of the perceptible differences in appearance and dress that she noticed in Africa. None of these models engage directly with the viewer and most remain impassive under the artist's study."
Up to this point in her career, Stern had enjoyed a positive response to her art from critics in Europe but not in South Africa. The year 1935 would be a pivotal turning point in the critical reaction to her work in South Africa, spearheaded by her friend Richard Feldman. "She goes to Zululand, to Swaziland, to Pondoland, to see the natives in their natural surroundings living their own lives... She has written ecstatic poems of them in paint, watercolours and charcoal."
"In many ways, this could be considered a decade of artistic experimentation. Stern did move away from the masculine and angst-filled world of German Expressionism, and became more feminine in her portrayal of visions that stimulated her as an artist."
A similar work in charcoal, Zulu Woman, 1935, is likely a preparatory sketch for the present lot and is illustrated in Irma Stern: Expressions of a journey (Johannesburg, 2003, p.92) and in M. Arnold Irma Stern: A feast for the eye (Stellenbosch, 1995, p.100).