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Lot 314*
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) 'Washer Women'
£200,000 - 300,000
US$ 340,000 - 500,000
Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
'Washer Women'
signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1925' (lower left); bears partial exhibition label (verso)
oil on canvas
92.5 x 72.2cm (36 7/16 x 28 7/16in).


    London, Grosvenor Gallery, Irma Stern Memorial Exhibition, 14 March - 15 April 1967, no.15

    Irma Stern painted a number of images depicting labour – carrying water, harvesting fruit – but instead of creating narratives, these were rich symphonies of colour and rhythm. The current lot is a case in point. The bent arms of the washer women alternate with the directional flow of the water to create a dynamism of blues, greens, whites and browns. Meanwhile the triangular figure group echoes the pointed hill in the distance to evoke a sense of harmony with nature.

    The tall agave plants that rise from the earthy hues of this hilly landscape suggest that the scene is set in the Eastern Cape, most likely Pondoland, which Stern visited in the early 1920s. Typical of this period in Stern's oeuvre, the artist uses black tones to create depth and definition, juxtaposing bold, often complementary, colours to create a balance between form and feeling. Exploring the versatility of oil paint appears to be another preoccupation in Washer Women: fairly thin and directly applied to the surface in some areas, the paint is thicker and more tactile in many of the shifting facets of the stream.

    In 1925, Stern held another exhibition at Ashbey's Gallery in Cape Town: in February 1922, An Exhibition of Modern Art by Miss Irma Stern had drawn extensive crowds and startled the traditional tastes of local viewers with its raw colour and simplified and distorted forms. This response served to spur her on and Stern began to view herself as part of the vanguard responsible for challenging a prevailing aesthetic provincialism. Her exhibition of 1925 was somewhat better received, no doubt influenced by the increasing recognition Stern was garnering in Europe. The reverse of the image bears a partial exhibition label from the Irma Stern Memorial Exhibition held at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1967, reflecting another milestone in the reception of her work.

    We are grateful to Christopher Peter for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

    M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995), p.74
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