Mangbetu woman carrying fruit signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1942' (upper right) oil on canvas 69 x 69cm (27 3/16 x 27 3/16in).
PROVENANCE: Acquired directly from the artist by the current owner, circa 1944-45 Private collection
Irma Stern's 1942 visit to the Congo, the first of three visits to the country, proved to be immensely satisfying in the rich array of sensory experience it provided for the artist. Mangbetu woman carrying fruit exemplifies the bright colours as well as the more sensuous figures that characterised her work from the period. Stern had long been fascinated with the native people of Africa, painting them from the early days of her career. Each of her major African journeys resulted in a large body of new work, and the fresh subjects and surroundings of the Congo inspired Stern to paint some of the greatest canvases of her career. Her expeditions to Zanzibar and the Congo were also complemented by illustrated texts, provided a compelling narrative framework in which to set her vibrant canvases.
A sketch in Stern's Congo diary provides an evocative promissory note for the current lot: fluid lines denote the curvature of neck, cheeks and a single arm which reaches up to steady the arrangement of bananas balanced effortlessly on the sitter's head (belying the verbal description of the bananas being carried in such enormous clusters that they had to be secured with a band around the forehead). This fluidity and languor of movement is translated into oils in Mangbetu woman carrying fruit, an image that captures Stern's romantic vision of a society in harmony with nature. Most notably, the downcast eyes of the sitter in the sketch now rise, in the painting, to meet the viewer.
As Mona Berman recalls, beyond her aesthetic delight in the 'exotic', Stern also had an anthropological interest in the people of Africa. Strongly independent, Stern was determined not only to observe and sketch, but also to learn more about the traditions and rituals that unfolded around her, such as those of the Watusi and Mangbetu. The Mangbetu were particularly renowned for their creative sensibility and musicality. In their midst, Stern found "a rare artistic taste... Here were the creators of magnificent pieces of sculpture, carved out of wood, of fetishes and masks, grotesque and beautiful... Here live men who are treated with respect due to their artistic craft. They do nothing but their own creative work." Indeed, Neville Dubow comments in this regard that "In the Congo [Irma Stern] found a society whose primary needs were still met to a degree by the work of the artist/craftsman; and she responded to this first-hand encounter with creative tribal functionalism with a fundamental creativity of her own. She produced a body of painting of extraordinary vigour and decorative control."
Mangbetu woman carrying fruit reflects Stern at the height of her powers, demonstrating her mastery of vivid colour and lively brushwork. Stern has boldly contrasted the green and blue hues of the bananas with red flowers and yellow costume, all set against a pale background which lushly compliments the dark skin of the sitter. The sitter in the present work bears similarities to Mangbetu girl and Mangbetu Chief's daughter, painted by Stern in the same year.
Much of the sensory inspiration Stern encountered in the Congo burst forth in two exhibitions held in the wake of her journey: one at the Musée Ethnographique in Elizabethville, and another in December 1942 at the Gainsborough Galleries in Johannesburg. In a review of the exhibition, Herman Charles Bosman wrote: "I am personally grateful to Irma Stern for having thrust before the world, in so bold and uncompromising a fashion, the only things in life that matter. She has created a wide and unsentimental world, brilliant with the raw colours of feeling, where the spirit is a woven mantle, and the earth is pageantry, and hope is a cereal, and things change before the eye with nearness."
BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Berman, Remembering Irma, (Cape Town, 2003) N. Dubow, Irma Stern, (Cape Town, 1974), p. 19 H. Smuts, At Home With Irma Stern, (Cape Town, 2007), p. 14 I. Stern, Congo, (Pretoria, 1943), p. 23