Young Xhosa woman signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1941' (lower right) oil on canvas 61.5 x 61.5cm (24 3/16 x 24 3/16in).
PROVENANCE: Acquired from the artist by Mrs Ray Zidel (née Feldman) Gifted to the current owner in 1975 Private collection
As Marion Arnold has noted, many of Stern's paintings of people from other cultures tend to focus more on cultural aspects such as visible differences in appearance and dress than individuals, though always with a sense of common humanity. Certainly, in this portrait of a Xhosa woman, Stern devotes lavish attention to her model's headdress (a sign of social status) and the deep orange blanket gathered in rich folds around her, setting them off against a backdrop of rolling hills of blue and green, purple and brown.
A portrait, however, is always the instantiation of a relationship between artist and model, self and other. In the sensuous lips, flecked with blue tones, and the sultry eyes of the Xhosa woman portrayed here, it is, perhaps, possible to register something of the psyche of Stern. As Neville Dubow elaborates, "It was always Africa, in the early years, that was her primal source. Here was freedom, vibrancy, the elusive Paradise that she could touch, smell and paint. Here she could escape from her ungainly body. Here, metaphorically, she could be naked among a host of graceful strangers. For her this was more than a reflection of an idealised self; it was the confirmation of the Other within herself and the chance to define herself as an artist through it."
Without war closing Europe to her in the late 1930s, Stern might have spent ever-increasing amounts of time on the continent, and might never have completed her 1940s journeys and the masterpieces they inspired. Instead, in addition to her significant trips to Zanzibar and the Congo, Stern would revisit her South African-derived subjects of the 1920s, reworking them with the thicker brushwork and broader colour palette that she had developed over the 1930s.
The current lot was acquired from the artist by Mrs Ray Zidel (née Feldman), the younger sister of Richard Feldman, as pictured by Stern in the portrait Richard and Ray (1927). Mrs Zidel attended Stern's exhibitions and strongly supported her career, while her brother Richard and his wife Freda were among Stern's closest friends and constant correspondents. The work was gifted by Mrs Zidel to the current owner in 1975.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995), p.102 N. Dubow, 'Remembering Irma: A Private View' in Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey exhibition catalogue, (Johannesburg, 2003), p.55