Woman wearing a mantilla signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1950' (upper left) oil on canvas 54 x 55cm (21 1/4 x 21 5/8in).
In 1950, the year in which the present lot was painted, Irma Stern visited Madeira again as well as Madrid and the south of France. She also exhibited at the Venice Biennale for the first time. Stern's past enthusiasm for African subjects started to wane in the 1950s and, having become disillusioned with the changes wrought by time and politics in Africa, she sought peasant communities in Europe in an attempt to locate her romantic ideas of idyllic existence in nature.
Stern was constantly revitalising her oeuvre both formally and thematically, and it was at this time that religious subjects emerge in her work. In an article in The Cape Argus of 5 March 1953, Stern would point to her European journeys of 1950 as key to this development: "Manifestations of religion as I saw them in the countries of Southern Europe have set me many problems to work out at my easel..."
The portrait Woman wearing a mantilla is one such manifestation. The mantilla, a lace or silk veil or shawl worn over the head and shoulders, often over a high ornamental comb, is associated with the pious expression of Roman Catholicism. Wearing the mantilla was particularly common in Spain, and Stern was clearly intrigued by the practice, which she likewise explored in the painting Four Spanish women wearing mantilla.
Although the mantilla is an expression of modesty and femininity, there is also something of the exoticism of half-concealment that must have attracted Stern to this subject. In the current lot, the sitter's hair escapes in suggestive tendrils from the shawl, hinting at the lustrous locks concealed beneath. A hint of red where her mantilla is secured is echoed in the sitter's lips, and a slight pink blush is raised to her cheek.
Formally, the work demonstrates Stern's exploration, in this period, of the canvas as a neutral colour, providing accents which can be integrated into the overall design. In the background, the structural organisation of colour planes and the blue greys of the jug have a Cézannesque quality. Woman wearing a mantilla weaves together Stern's abiding pursuit of feminine grace and beauty with new religious inflections, resulting in a work redolent with untold mystique.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995), p.75