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Lot 11* W
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
'Congo Woman'
£250,000 - 350,000
US$ 390,000 - 550,000

Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
'Congo Woman'
signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1929' (upper right); bears Pretoria Art Museum exhibition label (verso)
oil on canvas
96 x 61.5cm (37 13/16 x 24 3/16in).

Footnotes

  • Exhibited
    Pretoria, Pretoria Art Museum, Irma Stern Centenary Exhibition, October 1994, cat. 2.

    From 1917 to 1920 Stern studied with the German Expressionist artist, Max Pechstein, then a professor at Berlin Academy. This period was key in encouraging her preoccupation with the primitive. Pechstein was a member of Die Brücke, a movement that eschewed the dominant academic style. They sought a new aesthetic that would form a bridge between the art of the past and the present. The Ethnographic Museum in Dresden was a source of inspiration for these artists; the African tribal artefacts on display seemed to possess an authenticity lacking in the work of contemporary European artists.

    Pechstein was personally very influenced by Gauguin's naive depictions of Pacific Island life. Contrasted with urban, industrialised Berlin, these images appeared to represent an "earthly paradise". Pechstein's idealization of the exotic and primitive was soon adopted by Stern, and would continue to inform her attitude to her native Africa throughout her career. As Esme Berman suggests, for Stern "the philosophical concept of primitivism - advocated in Germany - existed as an empirical reality in Africa".

    Returning to Cape Town in 1920, Stern sought out exotic subjects in pursuit of artistic authenticity. She travelled to Umgababa on the Natal South Coast, where she came into contact with traditional Zulu artefacts and culture. Stern recorded her impressions in two works, Composition 1923 (Arnold 1995, no. 56) and Repose 1927 (Ibid. no. 28). Both pictures depict nude Zulu women relaxing in fantastically lush vegetation.

    Congo Woman, dated 1929, exoticizes its subject in a similar fashion. Stern did not visit the Congo until 1942; the sitter is a combination of Stern's imagination and her experience of Umgababa.

    Bibliography
    M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, Vlaeberg, 1995, pp.11-16.
    E. Berman Art & Artists of South Africa, Cape Town, 1983, pp.438-442.
    N. Miall, Kirchner: Expressionism and the City, Dresden and Berlin 1905- 1918, Royal Academy, London, 2003.
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