Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) 'Still life with African Woman' within original Zanzibar frame
Lot 44* W
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
'Still life with African Woman' within original Zanzibar frame
Sold for £ 962,500 (US$ 1,344,029) inc. premium

Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
'Still life with African Woman'
signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1945' (lower left); bears Pretoria Art Museum exhibition label (verso)
oil on canvas
79 x 79cm (31 1/8 x 31 1/8in).
within original Zanzibar frame


  • Exhibited
    Pretoria, Pretoria Art Museum, Homage to Irma Stern, May 1968.
    Pretoria, Pretoria Art Museum, Small Celebrations, October 1994.

    A private collection.
    Thence by descent to the present owner.

    Stern's portraiture is characterized by its diversity. Her oeuvre includes representations of Africans, Arabs, Europeans, Malays and Indians. A constant traveller, Stern was largely motivated by her interest in different cultures. Her careful attention to her sitters' dress and jewellery highlight their distinct ethnic identities. Although widely acclaimed for their sensual quality, Stern's portraits have been criticized for reinforcing racial and gender stereotypes, reducing her sitters to exotic curiosities. However, one can argue that Stern's differentiation between her Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi subjects (among others), reveals her interest in them as individuals.

    Yet several features of Still life with African Woman indicate that Stern was experimenting with moving her art into a more modern post-War world. While she had originally made a name for herself on the continent via her use of exotic, native subjects, in the post-war years she would seek to reposition herself slightly, as a Modernist rather than an executor of anthropology. "Stern was a modernist because she accepted the idea that a painting was an object in its own right, constituted of a visual language unique to it. Her images reveal a concern for colour and mark, the density of oil, fluidity of gouache, and tonality of charcoal." Stern's technical abilities reached their zenith in the 1940s. Her Expressionist studies under Pechstein had matured into a mastery of the brush wherein every brushstroke is a demonstration of utterly perfect manipulation of colour and texture.

    Still life with African Woman supports the claim that she is the most important South African colourist of the twentieth century. The vibrant red of the apple at the centre of the canvas is repeated in the woman's fan and vase of flowers, drawing our eye around the work. The lustre of the young woman's skin echoes the glistening grapes in the fruit bowl. This connection between the sitter and the abundance that surrounds her draws on the archetypal image of woman as a symbol of fecundity.

    "A portrait is never merely the objective record of another; it is a response to the human tendency to consider oneself in relation to others." Still life with African Woman is a telling example of Stern's concerted transition into modernity, not only within her art, but also within herself – the subject is culturally demonstrative and traditional, but Stern has also imbued her with an undeniable modernity and a sexuality rarely seen in her pre-War works. Mona Berman comments that in the 1940s, "A new confidence and self-assurance emerged, partly because of the acknowledgement she was receiving from the critics abroad, but also because she seemed to have gained additional insight into herself. She had come to terms with who she was and what she needed for her talent to grow and flourish." Stern hands the sitter a piece from her own ethnographic collection, misappropriated here as a protector of female modesty, offering the suggestion that it might slip away at any moment. Here, the woman's hair is cropped short and her head tilted slightly away, gently offering her elegant neck to the viewer. Her ear and arm are adorned with traditional gold jewellery, and her lips are full and dark. As a subject, she escapes the staid timelessness of many of Stern's African subjects, instead stepping into the post-War world, as Stern herself was simultaneously doing.

    The original Zanzibar woodwork framing Still life with African Woman signifies Stern's own personal satisfaction with the work. Stern was keenly involved in all aspects of her artistic production, including priming and stretching her own canvases and choosing the frames for nearly everything she produced. Zanzibar frames were exclusively reserved for her most treasured works and the ones she considered to be her very best examples. She had exported several pieces of Zanzibar woodwork (including chests and doors) during her time on the island, installing one as the door to The Firs, her Cape Town home, and breaking up the rest to frame her favourite pictures. The Zanzibari government actually banned the export of the doors because of Stern's actions, so she knew they were in limited supply and reserved them only for her very best pieces.

    B. Freemantle & W. van Rensburg (eds.), Expressions of a Journey: Irma Stern, The Standard Bank Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, Johannesburg, 2003, pp.25-32.
    M. Berman, Remembering Irma, Irma Stern: A memoir with letters, Cape Town, 2003, pp. 53, 131
    M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, Vlaeberg, 1995, pp. 49, 97

Saleroom notices

  • Please note the frame is a reproduction and not an original Zanzibar frame as catalogued.
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