Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) 'Arab in Black' (within an original Zanzibar frame)
Lot 12
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
'Arab in Black'
Sold for £842,500 (US$ 1,138,138) inc. premium

Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
'Arab in Black'
signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1939' (upper left); bears inscription 'Arab in black' to stretcher and frame (verso)
oil on canvas
61 x 51cm (24 x 20 1/16in).
within an original Zanzibar frame

Footnotes

  • A party has provided Bonhams with an irrevocable bid on this lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event that they are not the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, they will be required to pay the full Buyer's Premium and will not be otherwise compensated.
    Provenance
    By descent to Betty Suzman (née Sonnenberg), Johannesburg.
    Auction held in aid of The Treason Trial Defence Fund, Johannesburg, late 1950s.
    Thence by descent to the current owner, United Kingdom.

    This magnificent and sensuously delightful oriental portrait is a testament to an artist and woman who responded passionately to the world and used her painting as a means of self-discovery and personal revelation. The 1930s was characterised by much change for Stern. In 1934 she divorced her husband Johannes Prinz and a year later her father died. These two elements brought about a remarkable sense of freedom and renewed sense of self-confidence for the artist. It was during this transformative time that Stern painted prolifically and produced her strongest works. Her romantic and passionate temperament manifested itself in the artworks produced from this period. Seeking out the idyllic, Stern was allured by the orient and produced numerous portraits which recorded appearances, investigated cultures, theorized an identity and explored the human condition.

    Irma Stern's first introductions to the Islamic faith by the Cape Malays grew into a fascination that soon appeared in various forms on her canvases. Demonstrating a remarkable sense of adventure, the enchantment of Islam was further expounded by her visits to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945, where she was able to further immerse herself in their culture; taking tea with the Sultana, shopping in the bazaars, attending a wedding, living in a house opposite a mosque. She was diligent in her observations, noting with delight in her 1948 publication Zanzibar many facets of the Muslim community there. Her surroundings overwhelmed her senses and powerfully stimulated her visual perceptions. The resulting plethora of portraits of Malay and Arab people are considered to be the crescendo of her creative output. In these portraits Stern emphasised sensuality and perpetuated the western belief in oriental languor and occidental energy. Continuously searching for the exotic, accompanied with her keen attraction to colour, pattern and rhythm, Stern responded strongly to other cultures and their people: those who were beautiful, graceful and exotic, and those who were unfamiliar and contrasting to her and her own society.

    Arab in Black depicts a member of Zanzibar's Arab population. During her visits to the island, Stern immersed herself in the local culture, staying in an old Arab house opposite a mosque. She was struck by the serene spirituality of the people: "bearded figures belonging to another age - a thousand years or more back; gold glistening on their coats, silk woven into their rainbow-coloured turbans, wound artfully, each particular race having a different traditional way...their faces expressed depths of suffering, profound wisdom and full understanding of all the pleasures of life - faces alive with life's experiences" (Stern, p. 55).

    The facial expression of this sitter communicates a calm wisdom. The harmonious nature of the work is emphasized by Stern's use of complementary colours; her superb colour-handling is seen through the pictorial dialogue she creates by fusing the energetic purples and oranges in the sitter's elaborate patterned turban, which are finely contrasted with the warm flesh tones permeating the sitter's face and bold ebony of his robes and beard. Just seen is the hilt of his dagger, the Omani khanjar with its curved blade and decorative hilt, a symbol of the wearer's manhood, power and authority: "The Arab is always armed. He is the most masculine man I ever struck" (Stern, p.90).

    Betty Sonnenberg was the daughter of Max Sonnenberg MP (1920-1949) and founder of Woolworths in 1931. She married Saul Suzman, a wholesale tobacco merchant and brother-in-law of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, the sole representative of opposition party in parliament during apartheid. The Suzmans donated the present lot to a Johannesburg auction to raise funds for the Treason Trial Defence Fund, which had been founded to help pay the legal costs of the 156 accused of high treason, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo, and to support their families. The Treason Trial dragged on from 1957 to 1961 and a number of such auctions were held; Irma herself donated a work to the cause, although she declined to make further donations, for fear of attracting attention from the authorities.


    Bibliography
    I. Stern, Zanzibar, (Cape Town, 1948).
    C.B. Braude, 'Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Irma Stern' in Focus, The Helen Suzman Foundation, Johannesburg, Issue 61, June 2011, p. 48.
    B. Freemantle & W. van Rensburg (eds.), Expressions of a Journey: Irma Stern, The Standard Bank Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, (Johannesburg, 2003).
    M. Berman, Remembering Irma, Irma Stern: A memoir with letters, (Cape Town, 2003), p. 141.
    M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995).
    M. Arnold, Women and art in South Africa, (Cape Town, 2006).

Saleroom notices

  • A party has provided Bonhams with an irrevocable bid on this lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event that they are not the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, they will be required to pay the full Buyer's Premium and will not be otherwise compensated.
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Contacts
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