Watch out: women at work! Stern focus on women and labour at Bonhams

The South African Sale, part II
17 Oct 2012
London, New Bond Street

South Africa's leading artist, Irma Stern, is set to make waves at Bonhams again in the upcoming sale of South African Art in London. Two important early works dated 1925 – Washer Women, £200,000-300,000
and Backyard, £120,000-180,000 – have recently emerged, and will be auctioned alongside a number of compelling portraits of woman.

The two works from 1925 both portray the theme of work: the first is a group of women washing clothes at a stream, and the second a woman hanging laundry. Stern painted a number of images depicting labour – carrying water, harvesting fruit – but instead of creating narratives, these were rich symphonies of colour and rhythm. Both paintings were exhibited on the landmark Irma Stern Memorial Exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1967. The exhibition catalogue noted:

"In South Africa she became accepted as the most important single artist born and active in the country. This exhibition, whilst noting that Irma Stern was a great South African and a painter of special historical importance in her own country, makes the claim that she deserves to be seen and evaluated on a wider horizon."

In October, Bonhams in London will once again present the impressive range of Stern's career to the international art market. Other pictures on offer include works from the 1940s such as Mangbetu woman carrying fruit, 1942, £300,000-500,000, Malay Lady in Yellow, 1942, £350,000-550,000, and Young Xhosa woman, 1941, £150,000-200,000.

Mangbetu woman carrying fruit is informed by the artist's journey to the Congo in 1942, the first of three visits to the country. The piece reflects Stern at the height of her powers, demonstrating her mastery of vivid colour and lively brushwork. Previous director of the Irma Stern Museum, Neville Dubow, commented, "In the Congo [Irma Stern] found a society whose primary needs were still met to a degree by the work of the artist/craftsman; and she responded to this first-hand encounter with creative tribal functionalism with a fundamental creativity of her own. She produced a body of painting of extraordinary vigour and decorative control."

Young Xhosa woman and Malay Lady in Yellow reflect inspiration closer to home. Typically, 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. 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. Similarly, the ochre tones of the headscarf of the sitter in Malay Lady in Yellow are heightened by the bright yellow background as the scarf flows over her shoulder. In Cape Town, Stern would often visit the Malay quarter – nestled on the slopes of Signal Hill – and was inspired by its vibrant cultural and religious life. On occasion, Stern would attend social events such as weddings in pursuit of fresh subjects.

As Neville Dubow asserts, in Stern's paintings of the 1940s we witness "a peak of excellence that could stand comparison with representational paintings anywhere else in the could claim international stature for her work of the 1940s. Nationally...there was no one to touch her."


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to

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