South Africa's Irma Stern at the height of her powers, dazzles with Zanzibar masterpiece for sale at Bonhams in London

A stunning image from one of Irma Stern's trips to Zanzibar which inspired some of her best work, titled 'The Pink Sari', signed and dated 1947, and with its original Zanzibar frame ,will be sold by Bonhams in London on March 21st for an estimated £800,000-1,200,000. Never before seen on the open market, the painting was acquired directly from the artist circa 1961 and then passed by direct descent to the current owner. It is the top lot in Bonhams next sale of South African Art which has consistently broken records for South African art over the past five years.

Irma Stern's trips to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945 were life-changing events that would continue to exert influence on her artistic output for years to come. The island's people and colours had etched themselves in her mind and gave her a profound sense of satisfaction in having found precisely what she had been searching out across Africa for several decades previously. To her friends she described the trip as a revelation, the island as a bustling idyll teeming with colour. The pink sari is a stunning example of the beauty Stern encountered on the island. In the women of the Zanzibar in particular, she had found her greatest inspiration.

Before the Second World War and her trips to Zanzibar and the Congo, Stern had spent time in Paris and other parts of Europe. Her dealer tried to convince her to hold an exhibition there, but the forebodings of war excluded the possibility. "Shall have one a bit later – when I can breathe again and need the feeling of a European connection." It would be a decade before that connection was to return. By 1947, the year in which The pink sari was painted, war was over in Europe and Stern was preparing to exhibit there again, in Paris, London, Rotterdam and Brussels in 1947 alone. It is likely that The pink sari was painted for exhibition at one of these European exhibitions.

While Stern had originally made a name for herself on the continent via her use of exotic, native subjects, in the post-war years she would seek to reposition herself slightly, as a Modernist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.
In the same year as The pink sari, one sees Stern experimenting with the genre of the nude female, reweaving the traditional subject into something more cutting-edge. Stern did not paint very many nudes over her career, but two of her most notable (Crouching Nude and Nude, both illustrated in Marion Arnold's monograph on the artist) date from 1947 and indicate that Stern was experimenting with moving her art into a more modern post-War world.

"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." The pink sari 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 late 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 allows the scarf to slip off her subject's head, blending it into a background and enhancer of feminine beauty rather than a protector of female modesty, and offering the suggestion that it might slip away at any moment. Her previous portraits of Zanzibari women often hinted at confinement, with clothing and headscarves acting as protective layers. Here, the woman's hair is swept up and her head tilted slightly away, gently offering her elegant neck to the viewer. Instead of traditional gold jewellery, her ear is adorned with a lush, living flower, and her lips are full and red. 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 the pink sari 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.


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