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Head of Sale
Acquired at the Argus Gallery in 1946 by Mrs Schutz;
By direct descent to Mrs Peta Schutz;
A private collection.
Cape Town, Argus Gallery, 1946.
In a review of her 1946 exhibition at the Argus Gallery, Cape Town, of which the present work was a feature, the Cape Times review began with the emphatic statement:
Rarely in Cape Town's art history has there been an exhibition of contemporary South African painting of such importance.(P.H.W., Irma Stern's Notable Exhibition: Recent Canvases from Zanzibar, Cape Times, (2 March 1946), p. 14).
History, of course, has tended to confirm the significance of Irma Stern's work from this trip. The artist herself noted "the first class success" of the show in a letter to her Johannesburg friends, the Feldmans, on March 10 1946: "Having about 3-400 people in daily and just when I want peace at home – some more to come and buy from studio". Previously she had written from Zanzibar that "I have had a most successful time here". And she wrote that she was "conquering new ground for my work and development": she even anticipated that some people would be "shocked to death about my work", presumably indicating the "vigorous brush work and lavish pigment" that one enthusiastic reviewer applauded in her landscapes and figure studies at this time (see below). In fact, this 'development' proved to be the foundation of the aesthetic achievement of her Zanzibar works.
While the sense of increased proximity – or presence - of Stern's figures distinguish the work of her second Zanzibar trip from the first, 'Palm Trees', 'Zanzibar Garden', 'Seascape', and a few other works, introduce a new planarity into her method of painting. In 'Palm Trees', the tall forms of the coconut palms stretch from the bottom to the top of the format focussing attention on the very surface of the work where impasto paint and broken lines flicker in the light. Similarly, in 'Lelemama Wedding Dance' (sold at Bonhams in 2021), also from her second visit to Zanzibar, Stern concentrates attention on the picture plane to suggest the dissolution of form into a sense of shimmering movement in the textiles and jewels of the dancers. This attention to surface is one of the principal concerns of Modernism, from the Impressionists to the Abstract Expressionists: compare the 'Palm Trees' with Monet's 'Poplars'. Although Irma Stern rejected abstraction with contempt, her focus on surface in these works amounted to a neglect of both space and topography that is actually a form of abstraction. On this basis, within a short time, Stern was to reject the sheer physicality of subject-matter in a search for a spiritual or symbolic interpretation of the world.
Family tradition held that this beautiful painting represents a Congo Landscape and that it was acquired at an exhibition at the Argus Gallery, Cape Town, in 1946 or 1947. The title of the work has been incorporated into the major monograph on Irma Stern, but the difference in date between the two exhibitions is crucial. The 1947 exhibition was indeed largely devoted to work that Irma Stern had made during her second expedition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo between April and June 1946. But the earlier exhibition in March 1946 consisted mostly of work done by Stern on her extended second trip to Zanzibar between late July and the end of October 1945. In fact, Stern's Cashbook for March 1946 records that she sold #5 Palm trees, oil from this exhibition to the previous owner's family for £70 proving beyond doubt that the work was made in Zanzibar. Moreover, a review in the Cape Times, after praising the splendid figure studies that constituted the major part of the exhibition, confirms the origin of this painting:
Vigorous brush work and lavish pigment account for the effect of shimmering heat in 'Zanzibar Garden' and 'Palms' and reflect the exuberance of the local flora in the still life subjects. (P.H.W., Irma Stern's Notable Exhibition: Recent Canvases from Zanzibar, Cape Times, (2 March 1946), p.14.)
Significantly, the two works picked out in this excerpt are very similar in size and have almost identical frames. Although Stern made little reference to the Zanzibar landscape in either her book Zanzibar (1948) or her correspondence with the Feldmans, Palm Trees was certainly painted on the island.
We are grateful to Professor Michael Godby for the compilation of the above footnote.
P.H.W., Irma Stern's Notable Exhibition: Recent Canvases from Zanzibar, Cape Times, (2 March 1946)
Marion Arnold, Irma Stern, A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press, 1995), pp. 81- 84.
National Library of South Africa, Cape Town, MSC 31,3, Cashbook, p.83.
Irma Stern, Zanzibar, (Pretoria: J.L. Van Schaik, 1948)
Sandra Klopper, Irma Stern, Are you Still Alive? Stern's life and art seen through her letters to Richard and Freda Feldman, 1934-1966, (Cape Town: Orisha Publishing, 2017), pp. 129-130.