Head of Sale
£30,000 - £50,000
Head of Sale
A private collection.
Irma Stern is justly celebrated for her magnificent still lifes of generous bunches of flowers in splendid vases created between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. Less well-known, but arguably more interesting thematically, are her still lifes of objects in her collection, books, and food items including fruit, vegetables and, as in the present work, fish. The catalogues of Stern's exhibitions, preserved in the artist's archive at the National Library of South Africa, reveal several still life works created before 1939 (the date of the present work) that feature fish as the sole or major part of the composition. Several of these works are illustrated in photographs in Stern's scrapbooks.
A work titled Tropical Fish (listed as no. 16) was exhibited at Martin Melck House, Cape Town, in February 1940. This was Stern's first exhibition since her initial visit to Zanzibar between June and October the previous year. The descriptor 'tropical' in the title of this work – which has been lost over the years – strongly suggests that the painting was made in Zanzibar. Tropical Fish was exhibited again at the Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, in December 1940 (listed, again, as no. 16). A work described as Zanzibar Fish, with dimensions very close to the present work, appears in the catalogue of the Homage to Irma Stern exhibition held at the South African National Gallery in 1968 and listed as from the collection of Mr J. Wolpe, a major Cape Town dealer. In a misreading of Stern's habitually poor writing, the work is dated in the catalogue of this exhibition to 1934 which precedes Stern's first visit to Zanzibar by five years. The painting passed to the present owner's family soon after this time.
The fish in the present still life have been identified by a marine biologist as 'tropical reef fishes' such as might have been seen by Irma Stern in the fish market of Zanzibar – and perhaps even purchased for her own table. Stern recorded her impressions of the fish market in her book Zanzibar which, although only published in 1948, clearly drew on both her visits to the island in 1939 and 1945:
'Fish were brought in straight from the sea, huge skites, small vivid-blue fish with yellow stripes, silverly kinds, red roman, enormous lobsters, as made of turquoise matrix, phantastic huge turtles – all come out of the tropical sea' (Stern, 1948: p. 21).
Still Life of Fish does not feature the larger sea food included in this account, but Stern's description reveals her delight in the visual appearance of the smaller fish on display. Moreover, the basket in which some of the fish are contained is consistent with the location on the east coast of Africa at this time.
An anonymous review of the Martin Melck House exhibition in The Cape Argus (12 February 1940), although not specifically mentioning Tropical Fish, claimed that: 'Some of the Still Life in this exhibition is among the best that Irma Stern has ever done. Her feeling for colour and her sense of design are unerring and make these compositions completely satisfying. They have all the vitality and movement of the portraits [by which is meant Stern's studies of Zanzibari characters]'. Still life of fish may well be included in this praise. The work clearly represents the artist's direct response to the beauty of the subject, displayed in a brilliant colour in a bold, unusually open composition.
Irma Stern, Zanzibar, (Pretoria: J. L. Schaik, 1948).
We are grateful to Michael Godby for his composition of the above footnote. Our thanks also go to Bettie Louw, former marine biologist at Iziko South African Museum, Cape Town, who identified the fish in the painting.