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Lot 15*
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
'Zanzibar Woman' within original Zanzibar frame

Sold for £ 1,082,500 (US$ 1,348,200) inc. premium
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
'Zanzibar Woman'
signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1939' (upper left)
oil on canvas
61 x 52cm (24 x 20 1/2in).
within original Zanzibar frame


    Acquired directly from the artist in the 1950s
    Thence by direct descent to the current owner

    M Arnold, Irma Stern: A feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995), illustrated p.114

    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. The enchantment of Islam was further expounded by her visit to Zanzibar, which resulted in a plethora of portraits of Malay and Arab people - amongst which are those 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 astute allure 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.

    Zanzibar Woman represents a youthful and delicate feminine sensuality, simultaneously reinforcing social conventions concerning femininity within the oriental context. Her image speaks of confinement, which is signified by the sitter's encompassing veil and sari; her modestly downcast eyes and her gaze away from the viewer implies a sense of passivity. The woman is placed within the confines of the sumptuous Zanzibar frame, thereby further emphasising her stationary condition. These elements viewed in combination prescribe her place in a social system that is believed to conceal its women and limit their capacity to move freely in public spaces.

    Stern has been criticised for her poor understanding of political and social realities; her reactions to the 'other' were largely dominated by her perceptions which were often limited by her own cultural mindset, ego and psychological make-up. From an early age she grappled with the issue of her body, and in a letter to her friend Trude Bosse she had expressed that her (Stern's) "body bothers me, I am afraid of the eyes of strangers". To this end, Zanzibar Woman can be interpreted as a projection of Stern's concept of female beauty, demonstrating her aspiration to be graceful, beautiful and alluring - everything that she was not. Perhaps it is during this process of unconscious transference that Stern postulates and contemplates her internalised construction of female beauty which finds its expression in Zanzibar Woman. The art historian Marion Arnold suggests that "Stern's drawings and paintings became the vehicles of a fictional self, bearing little resemblance to Stern the assertive personality and compulsive eater".

    While her energetic nature is externalised in her artworks, it is interesting to note that although she was an excellent portrait painter, she never produced any self-portraits. It was through her portraits, as well as her studies of black and white, male and female, young and old, eminent and ordinary people, that Stern negotiated and explored her own identity: woman, white, German, Jewish, spinster, wife, divorcee, artist. Acutely conscious of the discrepancy between her internalised self-image and the truth of appearances, she avoided the internal gaze and instead painted fantasised portraits of others. She seldom painted old or fatigued women - like the sitter in Zanzibar Women, her models were young and graceful, exuding an aura of ease with their beauty and sexuality.

    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. Ironically, 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. Demonstrating a remarkable sense of adventure, Stern visited East Africa, discovering Zanzibar: surroundings that overwhelmed her senses and powerfully stimulated her visual perceptions. 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.

    Stern's superb colour-handling is seen through the pictorial dialogue she creates by fusing the energetic reds, greens and pinks in the sitter's patterned clothes, which are finely contrasted with the warm flesh tones permeating the sitter's face and bold ebony flowing through her hair. Usually such a woman's social place would be in the harem; however, here the woman is presented against a street scene with a small person in the distance - she is, by inference, a woman of Zanzibar. The sitter does not have a direct gaze but rather passively avoids eye contact with the viewer. Imbued with a sense of modesty and elegance, her self-containment and resigned sense of self impart dignity, accentuating her oriental exoticism.

    M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A feast for the eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995), pp.97-103
    M. Arnold, Women and art in South Africa, (Cape Town, 2006), pp.81-89

    Please note that, at the time of going to press, this lot is in South Africa pending the result of our export permit application to the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). Please contact the department for updated information.

Saleroom notices

  • UPDATE: This lot has been granted a full permanent export permit by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and will be exhibited and sold in London.
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