Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) "Arab with Dagger" (within original artist's Zanzibar frame.)

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Lot 21
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
"Arab with Dagger"

Sold for £ 922,750 (US$ 1,258,729) inc. premium
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
"Arab with Dagger"
signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1945' (upper right)
oil on canvas
71.5 x 71.5cm (28 1/8 x 28 1/8in).
within original artist's Zanzibar frame.


  • Provenance
    The collection of Mr & Mrs Theodore Snitcher;
    A private European collection.

    Johannesburg, Bothner's Gallery, April 1946.
    Paris, Galerie de Beaux Art, 'Peintres d'Afrique', 1947, no.23.
    Pretoria, Christi's Gallery, 1948, no.11.
    Cape Town, South African National Gallery, 'Homage to Irma Stern', 1968, no.42.

    Stern, I, 'Zanzibar', pub. van Schaik 1948, illust pg. 71.

    Irma Stern painted "Arab with Dagger" during her second visit to Zanzibar between 21st July and 30th October 1945.

    The painting was first exhibited at Bothner's Gallery, Johannesburg, in April/May 1946, when it was described by P. L. B. in a Rand Daily Mail review (26th April 1946) as:

    "Another fine study"

    For unknown reasons, it was not included in Stern's first two Zanzibar exhibitions, at the Gainsborough Galleries, Johannesburg, in December 1945, and the Argus Gallery, Cape Town, in March 1946. In 1947, "Arabe au Poignard" was shown (no.23) in the prestigious Irma Stern, Peintures d'Afrique exhibition, at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Paris. And in June 1948, it was no.11 in Stern's exhibition at Christi's Gallery, Pretoria.

    Soon after this, although there is no record of the sale in her archive, the painting was acquired by Mr and Mrs Theodore Snitcher in Cape Town. Reflecting the growing popularity of her Zanzibar works, the price of "Arab with Dagger" increased from 125 guineas in 1946 to 185 guineas in 1948. Also in 1948, Irma Stern included a reproduction of this work in Zanzibar, her account of her four months on the island.

    The book Zanzibar gives some idea what Irma Stern was looking for in her figure studies of people she encountered there. In her description of an Arab Men's dance, p.90, she wrote:

    "The Arab is always armed. He is the most masculine man I have ever struck. His movements are rigid, his body hard and brown like wind-beaten trees. He is kind, with sudden passion and hatred rising violent and untamed – and so is his dance".

    Earlier, p.55, she had written of older Arab men that:

    "their faces expressed depths of suffering, profound wisdom and full understanding of all the pleasures of life – faces alive with life's experiences".

    "Arab with Dagger" surely illustrates some of these features.

    With her titles, such as "Arab Priest", "Arab Praying", "Arab Reading", etc., and in her commentaries, Irma Stern gave the impression that her Zanzibar paintings were portraits from life. But there is evidence that this was not always the case. An entry in her cashbook that is preserved in the National Library in Cape Town lists L500 for "frames – paints – modells (sic)" during her stay in Zanzibar. This notice confirms what Morris J. Cohen was to soon publish, that her paintings were framed by an Arab carpenter from pieces cut up from Arab doors which, in their complete state, were prohibited for export. But it also determines that Irma Stern worked from hired models in Zanzibar. Another writer, Elizabeth Moore who, like Cohen, had obviously discussed her experience with the artist, described how Stern would engage sitters in the market place and, if she had difficulty in communicating with them while they sat for her, she would phone the telephone exchange operator who would then translate her requests for changes in pose, etc., to the sitter!

    These works, therefore, were never portraits in the conventional sense of being commissions by and for the sitter. The model was hired to realise the image that the artist had for him. "And if", as Morris Cohen wrote, "a man has a crooked nose ... That crookedness is all the better for a little accentuation. It often adds a subtle sense of eccentricity and caricature to an Irma Stern portrait". In other words, the model provided the raw material from which the artist constructed her image. Moreover, the image that Stern had of Arab people in Zanzibar was well-established in South Africa.

    Thus Elizabeth Moore could write of works like "Arab Priest" and, one could add, "Arab with Dagger":

    "Her portrait studies are living breathing beings who stand out from their canvases with extraordinary reality and poignantly express the fatalism that is the very essence of the personality of the [Islamic] people".

    Irma Stern wrote later that "From this period in Zanzibar amongst the Arabs was born in me a desire to work amongst people who have a definite philosophy in life ... a truth handed down from age to age, a worship of spiritual forces". In light of this, she was hardly concerned with ethnographic details. In Zanzibar, she had written of the "rainbow-coloured turbans, wound artfully, each particular race having a different traditional way" but chose not to distinguish the Arab groupings that constituted the Zanzibari elite.

    The turban in "Arab with Dagger" is unusually colourful in Stern's works from this period but she appears to attach only aesthetic significance to it. Similarly, Stern must have known that the weapon in the painting would have been called a 'khanjar' in Zanzibar and yet she insisted on calling it simply a dagger. Stern's interest in this painting, indeed in her entire time in Zanzibar, was not so much with physical details but rather in connecting with – and celebrating – what she understood to be an ancient culture of passion, wisdom and spirituality.

    We are grateful to Professor Michael Godby for the compilation of the above footnote.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note: There is no temporary import tax payable on this item.
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) "Arab with Dagger" (within original artist's Zanzibar frame.)
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) "Arab with Dagger" (within original artist's Zanzibar frame.)
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) "Arab with Dagger" (within original artist's Zanzibar frame.)
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) "Arab with Dagger" (within original artist's Zanzibar frame.)
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) "Arab with Dagger" (within original artist's Zanzibar frame.)
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