Everything that’s new and almost everything is new to these narrow minded people ~ Irma Stern (1894 – 1966)
For Irma Stern, one of South Africa’s most outstanding artists, Africa was her “Paradise,” the intellectual and emotional mainspring of her artistic creativity. She occupies a unique place in the history of modern South African art and her works are to be found in many galleries and public collections in South Africa and abroad.
Irma Stern was born in 1894 to German Jewish parents at Schweizer- Reneke, a small town in the North West Province of South Africa, where her father established a thriving trading store and cattle farm. Interned during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) because of his pro-Boer sympathies, Irma and her brother were taken by their mother to Cape Town. After his release, the family went to Germany and thus began a pattern of regular travel, which was to characterize her life.
In 1913 Irma left South Africa to study art at the Weimar Academy in Germany but, dissatisfied with the tuition there, she transferred her studies to the Levin-Funcke studio in Berlin. However it was only when she met Max Pechstein (1881–1955), a leading member of the German Expressionist group known as Die Brücke, that she felt she had found a true mentor. Between 1918 and 1919 her works were included in a number of exhibitions in Germany and she held her first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1919, after which she returned to South Africa.
Irma Stern’s first exhibition in South Africa in 1920 was held at Ashbey’s Gallery in Cape Town. In the staid, colonial art world of Cape Town, the vitality and exuberance of her work shocked and outraged critics and audiences, eliciting abusive descriptions such as “Agonies in Oils”, “Lunatic inspirations” and “Insults to human intelligence” and even a police investigation into complaints of public indecency! It took time for her espousal of modernism and her primary tools of color and rhythm to find acceptance in the conservative art world of South Africa.
Stern travelled extensively in Europe and explored Southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo. The trips provided a wide range of subject matter for her paintings and gave her opportunities to acquire and assemble an eclectic collection of artefacts for her home.
A house named ‘The Firs’ in Rosebank, Cape Town, acquired in 1927 remained her home until her death in 1966. The residence became the Irma Stern Museum in 1971 and today displays a collection of her art and artefacts.
Irma Stern was the recipient of numerous awards in her lifetime including the Molteno Grant for outstanding work (1952), the Guggenheim Foundation National Award for South Africa (1960), the Oppenheimer Award (1963) and the Medal of Honor of Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (1965). She was also selected to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1958. Stern was a prolific artist and exhibitor, with shows throughout her lifetime and beyond in South Africa and Europe. Her work is held in public and private collections around the world, and command significant, increasingly record-breaking prices for South African art.
Stern’s highly personal style and her clear interest in the expressive potential of her medium tended to overwhelm the individuality and particularity of her subjects. Stern’s concern was with a fantasy of unspoiled ‘nature’ and her projection of what she termed the ‘soul of Africa’.