Rethinking Irma Stern and the style of whiteness

A century ago, newspapers used scare quotes to highlight the fact that artist Irma Stern was a controversial perpetrator of “modernism” and “expressionism”.

They also frequently ran photographs of the genteel white folk who crowded her exhibitions. Men typically wore suits with neckties, and women ankle-length skirts and preposterous hats. At a recent Cape Town sale of Stern’s work, organised by auction house Strauss & Co, attendees rewrote the style rulebook. T-shirts, denim shorts and distressed jackets decorated with sequins are okay. But it is not just the dress code of Stern collectors that has changed. The critical tone and focused scope of new scholarship and exhibition-making around this enigmatic colourist has shifted the dial on Stern too.

Even the Irma Stern Museum, founded in 1972 in the artist’s former Cape Town home, has received a bold makeover. The new director, Nadja Daehnke, has invited contemporary artists to take up residence in Stern’s home.

 Gucci loafers are part of artist Athi-Patra Ruga’ 2022 exhibition ‘Athi & Irma … an Intervention’ at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town. Photo (above): Irma Stern Museum

Athi-Patra Ruga has just ended a seven-month occupation, which culminated in an exhibition of his Johannes Meintjes-esque portraiture and display of his Gucci loafers in a vitrine featuring some of Stern’s vast collection of African artefacts. Painter Georgina Gratrix is up next.

Of the 140 works sold at the auction last week for R36.9-million, 124 pieces came from the Irma Stern Museum. They included a 1929 portrait of educator, cultural maven and lesbian icon Roza van Gelderen wearing a sari, which sold for R5.9-million.

“Many people are beyond disappointed,” said Carol Kaufmann, a retired curator who co-edited the book that accompanied the 2015 exhibition Brushing Up On Stern in Cape Town. “I had people phoning me enraged, saying the Irma Stern Museum is selling off its art collection. It is a bit messy and quite controversial. It gives a difficult message to the little-informed public. In the public imagination it is a museum collection being sold. Many people don’t know that there is a trust that allows for selling.”

After the artist’s death, and in pursuance of the terms of her will, Stern’s collection of artworks and cultural artefacts were placed in trust. Over the years, the Irma Stern Trust, administered by Nedbank, has allowed the sale of works to raise funds for the museum, which is overseen by the University of Cape Town.

Kaufmann says that there was an upside to the recent sale, especially for collectors. 

“The authenticity of the works on sale was not in question. You cannot get a better provenance. I think that contributed immensely to how this sale captured the public imagination. People were confident to bid high because it was from her estate.”

This assurance was palpable in the packed auction room at the Welgemeend wine estate. 

A few works were consigned by private sellers, among them Psychic: An Old Malay Woman, a 1941 portrait of a Cape Muslim clairvoyant in pink headscarf that sold for R7.5‑million. The work previously traded hands in 2012 for R8.35-million.

Fluctuating values notwithstanding, art historian and Stern expert Marion Arnold thinks the big price represents fair value for the painting.

“It engages with the woman as portrait subject, overturns any notion that Stern was merely painting ‘exotic’ subjects, and demonstrates Stern’s use of colour to convey the woman’s intense self-awareness,” said Arnold, whose 1995 book A Feast For the Eye introduced Ruga to Stern. He purloined it from his school library in 1999.  

Decoupling the meaning of Stern from the prices paid for her work has become difficult. Since her death in 1966, Stern’s work has enjoyed equal status as a valuable aesthetic statement and economic investment.

Stern is best understood as a prolific artist who worked in a range of media and constantly evolved her style. Best known for her eruptive flower studies and portraits derived from her travels in Southern Africa, then-Belgian Congo and Zanzibar, her output was also often uneven. The catalogue for the recent auction fairly showed the fullness of Stern’s experimental and agitated output in the years 1920 to 1965.

One person described the auction as “a peculiar collection of B-sides, outliers and eskers”. Collectors were undeterred. Everything sold. 

The auction started with a sale of seven lithographs from Stern’s formative Berlin period, which ended in 1920 when she returned to South Africa. Online bidders snapped up most of these works. 

Three auctioneers representing telephone bidders stood up to bid on the next lot, a 1921 ink drawing of a bearded Muslim man wearing a red fez. The slow grind of clinching this and many subsequent works determined the glacial pace of the auction, which took six-and-a-half hours to conclude.

Some collectors gradually left, opting to watch the unfolding action remotely from home. Dogged bidders paced the salesroom, scanning the walls for dwindling leftovers. 

During a reprieve at the bar an art adviser, chatting to a friend, remarked, “Without Irma Stern we don’t have a business model.” 

Overblown? Not really.

In a new report on the African art market produced by London-based research firm ArtTactic, Stern is listed as the second-highest grossing African artist after Marlene Dumas in the period 2016 to 2021. Stern earned R353-million from 174 lots sold. Her closest African rivals are contemporary artists Julie Mehretu and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. William Kentridge ranks eighth. In distinction to all these artists, the majority of Stern’s sales were generated on the African continent.

Stern’s endurance as a selling artist in contemporary South Africa tends to cast shade on historical truths. During her lifetime Stern commanded high prices and strong sales, which she noted in a ledger. She allowed dealers to take 7% to 10% commission on sales, according to art historian Michael Godby. The standard dealer arrangement is 50%.

Godby became interested in Stern after a request to write about her for a 2007 book canvassing the South African Reserve Bank’s impressive art collection. In 2021 he curated an insightful exhibition of Stern’s vast output of nudes that briefly had a run at the Irma Stern Museum. 

Dismayed by the near invisibility of the Covid-doomed show, Sanlam curator Stefan Hundt invited Godby to rehang it at the financial services group’s art gallery in Bellville, Cape Town. The show is up until 15 July.

“Although somewhat overlooked in the critical literature, and in the market, Stern’s nudes may be counted amongst her most significant work,” writes Godby in Irma Stern Nudes, 1916 – 1965, a self-published book accompanying his exhibition project of the same name.

Stern depicted nudes throughout her career, in every possible media, including oil, gouache, ink, pencil, charcoal, ceramic, stone and cement. Her subjects included women of various races and ages. With the exception of drawings made during her travels across Southern and Central Africa, and beach scenes from the Cape and the Riviera, all Stern’s nudes were painted, drawn or sculpted in her studio. Her sitters were chiefly paid models, although friends such as Van Gelderen also posed nude.

Stern was particularly active in her home studio during the 1940s, working on material towards an unrealised book of nudes in 1943. 

Godby is particularly drawn to Stern’s studies of middle-aged white sitters from the 1940s, which he describes as “magnificent” and “extraordinarily mature”. One of his favourite works, though, is Repose, a large Gauguin-esque composition from 1927 that depicts two reclining Swati women in a verdant setting of amaryllis flowers and pawpaws. This large work is typical of Stern’s early romanticism and high-expressionist phase, when scenes of youth, fertility and utopia dominated her compositions. Some contemporary scholars speak of this work as emblematic of a specifically South African form of “settler primitivism”.

The question of Stern’s white identity in relation to her many black portrait subjects recurs in current thinking about her work. It surfaced as a question during a November 2021 walkthrough of the exhibition Irma Stern: The Zanzibari Years at Norval Foundation (on until 1 August). Organised by artist Karel Nel, the exhibition surveys Stern’s output linked to her visits to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945, and also features related portrayals of Muslim people. 

Nel pushed back against criticism of Stern being a recorder of types. He characterised her portraits of the island’s ruling Omani elite, many in ornate Zanzibari frames, as descriptive of a community and evidence of her direct engagement with sitters, many of whom were her social equal. Stern’s portraits, Nel said, exceeded mere photographic facsimile and demonstrated painterly engagement with a sitter. Arnold shares this view. 

“She unites colour and line in gestural, embodied drawing, translating life around her into visual language and this differentiates her from naturalist painters, and ethnographic illustration,” Arnold said.

There is a credible argument to be made that Stern is a trophy of South Africa’s ancien régime. In the main, white collectors affirm her value, while white curators and writers (myself included, in my 2020 book Irma Stern: African in Europe, European in Africa) debate her relevance in a transforming political and social order. 

This self-referential system is being challenged. Ruga’s exhibition in Stern’s former home included text panels reminding viewers of the broader historical and cultural context in which her images operate. 

“Portraiture is a question of power,” read one such panel written by Ruga. It was displayed near Stern’s Maid in Uniform (1955), an unromantic late work characterised by the refusal of its sitter with arms folded. “It is about grief and I work through the pain. My reworking comes at a time when we do not see many queer figures in contemporary South African art.”

In another panel, Ruga opined: “It is time to put Irma to task. This is not about questioning her contribution to the visual language of South Africa.”

New perspective: ‘Two Arabs, Dakar’, 1938 (above) by Irma Stern from Iziko SA National Gallery, Athi-Patra Ruga’s ‘iGenre scene kaNomalizo’, 2022

Putting Stern to task concisely summarises the agenda of American scholar LaNitra Berger, who will deliver a keynote address at Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation on 22 June. The lecture is a preamble to a new exhibition featuring Stern, Frida Kahlo (Mexico) and Amrita Sher-Gil (India) at the foundation in October. 

“I’m arguing for us to look at Stern in a 21st-century way, and to really think about the deep complexity she struggled with, and we still struggle with,” said Berger of her speech, which extends on arguments in her recent book, Irma Stern and the Racial Paradox of South African Modern Art (2020). 

“Stern was clearly deeply attracted to black women as subjects. There were things about black women that she was drawn to — either physically, emotionally or culturally — but at the end of the day was she ever going to share a meal at a table as an equal partner with a black woman? Probably not.”

‘The Malay Bride’, 1942 (left) by Irma Stern from the Homestead Collection. Photo (above): Iziko SA National Gallery

Berger’s interest in Stern emerges from her research into African and Jewish diasporas. Stern, who was born in 1894 into a prosperous family of German-Jewish émigrés living in Schweizer-Reneke in today’s North West province, ticks these boxes. Berger spent a year in Berlin before visiting South Africa for the first time in 2004. As part of her fieldwork she tracked down art historian Irene Below, organiser of a 1996 exhibition of Stern’s work in Bielefeld. 

“Irene hosted me and took me under her wing. She said if you feel like you’re pushing against the grain of scholarship on Stern, keep going in that direction.”

Berger’s commitment to pushing against the grain has earned her a growing audience in South Africa. In 2015, she presented a speech titled In Defence of Irma Stern at the closing event for the exhibition Brushing Up On Stern. She described Stern as a “powerful pedagogical tool” and an “important and controversial modern artist” who can help us “understand how South Africa found its place in the modern world”. 

Although largely based on her 2009 doctoral thesis exploring race, gender and nationhood in the work of Stern, Berger’s new book draws substantially from repeat visits to South Africa and her encounters with Fallist leader Chumani Maxwele and young artists from Johannesburg’s Artist Proof Studio.

These meetings gave Berger “completely new perspective” on Stern and “on the conversation about cancelling or not cancelling artists, about decolonising academic spaces, and about justice and equality,” she said. 

Not everyone is impressed by the arc and quality of Berger’s research. Boston University historian Diana Wylie, whose books include a biography of Thami Mnyele, has criticised Berger for her sketchy understanding of the historical context in which Stern operated, selective quoting of scholars such as Arnold and general “disappointment with and ambivalence toward Stern”.

“I am an African-American art historian from the US, coming into this very insular community,” responded Berger. “I don’t expect to be welcomed or celebrated. I did the work I did and raised questions.”

One of the most important questions relates to Stern’s relationship with the apartheid government, added Berger.

“How much of her work was supported by the government? She had lots of friends who were progressive, but she herself was much more conservative. How artists interact with the state is one of the big questions I am interested in.”

Other questions relate to evidence Berger has found that Nazis confiscated Stern’s work during their vigorous clampdown on so-called degenerate art and Stern’s erasure from the canon of German expressionism, despite her participation in key moments of its Berlin phase. 

“Putting women where they belong in the art historical narrative involves talking about how deeply complex they are, just as we talk about how deeply complex men are.”

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Sean Otoole
Guest Author

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