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 Introduction  Timeline  Video  Quotations

Irma Stern (1894-1966)

Work and travels

Almost one hundred solo exhibitions were held during her lifetime in South Africa and Europe. Although accepted in Germany her work was unappreciated at first in South Africa where reviews in the 1920s were titled "Art of Miss Irma Stern-Ugliness as a cult". Gradually she became acknowledged as an established artist and from the 1940s achieved success locally.

A very versatile artist, she worked in a range of media including oils, water colour, gouache and charcoal, as well as ceramics and sculpture.

"I work a long time at a picture in my head - I never touch the canvas after it is finished".

Irma Stern travelled extensively in Europe and explored Southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo. These 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.

She journeyed to Swaziland and Natal during the 1920s, producing two seminal works titled Umgababa and The Hunt, which can be viewed in the sitting room.

A letter to friends in Johannesburg, named Richard and Frieda Feldman, dated 26 June 1937, written from Brussels, describes her itinerary:

"... after Holland - a week in Paris for sights and hats and pictures ... - then Salsburg Festspiele for a week- then Vienna. After that Italy- and I start working-there and in Marseille and on my way back I am staying a month in Dakkar ... We hope there will be no war-things are so unsettled just now".

Irma Stern refused to either travel or exhibit in Germany during the period 1933-1945. Instead, she undertook several new journeys, going to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945 and the Congo in 1942, 1946 and 1955. These expeditions resulted in a wealth of artistic creativity and energy, as well as the publication of two illustrated journals: Congo published in 1943 and Zanzibar in 1948. Her enthusiastic response to these environments is evident in these quotes:

"I am on the road to the interior of the Belgian Congo. The Congo has always been for me the symbol of Africa, the very heart of Africa. The sound "Congo" makes my blood dance, with the thrill of exotic excitement; it sounds to me like distant native drums and a heavy tropical river flowing, its water gurgling in mystic depths."

She received gifts of woven raffia cloth and delicately embroidered "velours de Kassai" from the King of the Bakubas. "The women cut the leaves from a grey bristly-looking palm, and, while still fresh, slit them into fine ribbons of raffia. The sun dries the raffia, and it then becomes an off-white shade. They weave the raffia on a primitive loom, and when the mat is finished it is put into water and beaten, so that it becomes a tight closely woven article, looking like a heavy shantung silk. The mat is wrapped round a red cake of N'gula, which is a pressed brick of wood pulp, laid in water; it takes the red dye overnight. To get the black colour, the raffia is buried in the river mud for a few days. The wood carvings are also buried in this way, in order to get the proper black patina."

In Zanzibar Irma Stern describes Indian women in purdah and Arab men wearing turbans and white robes. Bargaining at the food market was a daily activity- where:

Fish are "brought in straight from the sea, huge skites, small vivid blue fish with yellow strips, silvery kinds, red roman, enormous lobster as made of turquoise matrix, phantastic huge turtles-all come out of the tropical sea ... A pale yellow grapefruit called ballunga intrigued me. When I opened it the flesh was a lovely pink embedded in a heavy woollen white. The most imposing was the size of pineapples. They weigh up to twenty pounds each and are dark mauve with green patches."

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