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A tribute to Christopher Peter on his retirement

It is difficult to believe that this year marks exactly four decades since 1979, when Professor Neville Dubow, then-Director of the Michaelis School of Fine Art and the founding Director of the Irma Stern Museum, made what we have always known to be an inspired decision. This was to appoint a 25-year old young man by the name of Christopher Peter as this museum’s first-ever resident curator.

Dubow had known Stern personally and since her death in 1966, he had established a reputation as the pre-eminent and pioneering scholar on her work. He had also been a frequent visitor to Stern’s home, known as ‘The Firs’ in his youth. In his role as full-time Professor at the Michaelis School, he needed an able person to manage what was then, for Cape Town at least, the-then relatively novel concept of a hybrid ‘house museum’ with all of its attendant challenges.

I was an undergraduate art education student living in a nearby UCT residence just up the road from here in the year just before Christopher’s appointment. I recall visiting this museum regularly with my fellow-students on a self-motivated project to compile a museum guide to it that was aimed at secondary school learners. I thus have a memory of what this museum was like before what we may now, from hereon, refer to as ‘the Christopher Peter era’. Although the bedrooms upstairs had been converted into a temporary gallery space, Stern’s living and working areas, although crammed with interesting objects, smelled rather musty and looked a tad tired. Apart from the colour and energy emanating from her glowing paintings, they were painted in fading tones and poorly lit. In some respects the house still bore the signs and smells of wear and use; of being the home of an unhappy, overweight, irascible and elderly woman who in her final years had been very ill. As Christopher himself says of the Irma Stern museum in Paul Duncan’s book Hidden Cape Town:

It’s not a flamboyant house. It’s not an antiquarian’s house either, or a feminine one. It’s an interested artist’s house. It has a sombre quality. It’s melancholic. It’s the home of a person driven to create as an emotional outlet …

For me, experiencing the ‘Irma Stern’ spaces in this museum in the late 1970s and experiencing them now is almost like witnessing the shift from black and white television technology to the latest in High Density colour. Irma’s rooms now glow in rich, daring complementaries of oxblood red, magentas, pinks, leafy greens and malachite. And dare I leave out Christopher’s famously favourite colour mauve? Stern’s paintings and her collections now glow back in an enlivened manner, as if in response. These formerly rather dowdy and muted rooms have become re-energized and animated with Stern’s earlier brave, youthful, unique energy and her fiery expressionist spirit. I am sure that if she were alive to see them today she would fully endorse them as reflecting her own full engagement with the world of the senses.

All of this has been slowly and quietly carried out, gradually over the past forty years, with the greatest respect and sensitivity to the preservation and conservation of Stern’s legacy. It has made of this museum with its gardens in some senses Cape Town’s answer to those famous examples of modernist domesticity where art, ordinary life and horticulture collide and coalesce, such as the Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston and Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House in Sussex. How perfect and inspired to have chosen as this house museum’s first curator a brilliant aesthete and accomplished floral artist to extract and give meaning to Irma Stern’s very own gardens and her irrepressible love of flowers?

This fusion of ‘art and life’ was a mantra that Neville Dubow frequently referred to in his art criticism and teaching. I believe that he instantly identified it as being at the very core of Christopher’s unique and colourful personality. I sense very strongly that it was this that prompted him to appoint Christopher as the first resident curator of this museum. For here was neither a dry art historian nor a frustrated practising artist with suppressed desires for fame and recognition, but a young man who fundamentally knew exactly who he was, who was wholly unique and looked it. Furthermore, and most importantly, he was blessed with dollops of that rarest of commodities in South Africa in those days – truly natural and God-given style.

I defer here to that greatest oracle on the subject of personal style, Quentin Crisp, to whom I refer here in particular relation to Christopher:
For some reason, the single most crucial aspect of your identity is the one you are most apt to overlook: the fact that you are unprecedented. There never has been and never will be anyone quite like you. The tiny chain of carbon atoms which formed the blueprint of your character can never be duplicated. No one has ever experienced the world in quite the way that you do. No one else has ever lived your life. You are a minority of one.
And to paraphrase Crisp further…
A person with style knows who he is;
A person with style knows what he isn’t;
A person with style neither copies nor competes;
A person with style is conspicuous;
A person with style is systematically consistent and predictable and recogniseable;
A person with style is sincere;
A person with style is truly liberated.
And in relation to dress:
Dressing with style has nothing whatever to do with being fashionable.
Indeed fashion - or fashionableness – is the antithesis of style.
Fashion is followed by people who don’t know who they are.
Your manner of dress constitutes a personal statement about yourself.
It is a message to the world saying who you are.
Christopher embodies and is much loved for all of these quintessential truths, and we honour that today.

And so it was in 1979 that, as official chatelaine to Irma’s personal spaces and treasures, he took up residence for most of his tenure in his own small, separate apartment adjacent to this museum. It was an apartment that, radiating his unique tastes, became a work of art in itself. It was a legendary for its warmth and elegance, and above all, its personality. And it was this personality and unique style that innumerable dinner guests and friends for tea sought to bask in. Indeed, in many ways, this was also a re-evocation and parallel mode of life to the intense socialising and sumptuous dinners that used to animate ‘The Firs’ when Stern was still alive. Indeed, on very special occasions, Christopher would break a few rules and would allow special dinners or lunches at Irma’s own table in her dining room, thus, again, mixing ‘art and life’ in a manner that both Stern and Dubow would have heartily approved of. This, and Christopher’s animations of its spaces, has made of “The Firs” a truly living museum.

It was but a short and literal step from here that Christopher’s sensibilities began to flow beyond the confines of his apartment into museum itself, animating it with gorgeous colours, with inspired arrangements of pictures and a diverse range of inspired, scented flower arrangements in almost every room. Through Christopher, the spirits of Irma Stern and the famous floral artist Constance Spry began to meet regularly in perfect accord.

In short, it has to be admitted that the Irma Stern Museum has had style because Christopher has style.

It is a sense of style that has always been exercised in the most subtle, respectful and appropriate manner. It is, and will be irreplaceable. It is thus fitting, in a sense, that Christopher is honoured at this moment by the concept of allowing that unique, inimitable sense of personal style to take full possession of the temporary exhibition area upstairs which pays tribute to his contribution.

The past forty years have witnessed a boom in Irma Stern scholarship and, needless to add, both her international esteem and the ever-increasing values attached to her work at auction. Behind this exponential growth in the Stern ‘legend’ and the strength of the persona that emanates from her paintings, lies another more deferential, unique persona, one that has been standing in a sense – in loco – in her place – in her home - without whose outstanding complementary presence, style and hard work her reputation might have been just that much less recognized than it is today.

As the Irma Stern Museum now moves into the future, I would hope that the aesthetic imprint that Christopher has left here be respected and preserved in the spirit of ‘layered historicism’ that one sees in other similar house museums. I say to those that remain here and others that will follow: assiduously keep and record those colours used on these walls, write down those memories and anecdotes, seek out and engage with Christopher and record as much as you can. The ‘Christopher Peter era’ is a mighty, as yet to be written chapter in the evolving histories of Irma Stern.

Finally, to Christopher: thank you for giving me a chance to curate my first-ever exhibition here so many years ago with you. It set me on a path that made me what I am today. I am sure that is a debt owed by countless others besides myself. Enjoy being free of all the admin and the meetings; make a million more flower arrangements, travel much, and read all those novels that are waiting to engross you, and please don’t refuse anyone an audience at Hampton Court when we have a need to record your institutional memories!

We will love you always.

Hayden Proud
Curator of Historical Paintings and Sculpture
Iziko South African National Gallery / Iziko Old Town House/ Michaelis Collection
2 November 2019

Click to enlarge image
Hayden Proud
Posted: 2019/11/02 (10:24:41 AM)

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