Strauss & Co’s 2020 virtual auction: The lasting legacy of Irma Stern

Irma Stern, ‘Still life of dahlias in a vase with a basket of apples’, 1945, R3,500,000-R5,000,000.

Irma Stern is an important figure in the history of South African art – an undeniable innovator. Her portrait and still life paintings have been especially admired by generations of collectors. Nearly a half-century after her passing, Stern’s legacy endures and she continues to outperform all other South African artists as Strauss & Co’s top-selling artist. A selection of her work will be available on auction at the Strauss & Co NORTH/SOUTH Live Virtual Auction from 8-11 November 2020.

Who better to take us through the enduring legacy of Irma Stern and her work at the upcoming virtual auction than two of South Africa’s leading women in the arts? We spoke to Susie Goodman, executive director of Strauss & Co, and Bina Genovese, joint managing director of Strauss & Co.

Susie Goodman

Q: You have a very exciting auction coming up in November. Do tell us how Strauss & Co auctions have evolved this past year and what we can expect from the NORTH/SOUTH auction?

A: Our new NORTH/SOUTH auction at the beginning of November is very exciting indeed. We have grabbed the challenges but also opportunities of rethinking and reshaping the Strauss & Co auctions in this “new normal” we find ourselves in. We were very lucky to have a well-established Strauss & Co online brand before lockdown hit South Africa. Our first online only auction was held in 2013 and since then we have conducted 40 online only auctions. The NORTH/SOUTH auction week developed out of our new ideas, themes and the ability to transcend geographic locations.

Q: Some background on Irma Stern and her importance as one of South Africa’s most prominent artists?

A: Irma Stern was way ahead of her time. She was a full-time professional artist when hardly anyone else in South Africa was able to get that right. She studied overseas and travelled widely in Europe and in Africa, going to Zanzibar and the Congo in the 1930s, 40s and 50s – incredibly intrepid in those days for a woman travelling alone. She was interested in people and places and her adventures are recorded in her paintings, drawings and illustrated books. She collected interesting objects and artefacts on her travels and these often appear in the still lifes she painted back at home in Cape Town, sometimes alongside vases of luxuriant flowers and foliage from her own garden, which was an abiding passion. Her zest for life comes across in her paintings, with their lively brushstrokes and luscious, rich colours. Her work just never loses its appeal.

Q: Stern’s work is gaining recognition internationally and she is Strauss & Co’s top-selling artist. What are some of her most impressive works on auction this November?

A: In the last 10 years, the Stern market has developed and risen meteorically. The important combination of demand, exhibitions, publication of books on her life and work, and international auction houses adding South African art to their auction calendars, have built a very strong brand for the Stern name and her works have grown consistently as valuable assets. This auction has 15 Stern works varying from works on paper and studies of olive pickers and harvesters to some of her most important still lifes with flowers from The Tasso Foundation Collection assembled by the late Giulio Bertrand of Morgenster. There is also the beautiful View of the Grand Canal, Venice, full of light and colour, and the unforgettable Swazi Woman portrait that graces the cover of our catalogue.

Bina Genovese

Q: What do you think it is about Irma Stern and her work that keeps lovers of fine art and collectors worldwide enthralled?

A: Born in South Africa in 1894 to German-Jewish immigrants, Irma Stern is distinguished for her unique visual language inspired by the German Expressionists, but with a very strong African flavour. Her vision of the world through her many travels is generously and exuberantly portrayed in terms of vivid colour and energetic paint application. The works she produced document her travels and encounters with people in the places she visited. Stern’s vibrant, lustrous floral studies and deeply compelling portraits reveal a larger than life, independent and courageous woman, who always knew the value of her work and never undersold herself. She was a highly prolific and successful artist – the startling price tags achieved for her paintings at auction since 2000 bear testimony to the broad base of collectors globally who find great pleasure in owning works by this extraordinary artist.

We are proud to be offering an important example of work, Swazi Woman (R3,000,000-R4,000,000) from the Tasso Foundation Collection of Important South African Art. This painting was executed in 1927 during her third and final visit to Swaziland. Stern’s golden period, defined by her visits to Zanzibar and the Belgian Congo between 1939 and 1946, is represented in this sale by Still life of dahlias in a vase with a basket of apples (R3,500,000-R5,000,000) and Seated Woman, Zanzibar (R1,500,000-R2,000,000), both executed in 1945 and also from the Tasso Foundation. Like many of Stern’s intimate portraits, the latter provides a rare historical record of the internal world of her sitters. These glimpses into secret lives that are usually kept private are hugely appealing to collectors.

As noted by Marion Arnold, Stern “has often been discussed as a painter of Africa, but after the Second World War – for almost twenty years of her career – she painted Europe”. She produced a series of views of Venice, and the magnificent rendering of the Grand Canal (R5,000,000-R7,000,000), was painted there in 1948.

Q: Flowers are central to an appreciation of Irma Stern’s biography and work…

A: Stern produced numerous still lifes throughout her career. They were integral to her identity as a painter and enabled her to refine her expressionistic use of colour and dynamic detailing of objects. Stern returned again and again to the blooms that were readily available either in her own garden or from the flower market in Adderley Street in central Cape Town. Stern’s highly energised floral studies from the 1940s represent the apex of her achievement in this genre. They exude vitality and joy that bursts beyond the confines of the picture plane, as if the totality of objects on the canvas are “resisting their confinement in the space provided”, according to the doyenne of South African art history, Esmé Berman.

Stern’s 1940s flower studies are praised for their ‘molten magma of colour’ and heralded to be amongst her finest. In addition to Still life of dahlias in a vase with a basket of apples, executed in 1945, another of these works showing her remarkable facility as a colourist, is included in our NORTH/SOUTH auction. Hydrangeas in a jar with mangoes (R3,500,000-R5,000,000), painted in 1949, also comes from the Tasso Foundation. The sale also features two further floral studies by Stern. Still life with basket of flowers, executed in 1937, shows the artist using an exciting colour palette, especially evident in the splashes of red, pink, purple and orange in the zinnias (R3,500,000-R5,000,000). The thick paint application echoes the texture and shape of the stiff petals. A work on paper painted the year before, Strelitzias in a black urn (R800,000-R1,200,000), demonstrates Stern’s assured sense of composition in a striking combination of organic and geometric forms.

The NORTH/SOUTH Live Virtual Auction takes place from 8-11 November 2020.

Visit the Strauss & Co website to browse and bid.

Pictures courtesy of Strauss & Co.