Stern Analysis

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  • Examples of Paintings
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Examples of Paintings analysed by previous students:

The Hunt – 1929

The Hunt was a product of her journey to Swaziland and Natal during the 1920′s. A group of hunters are it seems preparing for a hunt. All of them are either naked or just wearing a loin cloth. Stylized hunting dogs are in the foreground. In this painting one can see the the idea of the idealized other; the subjects serves as a source of visual inspiration to her. She does not consider the social, political and economic implications of their situations. Details are exaggerated and stylised to create an ideal image of a ‘noble savage’

There are loads of books about Picasso on Stern’s book-shelves and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon(1907) and the influence can clearly be seen in The Hunt (1926). We get the mask-like flatness and two dimensionality but Picasso’s renegade glee, his sexualised sense of attack, those razor-like breasts and angles, has declined in Stern’s hands into genteel decorative curves, lines and S-shapes. (ref)

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – Picasso

The composition is busy and almost bursting at the edges of the frame. A feeling of activity is created by the use of lots of angular lines often intersecting with each other. The use of colour gives a feeling of joy and excitement which reflects the Fauvist use of colour rather than the feeling of anxiety that one feels when looking at German Expressionist works. She also use arbitrary colour mixed with local or real colour, loosely applied creating gestral, expressive marks. She also made use in this painting of juxtapositioning of complimentary colours. (colours that intensify each other when placed side by side, that is yellow and purple; red and green; blue and orange). She also uses the strong outlines in black so often found in Fauvist paintings. The shadows are also heavily accentuated so that it almost becomes part of the pattern.

Although there is a feeling of depth in the painting, the perspective is distorted as there is little difference between foreground and background space. The colours does not become less vibrant in the back ground and some figures in the back ground are out of proportion in relationship with each other on the particular plane of depth. The area of focus appears to be the three figures in the foreground. The overall impression of the painting is one of vibrant colours and pattern, but one does not feel any emotions in the subjects and they almost appear like bored models posing for a fashion shoot. They are stylized to resemble the angularity found in African sculpture.

Still Life with African sculptures (1938)

Irma Stern often used her Still Life painting to experiment with technique and composition. Her technique in her still lifes are much freer than her paintings of human figures. In still lifes she could also arrange each object to reflect the idea she was trying express. In this still life we see featured two African sculptures which must be part of her collection from her travels through Africa. Along with it is a blue spotted jug with what seems to be two paint brushes in it. Next to it is a can of beverage and a bowl that could contain either floating petals, or soup. Behind the figures is a bright red hanging cloth with white African print.

She uses arbitrary colours in African sculptures, that just gives an impression of aged wood rather than a realistic representation. Bright blue, purple, and red in loose brush strokes highlights the shapes and form of the sculptures, rather than the western traditional use of carefully graded colours to indicate shadow. The rest of the objects are treated with realistic colour but shows clear mark making, rather than blended and one does get a feel of realistic texture.

In my opinion the central sculpture is the focal point as it is more defined in both colour and line than the figure next to it and the red cloth in the background is contrasted with the cooler colours of the figurine. The yellow colour of the wall is juxtaposed with the red of the cloth, creating a feeling of depth as the background appears cooler than the foreground. Overall the perspective is realistic but with distorted forms.

One gets the feeling that this still life represented a slice in her life. It feels homely because of the introduction of the seemingly random can and bowl of containing what looks edible. Yet there is a feeling of sadness in the way the two figures relate to each other and the central figure’s hands are broken off.

Repose was inspired by her trip to Swaziland and Natal. The Swazi women are placed in a colourful and decorative setting with naturalistic details like St Joseph lilies and pawpaws that gives the painting a feeling of exotic. The two semi naked women are lying in the forest. at ease with their nakedness. Their warm bronze like colours makes their bodies feel as if they are glowing, which are emphasized by the copper jewellery they are wearing.

 

Your eye is drawn to the white of the lilies in the foreground which stands out against the darker colours of the rest of the painting. Traditionally white lilies are a symbol of purity which may also be a symbol Irma Stern placed there to show how she feels about the subject – the African paradise before “the fall” – where like in the Biblical Eden they were not yet aware of their nakedness in their innocence.

Your eye is also lead all over the place because the painting is very busy.with bright rich colours. There is a feeling of foreground and background in the painting mainly because the objects in the foreground are more in focus in the foreground and the background images are more blurred and she uses loser brush stroke in the background and cooler colours. The trees at the back of the women, and the bushes and leaves are very blurry. It seems as if the background is shallow, almost like a backdrop on a stage.

Repose (1927)

The brush strokes she uses in painting the women is gives a feeling of the real texture of smooth skin but in the rest of the painting it is looser almost washed. She also uses tonal modeling on the bodies which contrasts with the stylised treatment of the rest of the painting. The figures are also clearly outlined in black.

The painting reminds me of the warm rich colours of Gauguin as well as his paintings of the tropical islands as an idealised primitive world.

Pondo Woman, which was painted in 1929, may not appear today to be sensational in either style or subject matter, but during the twenties, exhibitions of similar works were investigated by the police on grounds of immorality. And when Irma Stern exhibited in Johannesburg in 1933, the editor of the Sunday Times called it ‘Irma Stern Chamber of Horrors.’

Her critics felt that she simply could not draw and had no right to foist her her graphic deformations on the public. Viewers were quick to seize on details like the hands. Her colour colour, too, offended, as to the public it appeared haphazard in application as compared to the traditional art they were used to.

Thus far, the attitude od most South African painters towards their subjects had been cool detachmant. This was especially true od so-called ‘native studies’, which were treated either as dry ethnographical descriptions or as loftily rhetorical, ‘noble savage’ presentations. Irma Stern in contrast, identified herself emotionally with every subject that she painted; this subjective involvement is one of the most forceful features of her style. The revolutionary quality of works like the Pondo Woman was therefore as much as a result of the concept as in method.

Pondo Woman (1929)

The influence of German Expressionism is clear in this painting, specifically regarding the conjunction of (nude) figure and lush landscape. Pondo Woman was the result of Stern’s frequent visits to Pondoland (the Transkei) during the 1920s. It shows a woman with downcast eyes in an introspective or self-absorbed mood, and it exudes that gentle eroticism that was commonly believed to be a metaphor for primitivism and exoticism.

(From Irma Stern’s first exhibition in Pretoria, 1933 – Jeanne van Eeden)

Typical Stern stylistic elements were the merging of foreground and background, the overall treatment, the strong colours, the use of dark outlines and line for decorative effect, and the simplification of form. The naturalism of the figure is contrasted by the stylised treatment of the background. The figure is represented in a state of contemplation.

Irma Stern painted many Still life paintings With still life compositions artists can plan and arrange each element deliberately to bring across a particular emotion, atmosphere or message. Irma also used still life painting to experiment with colour combinations, and composition, and technique. She often used her still life paintings to express something, which often reflected a part of her life. To me the colour of her still life paintings show her feelings; they are sometimes good and they are sometimes bad.

Still Life with African Pot

In this painting I feel warmth and peace in the painting because of the warm colours of the flowers and the brightness of the fruit and vase.

The first thing that draws my eye is the basket on the table with the fruit in it because the colours of the fruit stands out against the contrasting purple background (juxtaposed) bringing out the yellow and greens of the fruits. The yellow fruit especially stands out and my eye keeps on being drawn between the the different tone of yellow in the vase and the yellow in the fruit basket. The brightness of colour is found throughout the painting and each colour emphasized by using complimentary colours to each area of particular colour.The red-brown of the table makes all the yellows, purples and greens seems brighter. The over-all effect is that the painting has an exotic tropical feel.

A Still Life of Dahlias and Fruit (1960)

Her brush strokes and mark making is much freer in this painting than when compared to her earlier works, where she used shaded form, tonal values of colour to achieve convincing three-dimensional form. In this painting the background is treated in a 2D way using only loose brush strokes, in an almost abstract expressive way, with no blending of the colour. Like in Fauvist painting it almost feels unfinished compared to traditional Western Art where the brush strokes were carefully blended. There is no attempt to create realistic texture in any of the objects. Shading and texture are just implied by simple rough strokes of colour.

I get the feeling that in this painting she just let go of all rules and just enjoyed painting the riot of colour found in the flowers and fruits, almost like the brightness of colour found in Spring after a grey winter. Most of the flowers in her still life paintings were from her own garden or from friends.To Irma Africa was the land of colour and this she expressed in my opinion in this painting.

The painting dates from 1929, Stern’s most sought-after period. The muted landscape and the plain white of the woman’s robe and head-dress draw the viewer’s eye intensely to the sitter’s face. Her eyes look away, but her look, despite the stylised decorative markings across the cheeks, has something about it that could be haughty or just intensely private. Its power lies as much in its strength as in its mystery: you can’t really tell what she is thinking, but thinking she is. (Ref)

Pondo Woman (1929)

Her mode of speech was so polite and well-formulated,” Stern once said of her subject, according to a Bonhams press release. “It was a lovely harmony in this young girl, slim and tall, with the gently movements of a well-bred race. Her eyes were like dark pools, swimming with the glance of tragedy curious in so young a face, yet so common in the eastern woman. (Ref)

Bahora Girl (1945)

These portraits are easy to recognize because they have been framed in solid wood frames carved African motifs. In 1946 will make a trip to Central Africa, also very important, and there will be contacted malaria. recovery from illness will restrict freedom of movement, but not quite, because in 1947 it will make a second trip east. Following a period of ‘calm Expedition’.

A Zanzibar woman with a brass water ewer

Two Arabs

Sill Life with Magnolias and Pumpkins – (The Huge Magnolia trees are still in her garden, now the Stern Museum)

Key Words for Irma Stern:

The exotic other, colonization, struggle, identity, primal nakedness and innocence, colour, pioneer, rebel, romanticized Africa, alienation/loneliness

Back to: Search for an African Identity > Irma Stern

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