Stern Background

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  • Short Biography
  • Influences

Irma Stern was born in 1894 to German Jewish parents at Schweizer-Reneke,  in the North West Province of South Africa. During the Boer War, her father and two brothers were imprisoned because of their pro Boer sympathies. Irma and her young brother were taken by their mother to Cape Town.

Irma Stern 1894 – 1966

After the war the children went to Germany with their parents. Although the family returned to South Africa for short periods while Irma was growing up, they spent the years of the First World War (1914-1918) in Germany. Her stay in Germany during the First World War had a major influence on how she perceived Africa compared what she experienced in Germany during the war. In comparison Africa appeared idyllic, and her work reflect this view of Africa as “Paradise.” Irma decided to become a painter and was supported in her decision by her parents.

Eternal Child (1916)

She studied in Berlin and Weimer. Her first independent art work The Eternal Child, was rejected by her first teacher and she left to study with the Expressionist, Max Pechstein in 1916 who encouraged and influenced her work and helped arranged her first exhibition in Berlin before she returned to South Africa with her family in 1920. She was initially derided as an artist (culture of ugliness) in Cape Town and her work was not understood by the conservative South African art establishment. Irma Stern remained passionate and was regarded as an established and excepted artist by the 1940s.

She was both a pioneer and rebel in South African art circles as she introduced the conservative South African to Modernism during the 1920’s and managed to shift the prevailing perceptions about art over the following four decades. She traveled widely throughout Europe and Africa. She worked in a wide range of media including oils, water colour, gouache, charcoal as well as ceramics and sculpture. She died on 23 August 1966 in Cape Town at the age of 71.

Max Pechstein, an important member of ‘Die Brücke’ and a leader in the German Expressionist movements introduced Irma to German Expressionism. The Expressionists, in their intense identification with their subject matter, whether natural scenery or human situation, they conceived their paintings not as recoeds of events and scenes, but rather as vehicles for communicating an emotional experience from one psyche to another; it was not the mere appearance of the subject, but the sensations it aroused within the artist that were given form and colour in their compositions. Their works were also  characterised by violence of colour.

Max Pechstein had a strong influence on her style and artistic philosophy, helping her to express her emotions in a personal visual language. The Expressionists also introduced Irma to nature and ‘primitive’ man as a source of artistic expression. Although the Expressionists were her formative influence, her work and the themes of her work did not reflect the “angst” of the Expressionists, but rather the idealised and romanticised view of the Fauvists and Gauguin. She also used the loose expressive brush strokes of the Expressionists, arbitrary colours, unusual angles in compositions, and distorted and stylised representations of her subjects. It was therefore more the visual devices of the Expressionists that influenced her work. Her work were nevertheless, immensely more subjective in approach than anything the South African public had seen before. The South African public and critics were not yet ready to accept the raw exposure of an artists’s personal emotions.

Searching I roamed the world – to arrive at the origin – at beauty – at truth – away from the lies of everyday – and my longing was burning hot – then the darkness opened up and I stood at the source of the Beginning. – Paradise -From Irma Stern Journal

Her African heritage became important to her and through her later travels she explored her personal myth of exotic Africa as ‘Paradise’. The exotic other was an important feature in her work. 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 she collected artifacts that featured in some of her Still Life paintings. These African and Medieval artefacts could have represented to her, as it did to European collectors, the idea of Otherness, the exotic.

The following video taken in the Irma Stern Museum shows the collection of artifact she collected.

However, while most European artists of Stern’s generation, Modigliani and Picasso included, painted Africans as objects–exotic, long-limbed and indistinguishable from each other, Stern, herself an outsider, both because of her Jewish heritage and her lifelong reputation for being “difficult”, portrayed Africans as individuals. In an era that has begun to regard even Gauguin as a neo-colonialist, Stern had a fresh outlook on another culture. (Ref)

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