Stern Characterisation

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  • Aim and Characteristics of Art

Irma Stern did not regard her models as mere objects. To her the human figure is not merely an impersonal form behind a picture plane; it is a human personality. The two subjects that occur most frequently are people, of every occupation and complexion; and fruits-and-flowers, of equivalent diversity. All her works are characterised by her vital use of line and colour. When Stern depicted a cluster of flowers in a vase, it was not depicted as a lifeless array of  shapes and colours, but as an expression of organic growth and vigour.

“Painting paintings through my heart’s blood.” – Irma Stern

Page 39 – And painted pictures with my heart’s blood. Page 40 – And gave them to the people and stood alone – and all laughed and slung mud at me.

The central theme of her art is the struggle of how to relate to the other. – Who are we, Who are we in Africa? She saw Africa as the incarnation of freedom and painted a romanticized Africa. It is speculated that for her Africa represented the idealized self as well as the sensual aspects that was missing in her own life. She colonized her African experience and transformed the experience through art.

Malay Girl with Hibiscus (1944)

Stern “identified with her subjects in one specific sense: their grace was for her more than just a metaphor for freedom; it was the very incarnation of freedom that she sought and which was denied her in her private emotional life, she’d “‘colonised’ that part of African experience that she could use in her work and unashamedly seized it and brought it back to her studio where the exotic raw material was processed into her art” – Dubow.

She used expressive brushstrokes, thick paint and bright colours  to show her idealised, view of the world, rather than the suffering of Africa. In her portraits of the African peoples, she identified with the spiritual and emotional beauty she encountered, finding artistic freedom in her emotional and sensual response. Her subject matter included still life compositions, landscapes and portraits from the different regions she visited. The use of thick paint sometimes applied with a palette knife creates a sense of emotional intensity expressed in the choice of subject matter, be it landscape, portrait or still life. She used her painting as a means of self-discovery and personal revelation. Irma Stern never did any self-portraits, and it has been suggested that she projected her inner self-image as an exploration of her own sexuality.

An interest in primitivism and exoticism was an important component of European Modernism, but primitivism obviously had other implications or connotations for the South African spectator. The significance of primitivism in Stern’s work was frequently minimized in contemporary criticism, possibly since this was felt to be one of the major alienating aspects of her oeuvre.

Paul Gauguin – Spirit of the dead Watching

In Europe the taste for the primitive had been a ”search by weary sophisticates for the primal essence, the life force that reposed in traditional primitive art” (Dubow 1974).

In Germany in particular, primitivism, with its notion of harmony with nature, was believed to be able to counter the effects of modern psychic stress . In South Africa the primitive was a definite reality and not an illusory, Edenic fantasy. The depiction of black people that granted Stern recognition in Europe, led conversely to estrangement in South Africa.

Like Gauguin, she saw the civilization as threatening the primitive culture. Disillusioned with Europe with Hitler’s rise to power, Stern looks for an alternative to European ‘civilisation’ in what others consider darkest Africa. In the process, she inverts the colonial relationship to Africa, equating Africa with civilisation and Europe with barbarianism.

“I get terribly frightened when I think of Germany’s future – so much hatred that has to be overcome and so much blood that still has to be shed! The foreign countries stand shuddering with horror and wonder about the barbarism of the twentieth century,” she wrote134, clearly identifying with “the foreign countries’” horror. “I am going to the “savages” [den Wildern] and probably I shall meet cultured people there,”

The difference between Stern’s exoticism and that of Europeans was that as a (South) African she was believed to embody “the primal essence – that life force that was perceived as the gift of tribal society in general, and African tribal art in particular” In other words, Stern symbolized the exotic and was felt by Europeans to have immediate access to a quintessential spirituality. The contrary supposition may also be true – that South African spectators had no place for the celebration of the primitive, precisely because it was for them an ominous force that had to be subjugated. (Ref)

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