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South Africa's leading artist offers stern view of women at Bonhams art auction in London
Irma Stern, Mangbetu woman carrying fruit 1942. Estimate: £500,000 - £800,000. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Irma Stern, South Africa’s leading artist, and one of the world’s top five woman artists, following the £3m price for ‘Arab Priest’, is set to make waves again at Bonhams in the sale of South African Art in London on October 17.

This time the common theme is women – black, brown and white. Pictures like Mangbetu woman carrying fruit 1942, £500,000 - £800,000; Malay Lady in Yellow 1942, £350,000 - £550,000; Washer Women 1925, £200,000 -£300,000; Portrait of Vera Poppe playing the cello 1943, £200,000 to £300,000: and Woman wearing a mantilla, £150,000-200,000 all focus on and celebrate South Africa’s rich racial legacy.

Stern's enthusiasm for African subjects started to wane in the 1950s and, having become disillusioned with the changes wrought by time and politics in Africa, she sought peasant communities in Europe in an attempt to locate her romantic ideas of idyllic existence in nature. She remained, however, committed to portraying the human form and it is upon this that her reputation was built – and upon which it has been sustained.

Stern’s Mangbetu woman carrying fruit was acquired directly from the artist by the current owner, circa 1944-45. The artist’s 1942 visit to the Congo proved to be immensely satisfying for the multitude of inspirations it provided to the artist. Mangbetu woman carrying fruit exemplifies the brighter colours and more sensuous figures that characterised Stern's work from the period. Stern had long been fascinated with the native people of Africa, painting them from the early days of her career. Her journey to the Congo provided both adventure and fresh subjects and surroundings, inspiring Stern to paint some of the greatest canvases of her career.

Professor Neville Dubow, one of South Africa’s foremost artists and critics, comments that "In the Congo [Irma Stern] found a society whose primary needs were still met to a degree by the work of the artist/craftsman; and she responded to this first-hand encounter with creative tribal functionalism with a fundamental creativity of her own. She produced a body of painting of extraordinary vigour and decorative control." Mangbetu woman carrying fruit exemplifies Stern at the height of her powers, demonstrating her mastery of strong colour and lively brushwork. Stern has brilliantly contrasted the green bananas with red flowers and yellow costume, all against a pale background which lushly compliments the dark skin of the sitter.”

In December 1942 Stern exhibited her Congo works at the Gainsborough Galleries in Johannesburg. In a review of the exhibition, Herman Charles Bosman, a South African literary legend, wrote: "I am personally grateful to Irma Stern for having thrust before the world, in so bold and uncompromising a fashion, the only things in life that matter. She has created a wide and unsentimental world, brilliant with the raw colours of feeling, where the spirit is a woven mantle, and the earth is pageantry, and hope is a cereal, and things change before the eye with nearness."

The contrast of this picture with the Portrait of Vera Poppe playing the cello, is striking. Vera Poppe (1885-1968), born in Cape Town and of Russian descent, was a cellist celebrated throughout Europe and America and was well known for her dazzling performances in Chicago, New York and London.

During the war years Poppe returned to Cape Town where a performance at the home of Ben and Cecilia Jaffe in Rosebank brought her to the attention of Irma Stern, an attendee at the concert. Dazzled by Poppe's performance, Stern was inspired to paint the cellist's portrait.

The intensity depicted in the sitter's face, combined with the flowing warm golden folds of Poppe's dress, capture the extraordinary impact of the musician and the dynamism of her playing.

Painted in 1943, whilst the artist was at the height of her career, former Director of the Irma Stern Museum, Neville Dubow wrote of the artist that "Irma Stern's work achieved a peak of excellence that could stand comparison with representational paintings anywhere else in the could claim international stature for her work of the 1940s. Nationally...there was no one to touch her," said Neville Dubow.

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