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Seminal painting by Irma Stern expected to fetch millions at Strauss & Co
Irma Stern, Tiger Lilies, signed and dated 1932. 89 by 69cm. Est: R6-9 million.

By: Emma Bedford

CAPE TOWN.- A major still life by Irma Stern, South Africa's foremost artist and one of the top-selling female artists of all time, will go under the hammer on 13 October as part of Strauss & Co's auction in Cape Town.

Tiger Lilies was painted in 1932, shortly after Irma Stern’s return to Cape Town following successful exhibitions in Berlin, Paris, The Hague and London. Marking a significant break with European influence, and Stern’s determination to establish her own artistic identity and distinctive South African style, the painting is seminal in her oeuvre.

Anticipating the outbreak of the Second World War, the artist (who had been trapped in Germany during the First World War) decided to exit Germany. In this painting, Stern – aged thirty eight and already internationally recognised – celebrates her return to the safety of South African shores by turning in her choice of subject to the natural beauty of her surroundings, including Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, close to her Rondebosch home with its private garden which provided her with freshly-picked subjects for her work.

Together with other still lifes from this newly exuberant period, Tiger Lilies represents an early version of Stern’s celebratory philosophy of Africa, the intellectual product of her recognition of the significance of her location on the African continent whose art had inspired European modernism. It is precisely this aspect of her portraits produced in the ’40s that is increasingly recognised in the critical literature on Stern as well as by private and institutional collectors.

Stern’s handling of the pomegranate and oranges in the foreground of Tiger Lilies acknowledges the significance for the artist of Paul Cézanne’s style (strongly evident in early paintings like Green Apples in the permanent collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery); and, by contrast, her vigorous paint application and use of strong complementary colours is influenced by her involvement with German Expressionists, including her mentor and close friend Max Pechstein.

Stern was, however, even more ambitious, as Mona Berman reveals in her memoir on the artist: “At present I [feel] I can do the same as the best here and that is to say the best living and strangely enough Gauguin and mostly Van Gogh seem to me very much like a level I have also reached,” she wrote in 1937 from London to her friends Richard and Frieda Feldman.

Others affirmed her confidence. “I did tell you that I met [the great sculptor Joseph] Epstein in London – that he loved my work – spent a few hours in my exhibition and said, ‘At last a painter who can paint comes to London. Do you know that nobody living can paint flowers better than you do – that the Renoir roses [] I just saw look like paper against your flowers’,” Stern told the Feldmans.

Indeed, the flowers in Tiger Lilies bristle with life and energy; the leaves, jutting out in various directions, provide drama and the vase, in shades of midnight blue, is centrally placed within the format, presenting a solid body that anchors the composition.

In the absence of any self-portraits by the artist, this image could justifiably be interpreted as representing Stern’s creative intelligence and passion, grounded in her strong physical presence. Tiger Lilies offers extraordinary insights into Stern’s sense of self and her zest for life. Bursting with vitality, the painting epitomises the flamboyant character that made Stern so memorable to all who encountered her.

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