Irma Stern (1894-1966)

Images of artwork

Irma Stern was born in 1894 to German Jewish parents at Schweizer- Reneke, a small town in the North West Province of South Africa, where her father established a thriving trading store and cattle farm. Interned during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) because of his pro-Boer sympathies, Irma and her brother were taken by their mother to Cape Town. After his release, the family went to Germany and thus began a pattern of regular travel, which was to characterize her life.

Intermittent periods of her childhood were spent in South Africa, however, the years of the First World War (1914-1918) were based in Germany. Irma Stern decided to become an artist, studying in Berlin and Weimer. Through the support of the Expressionist, Max Pechstein, her first solo exhibition was held in Berlin in 1916, yet on returning permanently to South Africa her work was initially derided.

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 gave her opportunities to acquire and assemble an eclectic collection of artefacts for her home.

Her method of working in her studio demanded intense concentration. She often put up a sign saying “Do not disturb” and proceeded to paint while chain smoking and drinking strong black coffee. She generally framed her own work, packed exhibitions and arranged sales herself.

Apparently, when working on a portrait she would observe the model very closely, step back and view them through half closed eyes and aim to complete the painting in one sitting.

Irma described the process of art production as follows: “I work a long time at a picture in my head… I never touch the canvas after it is finished.”

Her style evolved over the years. A very versatile artist, she worked in a range of media including oils, water colour, gouache, charcoal as well as ceramics and sculpture.

Often the outline of a composition was delineated in blue. 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.