Irma Stern, the star of South Africa’s modernist art scene

Today art historians consider Stern one of the most important woman artists of the 20th century and one of South Africa's most important modernist artists.

Lady Florence Phillips, art patron and founder of the Johannesburg art gallery, referred to Irma Stern (1894–1966) as “that nice girl, who paints terrible pictures.” Nadja Daehnke, director of the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town, agrees that “with her bold paint application, unerring sense of vibrant colour and flattening of the picture plane that created the impression that the painting almost seems smeared onto the flatness of the canvas, Stern was at first ridiculed by the colonial and conservative South African art-viewing public”.

Today art historians consider Stern one of the most important woman artists of the 20th century and one of South Africa’s most important modernist artists. Stern loved colour, and her use of vibrant shades and clashing contrasts is unmatched by her contemporaries. Few could rival her raffish, exuberant colour and masterful use of expressive gestural brushwork.

“Like many female artists of the 20th century, she has gone underappreciated outside of South Africa,” remarks American art historian Dr LaNitra M Berger, author of the recent book Irma Stern and the Racial Paradox of South African Modern Art (Bloomsbury, 2020). “Only a few art scholars have really taken an interest in her and it’s only now that we’re seeing a broader international conversation about Stern outside of South Africa and Germany.”

Stern’s commercial value matches her critical acclaim – the highest price ever achieved for a South African artwork is one of her paintings titled Arab Priest. The artwork, a portrait of an Arabian gentleman dressed in a white robe with a white turban around his white skull cap, sold for more than R50 million in 2011 at a London auction. Stern has also proved a top performer on the local auction circuit – South African auction house Strauss & Co boasts half a billion rand in sales of artworks by Stern.


Stern was born in 1894, in Schweizer-Reneke in the then Transvaal Republic, the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants. During the South African War, her brother and father were interned by the British on suspicion of being Boer sympathisers. After the war, the family returned to Germany, where Stern studied art and became acquainted with German Expressionism, an early twentieth-century art movement that revolted against realism and figurative art – seeing it as the effluence of ‘so-called’ civilisation – and emphasised the artist’s subjective feelings or ideas over reality. These artists believed that cruelty, violence and a hunger for power lurked beneath the veneer of Western refinement, progress and civility. Their artworks are characterised by simplified shapes, bright colours and gestural marks or brushstrokes.

Max Pechstein, one of the leading German Expressionists, introduced the young Stern to the most influential role-players in German art circles. Having lived through the South African War and World War I, Stern immediately identified with the German Expressionists’ radical, almost anarchic spirit, their rejection of realism and their pursuit of ‘primitive’ purity. Stern was a visual raconteur at heart, who loved to travel and relay her adventures of far-flung destinations, exotic flora and captivating, foreign subjects, through her paintings, diaries and letters to friends. She travelled extensively in Africa and Europe, but it’s her visits to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945, and to the Congo in 1942, that marked the high point of her career. 

Two lots by Stern are up for sale in Strauss & Co’s upcoming live virtual auction, Impression/Expression: from Hugo Naudé to Georgina Gratrix. The sale broadly explores the legacies of impressionism and expressionism, two important western art movements, in South African art. The top lot on the sale, a Stern oil on canvas titled Bathers, Cannes (estimate R 1 500 000 – 2 000 000), was painted in 1965, a year before the artist’s death in 1966. It captures the joie de vivre and bohemian excess of the French Riviera in the 1960s, at the time a playground for British rock stars, French New Wave movie stars and jet-set names like Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainer of Monaco. Three sensual nude figures recline on the beach, framed by the cerulean blue Mediterranean and the brilliant white masts of sailboats. The brushwork is bold and confident and captures the carefree, spontaneity of its subject matter perfectly.

The second important Stern on the sale, Near Amanzimtoti, a gouache painted in 1936 (R 800 000 – 1 200 000), is reminiscent of Post-Impressionist French artist Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes. Stern was a great admirer of Gauguin and she uses a similar technique to his in this painting – her bold juxtapositions of colour and expressionist brushstrokes depict the lush, vivid landscape of the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. 

Strauss &Co’s 90-lot sale will be live-streamed from Johannesburg on Tuesday, 14 September 2021, from 6 pm.

Visit for more information or to register to bid.

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