20th Apr, 2024 18:00

TAKING FLIGHT: Selected Works from the Phoenix Collection

 
  Lot 13
 
Lot 13 - Irma Stern (South Africa 1894-1966)

13

Irma Stern (South Africa 1894-1966)
Black Lilies

oil on canvas

Artwork date: 1941
Signature details: signed and dated bottom left; inscribed with the artist's name, address and title on the reverse
Exhibited: Graham's Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg, 'The Modern Palimpsest: Envisioning South African Modernity', 29 May to 29 August 2008.
Galerie Wolfgang Gurlitt, Munich, 'Irma Stern', October 1955.
Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, 1951, cat no. 15.
Gainsborough Gallery, solo exhibition, Johannesburg, October 1941, cat no. 9.
Argus Gallery, Cape Town, solo exhibition, March 1941, cat no. 22.



Literature: Shoolman, S. (ed). (2008). 'The Modern Palimpsest: Envisioning South African Modernity, Catalogue No 5', Johannesburg: Graham's Fine Art Gallery, illustrated in colour on p.65.

Estimate
R3,500,000 - R5,000,000
 

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oil on canvas

Artwork date: 1941
Signature details: signed and dated bottom left; inscribed with the artist's name, address and title on the reverse
Exhibited: Graham's Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg, 'The Modern Palimpsest: Envisioning South African Modernity', 29 May to 29 August 2008.
Galerie Wolfgang Gurlitt, Munich, 'Irma Stern', October 1955.
Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, 1951, cat no. 15.
Gainsborough Gallery, solo exhibition, Johannesburg, October 1941, cat no. 9.
Argus Gallery, Cape Town, solo exhibition, March 1941, cat no. 22.



Literature: Shoolman, S. (ed). (2008). 'The Modern Palimpsest: Envisioning South African Modernity, Catalogue No 5', Johannesburg: Graham's Fine Art Gallery, illustrated in colour on p.65.

(1)

67 x 62 cm; framed size: 84 x 79 x 5 cm

Provenance:

Strauss & Co., Cape Town, Important South African and International Art - Evening Sale, 16 October 2017, lot 595.

Graham's Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg.

Bernardi Auctioneeers, Pretoria.

Private collection, Johannesburg.

ABOUT THE ARTWORK

Painted after Irma Stern's first visit to Zanzibar in 1939 and before her first Congo expedition in 1942, Black Lilies is a fascinating painting within the artist’s still life oeuvre. It is important to be reminded that Stern was unable to travel to Europe from 1939 to 1945 due to the Second World War. Her wanderlust was, however, somewhat satiated by her travels to Zanzibar and Congo and she created a rich and significant body of work in the period – while being confined to the African continent. Stern was often praised as being at the height of her creativity at this time and proclamations such as, “some of the best work[s] that she has ever done”, in a review of an exhibition in 1940 by a Cape Argus writer were not unusual, in the press.[1] Indeed, the expressive brushwork, vibrant palette and bold compositions from the late 1930s and early 40s remain prized pieces by serious collectors and institutions today. Notably, eight of the ten highest prices achieved for paintings by the artist on auction are currently for portrait and still life works from this period.

Stern’s commanding sense of colour succeeds in her understanding that the 'black' lilies which dominate this composition are not black but traverse the deepest shades of purples, reds and blues. Arranged in a Chinese ceramic from her collection, the green stems of the lilies are offset by the deep glaze of the vase and the moody blues of the background. Next to the vase is a portion of white pumpkin – likely reduced to a single wedge by her cook, Charlie – laid on a stark white cloth.

LEFT: Chinese ceramic, Irma Stern Trust Collection Accession number- 529

RIGHT: Dracunculus vulgaris, commonly named the dragon lily or dragon arum

The lilies in the painting are often assumed to be calla lilies, from the genus Zantedeschia and indigenous to South Africa. Dr Yashica Singh, from the South African National Biodiversity Institute, however, confirms that the flowers are not from the Zantedeschia species but rather Dracunculus vulgaris[2], commonly named the dragon lily or dragon arum.[3] This flower is known to give off a pungent smell which attracts insects, thus assisting the plant to be pollinated.

In 1941, in a letter written to Freda and Richard Feldman, Stern mentions that her mother had suffered a bout of Erisipelas (a bacterial infection of the upper layer of skin where a distinct odour is common). Stern may have held associations between the unique smell of the flowers and her mother’s illness. The painting goes beyond a masterfully rendered and exquisite floral composition as it movingly conveys insight into Stern’s emotional psyche when she created the work. Here, the unusual choice of black lilies is significant and deeply personal ­– a way to reveal her vulnerable and personal self in a still life that is intimate, strikingly beautiful, and from an immensely important point in the artist’s career.

[1] Irma Stern’s Latest Exhibition: The Results of her Visit to Zanzibar, 1940. Cape Argus, p.13.

[2] Wmail exchange between Phillippa Duncan, Dr Yashica Singh (SANBI) and Anna Haigh (Royal Kew Gardens), September 2023 to February 2024

[3] Dracunculus vulgaris is endemic to the eastern Mediterranean: this includes
the Balkans, extending as far as Greece, Crete, and the Aegean Islands, also to the south-western parts of Anatolia.

COLLECTOR'S NOTE

  • Irma Stern currently features in the prestigious, 60th International Art Exhibition, Foreigners Everywhere, at The Venice Biennale, curated by Adriano Pedrosa and running from 20 April to 24 November 2024.
  • In her lifetime, Stern exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1958.
  • Stern has consistently retained her role as one of Africa’s top-selling artists at auction, with her market reaching $31.5 million in 2023.
  • Arab Priest (1945) was purchased by the Qatar Museum (formerly Qatar Museums Authority) in 2011 for $4.9 million (R34 million), thus achieving the record as the most expensive South African painting sold at auction.
  • Important early recognition includes the artist’s first exhibition in 1919 at Fritz Gurlitt Gallery, one of Berlin’s most noteworthy art salons and in 1927 inclusion in a series of monographs, Junge Kunst, on leading modernist painters such as Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Picasso.
  • Significant awards include the Prix d’Honneur at the Bordeaux International Exhibition (1927), the Molteno Grant for outstanding work (1952), the Peggy Guggenheim international art prize (1960), the Oppenheimer Award (1963) and the Medal of Honor of Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (1965).
  • Large scale museum exhibitions include Irma Stern and expressionism: Africa and Europe. Pictures and drawings up to 1945 at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany in 1996, and a retrospective Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey, at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg in 2003.
  • Most recently, Norval Foundation in Cape Town exhibited Irma Stern: The Zanzibari Years, from 3 November 2021 to 1 August 2022.
  • Recent publications include Irma Stern: Are you Still Alive? (2017) by Proffesor Sandra Klopper, Irma Stern and the Racial Paradox of South African Modern Art: Audacities of Color (2020) by the award-winning and social justice advocate, American scholar and educator, Dr LaNitra M. Berger, and Sean O’Toole’s, Irma Stern: African in Europe – European in Africa (2020).
  • After Irma Stern’s death in 1966, the artist’s home along with its contents was considered a national legacy and in 1972, it become the Irma Stern Museum, which can still be visited today in Rosebank, Cape Town.

COLLECTIONS:

The artist is represented in numerous local and international collections, notably, Qatar Museum, Doha, the Bielefeld Art Gallery, Germany; Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Durban Art Gallery; Javett Art Centre, Pretoria; Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town; University of the Witwatersrand; University of South Africa, Pretoria; University of Pretoria; Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town.

The overall condition is excellent.

Minor cracking throughout.

Large area of paint loss to the bottom of the frame.

Please note, we are not qualified conservators and these reports give our opinion as to the general condition of the works. We advise that bidders view the lots in person to satisfy themselves with the condition of prospective purchases.

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Auction: TAKING FLIGHT: Selected Works from the Phoenix Collection, 20th Apr, 2024

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