The Irrepressible Irma Stern, A Star Of Multiple Editions Of The Venice Biennale, Leads Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg Evening Sale - Business Media MAGS - A leader in industry-related B2B magazines, current, relevant informative content

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The Irrepressible Irma Stern, A Star Of Multiple Editions Of The Venice Biennale, Leads Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg Evening Sale

Irma Stern, the Cape painter who decisively modernised South African painting a century ago, forms an important part of Strauss & Co’s premier Evening Sale, which take place at 7pm on Tuesday, 28 May 2024 in Johannesburg.


  • Five works by Irma Stern go on sale on Tuesday, 28 May 2024
  • Top lot is Cape Girl with Fruit (estimate on request), painted in 1930
  • High-value still life from 1956
  • Three gouaches explore themes of identity, femininity, dress and labour

The 85-lot catalogue of modern and contemporary art is anchored by Stern’s important and paradisiacal 1930 portrait of a seated young woman, Cape Girl with Fruit (estimate on request).

“This commanding oil dates from a period of frequent travel across Southern Africa and regular exhibiting in Europe for Irma Stern,” says Dr Alastair Meredith, Head of Art Department, Strauss & Co. “It was a time of stylistic reinvention, when the artist actively experimented with colour, using it to describe form and create texture. This work marks the early beginnings of Stern’s celebrated mature style, when the facts of human encounter – something Stern thrived on describing in her drawings – were confidently being translated into sensual, painted images.”

Irma Stern Woman with Veil R 250 000 – 350 000 (USD 13 575 – 19 005)

Stern is represented by a total of five works in Strauss & Co’s Evening Sale. They number two oils and three gouaches. Dated 1956, the oil on canvas Still Life with Amaryllis (estimate R5 – 7 million / $271 455 – 380 040) derives from a remarkable period of sustained international attention. In 1950, Stern was selected to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale; she would return to represent the country in 1952, 1954 and 1958. In 1955, Stern, the child of German-Jewish émigrés, also resumed showing in Germany after an absence of two decades. 

Stern’s frequent visits to Venice are well documented. In 1948, she lunched with art patron Peggy Guggenheim, secured the loan of a yacht to paint on Grand Canal, and even assisted with the displays at the Venice Biennale. The visit prompted Stern to motivate for South Africa’s participation at this leading international art event. A decade later, in 1958, Stern was the starred artist among the South Africans selected for Venice, showing 12 paintings and four graphic works in the national pavilion.

Irma Stern Fire Lilies (Still Life with Amaryllis) R 5 000 000 – 7 000 000 (USD 274 513 – 384 318)

Stern, whose portraits routinely command top value at auction, is once again showing in Venice. Her 1942 portrait of Princess Emma Bakayishonga, sister of the Rwandan King Mutara III Rudahigwa, appears in the main exhibition at the 2024 Venice Biennale. This particular portrait also illustrates an entry on Stern in premium art-book publisher Phaidon’s Great Women Artists (2012), one of the most extensive, fully illustrated books of women artists ever published.

The three gouaches on offer are all portraits. Painted in 1946, Woman with Veil (estimate R250 000 – 350 000 / $13 604 – 19 046) exhibits Stern’s mature sense of line and restrained use of decorative colour. Painted 11 years earlier, Two Indian Women (estimate R200 000 – 300 000 / $10 883 – 16 325) is a pastoral study that uses bolder lines to explore characteristic Stern themes of identity, dress and femininity. 

Three Figures in a Wagon (estimate R80 000 – 120 000 / $4 353 – 6 530), from 1936, shows three female labourers, a subject that occupied Stern throughout her life as a painter. The work was made in the same year that Stern appeared in the Empire Exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. This exhibition marked an important turning point in the wider acceptance of Stern’s expressionist-style of painting after years of vicious criticism in the press.

Stern, who died in 1966, remains a highly sought after artist at auction. In the period 2016 to 2021, Stern earned R417 / $22 million from 174 lots sold, the second highest tally by any modern or contemporary African artist, according to data compiled by ArtTactic. Strauss & Co is the leading reseller of works by Stern. In March 2023, Strauss & Co achieved an African record with the sale of another Zanzibar-period painting, Children Reading the Koran, for R22.3 / $1.227 million. 

Irma Stern Cape Girl with Fruit Estimate on request

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