Still Life with African Woman, a work by South African ​expressionist Irma Stern, fetched R17,6-million at an art auction in London on Wednesday.
The Bonhams London’s biannual South African sale was dominated by Stern once again, with nine of her paintings on sale. African Woman, in a replica Zanzibari frame, fetched the top price of £962 500.
The lot comprising 128 South African artworks fetched a total of £2.4-millon (about R44-million)​, including ​two paintings by Alexis Preller​.​ ​
​Both works were inspired by ​Preller’s​ international travels: The Creation of Adam II sold for £326 500 (R6-million), was motivated by the artist’s visit to Greece, while Pirogues, Beau Vallon, which sold for £122 000 (R2,2- million), depicts a scene from the Seychelles, which he visited in 1948.
The Kitchen Table, a work by Gerard Sekoto, South Africa’s leading black artist, sold for £158 500 (R2,9-million). ​
​”This painting reveals more than a simple kitchen interior; it expresses the deep familial bond that exists between the sitters,” said Hannah O’Leary, head of South African Art at Bonham’s.”By emphasising their humanity, Sekoto encourages us to empathise with these figures and recognise the injustice of their situation.”
​ In March 2011, Bonhams achieved a record auction price for any South African work of art when Stern’s Arab Priest (1945) fetched R17,2-million. Her Two Arabs sold for R21,1-million at a South African auction held by Strauss&Co in 2011, making it the highest price ever fetched by a South African painting.
Born in 1894 in South Africa to German-Jewish emigres, Stern studied art in Germany and settled in Cape Town in the 1920s. Though her early work was dismissed, by the time of her death in 1966, Stern was the country’s most acclaimed artist, though interest had tapered off internationally.
Stern’s portraiture is characterised by its diversity,​ O’Leary ​explains on Bonhams’ website​​ . “Her oeuvre includes representations of Africans, Arabs, Europeans, Malays and Indians. A constant traveller, Stern was motivated by her interest in different cultures. Her attention to her sitters’ dress and jewellery highlight their distinct ethnic identities.
“Although widely acclaimed for their sensual quality, Stern’s portraits have been criticised for reinforcing racial and gender stereotypes, reducing her sitters to exotic curiosities. However, one can argue that Stern’s differentiation between her Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi subjects (among others), reveals her interest in them as individuals.”
Still Life with African Woman is, ​O’Leary says, “a telling example of Stern’s concerted transition into modernity, not only within her art, but also within herself”. The subject is culturally demonstrative and traditional, but Stern has also imbued her with “an undeniable modernity and a sexuality rarely seen in her pre-War works”.