Irma Stern (1894-1966) was a pre-eminent South African painter, draughtsman, ceramicist and collector. An extraordinary product of dual heritage, she was situated in the traditions of the European Jewish community and the developments of modern Western art but inspired by her experiences in South Africa, Stern was a uniquely positioned artist, who produced works with a remarkable synthesis of cultures yet formed by a singularly individual outlook.
Irma Stern was born in a small village in South Africa in 1894 to German-Jewish parents, who had moved to Africa in 1886. Irma and her family returned frequently to Berlin, where they had strong family connections, and in 1912 Irma Stern settled in Berlin for her artistic studies, first at the Weimar Academy and then at the Levin-Funcke studio in Berlin. In 1917 she met Max Pechstein (1881-1955) a leading member of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke, an important influence in the new-found dynamic sense of formal qualities and bold use of colour in her work from this date onwards. Between 1918 and 1920 galleries around Berlin accepted several of Stern's works, and she had her first solo exhibition in 1919 at the Fritz Gurlitt gallery. In 1920 she returned to Cape Town, having her first show in South Africa at the Ashbey Gallery. Stern achieved great prominence in both South Africa and abroad, with highly positive receptions to her exhibitions in Europe and Africa. She was awarded the Prix d'Honneur at the Bordeaux Exhibition in 1927 and was selected to represent South Africa at the Empire Art Exhibition in London in 1929. Travels to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945 and to the Congo in 1942 amongst many other expeditions into the heart of the African countryside provided inspiration for her evocative and powerful studies of the African people and way of life.
Stern was the recipient of numerous awards in her lifetime including the Molteno Grant for outstanding work (1952), the Guggenheim Foundation National Award for South Africa (1960), the Oppenheimer Award (1963) and the Medal of Honor of Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (1965). She was also selected to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1958. Stern was a prolific artist and exhibitor, with shows throughout her lifetime and beyond in South Africa and Europe. She was also a vociferous collector of art and artefacts and her home and collection in Cape Town became the Irma Stern Museum in 1972. Her work is held in public and private collections around the world, and her works command significant, increasingly record-breaking prices for South African art.