Irma Stern’s portrait painting of a young Cape Malay woman titled The Red Dress leads Bonhams The South African Sale that will also include artworks by famous South African artists. Image: Bonhams
LONDON- The Red Dress, a bold and colorful painting by one of South Africa’s most celebrated artists Irma Stern, will highlight The South African Sale at Bonhams on September 13. Executed in 1949 when Stern was at the height of her powers, The Red Dress is estimated at £250,000-300,000.
The Red Dress is a sensitive depiction of a young Cape Malay woman. Sitting in a chair, the woman poses as if waiting for a lover late for a date. Irma Stern gives character to the woman whose expression seems aged with anger using bold black strokes that accentuate her mood. She balances the woman’s vibrant cadmium red dress with dabs of red on the woman’s nose and forehead. Even as she gives authority to the saturated red, Stern calms the painting with contrasting blues, greens, and grays on the background and scarf.
There is a boldness about The Red Dress that gives credence to why Irma Stern is one of the top selling South African artists. Her bold black strokes exude artistic confidence that came with years of practice. In 2011, Stern’s Arab Priest achieved an astonishing £3,044,000 during Bonhams auctions, a record for the artist.
Beyond Stern’s dexterous rendition of the woman, the painting also points to a connection between the painter and her model. Bonhams Director of South African Art, Giles Peppiatt identified that connection when he explained that the portrait derives much of its power from the artist’s empathy for her sitter:
Although she spent much of her life in South Africa, Irma Stern felt unsettled by Capetonian high society and always viewed herself as something of an outsider. She spent many years traveling and was fascinated by the different cultures she encountered. At a time when the sitter would have been viewed as a second-class citizen, The Red Dress demonstrates a sympathy and mutual understanding between the white European artist and her subject.
In addition to Irma Stern’s The Red Dress, The South African Sale will also include works by Jacob Pierneef, a celebrated landscape painter. His depiction of Hartbeespoort Dam is expected to do well at the auction. Executed in 1946, Hartbeespoort Dam is a revision of one of the artist’s most important compositions: a panel from his career-defining commission for the Johannesburg railway station.
The South African Sale will also include Congolese Maid, a painting by Gerard Sekoto. It is estimated at £30,000-50,000. Bonhams currently holds the world record for the sale of Sekoto’s work. His Yellow Houses, District Six sold for £602,400 in 2011. Also expected to feature prominently at the auction is The Interrogation Room by Robert Griffiths Hodgins. The painting is estimated at £20,000-25,000.
Although The South African Sale will include works by other celebrated South Africa artists, the focus remains on The Red Dress by Irma Stern. It is expected to auction record. The sale will be at Bonhams’ New Bond Street saleroom.