Irma Stern’s ‘Zanzibar Woman’

Irma Stern’s ‘Zanzibar Woman’ sells for £1m in Bonhams SA Art Sale

Irma Stern (1894-1966) continues success with £1 million action price for oil on canvas portrait in original Zanzibar frame.

Irma Stern’s ‘Zanzibar Woman’

irma stern zanzibarThe Bonhams sale of South African art in London on Wednesday 19 March saw an Irma Stern painting titled ‘Zanzibar Woman’ break through the million pound mark to make a total of £1,082,500, placing it among the highest prices for Irma Stern’s work

The top ten paintings in this sale included another Stern painting titled ‘Istanbul’ for £326,500, three Alexis Prellers, two Pierneefs, an Alfred Neville Lewis, a George Pemba and a Stella Shawzin. In total the sale made over £2.75million.

Hannah O’Leary, Head of South African Art at Bonhams, said, “Despite the rand currently trading at its lowest rate against the pound for many years, we saw bidding on the best works as hotly contested as ever. Bonhams now holds the world record prices for all of South Africa’s most significant artists, including Irma Stern (£3,044,000), JH Pierneef (£826,400), Alexis Preller (£748,000), Gerard Sekoto (£602,400) and Stanley Pinker (£337,250) among others, thus cementing Bonhams position as the undisputed global leader in the market for South African art.”

New world record prices were set for Stella Shawzin (‘Balancing Figures II’ £76,900) and Neville Lewis (‘The peach pickers, Franschhoek’ £56,250), in both cases smashing their previous records, also set at Bonhams in London, three times over.

Irma Stern’s ‘Zanzibar Woman’, 1939, is an oil on canvas within its original Zanzibar frame, which makes it of additional interest to keen collectors of this artist’s work. This vibrant portrait in was acquired directly from the artist in the 1950s and by direct family descent to the current owner.

In the lustrous colours and vibrant brushwork of this 1939 portrait of a ‘Zanzibar Woman’, Stern’s fascination with the culture and traditions of the Spice Island comes to the fore. As Marion Arnold has suggested about this work, in keeping with the artist’s most accomplished depictions of women, it “[depicts] the sensuous interplay of warm flesh tones, dark glossy hair, rhythmic bodies and brightly coloured and patterned cloth”. However, while most “are almost invariably posed against neutral grounds that serve as the foil for the hues of their clothing…Zanzibar Woman (1939) is unusual in providing a context for the model”. Indeed the sitter is set against an urban, architectural background, with a small figure appearing above her shoulder, poised to disappear down a narrow alley.

Beyond an evocative portrait of an individual, the painting thus also offers a fleeting glimpse of the bustle of the Zanzibar streets: scenes so powerfully evoked in Stern’s prose yet largely relegated beyond the frame of her painterly preoccupations. As such, the work not only conjures up the dance of optical contrasts — reds, pinks and greens — and rhythmic brushwork for which Stern’s compositions are renowned. It also strikes up a dialogue between the traditional, interior space of the harem (to which Arab women in Zanzibar were largely confined) and the exterior space of street and bazaar, which Stern, as an outsider, was able to explore with great delight.

Along with several paintings and sketches that the artist brought back to Cape Town from her 1939 Zanzibar trip, Stern also carried several examples of the island’s elaborate lintels and carved wooden door strips (composed of repeated symbolic motifs), which she reassembled as frames for her best works. Set within this original frame, the alluring ‘Zanzibar Woman’ is a marriage of the most sought-after features of Stern’s work.