Irma Stern is one of South Africa’s most famous artists, and has deep ties to Cape Town. The Irma Stern Museum is located in the quiet suburb of Rosebank, and was also this talented woman’s home before she passed away in 1966.
Stern was born in 1894 to German Jewish parents at Schweizer-Reneke, a small town in the North West Province of South Africa. Here, her father established a trading store and cattle farm. Stern’s father was interned during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) because of his pro-Boer sympathies, while Stern and her brother were taken to Cape Town by their mother. After his release, the family went to Germany and began to travel regularly – something the budding artist would continue to do throughout her life.
“Intermittent periods of her childhood were spent in South Africa, however, the years of the First World War (1914-1918) were based in Germany. Irma Stern decided to become an artist, studying in Berlin and Weimer. Through the support of the Expressionist Max Pechstein her first solo exhibition was held in Berlin in 1916, yet on returning permanently to South Africa her work was initially derided,” reads the Irma Stern Museum website.
Stern travelled extensively in Europe and explored South Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo. These trips provided a wide range of subject matter for her paintings and gave her opportunities to acquire and assemble an eclectic collection of artefacts for her beloved Cape Town home.
She acquired a home named ‘The Firs’ in Rosebank in 1927, and it remained her home until her death in 1966. This residence became the Irma Stern Museum in 1971. It was established by Trustees of her estate and is administered by the University of Cape Town (UCT).
The Museum aims to promote an understanding and appreciation of the life, work and travels of Stern by displaying a collection of her art and artefacts in the domestic setting of her home.
The collection shows Stern’s development as an artist, who worked as a painter, sculptor and ceramist.
“Her life-long interest in depicting people is evident in the predominance of portraits and exotic figures interspersed with lush landscapes and vibrant still lifes,” reads Museum records. “Her two illustrated journals published of travels undertaken in Zanzibar and the Congo vividly convey her experiences, while the private writings in German kept during the period (1917-1933) were translated into English and published posthumously, provide another insight into her personality.”
Her method of working in her studio demanded “intense concentration”. She often put up a sign saying “Do not disturb” and proceeded to paint while chainsmoking and drinking strong black coffee. She generally framed her own work, packed exhibitions and arranged sales herself.
“Her style evolved over the years. A very versatile artist, she worked in a range of media including oils, water colour, gouache, charcoal as well as ceramics and sculpture. Often the outline of a composition was delineated in blue. The use of thick paint sometimes applied with a palette knife creates a sense of emotional intensity expressed in the choice of subject matter, be it landscape, portrait, or still life,” continues Museum records.
Stern’s zest for life was expressed in her love of abundant colour and evident everywhere in each of the rooms in which she lived, worked and enjoyed entertaining. Visitors to the museum are able experience this uniquely furnished interior when viewing the sitting room, dining room and studio retained in the manner left by the artist.
Picture: Irma Stern Museum