Writing Art History Since 2002

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South African Jewish Museum Cape Town

Although a handful of well-known oil paintings, charcoal studies and gouaches are displayed at Journeys to the Interior: Unseen works by Irma Stern, 1929-1930, most of the exhibits are in no sense finished works of art. This is the first time that material from Stern’s sketchbooks has been exhibited to the public, and these ‘unseen works’ consist of rapidly dashed-off notations in pencil, ink, charcoal and gouache. Stern intended them for her private use as aides-memoires that might serve as the basis for future compositions. They depict the street life of Cape Town, the ethnic groups she encountered on her African journeys, fellow passengers she met on her cruises to Madeira and Europe, and the fishermen, sailors, peasants and flower-sellers she glimpsed in foreign ports. All appear to have been executed in situ before the motif, and they are recorded on whatever materials Stern had to hand: pages from drawing books, writing paper with the Union Castle letterhead, even snippets torn from brown paper bags.Executed with no thought of sale or exhibition, these casual jottings reveal Stern on her day off, liberated from the usual pressures, and the breezy holiday mood allows her to let go and give free reign to her impulses. Here she takes line for a walk and, in the course of these peregrinations, her draughtsmanship gains an al fresco sparkle and freshness absent from her polished studio productions. These rough sketches bring us into a far more close and intimate relationship with the artist and her creative process than the finished works. They provide a peep behind the scenes, a glimpse at the spontaneous and unfettered origins of Stern’s art. This plethora of undifferentiated visual data formed the raw material for her creations, and here we see it in its virgin state before it was processed into saleable art. Sadly the ebullient vitality of her field studies was often dissipated in the process of reworking them on a large format for public consumption. Take Stern’s highly acclaimed charcoal Native Studies, for example. In these solemn productions, she embalms her subjects in frozen poses that give them the rigid, glassy-eyed look of anthropological exhibits in a diorama. She provides a fulsome record of the ethnographic details of headgear, coiffeur, scarification and beadwork, and often the quiver of life is lost in such descriptive prolixity. The sketchbooks prove revelatory as they highlight facets of Stern’s artistic personality that never surfaced in her public art. Who would have suspected the querulous old monstre sacree possessed the skittish sense of humour and keen satiric eye? It is so evident in her quirky caricatures of a flapper lounging in a deck chair, dancing lovers in a swooning romantic clinch, and two pert matrons gossiping on deck chairs. There is also tenderness and humanity. Her affectionate sketch of two drunken sailors sleeping it off on a dockside bench is full of wry amusement. There is charm too, as her vignette of a fisherman posing with his catch, as if for a photograph, shows.One marvels at the economy and vitality of Stern’s line, her ability to convey place and atmosphere in a few deft strokes. She understood how body language expresses personality, and her merest scribble conveys the essentials of character and class. Stern was a finer draftswoman than painter. The limpid clarity and spare elegance of her large Matisse-like drawings attain a perfection that eluded her elsewhere. Drastic abbreviation slurs over the anatomical infelicities that become so glaringly apparent in her paintings. Expressionism licenses distortion, but such distortion must contribute to the mood the work seeks to evoke. Often Stern’s ‘distortions’ fail to meet this criteria and look sloppy and unresolved. In Seated Woman pose is incoherent: the subject neither sits nor stands. There is no attempt to convey foreshortening in the wizened right arm where the area from wrist to elbow becomes a mere brown daub. Stern rarely articulates fingers and hands, but surely it is inexcusable to render these as amorphous blobs in a study of a seamstress at work? Expressionism seeks to convey the artist’s response to the motif in all its passion and immediacy. Often the intensity of feeling can only be preserved by haste of execution, elision and shortcuts. Spontaneity and emotional authenticity are the goals of this aesthetic, and the succinct nature of the sketch allowed Stern to preserve these without compromising the purity of her style. Paintings require far greater elaboration, and often Stern achieved impromptu urgency and veracity of sentiment at the cost of stylistic bungle. The expressionist modus operandi explains both the deficiencies of her painting, and the unrivalled excellence of her drawings.

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