Lost painting by Stern recalls one of South Africa’s greatest musicians

Strauss & Co have announced their discovery of the subject of one of the Stern paintings up for sale at their next auction: Vera Poppé, a well-known musician. Emma Bedford, Senior Paintings Specialist at Strauss & Co, elaborates.

From the Press Release: “The publicity we have put out forthis remarkable painting by Irma Stern has elicited response in enabling us toidentify the sitter — a distinguished, if not one of the greatest South Africanmusicians ever.Vera Poppé (1885-1968) was one of the most brilliantcellists of her day. ThroughoutLondon, New York, Chicago and several European cities she was celebrated bycritics who acclaimed her dazzling performances. After a stellar career this Cape Town-born cellist ofRussian descent returned to her home town during the war years. It was at a performance at Ben andCecilia Jaffe’s home, The Boltons in Hermitage Avenue, Rosebank that Poppéplayed to an audience that included Irma Stern. The artist was so inspired by the cellist’s performance thatshe produced this vivid painting, capturing so much of the gifted musician’sextraordinary impact.Poppé gained the university certificate with honoursat an early age, won the South African University scholarship for music andwent on to the Royal Academy of Music in London. After completing the course and visiting Paris, she made herdebut in London. Engagements assoloist with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall, the Queen’s HallOrchestra, the Cardiff Orchestral Society and many others, followed in the1920s.At the Orchestral Hall, Chicago, she proved theartistic delight of the evening. According to Mr W. L. Hubbard of the ChicagoDaily Tribune, “the rich, full, true tone she draws from her instrument,the technical finish and precision characterize all she does, and the musicaltaste, feeling and intelligence she displays make her a player of uncommonlyattractive powers. In short, VeraPoppé possesses every mechanical requirement plus the divine spark”.Across Europe and America she played to rapturousapplause with many an audience calling for encores. In Petrograd, Russia, Alexandre Glazonow declared, “VeraPoppé has a natural musical talent, a splendid schooling that can be seen inher technique; her tone is powerful, masculine, and very beautiful; herrenditions are full of expression and temperament”.This remarkable painting by Irma Stern, hidden frompublic view for over forty years, has only recently come to light and will gounder the hammer on Monday 16 May in Strauss & Co’s Evening Sale of Important South African Art to be held at theCountry Club Johannesburg, Woodmead. With her astute eye for capturing the essentials, the artisthas portrayed a woman playing her cello in such a way that she appears toenvelop the instrument, transforming the musician and cello into onewhole. Her head leans forward andher body hunches over the instrument so that all attention is focused on herhands — the left hand with fingers arched to achieve the perfect chord and theright hand elegantly drawing the bow across the strings.Her sensitively painted face is a study in concentratedenergy while her taut body is draped in a golden gown with warm tones and fluidbrushstrokes evoking the flow of music. The result is a strong cultural statement forging the sublime sounds ofmusic with the dynamism and vigour of one of South Africa’s finest painters.The cello is most closely associated withEuropean classical music and has been described as the closest soundinginstrument to the human voice. From Bach’s Baroque works for the cello through Classical concertos by Haydn and Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and pianoforte to the Romantic repertoires of Schumann, Dvořák and Brahms and twentieth-century compositions by Elgar, Debussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten, the cello has been a critical part oforchestral music.Stern was at the height of her powers as an artistwhen she produced this painting in 1943. As leading academic, art critic and former Director of the Irma SternMuseum, Neville Dubow, maintained: The point is simply this: in the periodbetween the First and Second World Wars, Irma Stern’s work achieved a peak ofexcellence that could stand comparison with representational paintings anywhereelse in the West. … judgedpurely by the yardstick of dynamic painting — perceptual and sensual, ratherthan conceptual and intellectual, sheer picture-making, in fact — one couldclaim international stature for her work of the 1940s. Nationally … there was no one totouch her in terms of her impact on the local scene.”