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Irma Stern and Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef Paintings for Bonhams Auction

South Africa’s leading artists, Irma Stern and Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, had very different visions of the country they both loved passionately. Stern engaged her subjects up close and personally through expressive color and brushwork, preferring the genres of still life and portraiture, while for Pierneef it was the great vistas of the African veld, rendered with an architectonic sensibility, that attracted his attention.

Bonhams’ sale of South African art on October 17 embraces this duality with a variety of strong works by each artist. Stern offers compelling images of fruit carriers, washerwomen, a rare glimpse of the backyard of her home in Rosebank, Cape Town, and a range of evocative portraits. Pierneef, on the other hand, reveals majestic landscapes (such as the Simonsberg near Stellenbosch and Kransberg near Rustenberg) with a sheer scale that is almost overwhelming. The counterpoint offered by these two very different artists – a Jewish émigré entranced by Africa’s color and inspired by its people, and an Afrikaner for whom the land was deeply invested with identity – imbues the upcoming sale with both variety and vitality.

Irma Stern painted a number of images depicting labor – carrying water, harvesting fruit – but instead of creating narratives, these are rich symphonies of color and rhythm. ‘Washer Women’ (£200,000-300,000), painted in 1925, is a case in point. The bent arms of the washer women alternate with the directional flow of the water to create a dynamism of blues, greens, whites and browns. The tall agave plants that rise from the earthy hues of this hilly landscape suggest that the scene is set in the Eastern Cape, most likely Pondoland, which Stern visited in the early 1920s.

In Stern’s image ‘Backyard’ (£120,000 to £180,000) one can see behind the white expanse of The Firs, Irma Stern’s home and studio for 38 years: a woman – presumably Stern’s housemaid – bends to retrieve another piece of laundry to hang on the line. Significantly, though the objects and interiors of The Firs can be glimpsed in several of Stern’s paintings, the external view presented by this painting is highly unusual.

Both works were included in the Irma Stern Memorial Exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1967. The exhibition, noting her acclaim in South Africa, was a formal assertion that a range of works from her dynamic career should be shown to an international audience, as described in the catalog essay:
“In South Africa she became accepted as the single most important artist born and active in the country. Indeed because of her success in South Africa, London and other major art centers were denied the opportunity of seeing her work regularly during her life time. This exhibition, therefore, whilst noting that Irma Stern was a great South African and a painter of special historical importance in her own country, makes the claim that she deserves to be seen and evaluated on a wider horizon. Here then is the first opportunity to study works covering her entire artistic life…”

In October, Bonhams will provide another opportunity to glimpse the impressive range of Stern’s career.
The South African landscape was Pierneef’s first love, as evidenced in two particularly powerful works in the upcoming sale. ‘Kransberg, Rustenburg, Transvaal’ (£300,000-500,000) was acquired directly from the artist by the Geological Survey for presentation to director Dr L.T. Nel on his retirement in 1955. Pierneef chose to paint the Kransberg mountain for its particularly geological subject matter, which he felt was appropriate for this commission. The influence of the Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings by Cézanne (1839-1906), painted towards the end of the nineteenth century, is evident here. Like the French artist, Pierneef uses the trees in the foreground as a framing device. Similar to Cézanne’s mountain, Pierneef paints a huge rock formation in the center of the work and it is this feature to which our eyes are first drawn, subtly guided by the acacia trees.

Pierneef’s ‘View in the Stellenbosch Valley, with Simonsberg and the Hottentots Holland beyond’ (£100,000-150,000) will speak to the heart of anyone who ever loved the Cape. Better known for its exquisite wine, parts of the Stellenbosch Valley were planted with tobacco and wheat during the 1950s. In this image, a combination of crops provides a pastel-hued patchwork, while beyond the fields the blue-hued Simonsberg and Hottentots Holland mountain ranges – less starkly-rendered than those of much of Pierneef’s earlier work – add to the sense of vastness in the image. An atmosphere of peace and orderliness pervades the scene, undisturbed by any signs of human presence or activity.

Despite their differing esthetic and thematic approaches, Pierneef and Stern continue to provide two of the most significant windows onto South African life and landscape in the twentieth century.