Thursday 19 November 2009

Irma Stern

Thanks to a generous benefactor I had wheels on Saturday so I went for a little drive around. I stopped in Chelsea Village in Wynberg for a stroll and then I went to the Irma Stern Museum, which is now part of the University of Cape Town campus.

Irma Stern was a South African artist whose work perched her between Europe and Africa and who was, first, acclaimed in Europe before winning acceptance in her homeland.

The Museum is in the house where she lived. Looking at Irma Stern’s paintings in her house was a joy. No sterile white walls here. Anyone who paints her house in red, green, yellow, purple, blue gets my immediate sympathy.

I liked, very much, seeing where she had painted walls, doors and furniture – as though her painting slipped off the easel and spilled out into its surroundings. She also created signs and illustrations for books. Shelves full of the objects she collected, her books and interesting furniture give you a sense of her personality.

And I liked her work. Some of the portraits (especially of women) are a bit too stylised for my liking (can they all really have had such elegant, elongated cheekbones?) – but I like the way they stare at you from their frames.

And yes, there is something unmistakably African about them – enhanced by the fact that they’re displayed surrounded by art and artefacts Irma Stern collected on her travels through Southern Africa, the Congo and Zanzibar.

I know it’s not always possible, but the Irma Stern Museum makes a good argument for preserving artists’ houses as places to show their work. It’s just good sense.

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