January 21, 2011
While Irma Stern still holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a South African painting on home soil, achieved when her Gladioli sold for R13 368 000 at Strauss & Co’s October 2010 auction, two paintings are competing for the top honours at Strauss & Co’s March 2011 auction.
Stern’s Lemon Pickers (R10 000 000 — 15 000 000) is one
of her the most exciting paintings to come to the market in recent
years. Not only is it of exceptional quality but it is a very early
work painted in 1928 that confirms Stern as a unique and pioneering
artist amongst her peers. The painting effectively describes Stern’s
vision of an idyllic and unspoilt paradise. An oft-quoted remark by her
— “I fled from burning Europe into a land of strong colours” —
illuminates the passions that drove her. Like Paul Gauguin she sought a
fantastic and exotic alternative to conventional European culture.
By contrast, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s Extensive Landscape Northern Transvaal
(R10 000 000 — 15 000 000) bears all the hallmarks of his mature style.
This typical bushveld scene near Polokwane in Limpopo Province is
transformed through the artist’s unique vision. A panoramic view
highlights the soaring heights of the blue sky and the phenomenal
breadth of the landscape with impressive splendour, accentuating the
enduring aspects of nature despite seasonal changes.
Two paintings of Delphiniums allow for a comparison of Irma Stern’s
handling of similar subjects in diverse media. While the earlier
gouache (R900 000 — 1 200 000) employs pastel tonalities to achieve
tranquil effects, the oil painting (R10 000 000 — 12 000 000) produced
four years later emphasises the strong contrasts of complementary
colours in a composition that is energised with vitality and drama.
Stern was at the height of her powers when she painted Still Life with Camellias (R3 000 000 — 4 000 000) in 1940, Still Life of Roses and Apples (R7 000 000 — 9 000 000) in 1944 and Grand Canal, Venice (R4 000 000 — 6 000 000) in 1948. As the late Professor Neville Dubow maintained in his monograph on the artist:
The point is simply this: in the period between the First and Second
World Wars, Irma Stern’s work achieved a peak of excellence that could
stand comparison with representational paintings anywhere else in the
West. … judged purely by the yardstick of dynamic painting —
perceptual and sensual, rather than conceptual and intellectual, sheer
picture-making, in fact — one could claim international stature for her
work of the 1940s. Nationally … there was no one to touch her in
terms of her impact on the local scene.
Pieter Wenning’s Claremont, CP (R800 000 — 1 200 000) and
Keerom Street, Cape Town (R700 000 — 900 000) provide us with two
complementary views of early Cape Town: one of the typically rustic
suburbs and the other of a modern city in the early twentieth century
while Maggie Laubser’s Oestyd (R400 000 — 600 000) creates a pastoral idyll of landscape and rural workers evocative of the Malmesbury area where she grew up.
Alexis Preller’s Gold Kouros (R1 800 000 — 2 200 000) is
infused with his love of Greek culture and of the perfect male form,
calling to mind the timelessness of antiquity. In The Patio, Nerja (R600
000 — 900 00) Stanley Pinker captures the pleasurable experience of
this Spanish coastal resort with the sensuous elegance typical of many
French artists like Matisse. Freida Lock’s legendary Bohemian lifestyle
and her love of exotic objects are brought to life with typical flare
in Two Coffee Pots (R700 000 — 1 000 000), evoking Syrian
traditions of brewing and serving cardamom coffee. As Walter Battiss
proclaimed “The freshness of all Freida Lock’s still life paintings has
brought about a new appreciation of this art in South Africa”.
Christo Coetzee’s Et in Arcadia Ego (R120 000 — 160 000)
celebrates Poussin’s famous painting, the rose windows of Notre Dame and
the cycles of life while evoking the retro-chic Paris of the fifties
and sixties. William Kentridge’s drawings (R180 000 — 240 000 and R180
000 — 220 000), related to the film Stereoscope, suggest free-floating
associations and assert what the artist has called “a sense of both
contradictory and complementary parallel parts of oneself”.
South African photographers continue to achieve international acclaim
and yet are seldom collected here with sufficient seriousness. Now
collectors can choose from a Goldblatt hand print from his In Boksburg essay (R70 000 — 90 000), a Zwelethu Mthethwa from his Sugar Cane series (R50 000 — 70 000), a Mikhael Subotzky from his Beaufort West series
(R40 000 — 60 000) or a pair of Andrew Putter’s stunning still lifes
from the Hottentots Holland: Flora Capensis series (R25 000 — 35 000