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Irma the Rebel, Irma the Red

Letters from the Artist 

Absolut Art Gallery - Irma Stern's Letters

Irma Stern is perhaps the absolute epitome of South Africa’s presence within the European movement of avant garde. (Read her biography here.)

As promised, we’re going to be looking at Irma Stern’s letters and how they revealed a dislocated and magnificent turbulence of the heart — reminiscent of Van Gogh’s experience of life, love, art and identity.
Stern’s identity can perhaps painted as a dichotomy of black and white, torn as she was between her deep identification with the Africa of her birth, and her European heritage as a German Jew.

This prolific letter writer was (in a sweet serendipity) born in a post office, deep in the Northern Province of South Africa. When she was three years old, her father was incarcerated by the British for his pro-Boer perspectives, and Stern’s mother whisked her two young children away to Germany until his release. With the explosion of World War 1, the family returned to Germany yet again, where Stern confessed to having felt trapped, cloistered, claustrophic and dislocated.

“… this divided upbringing leaves one with the feeling of belonging to nowhere.” 

Upon returning more definitively to South Africa as her true home, Stern’s avant garde Expressionism caused an uproar across the country, with a police investigation triggered by charges of alleged immorality surrounding her 1922 exhibition. Nothing, however, could break this strong woman’s fierce and passionate independence, and she diligently transgressed the conservative cliches of what it meant to be an artist and woman in South Africa. She travelled prolifically. She worked like a man. And in her own words:

“My appearance is that of a well-dressed lady, but inwardly I run more and more wild.”  

With a dogged ferocity that was then considered unfeminine, she closed herself up in her studio – coffee and cigarettes her only sustenance – and worked for days. She ran her business solely on her own: framing her paintings, packaging them and arranging sales. However, beneath this almost rebellious strength, was a highly sensitive, compassionate and humble heart which carried within itself raw wounds of pain, tragedy and grief. Excerpts from letters to her friends paint an emotionally evocative picture of her.
To her friend Max Pechstein, she wrote:

“You have made me so contented, so eager to work and happy, with a few words you cast down all the dark hours of despair and inner conflict.”  And after her first solo show: “I really can’t tell you over the telephone how grateful I am to you for all the good things you have done for me! I am truly always aware of it – how wonderfully you have helped me along – how you showed me what is true and good in my work and what is empty phrasing, and then how you have helped me with other people, have smoothed the path for me. For I know what human impediments you have cleared from my way through your interest in my work!”

(In a tender gesture of grateful reciprocation, Stern sent Pechstein food parcels during the war.)

After the war, she vowed never to return to Germany, writing to her childhood friend, Trude Bosse, 

“I have buried the past … It hurts more than one thinks. A country, its well-disposed people – all of this into a mass grave. Everything that comes from Germany is like a bygone century to me, like the echo of a sunken world.”

Art historians and theorists have judged, some harshly  and some more compassionately, Stern’s character, identity and heart – like Neville Dubow and Marion Arnold who said Stern was “quite highly talented, though sexually frustrated, emotionally drained, humanely ambivalent, politically disinterested and suspect.” And that her work was “the vent of a physically unattractive, unloved and unhappy woman” Perhaps more realistically, German curator Irene Below acknowleged Stern as “a sensitive, acutely observant, qualified artist who, from childhood, came to grips with her life and her experiences in two extremely different worlds.” 

Her boldly vibrant and exuberant colours antithetically mirror her dirtier, mournful colours  — like a self-portrait. Unlike her South African and European contemporaries who painted portraits of themselves in abundance (like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin and Frida Kahlo) Stern declined. Why? 

We’ll be talking about this enigma of a woman on our Facebook page – and would love to hear what you think the answer might be. Click here to join the conversation!



  • Google “Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Irma Stern by Claudia B Braude” for deeper insights into Irma Stern’s life and work.
  • And click here to read more about her by acclaimed UCT art academic, Clive Kellner.