A stirring Irma Stern portrait of a Watussi woman, painted on Stern’s second trip to the Belgian Congo in 1946, leads Strauss & Co’s impressive offering of historical paintings at its spring sale in Cape Town.
The widely exhibited painting, valued at R9 to 12 million, will go on sale at the Vineyard Hotel, Newlands, on October 7 along with three portraits by Maggie Laubser and a diverse selection of works by JH Pierneef .
Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director, said: “Irma Stern and JH Pierneef are bellwethers of the South African auction market. Since 2009, when we began trading, Strauss & Co has achieved R630 million in sales from just these two artists.
“We are especially honoured to be offering the historically important Stern portrait.”
Started on the shores of Lake Kivu during Stern’s second visit to the Great Lakes region, the portrait was completed in 1946 at her studio in Cape Town. Stern cut short her trip aft er suffering a bout of malaria.
Unlike Stern’s previous oils of Watussi nobility in ceremonial regalia, painted during an earlier visit in 1942, her painting A Watussi Woman with Mountains depicts a confident young woman in traditional Rwandan dress.
Stern’s vibrant portrait was exhibited twice in Europe. According to the art historian Marion Arnold, Stern’s Paris exhibition was a roaring success, bringing her “widespread interest and eulogistic comment in French art publications”.
Art specialist Matt hew Partridge said: “The impeccable provenance of Watussi Woman with Mountains which includes notable British scientist and philosopher Dr RL Worrall and Count Natale Labia, among others, attests to Stern’s universal desirability, and provides unique biographical dimension to the painting.”
The Pierneef offerings on Strauss & Co’s October sale also attest to the power of travel in energising artistic practice. In 1926, Pierneef returned to Pretoria from an extensive European tour with plans to “shock” art connoisseurs with his new style.
Part of a consignment of five paintings from the Collection of a Lady, Gold & Green, Rooiplaat, NT (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) is a neo-impressionist wonder that depicts the artist’s beloved Rooiplaat with short, wriggling strokes of pure colour, notably mauve, teal, pink and yellow.
This particular consignment also includes two early oils of willow trees, the dominant motif of Pierneef’s early career, as well as the dazzling and self-assured Tall Trees in a Mountain Landscape (R500 000 – 700 000).
Other notable Pierneef lots on this sale include the majestic 1943 work Near Thabazimbi, Tvl (estimate R2 – 3 million), which features a mountain landscape dominated in the foreground by geometrically stylised camelthorn trees.
A contemporary of Stern and Pierneef, Maggie Laubser is represented by two early portraits of female sitt ers. Painted in 1922, Portrait of a Young Girl (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) reveals Laubser’s technical prowess working in a more academic style, while Weemoed (Melancholy), (estimate R 800 000 – 1 200 000) exhibits a more expressionist approach, notably in her use of colour work.
Laubser ranks with Stern, Pierneef, Alexis Preller and William Kentridge among the top five artists sold by Strauss & Co. All five are represented on the October sale.