Irma Stern and the Racial Para­dox of South African Mod­ern Art: Audac­i­ties of Color

  • Review
By – August 23, 2021

LaN­i­tra M. Berger’s study of South African painter Irma Stern is both a time­ly and a fas­ci­nat­ing tale. Irma Stern and the Racial Para­dox of South African Mod­ern Art fol­lows white Jew­ish artist, Irma Stern (18941966), from her youth spent in Ger­many through the gen­e­sis of her laud­ed artis­tic career in South Africa and abroad, and then to her polar­iz­ing legacy.

The first sec­tion of the book fol­lows Stern, who was born in the Schweiz­er-Reneke region of the Trans­vaal, South Africa, to Ger­man Jew­ish par­ents, becom­ing inter­est­ed in paint­ing dur­ing the rise of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism as a teenag­er in Berlin under the tute­lage of painter Max Pech­stein. There, Berg­er locates Stern with­in a move­ment of artists con­cerned with the polit­i­cal and curi­ous about non-West­ern visu­al tropes and com­mu­ni­ties. In these ear­ly years, Pech­stein encour­aged Stern to engage with pol­i­tics and pur­sue her inter­est in paint­ing sub­jects with brazen col­or. The expe­ri­ences of com­ing of age in Berlin, sur­round­ed by an ide­al­ized con­cep­tion of Africa, along with the artist’s youth in South Africa, would con­verge in her work as she bal­anced her audience’s expec­ta­tions for imagery of Black Africans togeth­er with her actu­al inter­ac­tions with local Black peo­ple in the Trans­vaal. This para­dox, art­ful­ly nav­i­gat­ed by Berg­er, would con­tin­ue to char­ac­ter­ize Stern’s sto­ried career as she nav­i­gat­ed her suc­cess and the ris­ing racial ten­sions in South Africa as an era of apartheid dawned.

In addi­tion to high­light­ing Stern’s com­plex, ques­tion­able stance on race and the devel­op­ing state-sanc­tioned racism in South Africa through­out the 1920s through the 1940s, Berg­er weaves Stern’s fas­ci­nat­ing rela­tion­ship to her Jew­ish her­itage into this nar­ra­tive as well. Set against the back­drop of fierce­ly ris­ing anti­semitism dur­ing the inter­war peri­od fol­lowed by World War II and the Holo­caust, Stern con­sid­ered her Judaism sim­i­lar­ly to how she con­sid­ered issues of race. Both con­cerns man­i­fest robust­ly in her work; how­ev­er, when direct­ly asked, Stern kept a sur­pris­ing­ly reserved stance on the issues. Despite paint­ing Jew­ish friends and social­ly con­scious works (both, Berg­er advis­es, can be under­stood as mark­ers of Stern’s com­mit­ment to Judaism), Stern con­tin­ued to sup­port the Afrikan­er eth­nic Nation­al­ist Par­ty despite its Nazi sym­pa­thies and staunch racism, both of which were con­demned broad­ly by South Africa’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Sim­i­lar­ly, despite paint­ing rich and mov­ing por­traits of Black peo­ple through­out the African con­ti­nent, Stern pub­licly main­tained her sup­port of apartheid in South Africa and the dehu­man­iza­tion of Black people.

Despite the com­plex­i­ty of the life, work, and voice of Irma Stern, Berg­er adept­ly bal­ances the artist’s sta­tus as a fron­trun­ner in South African mod­ernism with her minor­i­ty sta­tus as a woman, a Jew, and an artist who, whether inten­tion­al­ly or not, cre­at­ed pro­found and pow­er­ful images of Black peo­ple at a time when and in a loca­tion where their human­i­ty was dis­put­ed. Berg­er brings the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry of a com­pli­cat­ed Jew­ish artist dur­ing the rise of both mod­ernism and apartheid to an audi­ence most like­ly unaware of her exis­tence. The book is a must-read for all those who con­sid­er issues of memo­ri­al­iza­tion, remem­brance, and rev­er­ence to be cen­tral in cre­at­ing equi­table arts and soci­eties today.

Han­nah Kres­sel is a cur­rent fel­low at the Pardes Insti­tute of Jew­ish Stud­ies in Jerusalem. She holds a Mas­ters in Art His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford and a Bach­e­lors in Art His­to­ry and Stu­dio Art from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. Her research exam­ines the inter­sec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art, food, and reli­gion. She is an avid bak­er and cook.

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