South African artist Irma Stern acquired a reputation for wanderlust during the mid-twentieth century, painting her way through innumerable African countries after her first exhibition in Berlin in 1919. (Stern, born in Transvaal to German-Jewish immigrants, refused to show in Germany between 1933 and 1945, instead traveling through Zanzibar, Senegal and the Congo.) Her paintings and sculptures mostly depicted exotic faces and bodies, images that tantalized the Western art world.
And if the recent sale of her 1945 “Bahora Girl” for £2.4 million (US$3.78 million) by London’s Bonhams auction house is any indication, Stern can still cause quite a stir. The sale sets a world record auction price for South African art; some forecasters predict it might spark renewed interest in South African artists.
“Bahora Girl,” an oil on canvas, depicts a sultry-looking, young Zanzibari Indian slouched casually in her bedroom.
“Her mode of speech was so polite and well-formulated,” Stern once said of her subject, according to a Bonhams press release. “It was a lovely harmony in this young girl, slim and tall, with the gently movements of a well-bred race. Her eyes were like dark pools, swimming with the glance of tragedy curious in so young a face, yet so common in the eastern woman.”