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Irma Stern: Portrait of an Early 20th Century Millennial


Denigrated by the Nazis, lauded by black intellectuals, embraced by the apartheid-era government, and fitting in everywhere and nowhere, the essence of the noted South African artist is hard to distill—and she’d probably like it that way.

She found her 18 years ago in the stacks of the Lilly Library on Duke University’s East Campus. While leafing through obscure South African auction catalogs for a class assignment, Dr. LaNitra Berger, then a doctoral student in art history, stumbled upon “Pondo Woman,” a painting by Irma Stern. Captivated by the brushwork and struck by the artist’s unusual name, Berger’s accidental discovery turned into a mission spanning nearly 20 years aimed at introducing Stern’s work to a broader audience and reaffirming her importance in larger debates about Modernism in the 20th century.

Now finalizing edits on a manuscript about Stern’s life, Berger spoke with A Women’s Thing about what makes Stern so memorable. There’s no shortage of answers: her legacy is mired in controversy. Though she was a white woman painting the black community at a time when South African artists were not drawing on it for inspiration, her modernist style has been read as both empowering and demeaning by critics of different persuasions. Her own actions were equally complex. She is quoted making objectively racist statements while associating with and providing material resources to the anti-apartheid community.

AWT: Irma Stern! She has a museum. Her work has set a record for South African art sold at auction. So why is she so interesting?

Dr. LaNitra Berger: Where to start? She was both insider and outsider. She lived an almost futuristic life. When you look at how she lived, she lived like a Millennial. She was traveling to all these different countries. Borders meant less to her than to a lot of other people. She’d go back and forth between Germany, South Africa, Europe—she traveled all throughout Africa by herself. She was [in] correspondence with lots of people around the world. She felt comfortable switching between different cultures. But she was also a woman artist trying to make a living in Cape Town in the 1920s, which was a very conservative place. It was definitely not open to a woman being a successful artist.

Maybe she didn’t want to be seen as a radical pro-black artist or pro-establishment artist. Maybe she wanted to be someone who was in the maelstrom.

She was an insider in the Jewish community, but very much an outsider in the Cape Town community. She didn’t look like most Capetonians. She was overweight and had frizzy hair—the community identified her as Jewish and therefore different, so she was an outsider from that perspective. She spent her early years in Berlin as a young artist. Her family had money and she had access to intellectual circles where she met Max Pechstein, a prominent German expressionist artist who immediately saw the value in her work and pulled her into his community. She was an outsider at first but then became an insider in that community. Then somehow she crossed paths with Alain Locke, the African-American philosopher and Rhodes Scholar, who argued that Stern’s work should be emulated by black artists in America. She gets pulled into this discussion about Modernism in black art in the United States. Throughout her life, she was viewed as both an insider and an outsider. And I think that in some ways, very few of us are only insiders or outsiders. But in her case, because of the global nature of her lifestyle, she interacted in these circles where this was very common.

AWT: Wow, so there’s no canonical Stern, so to speak?

Berger: I think that who she was really depends on the moment. When she was very famous in the 1950s during the apartheid era, she received a lot of government support for her work. She went from being considered this radical modern artist in a bad way in South Africa to being considered a modern artist with a European background— as in, European equalling white. Suddenly, she became a real insider. Then in the apartheid system, where everybody’s status was connected to their race, being Jewish put her many rungs above colored and black South Africans. She [moved] in and out constantly. It tells us a lot about how everybody makes this journey. For someone who was born in 1894, she lived through all the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. If you track her through time you can see how she was pulled in and out of these major political moments in Africa, Europe, and the United States.

Irma Stern is not someone you can fall head-over-heels in love with and then forget to be critical.

Maybe she foresaw where she really wanted to be. Maybe she didn’t want to be seen as a radical pro-black artist or pro-establishment artist. Maybe she wanted to be someone who was in the maelstrom. To an extent, her personality was big. She was a very flamboyant woman who loved good food, extravagant meals, beautiful furniture— all the trappings of a wealthy and successful artist. She, in some ways, wanted people to be combative and talk about her and her work, and how she fit in. If you were to resurrect her, she would probably say that this is exactly what she’d want.

AWT: How do you use Stern’s life in your teaching?

Berger: We all have these internal contradictions in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes it’s hardest to admit to ourselves that these things lie within us, and it’s easy for us to judge someone like Stern and say she’s a racist because of what she said. Others say she did people a favor by painting minorities. She’s even criticized for how she fit in with the Jewish community. These types of contradictions are in all of us. I’m glad I picked this topic because Irma Stern is not someone you can fall head-over-heels in love with and then forget to be critical. I’ve enjoyed reading about her life and thinking about her life because it helps me to constantly remember that I have these contradictions too—and that it’s important for me to not judge other people without peeling back the layers.

That’s something I’ve carried with me personally into life, having worked on this topic for so long and as an instructor. It’s how I teach my classes. When I mentor my students, I talk to them about how difficult it is to reach across the aisle, to sit next to someone different, to move to a neighborhood where not everyone looks like you. These are really hard things to do even though they’re tiny steps. They’re difficult! If we can acknowledge that and push ourselves, while living with these contradictions and accepting them, I think that we would see that people could at least acknowledge other people’s humanity a bit more.

Congolese Woman, Irma Stern, 1942
Three Swazi Girls, Irma Stern, 1925

When you look at someone like Stern, see the paintings of these women, they’re just stunning. You can see that she just felt something when she went out to these areas and painted them. There’s some kind of emotional connection there. Regardless of what she said publicly, she felt a sense of belonging when she went and painted these subjects. That’s moving. They gave her something she felt she wasn’t getting in the white community in Cape Town. That means a lot to me when I think about her and how she fits into the canon of South African art and the canon of women artists.

It doesn’t excuse the statements she made. I’m not making excuses. She made choices and participated in a system that horribly discriminated against women, oppressed women, murdered women, tortured women, and contributed to decades—if not centuries—worth of racial inequality. That’s just not acceptable. But for one person, an artist who was living in a difficult time and was trying to make sense of one particular thing—in this case, race and gender during apartheid—Irma Stern did some very complex work in her paintings.

AWT: Tell me how you think memory plays into the work of Stern.

Berger: Memory is a convenient way and inconvenient way to think about Stern. Where and who you are in the world will affect how you see Irma Stern. She fits no easy narrative.