Exhibition Archive: Irma Stern Nudes, 1916–1965
Curated by Prof. Michael Godby
The exhibition was accompanied by a substantial catalogue written by curator Michael Godby and published by Primavera Publishing under the title Irma Stern Nudes, 1916 – 1965.
The catalogue is available at the UCT Irma Stern Museum or online at Clarke’s Bookshop.
*Chapter 5: In this chapter of the catalogue, Godby considers Irma Stern’s approach to depicting African nudes.
About the exhibition
The painter, sculptor, printmaker and draughtsperson Irma Stern is central to the canon of South African art. From at first being derided and misunderstood in her early career to an internationally celebrated mid- and late-career, Stern’s art continues to be a noted part of South Africa’s cultural heritage.
The UCT Irma Stern Museum is excited to host the exhibition ‘Irma Stern Nudes, 1916–1965’, curated by Michael Godby. Well known for his rigorously researched overview exhibitions, Godby in this show turns his focus to the subject of the depiction of the nude in Irma Stern’s work. In a comprehensive survey of nudes in the Irma Stern Trust’s collection, housed in the UCT Irma Stern Museum, and some important loans, Godby traces Irma Stern’s shifting approaches to this subject, tying it in with not only her development as an artist and idiosyncratic approach to life, but also exploring Irma Stern’s paintings, drawings, sketches and sculptures of nudes as echoes of wider socio-political trends.
Stern’s nudes may be seen as a response to a subject that traditionally was made by and for men. And, at some level, Stern’s nudes undoubtedly reflect her understanding of herself as a woman and her attraction to early feminist thought.
Irma Stern’s art training in Berlin included the academic tradition of the nude, but this idealised image was soon challenged by the Expressionists who argued that women were not simply passive objects of beauty but should be understood to be active, even disruptive forces in society. Stern adopted this radical new approach.
In much of her work, Stern re-interpreted the subject of the nude subject as active, physically strong women, staged in dynamic poses. The nudes Stern painted late in her career, based on her experiences on the beaches of the French Riviera, seem to reflect a freedom from convention and inhibition that makes them celebrations of non-idealised naked bodies.
Whilst these celebratory works can be seen to challenge a male gaze and exoticisation of the female body, Stern’s approach to depicting non-Western and particularly African bodies is an exceptionally complex subject. Stern identified semi-naked rural people in Zululand and elsewhere as examples of a natural life that should serve as an example to Europe. She thus saw these nude depictions of Africans as a rejection of what she identified as the spent force of a decadent West. But in doing so, Stern herself creates a problematic image of an exoticising primitive African idyll.
In these works, as in different ways throughout her life, Irma Stern was using the nude to project her own desires onto the world, not least in her old age as her body became subject to protracted illnesses and she became desperately overweight.
For the exhibition Irma Stern Nudes, 1916-1965, Irma Stern’s images of nudes were installed throughout the Museum, using juxtapositions with Irma Stern’s furniture and collections to emphasise a range of sub-themes. The exhibition showed many works that have seldomly – and in some cases never – been exhibited in public before.
The exhibition was held 26th May 2021 – 14th July 2021 and is accompanied by the catalogue Irma Stern Nudes, 1916–1965, published by Primavera Publishing.