AboutThroughout her life, Irma Stern depicted nudes to give visual form to her own views and feelings.
The nude was a respected subject in European art for over four hundred years. ‘Nude’ is different from ‘naked’ – which means simply not wearing clothes – in that it was understood to represent the height of beauty, perfect and ideal.
Irma Stern’s 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 new realistic approach while continuing to portray versions of the ideal nude from time to time to represent abstract ideas like ‘Contemplation’ or ‘Motherhood’. She also took on the Expressionist idea that European civilization had become degenerate and could only be redeemed by returning to nature.
Back in South Africa at the end of her training, Stern identified semi-naked rural people in Zululand and elsewhere – that she actually called ‘nudes’ – as examples of a natural life that should serve as an example to Europe.
Irma Stern, therefore, problematized the academic subject of the nude. And, when she did create images within the formal tradition of the nude, she re-interpreted her subject as a woman, confident in her powers as an artist. The nudes of Stern’s middle years are active, physically strong women, staged in dynamic poses, and with vital surface textures of broad brushstrokes and contrasting colours. As with her Still Lifes, Irma Stern’s nudes of this time are amongst her most powerful works.
Stern’s later nudes become gradually more abstract: they borrow from art history to present the idea of sensuality indirectly. Her final nudes, based on her experiences on the beaches of the French Riviera, seem to celebrate the freedom from convention and inhibition that may be associated with nudity rather than the nude body itself. In these works, as in different ways throughout her life, Irma Stern was using the nude to project her own desires onto the world.
The CuratorWell known for his rigorously researched overview exhibitions, Michael Godby, who previously explored still lifes, landscape and domestic interior painting, now turns his focus to the subject of the nude. In a comprehensive survey of nudes in the museum's collection 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.
The images of nudes will be hung throughout the museum, using juxtapositions with Irma Stern’s furniture and collections to emphasise a range of sub-themes.