AboutMadeira is a small autonomous Portuguese island 500 Kilometres off the coast of Morocco, but it featured large in Irma Stern’s life. Stern’s parents were German-born and the Stern family frequently travelled back to Europe: the commonest shipping route went past Madeira, so that Irma Stern as child and early adult would already have known the island.
In 1931, Stern spent three months in Madeira, possibly with the dual motive of finding new subject matter and trying to escape her troubled marriage to Johannes Prinz, from whom she was divorced by 1934.
Stern returned to Madeira twice more, in 1950 and 1963, and exhibited some of the works created in Madeira in a 1964 solo exhibition at the South African Association of Arts Gallery in Cape Town (now the AVA Gallery).
Stern celebrated the colours of Madeira and idealised what she saw as the simple island life of Madeirans. Having said that, the paintings of her first visit seem claustrophobic and tumultuous in their colour choice and brushwork. Perhaps this is an expression of the depression she suffered at the time. Authors such as Marion Arnold and Gerhard Schoeman also interpret this sense of claustrophobia and anguish in the work as reflecting the oppression Irma Stern felt as a Jew and a woman in the dominantly Catholic and traditionally patriarchal society of Madeira.
Stern even wrote a thinly disguised autobiographical short story titled Nuna Porta, the story of persecution (1932), in which the heroine faces rejection by local people and ultimately suffers a nervous breakdown.