When they appear in August, dahlias are like many-petaled suns: large, round, and radiating fructiferous color. This is no flight of fancy; for centuries Mexicans (the dahlia's native country) have eaten its boiled stalks.
Irma Stern's highly personal and spontaneous responses to her subjects are typical of the expressionist style she used so vividly for her Dahlias. Stern averred that she never retouched a painting after it was finished but looking at Dahlias
we see a sophisticated harmony of color and movement. The petals move like pinwheels in motion and, although there is no objective reason for the colored stripes that bend up toward the flowers, they suggest the artist's delight in paint.
Irma Stern was born in the Transvaal of South Africa, the daughter of German Jewish parents who had emigrated to the Cape Colony before her birth in 1894. When her father was interned during the Boer War, Irma was taken to Germany by her mother Hennie to be near relatives, to return after the war's end.
At nineteen Irma Stern once again traveled to Germany to enroll at art school in Weimar but, becoming disillusioned with the teachers, she transferred to a studio in Berlin. Only when she met the expressionist painter Max Pechstein did she find the best teacher for her. By the time she returned home to South Africa at age twenty-five, she had already received her first solo exhibition in Berlin (1919).
Her first exhibition in Cape Town the next year revealed how different and provincial that city was. Instead of praise, Stern's work was ridiculed mercilessly, "Insults to human intelligence" and "Lunatic Inspirations" being just two of the denunciations that appeared in print. There was even a police investigation of what some perceived as obscenity.
Another sign of the provincial sense of inferiority was the volte face by critics and the public that followed in the wake of Stern's successful exhibitions in England, Germany, and France where Stern was awarded the Prix d'Honneur at Bordeaux in 1927. Two years later she was chosen to represent South Africa at London's Empire Art Exhibition. She went on to represent South Africa at four Venice Biennials in the 1950s. By the time Stern died in 1966 she had more than one hundred exhibitions to her credit.
Irma Stern (1894-1966)
The Irma Stern Museum is located on the campus of the University of Cape Town.
Irma Stern, Dahlias, 1947, private collection, courtesy of Strauss & Company, Cape Town.