While the RMB Turbine Art Fair (TAF) is all about affordable art, it turns out one of the most exciting exhibitions at this year’s edition is packed with pretty much unaffordable works. Wilhelm van Rensburg from art auctioneers Strauss & Co has pulled together a selection of 17 Irma Stern still life paintings, which they’re showing at the fair under the banner Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern. Not since the landmark exhibition Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey at the Standard Bank Gallery 15 years ago, which was also curated by Van Rensburg, have so many of her top still lifes been gathered together for a public exhibition.
While Stern is one of South Africa’s most recognisable and sought-after artists, Van Rensburg points out by some strange twist of fate, there’s nowhere in Joburg you can go to see one. “Of the top 20 highest prices ever paid for SA artworks, there are a good 12 Sterns, of which eight are still lifes,” he adds. He has a number of those very works on loan from private art collections for this exhibition, plus a few from institutions like JAG and the University of Pretoria Art Collection. But even those, he notes, are kept in storage most of the time.
“No art student in Johannesburg could access an Irma Stern still life if they wanted to study it,” he says. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he found, for South Africa’s most famous artist, Stern was strangely unknown among the new generation of art students.
The exciting part of this exhibition for would-be buyers at the TAF is that the exhibition of Sterns isn’t merely a showcase. It’s actually part of a larger initiative whereby Van Rensburg decided to take the opportunity presented by this remarkable assembly of works to rectify the situation among local art students. He approached various art schools specialising in all sorts of different media, including print, painting, sculpture, ceramics and new media, and invited the students to create works inspired by Stern’s still lifes. They get to sell their works at the fair and there’s a prize for one work, selected by a panel of judges.
Van Rensburg went to each art school and gave a presentation on Stern, the still life tradition in South African art, and how it continues to find relevance in contemporary art today. “I said to the students, ‘My whole aim is to make still life painting sexy again,’” he says. The presentation he gave is quite a tour de force in itself and forms the basis of a talk he’ll give as part of the TAF talks programme, which is really worth attending. (Get the details here.)
Apart from providing some useful history about Stern herself and her roots in German Expressionism, he also brings richness and complexity to our understanding of her work by showing how sometimes, especially in the early days, works such as 1916’s Gladioli look more like they draw on the post-impressionism of Cezanne than the emotional, gestural style of the early 20th century movement she’s associated with. Other works, such as Dahlias, which Strauss & Co will auction at their Cape Town sale in October, have more than a hint of French impressionism proper about them.
Of course, it’s important to understand Stern with reference to the history of European art, but that’s not where his lesson ends. “Then, I said, let’s look at how she fits in with the South African still life tradition,” he says. He deftly traces the thread of that tradition as it runs through South African art, showing how Stern’s Magnolia liliiflora belong to a long line of similar works by the likes of Dutch-born SA artist Frans Oerder in the late 1800s, for example, with its “naturalistic rendering” following the Dutch 17th still life tradition, and with other earlier proponents of the genre, such as Pieter Wenning with his more the northern European impressionistic style.
Among Stern’s contemporaries, Van Rensburg teases out her distinctive style in relation to the flatter, more luminous style of Maggie Laubser, or the symbolic and mythically inflected work of Alexis Preller, and the abstract tendencies of Maud Sumner. Then he runs with it through the increasing abstraction of the likes of Maurice van Essche, Sidney Goldblatt and Erik Laubscher all the way to the 80s protest work of Penny Siopis. He also finds potent examples of still life works by black 20th century artists, such as Gerard Sekoto, and shows how they in turn resonate with contemporary works by Sam Nhlengethwa and Willie Bester.
He then explodes the genre into the contemporary art scene, revealing its surprisingly persistent influence in prints, photography, ceramics, textile and furniture design now, from the paintings of Georgina Gratrix all the way to ceramic works by the likes of Ardmore and Zizipho Poswa. “I really stretched them quite a lot,” says Van Rensburg. “But that was the idea.”
Looking at the student works, it paid off. Seeing so many Stern still lifes together might be the chance of a lifetime but you shouldn’t discount how satisfying the student works are. The parallel exhibitions work together beautifully, folding the still life tradition into each other and illuminating its rather domesticated conventions with renewed potency. Van Rensburg might just have achieved his aim of making still life sexy again. If you pop in, you certainly won’t look at a vase of flowers in the same way again anytime soon.
The RMB Turbine Art Fair will take place from Thursday 12 July to Sunday 15 July at the Turbine Hall, Newtown, Johannesburg.