Irma Stern – Modernist, Feminist and Activist

By Talita Swarts

The artist Irma Stern is perhaps the reason why I decided to pursue a career in fine arts. As a teenager I recall reading about a famous artist that was born in the Post Office of Schweizer-Reneke, a town very close to the small town I grew up in. What caught my attention was the strangeness of it all. How could someone born in a Post Office in a tiny town close to Botswana’s border go on to become the most influential modernist artist of South Africa with her work regarded extremely valuable to collect? 

Irma Stern was born on 2 October 1894 in Schweizer-Reneke to German Jewish parents. Their family ended up settling in a predominately Afrikaner farming community just before the Anglo-Boer War. During a British occupation of the town in 1900 her father Samuel was sent to a prison in Vryburg when she was five years old because of his pro-Afrikaner sentiments. Her mother Hennie decided to make a run for it and travelled with her two children, Irma, and Rudi, to Cape Town as refugees. Soon after the release of her father they returned to Germany in 1901 where they remained until the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902. Stern spent her childhood travelling between South Africa and Germany. She referred to this constant travelling between continents as “a divided upbringing” that left her “feeling of belonging to nowhere” (Kaufmann, C & Lewis, A 2015:30). 

In 1917 she was introduced to Max Pechstein, an important member of ‘Die Brücke’ and a leader in the German Expressionist movements at the time. This friendship greatly influenced Stern and lead to her becoming a founder member of the ‘November Grüppe’ In 1918. She also participated in various exhibitions with the ‘Freie Sezession’ in Berlin during 1918 and 1919 and held her first solo exhibition at the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery in 1919.  

Throughout Irma Stern’s career, she was interested in the primitive and exotic. This interest in the exotic landed her in trouble when she exhibited her work in South Africa for the first time. The conservative onlookers did not yet appreciate Post-Impressionist and Expressionist painting styles. Her first exhibition held at the Ashbey’s Art Gallery in 1922 was reason for a police investigation of alleged charges of immorality. These charges made what was being exhibited far more interesting and people queued outside the gallery to see why her work were considered depraved (Kaufmann, C & Lewis, A 2015:22).  

Stern continued to organize exhibitions and produced artworks until the end of her life. Dudley Welch, her lifelong companion, wrote to Frieda and Richard Feldmann about what happened: “The doctor in Cannes gave her 18 months and she had 17 of them. The last night she had started drawing in the special nurse’s notebook and I recognized them as the style of continuous type drawing in ink which were the kind, she always started her work period with. She’d been looking at a book of primitive paintings & she had just said in reply to me ‘I will get better’ and when I showed her another, she said ‘That I remember’ & then died” (Klopper 2017:228). 

Irma Stern held 90 solo exhibitions, exhibited at the Venice Biennale 4 times and once at the Sao Paolo Biennale. Her last exhibition was held in 1966.  

She managed to become one of South Africa’s most important artists during a time in history when women were not highly regarded or permitted to travel freely. She introduced the highly conservative South African society to Modernism during the 1920’s and changed the perceptions about art over four decades, producing more work than any other modernist painter. She died on 23 August 1966 in Cape Town at the age of 71. 

At Ellerman House there are seven beautiful paintings by this remarkable artist we love to share with guests when offering the private art tour of the collection. We also enjoy accompanying visitors to her Cape Town home, now the Irma Stern Museum in Rondebosch.   

Video link:  


Kaufmann, C & Lewis, A. 2015. Brushing up on Stern. Featuring works from the permanent collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery. Scan Shop: Cape Town. 

Klopper, S. 2017. Irma Stern are you still alive? Orisha Publishing: Cape Town. 

Theheritageportal. Travelling to South Africa via the Union Castle Line. 2019. [O]. 

Available: 2021/04/16. 

Taylor & Francis. The Presence of Islam in the Canaries: A Historical Overview. 2001. [O]. 

Available: Accessed: 2021/04/16.