Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 28, 2023
LaNitra M. Berger Irma Stern and the Racial Paradox of South African Modern Art: Audacities of Color New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. 192 pp.; 46 ills. Hardback $110.00 (9781350187498)

Author’s note: Historical terminologies of racial classification, including “Black” and “Coloured,” which were instantiated by the Population Registration Act of 1950, in South Africa, are used throughout Berger’s book so as not to erase the violence of policies enacted under apartheid.

Maid in Uniform, a 1955 portrait of a Black South African domestic worker, is arguably one of the strongest works by painter Irma Stern (1894–1966). Dressed in the uniform typical of her profession, Stern’s defiantly unwilling subject purses her lips and crosses her arms; her eyes demur from the viewer. The maid’s expression signals the complex social relations between Black and white South African women in the mid-twentieth century. The work is rare for Stern, who preferred to paint her Black South African subjects in traditional dress, rather than the work attire or contemporary clothing that more directly revealed their modernity and social status. The portrait suggests the social contributions Stern could have made if she had used her skill as a painter to picture the realities of life under apartheid, especially the challenges faced by women in forming interracial relationships that led to solidarity.

In South Africa, Stern is among the most famous modern artists. Her paintings, often ethnographic portraits, of different communities in South Africa and across the African continent are valued into the millions of dollars. Even so, reception of her work in the country divides sharply along racial lines. Outside of the country, her name is little known. With this concisely argued and deeply researched monograph, LaNitra M. Berger not only introduces Stern to an American audience but, by taking a decolonial and Black feminist perspective, questions the value of bringing her name into the canon of global modernism. Berger’s book examines the contradiction between Stern’s embrace of Black subjects in her work and her failure to reject racial segregation in her life, and is one of the first to provide a critical lens on the artist’s career. Berger makes a strong case for Stern’s relevance to art history today. But as the author aptly notes, “Relevance, in this case, should not be mistaken for reverence” (140).

Born in a small town in the Transvaal to German-Jewish immigrant parents, Stern and her family fled to Germany during the Second Boer War and moved between Europe and South Africa until they relocated to Berlin in 1910. Stern studied fine art at the Weimar Academy and later became associated with German Expressionism. The artist returned to South Africa in 1920, after the end of World War I, settling in Cape Town. Though she moved freely between Europe and Africa for the rest of her life, she refused to return to Berlin in the late 1930s due to Nazi policy. Within South Africa, Stern witnessed the rise of apartheid, the government policy of legal racial discrimination and state-sponsored violence. While she lived on the margins of whiteness as a white Jewish woman, Stern equivocated on her support of the apartheid regime and ultimately condoned racial segregation, privately and publicly. She regularly received support from the South African government and represented the nation at the Venice Biennale throughout the 1950s and the São Paulo Bienal in 1957. As noted, Stern’s biography intersected with major world events in the twentieth century, which Berger uses to structure her book into five chronological chapters. The author relies on archival research, adeptly analyzing and incorporating “Stern’s rich trove of letters, diary entries, press clippings, first-hand accounts from friends, historical analyses, interviews, and, most importantly, her art” to establish Stern as an important but controversial figure (3).

The first chapter, “Irma Stern in a Global Context” explores the ten years Stern spent in Germany before, during, and after World War I, a period when colonialism spurred fascination with racial difference. There she became involved in the Expressionist movement through her mentor Max Pechstein, who invited her to join the Novembergruppe. Expressionism encouraged Stern to use art to define her relationship to society and to represent the world beyond Europe, a world to which she had special access through her South African upbringing. This resulted, however, in works of art that reinforced a harmful European understanding of Africans as exotic, primitive, and sexually uninhibited. This same period brought another international figure to Berlin: African American scholar Alain Locke. There Locke became interested in European artists whose work incorporated positive, albeit exoticized, portrayals of African people and culture and in scholars who argued for the appreciation, rather than denigration, of African arts. Berger’s research locates Stern among the artists whom Locke posited as models for African American artists. Though Locke saw their representations of Black people as an embrace of Blackness as an asset, Berger articulates the racial paradox of Locke’s proposal for Black artists. She writes, “By focusing on the image as message, instead of the artist as messenger, Locke established a powerfully complex paradox for Black artists in the United States, namely, how to harvest ethnic pride and artistic innovation even from images that were intended to reinforce racial stereotype and colonialist thinking” (31).

The 1920s found Stern back in South Africa. Chapter 2, “Cape Town Blues,” explores the artist’s reception within the conservative Cape Town art world and her uneasy entrance into the progressive South African Jewish community. Stern painted portraits of her white friends, including educators Hilda Purwitsky and Roza Van Gelderen, as well as unnamed women of color, that contributed to an understanding of modern South African identity as racially and ethnically diverse and forwarded discussions around modernity, race, and national identity. Although Stern maintained personal relationships with Jewish academics who critiqued the exploitation of Black labor, she chose to idealize pre-industrial Black life in primitivist “native studies” that betrayed her belief in the racial inferiority of Black people. Despite critiques in the South African press that framed Stern’s expressionist color and brushwork as too “modern,” the artist leaned into negative publicity as an asset for raising her profile. Ever the savvy professional, Stern recognized the value of her insider-outsider status as a white German-speaking Jewish woman, which allowed her “to gain entry into political, cultural and social circles in Europe and South Africa that were not accessible to everyone” (60). In embracing her proximity to whiteness, Stern, however, failed or refused to make the connection between racism and anti-Semitism under white supremacist regimes.

In the 1940s, Stern began to seek inspiration in places and people outside of South Africa. Berger explores this era of Stern’s career in the chapter entitled  “Congo and Zanzibar.” In 1942 and 1948, the artist published illustrated travel narratives about her time in Congo and Zanzibar. Stern’s understanding of Africa relied on racist, colonialist stereotypes that characterized Africans as violent savages and sexualized the Black female body. Her experiences in Central and East Africa failed to impact her perspective on Black people. Stern chose to paint the African individuals she encountered in a state of arrested development rather than as modern subjects and refused to see them on equal terms. According to Berger, these books “set the stage for Stern’s apartheid-backed approach to modern art years later” (77). They helped propel white racial superiority in South Africa and reaffirmed for white South Africans that colonialism was the best form of government for people of color. In the next chapter, “Modernism Under Apartheid,” Berger discusses the intersection of Stern’s career with shifts in apartheid policy, which was instantiated in May 1948 when the Afrikaner-led National Party won the majority in Parliament, enabling the passage of legislation that formed the core of apartheid policy. Within this climate, Stern sought and found support from the apartheid government in her travels abroad. She refused to use her platform to speak out against segregation and thus risk this sponsorship. She benefitted from apartheid, and her art’s reinscription of colonialist stereotypes supported its regime of racial segregation and exploitation.

Stern, according to Berger, “lived during the most pivotal social and political moments in Europe and Africa, and she capitalized on these moments in her art” (8). In her concluding chapter, “If Rhodes Must Fall, Must Stern Fall?” Berger reflects on the artist’s legacy among Black South African artists and activists today.  In her paintings, Stern explored European modernism’s fascination with primitivism by situating her subjects outside of historical time, denying their modernity and thus their right to citizenship. She traveled widely across South Africa to paint subjects that represented the cultural and ethnic diversity that the apartheid regime sought to systematically destroy. Her ability to access those communities and her simultaneous unwillingness to empathize with their racially determined fates in the hands of the apartheid government speak to the intimacy between white privilege and Black bodies embedded in her work. Berger defines this intimacy as “the racial paradox of South African modern art—that Black and Coloured women were simultaneously central as artistic subjects but peripheral as human beings” (140). Berger reveals the centrality of this paradox to structural inequality across the world today and challenges the reader to parse the meaning of this contradiction in the career of one modern artist among many. Berger’s monograph demonstrates the value of decolonial art history and models an approach for examining the colonialist origins of European modernism, and beyond.

Perrin Lathrop
Assistant Curator of African Art, Princeton University Art Museum