Irma Stern  painted Freda Feldman six times. Here is Freda in a Khaki Dress (1943). Picture: SUPPLIED
Irma Stern painted Freda Feldman six times. Here is Freda in a Khaki Dress (1943). Picture: SUPPLIED

Who was Freda Feldman? This is the question on art lovers lips this week as two portraits of the woman by Irma Stern are on exhibit at the Wanders Club in Joburg before going under the hammer at the Strauss & Co auction on November 13.

Stern artworks tend to command attention and heavy price tags — both are valued at R5m. However, it is unusual for portraits of the same person to be up for sale at the same time. A relative of Feldman’s has, presumably, decided to let them go.

What value could they be to people other than her family? Why should we be interested in Feldman?

Stern enjoyed painting portraits. Faces of all sorts of people stare out from the walls of the Irma Stern museum established in the artist’s home in Mowbray, Cape Town. Nevertheless, Feldman is a special sitter. Stern painted her six times. Three of those paintings were made in the same year — two of which, Freda in Khaki and Freda with Roses, are the focus of the Strauss & Co sale. Last year the first of the trio, Freda in a Basotho Hat, fetched just more than R5m.

In Freda with Roses, Stern presents a younger fresher faced version of Freda. Picture: SUPPLIED
In Freda with Roses, Stern presents a younger fresher faced version of Freda. Picture: SUPPLIED

The year they were painted is significant: 1943, during the war. Not unexpectedly, it was a period during which the relationship between Feldman and the Cape Town-based painter was at its most intense. Or so Feldman’s daughter, Mona Berman, asserted in her 2003 book, Remembering Irma: Irma Stern: A Memoir with Letters. She suggests the war years were difficult for Stern as she wasn’t able to travel.

Though born in SA, Stern spent a considerable amount of time in Germany — she studied there, drew inspiration from the art scene there, in particular the expressionist painters, and exhibited internationally. Travelling was a life-line and new destinations inspiration for her art.

Outwardly, Feldman and Stern were not destined to be friends: they had nothing in common. Berman suggests her mother was unworldly, unsophisticated and uneducated compared to Stern, who came from a wealthy family and was well travelled and talented

Stern may have felt isolated or trapped in Cape Town too — during this period she wrote up to four letters a month to Berman’s parents — who were based in Joburg. If she did not get an immediate response, she would send short letters asking if they "were alive?" Stern, it seems, relied on Feldman for emotional support, though she and her husband, Richard, were loyal patrons too.

Stern met Richard before Feldman, in 1926 during a stop-over in Joburg on her way to or from Germany. While Feldman would offer Stern a deep friendship, Richard was her intellectual equal. He was politically active — a prominent member of the South African Labour Party, and he relentlessly opposed the National Party.

Today’s critics view Stern’s representation of black subjects as undignified for the simple fact she never used their names in titles, preferring to use their racial categories, contrasting with white subjects who were named. Nevertheless, Richard is thought to have influenced her realistic and empathetic rendering of black sitters. Perhaps in those days, capturing people who would have been socially "invisible" may have been seen as progressive.

Outwardly, Feldman and Stern were not destined to be friends: they had nothing in common. Berman suggests her mother was unworldly, unsophisticated and uneducated compared to Stern, who came from a wealthy family and was well travelled and talented. Yet the two connected on a deeper level.

Feldman’s kindness endeared her to Stern, giving her "a nice feeling of someone who is good". As with all authentic friendships, Feldman appears to have appreciated and supported Stern even though she was well aware of her flaws — "her short temper, her rage at incompetence, her impetuousness, her need to have her ego stroked and her frustration with daily chores".

The deep connection between the two women has proved useful to art collectors and historians. Feldman is a powerful connector to the artist’s inner life, which is given expression through the hundreds of letters they exchanged. Aside from Berman’s recollections of Stern, who was a prominent figure in the family household, her insights into the artist (and her mother) are gleaned via the letters Stern wrote that Feldman meticulously kept. She understood Stern would turn out to be one of the most important artists. Or maybe she was sentimental?

These letters form the basis for a new book on Stern, Irma Stern: Are you still alive? It is to be released later this month and is unlikely to contain any salacious information. It is more likely going to paint a more positive image of Stern.

Berman viewed Stern in a negative light, casting her as a demanding and needy person who intruded on the Feldman’s family life. She concedes this view was shaped by the perceptions of a child rather than an adult. All sorts of rumours abound regarding Stern’s relationship with the Feldmans. Some believe Stern had a crush on Richard, and later, Feldman.

Feldman worked hard to secure Stern’s home as a museum and while only a small collection of her work is kept there, the setting, furniture and décor allow visitors to really grasp Stern’s specific aesthetic, enhancing our appreciation of her art

Feldman may have been a favourite sitter for Stern as the younger woman was in awe of her talent and was flattered by the attention, according to Berman. Due to the closeness between them, Stern probably felt comfortable in her company and free to interpret her face artistically. Perhaps, just as Feldman knew and accepted Stern’s flaws, Stern understood hers too.

The two portraits are evidence of a sustained relationship. They were executed in the same year, however, Feldman in the khaki dress looks older and more weary than in the other where she poses next to flowers. Feldman mostly wore black outfits, yet Stern has her in other colours — artistic licence? Stern’s interpretation of her is flattering; she gives her big, blue eyes. Large, almond-shaped eyes and long angular noses are common features of her portraits of men and women.

Was Stern painting the same face over and over? Were they her own features?

Stern’s legacy owes much to Feldman, not only in the form of the numerous portraits she inspired, or even through the letters she kept — which have proved such a rich resource for historians and collectors — but the museum in Cape Town. Feldman worked hard to secure Stern’s home as a museum and while only a small collection of her work is kept there, the setting, furniture and décor allow visitors to really grasp Stern’s specific aesthetic, enhancing our appreciation of her art.

• Numerous Stern works on the Strauss & Co auction will be exhibited in Joburg at the Wanders Club in Illovo from November 10 to 12 . The public are invited to join walkabouts at that venue ahead of the auction there on November 13. For more information visit Strauss & Co

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