Blue-chip works by South African modernist artists up for grabs at Strauss &Co.’s May auction sale

By CityLife Arts Writer

  • Irma Stern’s Still Life with Dahlias and Pumpkin (R10 – 12 million/ $552 330 – 662 795) tops May auction catalogue
  • Stern, Africa’s most prized painter at auction, represented by three works from her golden period
  • Catalogue includes noteworthy still lifes by William Kentridge, Maggie Laubser and Alexis Preller
  • Two museum-grade works by pioneer black modernists Dumile Feni and Gerard Sekoto

The cover lot for leading African auction house Strauss & Co’s forthcoming live-virtual auction on 16 May 2023 is a magisterial still life by Irma Stern, the most prized painter at auction in Africa. A gorgeous confection of colour, Still Life with Dahlias and Pumpkin (estimate R10 – 12 million/ $552 330 – 662 795) is one of three Stern’s in the auction from the artist’s sought-after golden period of the late 1930s and 40s.  

  Taking its cue from the enthralling Stern cover lot, Strauss & Co will be hosting a preview exhibition at its Johannesburg gallery showcasing a bounty of 22 still lifes by important South African artists such as William Kentridge, Maggie Laubser, Alexis Preller and Jean Welz.  

  The 105-lot catalogue encompasses more than a century’s output and includes works made at the early beginnings of South Africa’s cosmopolitan art scene, notably by Frans Oerder, Anton van Wouw and Pieter Wenning. There are two museum-grade works by pioneer black modernists Dumile Feni and Gerard Sekoto, as well as works by William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa and Berni Searle, artists at the vanguard of South African art’s current international acclaim.  

  “Strauss & Co has a rock-solid reputation for handling blue-chip works by South African modernists, as was confirmed in March by our sale of a Zanzibar-period Stern for a new African record,” says Dr Alastair Meredith, Head of Sale, Strauss & Co. “Our forthcoming sale has peak works by acclaimed artists working at their zeniths, including Irma Stern with her large and gossamer still life, Dumile Feni with his rare and enigmatic colour drawing of a family, and William Kentridge with his hand-painted etching of a tree.” 

  Adds Meredith: “Many of the lots have impeccable provenance, including the Feni drawing, which was consigned by his family estate. Gerard Sekoto’s pre-exile painting of a well-known intersection in central Pretoria, executed in his cool observational style, is part of an important collection that we’re delighted to be handling.” 

The diverse catalogue for the May auction includes some notable individual works:  

Anton van Wouw’s bronze portraying a Mozambican man with crossed arms, Shangaan (estimate R600 000 – 800 000/ $33 140 – 44 181), was cast in Rome in 1907 by the renowned Nisini foundry in Rome. “This dignified, gentle and personal portrait of a Shangaan man is a weighty and significant statement,” says Meredith.  

  J. H. Pierneef, South Africa’s preeminent landscape painter with a global collector base, is represented by a substantial offering. Landscape with Mountains and Trees (estimate R1.5 – 2 million/ $82 840 – 110 454) is an iconic work from 1954 and features an inventory of must-have motifs in a Pierneef. There are two views of a farm southeast of Johannesburg, both painted in 1932, including Extensive Landscape, Study for Klipriviersberg, Alberton (estimate R1.2 – 1.6 million/ $66 278 – 88 371). 

  Irma Stern, like Pierneef, was a prolific painter and is represented by four still lifes. Arum Lilies and Bananas (estimate R2 – 3 million/ $110 464 – 165 696) is a high-expressionist composition from 1925. The delicately rendered gouache Potted Caladium on a Windowsill (estimate R800 000 – 1.2 million/ $44 181 – 66 278) dates from 1939. Malay Woman (estimate R4.5 – 5.5 million/ $248 580 – 303 820) is a portrait from 1946 and records Stern’s deep commitment to portraying Cape Muslim women. 

  Gerard Sekoto’s oil Up Prinsloo Street (estimate R2.5 – 3.5 million/ $138 100 – 193 396), a street scene from his sought-after Eastwood period, was painted in 1946 shortly before he permanently left South Africa to settle in Paris. 

  Dumile Feni’s rare colour drawing Blue Suede Shoe (estimate R2 – 3 million/$110 464 – 165 696) measures nearly two metres in height and was featured in the artist’s 2006 retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. 

  William Kentridge’s late-career interest in botanical subjects received marked attention in his 2022 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The auction includes You Who Never Arrived (estimate R1 – 1.5 million/ $55 256 – 82 884), a large hand-pad noted etching of a tree, as well as his Iris-themed works on paper Iris II (estimate R500 000 – 600 000/ $27 625 33 150) and Dutch Iris (estimate R450 000 – 550 000/ $24 862 – 33 150). 

  Alexis Preller is best known for his enigmatic portraiture but also produced astonishing still lifes, such as Shells (R800 000 – 1.2 million/ $44 181 – 66 278) and Floating Apple (estimate R350 000 – 500 000/ $19 331 – 33 150), both produced in 1975, the artist’s last year.

  Peter Clarke, an accomplished printmaker, poet and painter, is represented in the auction by two early watercolours depicting circus entertainers (estimate R150 000 – 200 000/ $8 285 – 11 046 each). They are dated 1957. Two years earlier Clarke won a South African literary award, which led to a vibrant exchange of letters with American poet Langston Hughes, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. 

  Other notable lots include Cecily Sash’s oil Playing Card I (estimate R40 000 – 60 000/ $2 208 – 3 313), which was exhibited at the São Paulo Biennial in 1967, and Walter Battiss’s oil Black Shadow of Red Bird on Blue Water (estimate R200 000 – 300 000/ $11 044 – 16 565), which was specially painted for the critic and art historian Esmé Berman.

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