The 1950s was a period of consolidation and change for Irma Stern. The artist represented South Africa at the Venice Biennales four times (in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1958), and also resumed exhibiting in Germany (in 1955) after a long absence of two decades. In Cape Town, where she had once been cruelly vilified as a representative of the excesses or even decadence of European modernism, her annual exhibitions were social events. Deane Anderson, a respected 1950s Cape Town art critic and later lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, summarised the character of these occasions in a 1956 Cape Argus review: “Miss Stern’s regular annual exhibitions are something like the ‘triumphs’ of a Roman proconsul – that is to say, they are studied gestures designed to indicate some new point of departure either in geography or craftsmanship.”
The technique informing this still life showcases the beginnings of a new point of departure for Stern that would, over time, come to define her late style. Stern’s still lifes from the 1940s are notable for their luxurious impasto surfaces bearing substantial evidence of her energetic brushwork and extensive use of a palette knife. The latter object was an indispensable tool for Stern, as important as her brushes. The artist in 1952 told the Cape Times that she always kept a palette knife stored in her handbag. Its use is evident in the opulently built up, milky-blue wall surface in this still life composition. Never content to work in the same technique, Stern’s work from the early 1950s began to explore more restrained paint techniques. Over time she began to apply her paints far less thickly than in the period 1935–50, and also started to incorporate the underlying canvas into her compositions.
This technique is apparent in Stern’s handling of the vertical and horizontal backdrops (stucco wall and tablecloth) in her still-life composition. The area of shadow cast by the table grapes and amphora is thinly painted. This treatment extends to the tablecloth and effectively stresses the supremacy of her two central subjects, epicurean motifs respectively suggestive of fertility and ancient European culture. This transitional style, in which elements of her old exuberance dovetail with a new temperateness or restraint, is typical of Stern’s still lifes from the earlier 1950s. Writing in a 1954 Cape Times review, Matthys Bokhorst favourably remarked on Stern’s use of strong colours and “thick pâte treatments interspersed with clever use of the canvas” in a painting depicting a black jar. Bokhorst would later become director of the South African National Gallery (1962–73). In a separate Cape Argus review, Deane Anderson described as “outstanding” Stern’s still life depicting a black jar. Many of Stern’s works bore generic titles and have over time been renamed. It is unknown if this still-life composition is from the same exhibition or refers to the jar discussed by these two critics, although the general note of positivity nonetheless pertains.
It bears noting that the chocolate brown vessel in this composition is very likely drawn from Stern’s large collection of votive and secular objects acquired during her many international travels. This collection, now part of the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town, was a source of personal pride, inspiration and portrayal.