Raise your hat as important Stern comes home

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Portrait of Freda Feldman in Basotho Hat by Irma Stern.

STRAUSS & Co’s next auction, which takes place on Monday, May 23, in Johannesburg, will include the sale of a museum piece by South Africa’s most celebrated female artist, Irma Stern.

This painting has come all the way from Australia and is titled, Portrait of Freda Feldman in Basotho Hat.

The sitter, Freda Feldman, was a very close friend of the artist and there are many interesting stories to disclose about their close friendship, their fettish for hats and more.

Strauss & Co have estimated that the painting – which is signed and dated 1943 and is accompanied by the Basuto hat (mokorotlo) worn by the sitter – should sell between R5 and 7 million.

Irma Freda (née Ginsburg) when she married prominent businessman and public intellectual Richard Feldman, who, along with respected photographer and art dealer, Leon Levson, was part of an influential group of Jewish patrons who greatly aided Stern, particularly during her early career.

The Feldmans were known to be patrons of the arts and supported many struggling artists in their lifetimes, but their friendship with Irma went far deeper than patronage. They acquired pieces they loved from her whenever possible, and had an ongoing financial arrangement, paying her in instalments. No sooner had they finished paying off one painting, they would begin again on the next.

Irma and Freda a taste for elegant dinner parties and fashionable hats – the “paraphernalia of culture” as Irma once described her cultivated tastes in a letter.

Freda’s daughter, Mona Berman, recalls their long friendship in her book, Remembering Irma: Irma Stern: A Memoir with Letters: “Irma and Freda loved flowers, loved colour, loved staging lavish dinners – both believing food should look as good as it tastes. Freda enjoyed Irma’s sense of style, her lavish lifestyle and sound knowledge and good judgement in collecting antiques and art works from all over the world.”

Art historian Marion Arnold notes in a caption in Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, which features this portrait. “Freda Feldman was well known in Johannesburg for her collection of hats, a fashion foible she shared with Irma Stern.”

Freda even took up painting with Stern’s encouragement, and became a non-threatening protégé as well as a friend. She also became an important subject for Irma, and featured in numerous portraits – in charcoal, gouache and oil – of which Portrait of Freda Feldman in Basuto Hat is undoubtedly the most important.

One of them, a pregnant nude in gouache, was kept hidden behind a dressing-room door in the Feldman’s home in Lower Houghton. This portrait was painted in 1943 when Freda was 31 and is the second of three portraits that Irma painted of her during that year.

Berman recalls that this portrait was the subject of much discussion among the Feldmans, both because of its muted wartime colours and its juxtaposition of the sitter’s thoughtful demeanour with the playful choice of hat. Arnold has commented on the restrained painterly style Irma adopted for her domestic portraits.

Berman also records how Freda herself suggested a possible reason for the number of portraits Irma produced at the time: “During the war years [Stern] couldn’t travel abroad, and needed the company and stimulation of people who amused her, especially when she couldn’t feast her eyes or soul on the art of Florence and Paris. Perhaps she compensated by painting portraits.”

The mokorotlo certainly adds to the personal nature of this portrait as a subject of a passion shared by the artist and sitter.

“That’s the one my family and friends always liked the most,” Freda told an art historian at a dinner party in 1986. “I think the general appeal of the picture is that it’s about the hat, not the model.

“I was so enchanted by that hat, its workmanship and style. It’s a fine example of Lesotho’s craft industry. I still have it on my rack. I bought it from the master weaver and then got a milliner in town to devise an inner crown so I could tilt it to one side. When I showed it to Irma she thought it would be splendid for a portrait.”

Irma never produced any painted self-portraits, in part due to her difficult relationship with her overweight body. Berman has put forward the idea that the artist found a visual “surrogate” self in Freda. By including the mokorotlo, she may well be expressing her own presence in the portrait via her and Freda’s shared “fashion foible”.

Regardless, Portrait of Freda Feldman in Basuto Hat is an important work, capturing an important relationship in the artist’s life, and standing as an exemplary piece from the war period representing Irma in her mode as portraitist.

Irma Stern ranks alongside Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois among the 10 most expensive women artists sold at auction globally between 2005-15.

Strauss & Co has sold the five highest-priced Irma Stern paintings in South Africa, and set the South African record for a work by the artist – also the record for a work of art in South Africa – when the painting, Two Arabs, sold for R21 166 000 in 2011.

The auction also offers a wide range of exceptional works by major South African artists including JH Pierneef, Pieter Wenning, Walter Battiss, Anton van Wouw and Gregoire Boonzaier.

Among the contemporary works on offer are a good selection by Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Peter Clarke, Penny Siopis, Willem Boshoff, Kendall Geers, Karel Nel, Kudzanai Chiurai, Pieter Hugo and Cameron Platter.

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