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REMEMBERING IRMA (article first published : 2003-10-2)

The book Remembering Irma by Mona Berman describes the most important and prolific era in Irma Stern’s life.

The author found a box containing 165 letters from Irma Stern to her parents, Freda and Richard Feldman, covering three decades of Irma’s Stern life from the mid-30’s to her death in 1966. It makes for mesmerising reading as it reveals the great satisfaction, pride and triumph Irma experienced in her personal life and in her artistic career, but also the difficulties in her relationships and her depth of despair.

Irma exposed her heart and soul in many of the letters, and it’s obvious from the correspondence that Freda was a great pillar in her life - a true and trusted friend. Wherever Irma travelled – right through Africa into the heart of the Congo – her deepest thoughts were recorded in these letters.

She loved painting the exotic, especially the aristocratic Watusi people, but she instinctively knew she could only do this justice if she lived among them in their natural environment. To be deep in the forests of the Congo was enough to sustain her.

After each trip she came home to The Firs in Cape Town, to visit her friends and exhibit in Johannesburg, but mostly to prepare for her next trip and the next to see, absorb and paint. She travelled and exhibited throughout Europe – Paris, Florence, Rome, London, Holland, Spain and her work remained the only true focus in her life. Wherever she travelled she collected beautiful things – many of these were sent home to The Firs and are preserved in the original house, which is now The Irma Museum in Cape Town.

What makes this book such interesting reading is that it reveals the essence of Irma. Her unhappy love affairs, her vulnerability, her pride and her prejudice, her strength and her total dedication to her art. Her letters to Freda are completely honest. She had very clear thoughts about the work of other artists – “I do not like Pierre Bonnard very much – a few things of his are interesting but a one man show of his work is boring and very uneven he is in his work,” she wrote in November 1948.

The illustrations of portraits in the book are mostly of the author’s family - several are portraits of Freda - which were acquired by the Feldman’s from Irma over time.

Mona Berman sketches the lives of her parents and Irma Stern seen as a child and as an adult and her personal account makes a riveting documentation as expressive, vivid and colourful as one of Irma Stern’s paintings. The book is written with the utmost respect for all the characters and makes them come alive through Berman’s personal vision and integrity.

Remembering Irma is available at Exclusive Books and other book stores at a price of R169.95. – Marianne Meijer




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