Masterpiece of the month:  Irma Stern, Lake Kivu, Congo (1946)

Irma Stern, Lake Kivu, Congo (1946), oil on canvas, 56 x 56 cm 

Introduction 

Landscape art is often a record of a response to familiar places, places that the artist knows well. But for Irma Stern, landscape (as well as much portraiture) was a record of response to exotic places and involved extensive travel. Far from her home in Cape Town, she found both excitement and solace in the landscapes of distant southern African sites (Senegal, Zanzibar, the Congo, areas within northern South Africa) as well as places in southern Europe (Portugal, Italy and the south of France). The Congo (now the DRC) was a particular favourite and Stern visited the country in 1942, 1946 and 1955, publishing an enthusiastic essay on it after her first trip.1 The travelling she undertook in search of subjects for her art was constant, restless and striking. This work, Lake Kivu, Congo (1946), was one of a number that emerged from her second encounter with this central African country.     

The donor of the work, Alfred de Pass, was also a traveler across continents. Born in Cape Town, he had moved with his family to Britain early in life. He returned to visit South Africa in 1926 and summered here each year until 1935. With the outbreak of war in 1939, he made no more return trips to Britain and lived in South Africa until his death in 1952.2 Once he had re-established links with Cape Town, he frequently pledged works to the young South African National Gallery. Among these were ten paintings and drawings by Stern. Lake Kivu, Congo was one of the final paintings he presented, in 1949. 

Analysis of the work 

Despite its small size, this work has all of Stern’s hallmark intensity. Adopting the viewpoint typical of her landscapes and still-lifes, Stern approaches the subject from above and close-up and presents us with a slice of verdant nature: green growth fills three-quarters of the picture space, giving way to a glimpse of the lake itself and then rolling hills and sky. Characteristically, the work’s impact is achieved through the energy and conspicuous presence of the paint. As in a Van Gogh landscape, the elements of the landscape are translated into heaving swirls of pigment – licks, scrapings and oily lashes. The near-central tree is a complex of such marks; lake, hills and sky maintain this energy. There are no human figures present – all the drama lies in nature. And unusually for Stern, the colour range is narrow and muted, soft greens, yellow and blues prevailing. Only some red and pink flowers in the foreground, and hints of pink in the hills, offer warmer notes. 

In many of her landscapes and still-life works, Stern achieved an integration between the parts of the image that she sometimes struggled with in her portraiture. This is particularly so in the still-lifes and landscapes of the late 1930s and 1940s where a particularly satisfying ‘all-overness’ is achieved.3 In these works there is no disjuncture between foreground objects and background space; colour, shape and brushmarks integrate all the parts into a whole. In Lake Kivu, Congo the swelling shapes of foreground land and shrubbery are echoed in the distant hills, while striations in the left foreground greenery and tree are echoed in the horizontal lashings that mark the lake. Paint, its denseness and its energy, pulls together the image. A glance at photographic images of this scene show how differently it might have been visualized – with water contrasting in texture and effect with surrounding land, and greenery contrasting with rocky hills. In Stern’s re-presentation of the scene, these contrasts are melted away and verdant growth, water, hills and sky are assimilated to one another.   

The effect of this all-overness is for the image to become enveloping, rather like the late works of Claude Monet. But where Monet’s artistic persona was cool and remote, Stern’s is passionate and clamorous. We are drawn into a scene which swells and pulsates with a warm energy. In the case of both artists, the landscape has become the vehicle for the communication of mood, of a state of mind – and as noted, where Monet found this stimulus close to home, Stern found it largely in the exotic.  

Her essay on the Congo is an enraptured response to this exoticism and abounds with images of a landscape and a people that are embracing, absorbing and turbulent – its forest is ‘green and luscious;…endless like a green dream of Creation Day’,4 it is ‘seething with hidden life’,5 the artist’s little temporary home is ‘completely surrounded by huts and tall palms merging into the jungle’, while the chief of the village ‘is abundantly full of life; …does everything with an absolutely devastating overflow of vitality.’6 Underlying all Stern’s excited response to the Congo in this essay, there is the leitmotif of objects in a state of mergence, of boundaries between them dissolving.    

When Stern expresses this state of mergence pictorially, she does so through a suppression of outline and a mixing up of objects with each other; this is notable in her studies of Venice as well as her Congo images. The late art critic Peter Fuller was fascinated by this tendency in some artists; he noted the way in which the work of modern painters such as Kandinsky, Bonnard, Rothko, de Kooning derived much of its impact from its suppression of outline and the resulting invitation to the viewer to enter the painting imaginatively and become a part of it.7 Always alive to the correspondences between art and psychology, Fuller regarded this as ‘an attempt to fuse internal and external’ and he related it to the work of psychologists who studied our pre-verbal selves and their relation to the world around us.8 Art could, he noted, stimulate our awareness of our own bodily separateness, or could overcome it and arouse feelings of mergence instead.   

We might extend Fuller’s point to Stern. Much is made, in contemporary studies, of Stern’s social and political awareness, or lack of it – her uncritical embrace of ‘primitivism’ in colonized lands. Arguably, though, the most interesting drama in much of her best work goes on at a deeper level and has to do with a purely sensory relationship between the image and the viewer. The modest little Lake Kivu, Congo is an example of this. Its exactly square format makes of it a small box into which we peer and this format subtly encourages our sense of it as a container. Within this container, a limited colour range, energetic brush-marks and avoidance of obvious boundaries draw us in to the image, evoking very early, pre-verbal, sensations of mergence.  



1 Stern, Congo, Van Schaik, Pretoria, 1943.

2 For more on de Pass, see A. Tietze, The Alfred de Pass Presentation to the South African National Gallery, SANG exhibition catalogue, 1995.

3 American art critic Clement Greenberg coined this term in 1948, in his essay ‘The Crisis of the Easel Picture’, to describe the radically abstract work of artists such as Jackson Pollock.

4 Stern, Congo, 1.

5 Op.cit., 2.

6 Op. cit., 5.

7 P. Fuller, ‘The Rise of Modernism and the Infant-Mother Relationship’, in P. Fuller, Art and Psychoanalysis, Hogarth Press, 1988.

8 Op. cit., 139.

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