The Eternal Child is a portrait that Irma Stern painted when she herself was very young – only 22 and still a student. Although from South Africa, Stern had studied in Germany from 1913-1916, during the First World War. The painting was inspired by the sight of a pale, undernourished child, whom she had spotted on a tram.
In portraying this child, Irma Stern felt she had found a way of responding to the desperation of people in wartime Germany.
This is what she wrote:
“I shuddered and awoke to my own generation. These were the war years in Germany. I knew what I had to express – the suffering and agony that a war means to all life. Soon afterwards I painted my Eternal Child – a little girl with large mistrusting eyes, with an embittered tight mouth, sitting on a chair, her plaits hanging straight off her naked forehead, her undefined hands clinging to a few field flowers … so as to assure that some beauty was always left.”
Irma Stern immediately sensed that this painting was a turning point for her: she regarded it as her first “independent” work. It seemed to her that she had found her own style. But her teacher did not understand this work, and disapproved of it, and so Stern left his art school. She began to work instead with the artist Max Pechstein and the November Group. These painters were exploring a style known as “German Expressionism”.
German Expressionism was an art movement that responded to the horrors of war, and the social upheaval then taking place in Germany. It was a bold and emotional style. This art movement included very different artists, but all shared a desire to express their most intense emotions and moods. Often anguished, these moods were expressed through the artists’ use of technique: in the way the paint was applied, often in thick gestural brushstrokes, or through combinations of jarring colour, or in the inclusion of harsh or awkward black outlines. This was also expressed through the distortion of figures, or uncomfortable composition. The images were disturbing and shocking.
Irma Stern felt an immediate affinity with this style, being herself an impassioned and sometimes anguished soul herself, deeply responsive to people and situations. For many years to come, she used forms of expressionism to depict both painful and joyous life forces.
Talk About This
What in this painting expresses the suffering that the artist describes? Among other things, you might talk about the girl’s hands, the way her dress is painted, the girl’s facial features that seem either larger than life, or smaller.
Perhaps you could compare the depiction of this girl to the little girl in George Pemba’s painting.
Look at the image by Stern’s mentor Max Pechstein. Do you see any possible influences of this German Expressionist style in Irma Stern’s portrait?