Fauvist Paintings: Stella Steyn
An essay by Robert O'Byrne, taken from the catalogue published to coincide with the exhibition.
Mystery swirls around Stella Steyn like one of the circus acrobats she was so fond of painting in her mid-twenties. A precocious talent, she enjoyed early success and critical approbation. ‘I am glad to see that Miss Stella Steyn’s exhibition in Stephen’s Green is attracting the attention that the excellence of the pictures displayed deserves,‘commented a reviewer in The Irish Times in June 1930. Such positive encouragement naturally led to expectations that Steyn would become a leading figure in the Irish art world.
But instead, and again like some circus performer, inexplicably she seemed to vanish before the eyes of her admiring audience. So long did she remain out of sight that eventually her very name became almost unknown and when a ground-breaking exhibition on Irish women artists was hosted by the National Gallery of Ireland, the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art and the Douglas Hyde Gallery in July 1987, Stella Steyn - who died that very month at the age of 79 - received one of the accompanying catalogue's briefest entries. It would be another eight years before she was the subject of a retrospective show at Dublin's Gorry Gallery and attention once more began to focus on this exemplar of the modernist movement in Ireland.
Since then, more of her work has emerged, but only gradually; a studio sale, for example, was held in 2005, eighteen years after her death. The impression is given that, having disappeared for such a lengthy period, she wished to reintroduce herself to admirers very gradually.
How is it that someone apparently destined for renown in her native country should have been so largely forgotten for so long? Even now, when Stella Steyn's name is regularly mentioned among significant Irish artists of the last century, there are great swathes of her life story which have yet to be investigated.
The principal biographical details derive from an essay written by S.B. Kennedy at the time of the Gorry Gallery exhibition. It is known, for example, that she was born in Dublin in December 1907 and like Estella Solomons (who was twenty-five years her senior) came from a family of Jewish immigrants; the Steyns were of Russian origin. Her father was a dentist and presumably successful in his profession since Stella was educated at Alexandra College, Dublin. She then spent a brief spell in Berlin, attending the design school founded there in 1902 by sculptor Albert Reimann and his wife Klara. On her return to Ireland, in 1924 she enrolled at Dublin's Metropolitan School of Art. Almost sixty years later, writing in The Irish Times, Hilda van Stockum recalled how 'Stella Steyn awed me with her elegance; she had long black ringlets framing her face, and wore artistic colour combinations and fashionable get-ups. She was very talented.'
Though not yet twenty, already Stella Steyn's abilities were being recognised, not least by one of her teachers at the Metropolitan School, Patrick Tuohy who was also a friend of the family. He seems to have inspired in her a particular interest in contemporary French art and so in 1926, accompanied by her mother and two friends (one of them the artist Hilda Roberts who had also studied with Tuohy), she visited Paris for the first time.
Even had she not said so herself, Stella Steyn's work makes it easy to recognise how Paris provided the defining experience of her artistic development. Before then, according to Hilda van Stockum, she had done 'beautiful drawings in the Harry Clarke (Aubrey Beardsley) style', but after visiting in Paris, she 'came back doing very airy and witty French-style creations...'
Whatever about the wit of her work, Steyn was only one of a number of young Irish women artists who spent time in Paris during the 1920s and responded with avidity to what was occurring there. But whereas the likes of Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone became advocates of Cubism, Steyn's instincts led her towards Fauvism with its brilliant colouring and bold simplification of form. While the subject matter might vary, her work retained these two characteristics throughout the decades ahead. During the five years after 1926 she spent substantial periods of time in Paris, taking a studio in Montparnasse but also sometimes travelling around the rest of France with a sketch-book. 'I drew varied scenes of French life in the markets and streets,' she recalled in a short, posthumously published memoir, writing of the drawings she made, 'I transferred this material to lithographic stones and on to copper plates, adapting and recomposing it on the stones and plates in Paris when I returned there.' Paris remained central to her, a city she returned to again and again; in March 2008 a sketchbook of 67 Parisian charcoal drawings dating from 1977 was offered for sale at auction in Cork.
Her aptitude as an illustrator is evident in the images Steyn produced to accompany part of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake published in the quarterly magazine transition in autumn 1929. Patrick Tuohy, who had painted portraits of both the writer and his father Stanislaus some years before, provided her with a letter of introduction to Joyce with whose daughter Lucia she became friendly; the two women were almost exactly the same age. Joyce in turn introduced her to the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company and first publisher of Ulysses Sylvia Beach (and thanks to him she also met fellow Dubliner Samuel Beckett who was just eighteen months her senior and at one time her boy-friend, according to Theo Snoddy in his Dictionary of Irish Artists). It was through this connection that she received the invitation to illustrate a section of Finnegan's Wake. Though the author 'tried to explain about meaning on more than one level,' she later claimed not to have understood the text - a confession made by many of the novel's other readers before and since. But in return she reported that 'Joyce had very little understanding of the visual arts and would have claimed none.' Nevertheless, Steyn's three drawings for his text in transition make one regret she did not undertake more work in this vein since they demonstrate a flair especially remarkable in an artist who was then not yet 22 years old.
Her skills as an illustrator and graphic designer were further refined from July 1931 onwards when she spent about a year at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Stella Steyn is the only Irish artist known to have attended this now-legendary art school which at the time was under the direction of Mies van der Rohe and where her teachers included such seminal figures as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Eventually she would repudiate her days at the Bauhaus, calling it 'a false move,' which only had the effect 'of turning me permanently to the painting which had its roots in tradition - which included Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, but did not include the contributions made by the Bauhaus or the École de Paris in their late stages.'
It was, however, for political rather than artistic reasons that she chose to quit the Bauhaus, and Germany which was then witnessing the rise of Nazism and its accompanying virulent anti-Semitism. Around the same time she met linguist David Ross who she married in 1938. When the Second World War broke out a year later, she had already settled in England with her new husband and would remain there for the rest of her life. It appears that during the war years and their immediate aftermath she scarcely, if at all, drew or painted and the next outburst of creativity dates from the late 1940s onwards. No explanation can be given for this long lull. War need not have forced her into inactivity; after all, plenty of other artists continued to be highly productive throughout the period and quite a number of them were employed in an official capacity. Steyn's graphic skills could have been put to good use and yet there is no evidence that she worked either for herself or anyone else.
Across the span of her adult life, she had bursts of intense activity, the first of these dating from the late 1920s/early 1930s when well-received exhibitions of her work were held in London and Dublin and she also featured in shows held by the likes of the Royal Hibernian Academy. But thereafter until 1951 her name does not figure anywhere. Then for the next decade she is an abundant presence with two exhibitions at London's Leicester Gallery (the second jointly with Ivon Hitchens), almost annual contributions to the Royal Academy's summer show (see catalogue image no. 8) as well as participation in events such as an exhibition devoted to British Women Painters organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1953 and an exhibition organized by the Contemporary Art Society at the Tate Gallery, London, also in 1953 (see catalogue image no. 16). Once more, after 1961 she showed very little. Dated canvases indicate that she continued to work, but not to exhibit. It is as though the previous ten years of public display had left her drained of energy and disinclined to repeat the exercise again.
During this second period of creativity, while certain features such as her dextrous handling of luscious pastel shades in pink and pale blue remain familiar from twenty years before, others are quite new. The earlier Steyn had not shown much interest in still lives but from the end of the 1940s onwards these become a key part of her oeuvre with a particular fondness evident for hyacinths and small flowering shrubs in terracotta pots. They demonstrate an abiding loyalty to Fauvism and an affinity with French painters of the period like Raoul Dufy and Christian Berard; why she did not follow these two artists' example and turn to illustration or fabric design is again a cause of regret.
But in tandem with these oils of flowers and fruit and vases, Steyn also produced a steady stream of work in which the female form, both nude and clothed, was investigated. Whether dressed or not, Steyn's women often face the viewer with confidence and yet with a certain inscrutability so that it is impossible to imagine what their thoughts might be. Others have their heads turned away, not out of shyness but rather indifference to the onlooker as they go about their tasks. The outline of their form always boldly delineated and their figures sharing the same ripe fulsomeness, they are shown against a monochrome backdrop that serves to enhance their statuesque quality. Since some of these pictures are entitled Self-portrait, it becomes evident that Steyn was on certain occasions her own model but whether that was always the case cannot be confirmed. Like so much else about her life, it continues to be a matter of speculation.
And therein lies the paradox of Stella Steyn's art: for all the apparent joyousness and unquestionable brilliancy of colour, the deftness of line and graphic skill, its real appeal ultimately lies beyond any immediate gratification provided by these attributes. And yet what might be the fundamental source of that appeal cannot be fully explained. Ultimately the work has become as much a riddle as is the artist's life. The mystery of Stella Steyn remains unsolved.