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Art in Slovenia

Slovene Early Modernism

Matej Sternen

(Verd, 1870 – Ljubljana, 1949)

Lady by a Mirror (Female Semi Nude with a Necklace)
(1912–1916), oil, canvas, 82,5 x 83,5 cm

NG S 3498, National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana

Matej Sternen spent much of 1910 and 1911 in Duino, on the Gulf of Trieste, for the sake of his daughter’s health. While lodging with his family at the Hotel Ples, he painted several views of the coast and the town from the new municipal building, then still unfinished. By 1912 he had settled in Ljubljana, where he moved into the building opposite present-day Mačkova Ulica which the architect Max Fabiani had inserted between Filipov dvorec “Philipp’s Palace”, the imposing commercial and residential building designed by the Graz architect Leopold Theyer for Philipp Schreyer) and the surviving baroque house on the newly renamed Stritarjeva Ulica during the rebuilding of central Ljubljana following the devastating earthquake of 1895. It was in this studio that Sternen painted the series of ambitious nudes that he would exhibit in Jakopič’s Art Pavilion in 1916. Lady by a Mirror was among them. 

Sternen was no novice in the genre and had already painted some ambitious nudes at the beginning of the century when he was still a member of Anton Ažbe’s circle in Munich. Redheaded Girl and Youth after Bathingare anthological works of his early period that are, however, connected to his years in the “Athens on the Isar”. In the phase that followed, Sternen dedicated himself almost exclusively to landscape painting. It was not until after 1911 that he succeeded in establishing the nude as an important genre in Slovene art. Even then the mirror was an almost compulsory element of the mise en scène, in that it enabled the artist to offer more complete information about his subjects. Lady by a Mirror is one of the finest works of this period and of Sternen’s oeuvre in general. The almost voyeuristic view captures a woman in an intimate moment, seated in an armchair. In one hand she holds a gold pendant, perhaps a heart-shaped locket containing the image of a loved one. 

In this period, Sternen was full of impressions from Paris, where he had seen for himself works by Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and, in particular, Félicien Rops that were well-known to readers of the periodical press of the day. His Parisian impressions are magnificently summarised in the large painting On the Sofa from 1909. These impressions, as well as his familiarity with central European painting, most notably with the works of Lovis Corinth, are also reflected in his studio paintings after 1912. Although Jure Mikuž has somewhat criticised his dependence on Corinth’s poses, Lady by a Mirror is brilliantly executed with broad, energetic brushstrokes and colour contrasts that highlight the problems of lighting. A calm, rhythmic structure of dry, vertical strokes lays the groundwork for the contrasting and energetically improvised brushwork in the modelling of the female figure, a manifestation of innere Erregung (inner excitement). 

References: New Acquisitions 2011−2021, National Gallery, Ljubljana 2022

Intimism, Expression, Jakopič and Sternen
The empathetic painting of Jakopič stems from his encounters with symbolist art in Munich before the turn of the century; it then transformed into intimist images of the time before the Great War. Counterlight, so exceptional in the tradition of western art, is one of the essential elements of his style. Looking at the sun through tree crowns creates a shaded and limited, intimate space in the foreground where lonely muses or bathing women appear. Analogous to natural counterlight is the “internal” light from an artificial source as a stimulus for inner life in the images of women engaged in typical female activities in middle-class interiors (At the Piano, By a Lamp, Maidens). Light and orchestration of arbitrary colours culminated in his painting Reminiscences, in which the painter, by means of a wide colour range, complementary contrasts and empathetic handling of paint, enhanced the sensual openness of the image to the viewer’s empathy and emotionality. 

In a very different way the world of a lonely middle-class woman is revealed by Matej Sternen. His The Red Parasol shows a fashionable and self-confident townswoman taking a walk in the English Garden in Munich or in Tivoli Park in Ljubljana. After 1911 the painter devised in ambitious formats a number of nudes and young women dressing or being engaged in some other intimate business. The skill of his brush speaks about sensual luxury and creates thoroughly convincing equivalence between the real and re-created worlds. The suggestive look of white taffeta or various shades of silk create a sensual aura for middle-class women whom the painter’s compositional strategy offers to an uninvited, or sometimes provoked, gaze. 

In the sphere of sculpture, several younger representatives emerge, such as Lojze Dolinar, Ivan Napotnik and Anton Štefic. They still depend on Art Nouveau stylization (Napotnik’s A Woman of Egypt), which is more evident in Dolinar’s small sculpture, but they already make use of more expressive interpretations, e.g. Job by Štefic and The Blind One by Dolinar.
National art, Impressionism
The discussion about national art took a new direction after the exhibition of the Sava artists’ society in the Galerie Miethke in Vienna in 1904, when Viennese art critics recognized a new painting province of the Empire in the paintings of Slovenian artists. In spite of his determination to withdraw from the ill-tempered attitude of the local scene, Ivan Grohar exhibited his painting Spring, the central piece in the above-mentioned exhibition, in the Sezession the following year under the title From My Homeland. A series of paintings suggestive of plein-air thus established themselves in public as a gallery of symbolic images of the homeland. The period of impressionistically formulated landscapes lasted until Grohar’s Sower of 1907, which is a programme-based image in which the earth and the man reach mythical identification through handling of paint, and a Carniolan hayrack appears in the picture as a national attribute of the agricultural worker. Within the Slovenian artists’ group Vesna, to which Maksim Gaspari, Gvidon Birolla and sculptor Svetoslav Peruzzi belong, a popular variant of national motifs dominated which relied on direct examples of folk tradition and creativity. The proximity of the two theses is revealed by the comparison between Birolla’s (Landscape) and Grohar’s (A Hillock) landscapes, the motifs of the same topographical area. The ideological use of the term “Slovenian Impressionism” is clearly paradoxical in view of the motifs of Lower Austria or Croatia by Matija Jama (Willows, Village in Winter, Bridge on the Dobra, etc.), but the artist’s obsessive dealing with light throughout his life imperceptibly incorporated them into the notion of the national. If impacts of Art Nouveau can be traced in his pictures, Jama’s painting, based on a skilful painting routine and self-discipline, is pervaded by reasoned distance and exaltation of the visual. 

In the sphere of sculpture, Gangl’s and Repič’s realism is gradually surpassed by younger sculptors who follow Art Nouveau stylization or answer the influence of Auguste Rodin. Berneker could meet his works at exhibitions in Vienna and saw them in contemporary periodicals. Forms modelled in a fluid manner, horizontally oriented compositions and softly polished surface in marble portraits are just a few elements of the most topical trends. Ivan Zajec was staying in Paris in 1905 and had first-hand acquaintance of the master. His Conflagration and The Wave of Life demonstrate this experience.
Late Realism and Art Nouveau
When they studied in Munich, the generation of younger Slovenian realists, Anton Ažbe, Ivana Kobilca and Ferdo Vesel, took up the tradition of the manifest handling practised by the circle of Wilhelm Leibl. Ivana Kobilca surpassed her motif-related limitations to portraits tinted with genre-like hues (Woman Drinking Coffee) or pure genre pieces (Women Ironing) only with her painting Summer, 1890, in which the allegory is obliterated by plein-air intentions. But after the canvas had been exhibited in Paris, her ambitions gradually waned and for the rest of her life she painted mainly excellent portraits (e.g. Parisian Woman with a Letter; two decades later portrait of her niece Mira Pintar) and flower still lifes. Ažbe put all his energies into his work as a teacher, and his Black Woman was hung on the wall of his art school in Munich as an exemplary masterpiece. From among the realist painters it was Ferdo Vesel that came closest to the aspirations of the younger generation, but he never abandoned his realist roots. Two graduates from Prague academy, Ivan Vavpotič and Ivan Žabota, upgraded portraiture to a middle-class status portrait of intellectuals (Composer Fran Gerbič and Dr Niko Županič in Vienna) or femmes fatales (Alma Souvan), while Henrika Šantel carried on the attained level of genre portrait of children. Matej Sternen drew his power from Ažbe’s gravitational attraction; by means of light he liberated the studio motif of a nude from the qualifiers of study context. With his Head of a Black Man, Rihard Jakopič attempted to emulate his teacher Ažbe, but in his portrait of Henrik Czerny or the image of a Saint he at the same time vigorously resisted the teacher’s authority. Art Nouveau models, imbued with symbolism, are revealed by the counter light, limited palette and a rather licked surface in the portrait but emancipated handling in the figure of the saint. The time between 1899 when the question of Slovenian art became topical among the intellectuals and 1904 when landscape assumed iconic character is represented by the monumentalized genre by Ivan Grohar (The Rakers) inspired by Giovanni Segantini, and by Peter Žmitek (Beggar with a Church Model) relying on the example of Ilya Repin and Peredvizhniki.