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Exhibitions and Projects
Revelations | 1 Dec. 2022 – 4 Jan. 2023

Revelations: Matej Sternen as a pioneering and leading Slovenian restorer of the first half of the 20th century

The restoration work of Matej Sternen (1870-1949) developed in parallel with his artistic output, as he discovered and restored numerous monuments of wall, canvas and panel paintings during his more than fifty years of active work in Slovenian lands and abroad. Although his restoration work was largely ignored after his death, today, as the leading Slovenian restorer of the first half of the 20th century, he is rightly credited with a pioneering role in this field. His work represents an important contribution to the preservation of cultural heritage in Slovenia, as he was working at a time when most of the monuments of medieval art were being uncovered. At the same time, his interventions are important witnesses to the beginnings of the domestic conservation and restoration profession.

"Sometimes he reluctantly rejected this part of his profession, saying that it was just a matter of making ends meet and that there was no need to waste energy in idleness. Nevertheless, he was wholeheartedly committed to this business, which, when the problem was interesting, he was passionately devoted to. He also liked the fact that most of the work was done during summer, and that his life in the countryside was a substitute for a holiday; he could earn a living and work alongside for own pleasure." (France Stele)

Sternen did his first restoration work around 1895 and soon afterwards began working for the Imperial-Royal Central Commission for the Survey and Conservation of Architectural Monuments in Vienna. After the establishment of the Regional Conservation Office for Carniola, which was taken over by the art historian France Stele (1886-1972) in 1913, Sternen carried out numerous tasks of discovering and restoring wall paintings and paintings before the Second World War. In collaboration with the Croatian conservator Ljubo Karaman (1886-1971), he discovered and restored wall paintings, canvas paintings and panel paintings in Dalmatia between 1926 and 1932, and from the 1930s onwards he also laid the foundations of restoration of paintings in the National Gallery in Ljubljana, devoting himself to the restoration of its extensive Permanent Collection.

Today, he can be credited with interventions on more than seventy monuments with wall paintings and on just over one hundred works on wooden panels and canvas, but the list is not yet complete; nor is it known how many interventions he had carried out for private clients. Sternen was tireless in his work, possessed a strong work discipline and extensive technical knowledge, which was strengthened through practice, but he was also constantly studying and experimenting, and was able to empathise with and adapt to older art. He approached heritage works of art with responsibility and respect, and in close collaboration with the conservator France Stele, who founded domestic monument conservation on the foundations of the Viennese school of art history, with clear methodological approaches. Under his influence, Sternen restored according to the contemporary principles of monument conservation, which focused on the conservation and study of monuments in their original and authentic materials and the obligatory distinction between the original and the restored additions (leading, for example, to the neutral toning of damage). Detailed documentation before and after the intervention was also of great importance, as is evidenced by Sternen's comprehensive reports, preserved in the archives, which include photographs, drawings and detailed descriptions of the condition of the works before the restoration, as well as indications of the methods and materials he used during his procedures.

Ajda Mladenović, Institute for the Protecton of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, Restoration Centre

Presented: Thursday, 8 december 2022, 6 p.m

1 December 2022 – 4 January 2023
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana