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Exhibitions and Projects
3 September – 30 September 2020

Revelations, September 2020

Matej Sternen and his copies of old masters' works

Matej Sternen (Verd, 1870 – Ljubljana, 1949) was of an extraordinary lively mind and was creatively curious, which certainly gave rise to the fact that he expressed himself in different painting media. He was the only one of the Slovenian impressionists to have completed academy studies and he kept to a high level of technical performance in his work all his life. In his own words, in addition to attractive motifs he always looked for technical problems. Besides oil painting he also mastered drawing and watercolour, he experimented in printmaking, was engaged in photography, and was particularly enthusiastic about wall painting.

Sternen's excellent technological skill and his desire to explore are closely related to his engagement as a restorer, to which copying also belongs somehow. Sternen was completely dedicated to restoration activity which he held as a profession, long before Professor Mirko Šubic formally declared it as such. He tackled the restoration task from a research-painting starting point, and at the same time he was able to curb his creative authorial charge. Through his perfect painting manner he managed to approach intuitively older works of art and create an authentic impression of painted surfaces. He strived for the least possible reconstruction interventions which, on the one hand, can be read as a historical document and, on the other hand, do not diminish the overall aesthetic perception of the monument. Substantially contributing to Sternen developing such an extremely modern restoration approach was Professor France Stelè (1886‒1972), the two of whom became an inseparable conservation-restoration duo after 1910.

Sternen acquired his first experiences in restoration practice with Alojzij Šubic when the two painters successfully renovated frescoes in the church at Skaručna in 1898. In the following years, he restored for the K.K. Zentralkommission für Denkmalpflegeof Vienna and after the First World War for the Office (later: Institute) for Monument Protection in Ljubljana. Together with Stelè, he was active as a restorer on the entire Slovenian territory from Carniola to Prekmurje (Over-Mur). Being highly experienced in restoration of both frescoes and easel paintings, it is no wonder that he was immediately employed as a restorer and conservator in the newly-founded National Gallery in Ljubljana and actively participated in the staging of its first permanent collection. In this role, he dealt with the issue of copying several times, mainly in the 1920s. Hence, the National Gallery of Slovenia keeps several of his copies of relevant works from Slovenian as well as European art treasury from different historical periods, carried out in different techniques.

As early as 1921, Sternen made his first copies of medieval frescoes for the later Gallery’s collection of medieval copies. It gradually increased in the following few decades and was meant to present Gothic wall paintings in the exhibition rooms as completely as possible. Sternen copied two Passion motifs from the old parish Church of St. Oswald at Zgornje Jezersko: Ecce homo and The Death of Judas (also Hanged Judas). He decided to execute them as authentically as possible, so he copied on a plaster ground in a true fresco technique. The original scenes are painted on the chancel arch. At that time, Sternen was also engaged in the restoration of the frescoes in the stated church. It follows from Stelè’s conservation report that only the heads of Christ and Judas in the Kiss of Judas scene are worth mentioning among the reconstructed parts. This might have been the reason why Sternen, most likely in agreement with Stelè, chose for copying the scenes of Ecce homo (only the group with Christ) and the Death of Judas, since he focused on the faces of the central characters in the main reconstruction of the frescoes in the church. Hence, the copies made for the Gallery could have served him as a special preparatory work for the restoration process carried out in the field.

At the time when Sternen was finishing his most extensive fresco commission ­– the ceiling paintings on the vaults of the nave and the presbytery in the Franciscan church in Ljubljana – he painted two more notable copies, this time in the technique of tempera on panel. In 1936, Izidor Cankar (1886­−1958) commissioned two copies from him for his diplomatic residence in Argentina: of the side wings of St. Sebastian Altarpiece painted in 1516 by Hans Holbein the Elder (1465−1524). The images of the female saints, St. Elisabeth and St. Barbara, are another manifestation of Sternen’s homage to painting tradition and of his experimental attitude to painting technique. We are impressed by charming, brilliant colour handling of details and emphasized contours, so that the copies first seem to be genuine northern Renaissance works of art. It takes another closer look to realize that it is a matter of Sternen’s painting dexterity in using modern approaches to achieve the effects of traditional procedures and techniques.

Kristina Preininger

Translated by
Alenka Klemenc

3 September – 30 September 2020
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana