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Permanent Collection


Matej Sternen

(Verd, 1870 – Ljubljana, 1949)

Reclining Female Nude (After Bathing)
(c. 1915), oil, canvas, 49 x 79 cm

NG S 1377, National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana

Reclining Female Nude appeared in public for the first time in 1916 under the title After Bath. Tomaž Brejc dates it to 1913 but it is also possible that the work was created between the end of Sternen’s time in Munich in 1914 and this exhibition, since the collection of glass plate photographs belonging to Sternen includes a female nude lying on her front with her head buried in her folded arms. The image is very similar to the photograph of Ivana Kobilca as a model that is believed to have been taken by Ferdo Vesel in the second half of the 1880s. Sternen’s reliance on a photograph in this work is confirmed by the shadows on the model’s back and the break of her body at the waist.

Tomaž Brejc draws attention to the ways in which this work differs from Sternen’s other nudes in its spatial concept and elegance of execution. The composition is somewhat unconventional, not only in the context of Sternen’s oeuvre, but more broadly. Sternen has placed the nude diagonally with the head in the foreground and lowered the eye point so that the viewer is looking down from above. In this way, he animates an otherwise static subject, which is also supported spatially by an intensification of the light – from the shadow on the left-hand side, it intensifies rapidly towards the middle of the picture and then fades again. The strong diagonal of the body is countered by a series of brief, muted caesuras in the opposite direction, implied in the segmentation of the body and the modelling of the folds of the sheet. Both elements are predominantly modelled with a palette knife. The background is neutral, with energetic strokes of a drained brush in Venetian red. Traditionally, works entitled After Bath show nudes engaged in drying their limbs or applying make-up. In this painting, however, Sternen has immobilised his nude in somnolence, changing his subject into a passive object exposed to the artist’s gaze. Like the subject, the manner of objectivisation of the model reminds us of the studio practices of Realism in the 1880s and the tradition of pure painting represented in Munich by the work of Wilhelm Leibl a decade earlier.

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.