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Permanent Collection


Matej Sternen

(Verd, 1870 – Ljubljana, 1949)

Tončka Gaber
(1908), oil, canvas, 130 x 100 cm
signed lower left: M. Sternen

ZD S 2009665, Private collection

In 1908 Antonija Jesenko married Ante Gaber, one of Sternen’s closest friends from the Škofja Loka period, who even took his side during the dispute with Jakopič after 1910. Sternen gave the portrait to the young couple as a wedding present. Regarding the dating of the work, no guesswork is needed, since the subject is wearing her wedding dress and Ante Gaber later wrote that a servant had to pose for Sternen during the later sittings because Antonija (known as Tončka) was heavily pregnant and could no longer fit into her wedding gown.

Sternen conceived this work not merely as a status portrait but as a true portrait d'apparat. He has seated his subject in a comfortable armchair, with her legs crossed. She is wearing a magnificent wedding dress and white gloves, and her hair is done in a still-current Viennese style. As in his portrait of Roza Klein, painted five years earlier, he has slightly raised the eye point, in this way emphasising the sitter’s dignity. Tončka, a pragmatic part of Škofja Loka society who, among other things, ensured that Ivan Cankar, a “prince of Slovene modernism” was given a fitting reception in Škofja Loka, is portrayed here in a relaxed yet dignified frontal pose, her eyes on the viewer. The objects around her are part of her world. Her husband Ante was a student of art history and had helped Karl Strahl, the owner of the manor house in Stara Loka, arrange his art collection. Together with Walter Schmid, then a curator at the Provincial Museum in Ljubljana, he collected art and objects of folk culture. He had also contributed photographs to an article on folk tradition in the Austro-Hungarian Empire published by the London magazine The Studio. This explains the painted wine jug and plate from Komenda, the pewter jug and the row of candlesticks on the period dresser behind her, while the vase of flowers on the left is there as a compliment to her and adds to the ceremoniousness of the image.

With this reordering of priorities for the needs of portraiture, the series of figures in dark interiors that are a feature of Sternen’s oeuvre find realisation here in a large painting that also met with public success. Sternen inventively maintains a balance between the physiognomic specificity demanded by portrait-painting convention and a manifestative discipline of execution. Despite everything, the tonally harmonious and balanced whole, with colours ranging from the whites of the dress via shades of yellow to ochre and carmine, maintains the focus of the artist’s expression in bravura brushwork and deliberately constructed space. Sternen thus succeeds in translating the portrait into a more current modernist form. 

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.