David Sterenberg Heritage (Room 309)

In Russia, the first three decades of the twentieth century produced a galaxy of talented and innovative painters, including Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and Pavel Filonov. This proud roster of names is rounded off by David Petrovich Sterenberg (1881–1948) – one of the most original masters in Russian art.

David Sterenberg’s creative heritage is still relatively unknown to the general public, making the ten masterpieces now on show at the Museum of Private Collections all the more valuable. These works were donated to the museum by the master’s children – the artists Violet and David Sterenberg.

David Sterenberg was born in Zhytomir in the Ukraine. Although he showed an early interest in painting, he only began studying art seriously in his twenties, when he took private lessons in Odessa. In 1906, he moved to Vienna. A year later, he enrolled at the Académie Witte in Paris, where he studied under Kees van Dongen. Sterenberg lived in La Ruche – a bohemian centre of artists, writers and musicians. The French writer Jacques Chapiro described La Ruche as a place where “you either kicked the bucket or became famous.” The Russian artist visited the Café de la Rotonde, haunt of Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipchitz and Ilya Ehrenburg. He also associated with such famous modern masters as Albert Marquet, Amédée Ozenfant and Fernand Léger.

Sterenberg completed his artistic education in 1912. Contributing paintings to the traditional exhibitions and the Salon des Indépendants, he began to win recognition. His works found buyers and he attracted the attention of the press.

Although living at the centre of a melting pot of different artistic trends, David Sterenberg never allied himself to any one particular movement. Falling under the influence of a certain artist, he only ever adopted a few of his or her devices, in order to resolve a certain professional task. The permanent exhibition of his works at the Museum of Private Collections includes an early canvas called Dried Up Tree (1914). The influence of Paul Cézanne can be seen in the geometric forms and the frozen trees and walls.

That same year, Sterenberg also painted Stove (1914). The artist transforms a modest subject – the iron stove in the corner of his studio – into a glittering precious stone. He employs the device of deformation, without splitting the object up into planes or individual components. Sterenberg regarded the object not as a pretext for formal constructions, but as something functional. Deforming the stove, he paints it the most unexpected and unusual colours – red, green, yellow and blue. Space loses its traditional meaning of the “emptiness” between objects. Space itself becomes an object, forming enclosed configurations of whimsical forms. Things lead a double life as both objects and space. Several of them are fractured, interflowing into the outlines of other objects, overturning the traditional relationship between volume and the environment.

Self-Portrait (1915) has a similar “crystallised” structure. Avoiding the extremities of Cubism, which divided the object up into its components, Sterenberg only slightly deforms the objects. With the help of geometry, he simplifies the forms, underscoring the almost tangible reality of matter. The paint is applied to the canvas in local patches. The decorative and distinct shadows increase the sensation of three-dimensionality.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Sterenberg visited his relatives in Russia. Returning to Paris, he continued to contribute works to the Salon. In 1917, he exhibited alongside Henri Matisse, Amédée Ozenfant and Maurice Utrillo.

Throughout his career, David Sterenberg was a master of the still-life. He was always fascinated by the objective essence of existence and the endless diversity of matter. The artist never attempted to copy objects in a naturalistic manner. His still-lifes are not academic studies; they are pictures with a profound inner content, involving action, intrigue and recorded time.

Sterenberg was one of the first artists in the twentieth century to understand the new importance of the object – its everyday occurrence and serial and democratic nature, so typical of the artistic thinking of this period. Before this, the object in art had usually always been the bearer of a certain action. It had never interested the artist as an object with its own qualities and structural laws. Sterenberg attempted to penetrate inside the object. Unlike in Cubism, the object almost always retained its external construction, representing both the bearer of a concrete idea and a symbol of life. The artist did not entirely reject realism and recognisable objects. In Orange Still-Life (1916), he takes simplicity to a state of refinement, perceiving the picture as a way of showing a single thing. This thing is intentionally small in comparison to the abstract local background, the space of which becomes as material and weighty as the objects themselves.

David Sterenberg returned to Russia after the February revolution. In 1917, he was employed by the Department of Fine Art of the People’s Commissariat of Education, where he came into contact with hundreds of pictures painted immediately before and after the revolution. As in France, however, he remained true to himself in Russia. No passing fashion could fundamentally alter the master’s technique.

Although Sterenberg had no need or desire to change his style, his creative creed did not exclude the introduction of new forms. Still-Life with a Lamp (1920) is an unexpected and unique work. In comparison with the artist’s other paintings, it appears to incarnate chaos. The sharp angles of the intersecting lines “decompose” the weighty volumes, revealing the construction of the objects and showing everything simultaneously from the inside and outside. Even in this work, however, Sterenberg does not go as far as the complete speculation of non-objective abstract art. He is unable to reject the reality of the surrounding objects, which he underscores with the help of a label inscribed “still-life with a lamp” glued onto the layer of paint. The unusual nature of this canvas is intensified by the garish contrasts of the painterly planes of different textures.

Sterenberg makes original use of a Constructivist device in Still-Life with a Black Tray (1924). The bright-red apple slides along the edge of the white tablecloth on the black patterned and varnished tray, recalling the painterly experiments of Alexander Rodchenko.

The bleak life of the 1920s was reflected in the objective environment of the artist’s still-lifes. Depicting two cabbage heads and a crooked basket in Still-Life with Cabbage (1926), Sterenberg does not simply regard them as objects of their time or realities of everyday life. The master understands the independent value of each thing. The link with modernity is deeply and subconsciously felt in this work.

In the mid-1920s, Sterenberg developed an unusual painterly genre – something between a still-life and a landscape. Bushes and Grasses (1924) from the Texture and Colour cycle is an image of surreal, semi-transparent leaves, grass and branches, lying on the ochre-yellow ground or soaring in fantastic space. This work does not have any analogues in world art. Man enjoys contemplating the green trees, shrubs and grass, attempting to comprehend their invisible growth and see the moving and unmoving. Sterenberg wants to avoid falling under the spell of inanimate objects. The emotional impulse is prominent in all the paintings of the cycle. Although the meagre palette of light-brown and pale-green lacks contrasts, the subtle tones create the image of an enigmatic magic dream, full of an alarming sensation of the transience of existence, notwithstanding all the decorative refinement.

Elements of sorrow crept into such works of the 1920s as the artist’s portrait of Nadezhda Sterenberg – Woman on a Couch (1920). The light background and white patch of the dress make her figure weightless, lifting the sitter up above the textural plane of the couch. The slightly generalised facial features intensify the impression of imperceptible sorrow.

David Sterenberg was at the pinnacle of his professional career in the 1920s. His works were regularly shown at exhibitions in Russia and abroad. He was the chairman of the Society of Easel Artists. The artist taught, had many students and was often mentioned in the press.

Although the end of the 1920s spelt the end of creative freedom in Soviet Russia, Sterenberg was still full of energy in the 1930s. Not wishing to acknowledge the end of the Russian avant-garde, he threw himself into his work, remaining faithful to his own creative method – rejection of the graphic in favour of the painterly. This period is represented at the Museum of Private Collections by White Vase on a Red Background (1931). The colour in Sterenberg’s works of the 1930s seems to have its own inner energy. The richness of the tones reaches the maximum level of tension.

Sterenberg’s art was either upbeat or sorrowful in the 1920s, but it was always emotional. In the 1930s, his works grew more intimate. Their content became more “closed”. Although the objects in his still-lifes remained the same, the colour combinations and contrasts were no longer decorative. Colour was accorded an almost magical meaning.

Although David Sterenberg continued to work prolifically and contribute to major exhibitions in the 1930s, he had already lost his former position. He was slowly forgotten for most of the twentieth century. Only in the 1980s did fame return to this outstanding Russian artist.

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