Lunacharsky on Art: Shterenberg

In 1914, A. V. Lunacharsky was the Paris correspondent of the Kiev newspaper ‘Kievan Thought’. He wrote several articles under the title Young Russia in Paris, among which were his impressions of David Shterenberg (6 February), Marc Chagall (14 March), A. F. Zholtkevich (15 June), and Iosif Teper (6 July).  [I mentioned this series in an earlier post on the Jews of the Russian Avant-Garde.] He intended, he said, to bring to his readers’ attention several young Russian artists whose fame was hardly thunderous and hiding in obscure silence. (Flowery, eh?) Paris, he said, had become a big centre of Russian art: it attracted youth from every corner, thirsting for creativity and beauty. More than that, the attraction was not for Paris’s own great past arts or contemporary unrecognised art; rather, it was for the uncontrolled and reckless pursuit of every possibility. Parisian trends were evident even back home among the young, going by all the exhibitions and art magazines. The hundreds of Russians in Paris could very well be in the vanguard of a new significant element of Russian art.

In this first part, I translate his piece on David Shterenberg (Давид Штеренберг) (1881-1948).

A friend enthusiastically demanded that I should immediately go see a series of works by the young Russian artist David Shterenberg, because he was returning to Russia the next day with his canvases. I might not, he said, have another opportunity to see the paintings and to cast the attention that they so richly deserved.

Shterenberg turned out to be one of the residents of the quaint Babylon № 2 on Rue Dantzig, a building roughly constructed of flotsam and debris, adapted to the needs of the poor artist, and giving shelter to about a hundred young people who are waging an ideological and material battle with life. This curious artistic labyrinth is called La Ruche.

Shterenberg bade us sit, and choosing this or that picture from among the large numbers leaning against the wall, he showed them to us, putting them up on a chair. He wants to show them chronologically. He made the occasional comment, and replied monosyllabically and, it seemed, hesitantly to my questions.

It turns out that he is the son of a poor Jewish artist from Zhitomir. From childhood he drew well, but the necessity to earn a living prevented him from pursuing his artistic interests till he was twenty-six. Only in the last four years, surviving somehow, was this person able to educate himself, absorbing the Parisian atmosphere. Officially he is not anyone’s disciple, but he learns intensely from everyone he sees that he feels is sympathetic to his own instincts.

From the very earliest studies, it is evident that before you is not some half-baked first-time artist.

Here is a Montmartre girl in a bright-red dress, décolleté, looking into your eyes with her own dark ones – it’s a big etude. But look at how she appears to be floating in the air, how emphasised is her depiction, how confidently her health radiates from her heavy young body. Already it is evident from this picture that Shterenberg will be a stranger to Impressionism, and reality interests him more than outward appearances. His first portraits convince me of this again, especially his magnificent portrait of his father. What a face! His cap askance, his jacket high-buttoned, at first glance all are reminiscent of the Renaissance. And that is because the face of the Jewish craftsman is really the face of the Doge. His calm expression and quiet meditativeness unconsciously reminds us of Venetian portraitists. But the few bright tones and the rapidly constructed picture with pale colours is reminiscent of [Ferdinand] Hodler.

I ask – did you know Hodler?

– No, I never met him. I saw him for the first time only in the last Salon.

The artist goes farther along the path of accuracy in the construction of a picture. To this he adds a conscious search for rhythm and at the same time works passionately on detail and depth of colour.

His most mature picture in this respect is still unfinished: it’s a full length portrait of a woman in a blue velvet dress seated against a background of crimson carpet cloth. The bowed shape and slowly rendered lines of the hands suggest an elegance and restraint, even if with a relaxed pace. Some parts of the portrait have an artistic sense of brilliance. The play of light on the smoothly combed hair is observed with scrupulous accuracy and poeticised love.

The painting is not complete, and it’s not difficult to point out some flaws, but in the best of its parts, it is worthy of Guerin, although it contains a different spirit. There is something Russian in its lethargic grace, in its restrained, sad and gentle emotion that spills all around, combining with rich colourful tones.

However, in parallel with his development as a realist painter, he also walks along a different path.

Here are streets that look like frightening corridors without ceilings. Firewalls, shutters on windows, taverns, pavements, all run at odd angles, the heights and voids distant in the depths. Needless to say, this simplistic and somehow geometric construction of a portrait of a street captures its absurd prison-like nature, its striking spatiality a somewhat tangible perspective – but it is hardly new. It’s a characteristic that is also sought by Marchand, to whom I have been repeatedly drawing the attention of readers interested in contemporary art.

Of course, Shterenberg knows the works of Marchand. But Shterenberg is not quite Marchand. Here we have a more of a horror of suffocation of the city. Here the mood is somewhat akin to Dobuzhinsky and Leonid Andreyev in his ‘Curse of the beast’.

But here is the big, still quite unfinished picture, which crowns them all. Involuntarily from my lips emerges the cry, ‘Tobin!’

Yes, the simplicity of the palette, the play between only two colours – blue and yellow, this selection of areas in which sandheaps and bulges and gaps immediately produce a space, the typically captured simple poses of the workers, so rhythmic and fine – these are all Tobin. Even the caps, even the underdone drawing of the faces, the shading of figures – these are all Tobin.

But here before me is a painting with the blue Seine in the distance, large piles of sand and little men digging into them, wheelbarrows, carts, horses. I consider Marchand and Tobin as advanced synthesists, but I don’t know – can you put any painting of Tobin beside this work by this autodidact who has sought this style for four years and only arrived at it in the past few months?

Here is one more picture of a young man in the same synthetic manner. Such flexibility in it, what an almost monumental figure against the complex background of the carpet. How economically this has been executed, how severely excised all superfluous details!

But the artist shows me even more recent pieces. He has already achieved a constructivity, and now he wants to enrich himself with the freedom of palette. The deep blue of the sky, the shining blue ground. The artist wants to enter the kingdom of dreams, but he wants to construct those dreams with the same certainty and substantiality that he renders reality.

And here is the picture that the jury at the Salon selected for exhibition. Amaze yourself, then, that nobody knows Shterenberg! But this picture is a rather ordinary modernist nude.

I note not so much the wealth of styles that Shterenberg pursues as the unusually rapid progress he makes in them all, and above everything I note his unerring taste. While others scramble madly in the field of Futurism, or find themselves stuck between the cliffs of Cubism, the young Shterenberg moves along the two directions simultaneously, with much promise to my mind. And how can I not be surprised, having entered the studio of the unknown young Russian entirely by accident, and found there such original reinterpretations of the elements of Guerin, Marchand and Tobin’s art?

But all this applies only to the form. Shterenberg’s investigations are all formal. But there is every indication that he is not only a painter but also a poet. Where will he end up? We’ll see.

Nude. (1907).

Nude. (1908).

Steamboats on the Seine. (1912-1914).

Courtyard of the hotel. (1914).

Houses. Zhitomir. (1914).

Portrait of father and sister. (1914).

Self-portrait. (1915).

Breakfast. (1916).

Still life with herring. (1918).

Old man. (1920).

Meeting in the village / Agitator. (1923).

Still life with lamp.


A. V. Lunacharsky, ‘Young Russia in Paris‘.

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