Lot 11
  • 11

Vladimir Avgustovich Stenberg

800,000 - 1,200,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Vladimir Avgustovich Stenberg
  • Abstract Composition
  • signed in Cyrillic and dated 20 l.r.
  • oil on canvas
  • 66 by 52.5cm, 26 by 20 3/4 in.
  • The present lot is double-sided


The family of the artist


Probably Moscow, The First Free Studio, Pervaya vystavka obshchestva molodykh khudozhnikov (OBMOKhU), 2-16 May 1920


Structural Condition The canvas has been painted on both sides and is securely attached with staples to the inside of a double sided frame. The tacking and turnover edges of the verso have been strengthened with a thin linen strip-lining. The canvas is slack and there are some slight undulations, most notably in the upper left and right quadrants of the composition. These are not uncommon when a canvas has been painted on both sides. There are slightly raised stretcher-bar lines which correspond to a previous support. There is a very small puncture to the canvas within the pale grey pigments below the centre left of the upper edge as viewed from the recto. Paint Surface Recto: The paint surface appears largely unvarnished. There is evidence of surface dirt and minor accretions. There are some small scattered paint losses including very fine lines of paint loss within the grey pigments in the upper left and right quadrants of the composition, and a diagonal line of paint loss within the red pigments towards the centre of the left edge. Inspection under ultra-violet light shows small scattered retouchings including a few small retouchings with associated very small spots and lines within the upper right quadrant, a few small retouchings in the centre of the composition, a few small retouchings in the left part of the composition, a few small retouchings below the upper edge and above the lower edge including a few small spots and lines of retouching in the lower left corner. Other small retouchings are also visible. Verso: The painting appears unvarnished. There is evidence of residue from an old label in the upper right quadrant of the composition. There are a few very minor abrasions and paint losses. Inspection under ultra-violet light shows scattered retouchings, most notably retouchings running along the upper part of the right edge, small retouchings corresponding to the residue of the label, a vertical area of retouching towards the lower left corner of the composition, and a diagonal line of retouching with associated small spots to the right of the lettering in the upper left quadrant. Summary Recto: The painting would therefore appear to be in good condition and would benefit from the repair of the puncture, and from cleaning, and the infilling, texturing and retouching of any minor paint losses. Verso: The painting therefore appears to be in reasonably good and stable condition.
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Catalogue Note

Vladimir Stenberg and his younger brother Georgy (1900-1933), were born in Moscow soon after the family moved from Sweden in 1898. Their father Avgust Stenberg was an enterprising businessman and was soon variously employed. Growing up, the brothers would often help with his artistic projects, for example his designs for shop windows of the capital’s larger stores, and so it was through their father that they acquired their earliest training. In 1912 the Stenberg brothers were accepted into the Stroganov School of Applied Art where they acquired a good all-round artistic grounding, both in applied and fine art, and by the time of the 1917 Revolution they were at the final stage of their education, so in this sense at least found themselves primed and prepared for the changes that the Revolution would bring.

During the first months of Soviet rule, reform took the shape of an experimental system of Free State Art Schools (‘Svomas’ - Svobodnye gosudarstvennye khudozhestvennye masterskiye, also known as GSKhM), geared towards the utopian ideal of reviving communal studios and moving towards a guild model for artistic education. The Stroganov School was renamed the First Free Studio, and the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture became the Second Free Studio.

Students signed up to classes which were to be held by established and recognised masters of art, and the young apprentices would thrive and learn under the supervision of these mentors. The more experienced students were allowed to sign up to a number of different studio classes. The Stenberg brothers were members of what was termed the ‘unsupervised’ class and were allowed to work independently, but also took classes taught by Georgy Yakulov, who helped them to develop further the techniques of theatre design which they had begun to study at the Stroganov School.

The apprentices of the ‘unsupervised’ class were rather more assertive than the others, playing a more active role in society at large, and it was precisely from this group of students that in the autumn of 1919 The Society of Young Artists was born, OBMOKhU.

The Stenberg brothers were founding members of this new society, and at one point Vladimir was the chairman. OMBOKhU was of course engaged in the creation of innovative artworks, but equally the members were directly entrusted with the task of building a new culture and of carrying out the orders of the People's Commissariat for Education (Narkompros), the Soviet agency charged with administering national events, educational campaigns and revolutionary celebrations. OBMOKhU was the first real society of the younger generation of artists which flourished and a series of exhibitions was soon to follow.

Even today, literature on the period incorrectly dates the first exhibition of OBMOKhU took to the spring of 1919, but the society was only formed in September 1919 and the first exhibition in fact took place on 2–16th May 1920, in the halls of the First Free Studio on Rozhdestvensky Boulevard (previously the Stroganov Institute). Anatoly Lunacharsky himself made the keynote speech at the opening, a reflection of the weight given to this exhibition by the highest echelons of Soviet government, who were also represented at the opening by Lev Kamenev, his wife Olga Kameneva, Dmitry Shterenberg, head of the Visual Arts department of Narkompros (IZO), and Osip Brik.

The spring 1920 exhibition of OBMOKhU had two important goals: the work of the students was to go on view, but just as critical was to exhibit the work of the teachers themselves, who were anxious to establish their own artistic maturity in the public sphere, for although they were recognised artists they had no official confirmation of their qualifications. Before the Revolution, students were awarded a diploma to certify the end of their artistic training; under the new regime however, the students had to present their work to the leaders of the Free Art Schools, on which basis a decision could be taken.

The moment of the Stenberg brothers' official graduation, at which point they could at last term themselves ‘artists’, was this first OBMOKhU exhibition in 1920. Only very general records of the exhibition have survived, but we know that it included sketches and designs for festivals, houses and streets, trains and steam-boats, theatre sets and costumes, as well as experimental painting. 

Of the Stenberg brothers’ work of 1920, only two oil paintings have survived: by Georgy Stenberg, Hoisting Crane (The State Russian Museum) (fig 2.), which is signed in full, first name and surname; and the present work, Abstract Composition, by his older brother Vladimir, which is signed with initial and surname only. Both brothers dated their paintings. The inclusion not only of the date but also of a signature on these works is compelling evidence that both were included in the first OBMOKhU exhibition of May 1920, and that both were put before the commission to assess their artistic credentials for final graduation.

Hoisting Crane by Georgy Stenberg was among a number of paintings acquired directly from this exhibition by the museum branch of IZO Narkompros. The present work however, Vladimir Stenberg held on to all through his life and it was subsequently inherited by his family. The visual similarities of these two canvases are striking and are some reflection of how closely related the work of the siblings was, to the extent that the brothers were even dubbed with the joint name '2 Sten 2', later '2 Stenberg 2'.

In Georgy Stenberg’s Hoisting Crane, we can make out an industrial setting with silhouettes of workers engaged in manual work against a background of a generalised construction zone formed from broad geometric patterns of colour. Vladimir Stenberg did not title the present lot - the neutral title Abstract Composition was added later – nor is there any specific industrial context in the painting. Instead, we find in the lower right corner a diminutive figure in civilian dress, a member of the intelligentsia perhaps, with the rest of the canvas given over to a complex non-objective composition unfolding in an undefined space. With his arms behind his back, the gentleman in the bowler hat appears removed, almost as though he is regarding this unusual spectacle from a space apart from the giant apparatus in front of him.

At first glance there does seem to be a kind of narrative to these two paintings, but at the same time the creative impulse that inspired these brothers was clearly something more than this, with both artists preoccupied with the challenges of constructing an effective and original composition only through the arrangement of broad flat planes of colour. The painter’s task was to break new ground. Vladimir Stenberg’s double-sided painting remained in his personal collection and the reverse testifies to the next chapter in his career. The recto of Abstract Composition was painted when he was still very young, but already we see what a talented artist he had become and how deftly he was able to handle paint. Completely at ease with figurative and non-figurative modes of expression, here they inter-relate beautifully and the bowler-hatted figure doesn’t just provide a contrast to the abstracted surroundings, it also is the element that gives the picture its full weight and makes it quite so expressive.

The abstracted surroundings are made up of variously sized ovals, circles, rectangles and trapezes, curved and straight lines, and decorative patterns. But suddenly the geometric regularity of the forms is abruptly interrupted with a nerve-like ornamental line shooting upwards, almost as though its whimsical path is tracing the outline of the hot clouds, whether of smoke or steam. At the same time there is something about the bright light emanating from the edges of the line which evokes a sense of electricity and the wonder of lightning.

The genius of Stenberg’s treatment of paint one can also attribute to his choice of palette. Here we see the ‘un-colourful’ combined with decorative touches of bright red; the black, white and various tones of grey are not of course colours in themselves, but give a sense of strengthening and ebbing light. The ‘non-colours’ carry the neutral feel of ash, steel, industrial paint and ‘the machine’ versus the hot oranges, reds and ochre-yellows, all of which are intensified by the dense blue oval area at the heart of the painting.

It was no doubt due to lack of materials that Vladimir Stenberg reused the canvas to paint another composition on the reverse at a time which signaled an important new chapter in his life. In both Georgy and Vladimir’s paintings of 1920, already one can see that each was concerned with the creation of colour constructions on flat surfaces. In the same year, together with their close friend Konstantin Medunetsky, they took up this cause more vigorously in their work and in their proclamations and started to call them ‘colour-constructions’. From the very beginning, these construction were defined by flat surfaces and by the relation of line to densely painted geometric shapes. Vladimir Stenberg produced a large cycle of ‘colour-constructions’ each numbered in sequence.

On the reverse of this canvas we see Stenberg trying out his ideas on ‘colour-construction’ with a purely abstract, decorative painted composition made up of surfaces, quasi-3D figures with straight and curving outlines. It feels experimental, but at the same time one can trace the artist feeling his way towards ‘colour-construction’ and away from a more two-dimensional flatness into space.

In March 1921 this three-party union from the OBMOKhU group, comprising Vladimir and Georgy Stenberg and Konstantin Medunetsky, formed a ‘working group of constructivists’ at the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture. At the famous Second OBMOKhU Exhibition in May-June 1921, Vladimir and Georgy exhibited a large cycle of painted and spatial ‘colour-constructions’. Alexander Rodchenko and Karl Ioganson are also known to have participated in the exhibition, though they were not formally part of the society. The photographs of the exhibition taken by Rodchenko (fig 4.) give us an impression of the ‘colour-constructions’ by the Stenbergs that have not survived.

At the end of that year, the same triad put together the now famous exhibition which opened in 1922 at the building of the All-Russian Society of Poets in Moscow on Tverskaya 21. Three types of work were shown: ‘colour-constructions’(painting, graphic art and sculptural),  ‘projects for spatial constructions’ (graphic art) and ‘constructions of spatial surrounding’ (sculptural).

In their characteristically succinct and lapidary fashion, the members of this ‘working group of constructivists’ simply named their exhibition ‘Constructivists’. It was the first time that the term was officially used in connection with this type of art, and it is to the Stenberg brothers and Medunetsky that historians of the Russian avant-garde attribute this word, an all-too-familiar addition to our vocabulary now but at the time, revolutionary.

We are grateful to Dr Alexandra Shatskikh for providing this catalogue note.