September 01, 2010

Still Life with Beets

among the great artists of the Russian avant-garde, David Shterenberg is often overlooked. Unlike Vladimir Tatlin, the founder of Constructivism, or Kazimir Malevich, king of Suprematism, Shterenberg was not given to radical experimentation. In the many still lifes he painted, Shterenberg focused not on cosmic visions but on domestic details, endowing them nonetheless with meaning beyond their simple representation.

Born in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir in 1881, Shterenberg studied art in Odessa. From 1906 to 1912 he lived in Paris, where he encountered Cubism and other modernist movements. But the bold promise of the Revolution lured him back to Russia, as it did his fellow artists Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky (although, unlike them, Shterenberg remained in the Soviet Union until his death). Shterenberg was soon named head of the Fine Arts Department of NARKOMPROS, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, and later taught at Moscow’s influential Vkhutemas school, with which some of the most important artists of the day were associated, including Tatlin, Malevich, Rodchenko, and Lissitzky.

Shterenberg’s greatest legacy is found in the dozens of tabletop still lifes he composed, such as Aunt Sasha from 1922/23, reproduced here. Although the influence of Cubism is evident in his analysis of planes, the painting also evinces a debt to Suprematism’s exploration of geometric forms and Constructivism’s close study of textures. Shterenberg conveys equally beautifully the airiness of the curtains and the solid weight of the wood. The painting is remarkably earthy in its use of so many rich brown tones, and in its gravitational pull away from the window’s rectangular light down to the grounded tables. Aunt Sasha’s long brown skirt carries the eye even further, beyond the frame of the picture. Most notable, however, is the fact that all of the elements on the table actually come from the earth — root vegetables and tubers. Even though somewhat abstracted and flattened, these vegetables clearly represent the makings of beet soup, borshch (борщ). Most prominent, and most crucial for borshch, is the beet, here depicted as a deep red cylinder standing upright against the white plate. Just next to it lies a red cabbage in a cutaway view that reveals its beautiful veins. To the left are an onion, a carrot, and a parsnip. A second table holds a wooden basket of potatoes. Shterenberg has shifted the angle of the tables so that even though we are looking Aunt Sasha right in the face, the tilt of the tabletops displays surface rather than edge.

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