Painter, he was born in 1904 in Kałusz near Stanisławów, and died in 1988 in Zakopane. The factor that determined his life and most of his artistic output was the dramatic experience of a near-death experience. During occupation he found himself in the ghetto in Lvov, where he was involved in conspiracy, for which he was sent to the concentration camp in Bełżec. He managed, however, to flee from the transport and return to the ghetto. In 1943 he miraculously escaped death when a bullet from the firing squad missed him by inches. Later on Stern claimed that fate granted him a second life. He aimed to repay this debt with his commitment to artistic issues – teaching and supporting the GROUP OF YOUNG ARTISTS, the CRACOW GROUP, and the Krzysztofora Gallery with his own output.
Before these events came to pass, however, he received a private education in Lvov, and from 1928 continued his studies in Cracow – at Ludwika Mehoffer private Independent Academy of Painting and Drawing. Towards the end of his stay there he took up studies at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts (during the period 1929-35 he was the pupil of Teodor Axentowicz, Władysław Jarocki, Stanisław Kamocki, and Fryderyk Pautsch; between 1954 and 1975 he himself gave lessons on painting at his alma mater). He began to play a prominent part in the Cracow artistic society very early by co-creating – together with Maria Jarema, Sasza Blonder, Leopold Lewicki, Stanisław Osostowicz, and Henryk Wiciński – THE CRACOW GROUP. He was also engaged in politics – as a member of the Polish Communist Party (repeatedly arrested and in 1938 sent to the detention camp in Bereza Kartuska). Upon the termination of war he returned to Cracow, where, until his death, he was regarded as a pillar of artistic attitude, of which the stable and unchanging rule was honesty to oneself.
Already before the war broke out, he devoted himself to painting and graphics (adopting the linocut technique, etching with aquatint). As a graphic artist he was interested in the generic issues, which transpired in the “descriptive” titles of his works (W KAWIARNI – AT A CAFE, 1933; PRASUJĄCA – THE IRONING WOMAN, of that same year; MIŁOŚNICY PIENIĄDZA – LOVERS OF MONEY, 1934). Most of his illustrations depict the convention of satirical grotesque so characteristic of the works by Georg Grosz. Before the war, Stern was mainly interested in finding his own personal path by giving in to various fascinations (e.g. for some time he remained under the influence of Kandinsky’s works). However, after 1945 gradual but consistent changes became distinguishable in his oils and monotyped etches. Janusz Bogucki commented on them by saying that, as in Stern so in Jaremianko and in Tadeusz Kantor, the works “... move from abstract form towards organic form, whereas in the emotional aspect of the paintings the joy of a beautiful construction partly gives way to motifs of horror and pain. In his oil paintings [however] Stern remains relatively devoted to issues of composition".
Towards the end of 1950s the painter visited Italy, where he became acquainted with the art of Alberto Burri, one of the masters of the “painting of substance”. He became interested in painting structure and started introducing to it and adapting in a creative way non-painterly substances. Other members of the YOUNG ARTISTS’ GROUP, like Jadwiga Maziarska, who played a distinct role in the movement, however (she conducted her first “factural” trials in the mid 1950s, independently of similar solutions in western European art) soon shared his interest.
Stern himself took most pleasure from creating his own realities composed of indistinct shapes, which brought to mind the organic world. He used their metaphysical potential and combined them to form unrealistic entities. Half abstract forms floating in a mysterious space stressed the surreal climate of the representations. This was characteristic of numerous of his works, regardless of the technique used. A similar aura characterises the compositions, in which a special focus lies on meaning of the fabric itself: expressed either by plain painting, or by the collage technique. His final works are believed to be especially original achievements. Although he used conventional methods, he branded them heavily with symbols of personal, tangible experiences. It is to them that the substances “won” from the environment refer: fragments of simple rags, organic elements (primarily small bones and pieces of leather) pasted directly on the canvas, as well as – appearing like stigmata – testimonies of Jewish affiliation (photographs from the past or tallits). They grant the paintings an eschatological nature, as the apparently mechanical act of attaching small objects or organic “leftovers” to the surface of the canvas receives in the case of Stern a symbolic meaning. It results from his war experience and the conviction enrooted in them of the frailty of life and the inevitability of death. The elements encased in glass caskets are not, however, impersonal traces of past times, rather they become personal – as linked to specific, individual experiences - witnesses. They have the role of epitaphs and, at the same time, of reliquaries. Animal remnants become in this context a type of tokens of human presence. The traces, which Stern “recorded”, institute double-meaninged tokens: they are real “proof of existence” of a particular human being (fish remains are tokens of fishing trips, the painter’s passion: see for example FORMY ZABITE II (KILLED FORMS II), 1973), while at the same time they are symbolical figures of the Jewish nation’s sufferings (Upokorzenie (Humiliation), 1984). Both aspects are ideally combined in the painting TABLICA CZERWONA (THE RED BOARD) (1971), which Jan Trzupek convincingly interpreted as a kind of matzeva.
By creating his reliefs, collage works, and assemblage works Stern took care to preserve the form. His “showcases” resembling museum collections contain objects of great value. Colour and light, perceived in an artistic manner, transform them into works of art, but at the same time do not deprive them of their realistic dimensions and symbolic associations. A comprehensive set of information on Stern’s art can be found in the catalogue of a retrospective exhibition that took place in the National Museum in Cracow in 1972.
Institute of Art History at the Catholic University of Lublin