Sintenis, Renée (1888–1965)

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Sintenis, Renée (1888–1965)

German sculptor and engraver whose sculptures of young animals and children were extremely popular in pre-Nazi Germany but were removed from museums as "degenerate art" during the Third Reich. Name variations: Renee Sintenis. Born Renate Alice Sintenis in Glatz, Silesia, on March 20, 1888; died in Berlin on April 22, 1965; daughter of Bernhard Sintenis; married Emil Rudolf Weiss (a painter and printmaker, 1875–1942); no children.

Received many honors, including being the first sculptor to be elected to the Prussian Academy of the Arts; after World War II, taught at the Academy for the Graphic Arts.

Descended from French Huguenots who had sought religious freedom in Prussia two centuries earlier, Renée Sintenis was born in Silesia in 1888, the first year of the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. As the daughter of a highly successful attorney, she grew up in an atmosphere of affluent security in the picturesque town of Neuruppin in the Mark Brandenburg, a district of Prussia renowned for the beauty of its lakes and forests and for its contribution to the arts. It was also the birthplace of novelist Theodor Fontane and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. From her earliest years, Sintenis loved the presence of animals, many of which were her pets in her family's large yard. She revealed artistic talent at a young age, drawing constantly, and was first exposed to a systematic study of art at the Stuttgart Academy from 1902 to 1905. Her father disapproved of her artistic inclinations, insisting that she prepare herself for a secretarial career, but after temporarily bowing to his wishes by briefly working in his law office, she finally broke with her family to resume her art studies. From 1908 to 1912, she was enrolled at Berlin's Kunst-gewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), where she studied drawing and painting under the noted Leo von König (1871–1944). At the same time, Sintenis also studied sculpture with Wilhelm Haverkamp (1864–1929) and became acquainted with the sculptor Georg Kolbe, for whom she also modeled.

By 1913, when several of Sintenis' sculptures of dancing women and women's portraits were exhibited in the Freie Berlin Secession, she was starting to show unmistakable signs of artistic maturity and a singular style. Her early sculptures are characterized by smooth surfaces and stylized forms. By 1915–16, she was producing sculptures of animals, including young horses, calves, goats, and donkeys. In 1915, she celebrated the first solo exhibit of her work, the most outstanding being her animal study of a foal. Although she received encouragement and technical advice from August Gaul, a noted contemporary sculptor of animals, Sintenis' style was uniquely her own from the start of her career, and it would never be difficult for art lovers and collectors to identify a work by Sintenis. She never used models for her studies, relying entirely on her own imagination.

Stylistically, Renée Sintenis was able to create a blend of impressionist and expressionist values, strongly rooted in naturalism. Her animal studies, most of which would be cast in bronze, reflected her fascination with animals, but it was not their structure that most interested her. Rather, Sintenis' goal was always to capture the foal, the dog, the ram in motion. Instinctively, she chose to portray the animal as not yet grown, still gamboling on a meadow, unsure and without the coordination found in the adult state. Most of her sculptures are rough in surface, small animal figures in which windblown manes are very often a distinguishing mark. Although her animal studies constitute Sintenis' most remarkable work, she also created a number of impressive self-portraits. Her graphic works, which succeed in loose outline in capturing sketched motion, also continue to impress collectors and art historians alike.

In December 1917, Sintenis married the painter and printmaker Emil Rudolf Weiss, who made many portraits of her and with whom she would collaborate on a number of book projects. A crucial development in her career was Sintenis' friendship with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), which began in 1915. Through Rilke, she was able to establish contacts with most of the leading writers and artists of Berlin, greatly enhancing interest in her work by an affluent elite able to purchase it. Of equal importance was her professional relationship with the Berlin art dealer and gallery owner Alfred Flechtheim. Flechtheim, who featured the works of both Sintenis and her husband in his gallery, was a master of publicity and marketing. He recommended to his Paris business partner Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler that he too feature Sintenis' sculptures in his own gallery; Flechtheim told his French colleague, "Die Dinger sind ganz entzückend und der Name der Künstlerin absolut undeutsch." ("The things are totally enchanting and the artist's name is absolutely not a German one.") Quickly, the charm and delicacy of her small bronzes became the talk of Berlin, then Germany, then Europe. For Flechtheim, "the things" were commodities to sell, and this is what he did brilliantly, convincing affluent clients of their value as embellishments to a smart modern apartment.

By the mid-1920s, Sintenis was once again moving into new artistic terrain. This time, she began depicting humans in motion, particularly athletes. From this highly creative period of her career come several of her most striking bronzes, including her superbly caught portrait of the great Finnish Olympic runner of the period, Paavo Nurmi. For her 1926 bronze of The Runner Nurmi (National Gallery, Berlin), Sintenis was awarded the Olympia Prize in 1932. Soon after its creation, a copy of The Runner Nurmi was purchased by the French government and placed in the Rodin Museum in Paris. This was one of the first pieces of German sculpture bought by France after World War I, and was considered at the time to be a significant gesture of reconciliation between the two bitter enemies.

Other sports-inspired works of this period included The Boxer (1925, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover), The Football Player (1927, Kunsthalle, Bremen), and The Polo Player (1929, National Gallery, Berlin). She also created a number of portrait busts, including ones depicting André Gide, Joachim Ringelnatz, and Ernst Toller. In 1932, she created the first of several small bear figurines, the "Berlin bear" being the traditional heraldic symbol of the city. Her Berlin bear became immensely popular with the public, and after World War II copies of it were often used for various prizes, including (starting in 1951) as the prize figurine of the Berlin Film Festival. On his 1963 visit to West Berlin, U.S. president John F. Kennedy was presented with a copy of Sintenis' bronze Berlin bear.

In 1931, Sintenis became the first woman sculptor to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. She and her husband were now at the height of their fame, enjoying a prosperity that contrasted markedly with the economic depression of the early 1930s. Sintenis moved in liberal circles, and both she and Weiss were outspoken anti-Nazis at a time when the Hitler phenomenon was rapidly gaining strength. Sintenis was regarded by the Nazis as one of a large number of "un-German" artists and intellectuals, not so much for her art, but rather for her friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Starting with her dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who was Jewish and strongly linked to modern trends in art, many of the people in her and her husband's circle were Jews, leftists, liberals, and creative personalities in conflict with the conservative ideals the Nazis claimed they wished to uphold. Furthermore, Sintenis was known to have close ties to Berlin's "Eldorado," its gay and lesbian community, and was alleged by some to be a lesbian herself.

The Nazi takeover in 1933 brought a cultural as well as a political upheaval in Germany. Jews, liberals and artistic radicals were removed from German intellectual and cultural life. Sintenis' husband was involuntarily pensioned off from his professorship at the School of Applied Arts. After she refused to resign voluntarily from the Prussian Academy of Arts, in February 1934 she was expelled on "racial grounds" from what was now a thoroughly purged institution. The Nazi cultural bureaucracy had heard rumors that Sintenis was of partially Jewish ancestry, although convincing documentation was never found, but mere suspicions were sufficient to warrant her expulsion. Fortunately, Sintenis had been immensely popular before 1933, and the Nazis generally ignored rather than targeted her. Despite their expulsions, the couple continued to be productive. Flechtheim fled Germany in 1933, but his successor Alex Vömel continued to act as Sintenis' agent.

Although her situation was unclear and could always worsen, she was even able to exhibit on several occasions during the Nazi years. More important, she continued to find buyers for her creations on the private art market. Cautiously, she was even able to criticize the underlying assumptions of Nazi-inspired art, as when she indicated in an April 1936 newspaper interview that she would continue to present her artistic vision in a small, human format rather than on a monumental (i.e., Nazi and fascist) scale. By the late 1930s, the Nazi regime had classified Sintenis' work as "degenerate art" (entartete Kunst), causing eight of her pieces to be removed from public museums and galleries. Privately held works by her were, however, not confiscated from private collections, and thus these survived the Third Reich.

World War II was a catastrophe for the world, and Renée Sintenis was in no way spared. Many of her Jewish and other friends had already fled Germany, but a number of German-Jewish artists died in the Holocaust. In 1942, her husband died. The Allied bombing of Berlin destroyed much of the world she had known. On May 1, 1945, one of the very last days of fighting in Berlin, her studio was destroyed. All that she was able to save from it was a treasured item, a small painting by Henri Rousseau.

In 1945, Germany had been freed of the Nazi dictatorship, but it was a nation in ruins. Sintenis was determined to make a contribution to the reconstruction of Germany, and despite the fact that she did not have a studio for a number of years, she began once again to sculpt. In

1947, she also resumed teaching at the Academy of Applied Arts, becoming a full professor there in 1955. Various honors she received over the next years included membership in the coveted knight's branch Order of the Pour le Mérite (1952), and in 1953 she was awarded the Federal Cross for Achievement (Bundesverdien-stkreuz) of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Renée Sintenis died in Berlin on April 22, 1965. After her death, that city honored the artist by naming the Renée-Sintenis-Platz in her honor, a small and gemütlich site situated off the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Platz. Since 1948, the Berlin municipal government has awarded the Renée-Sintenis-Prize to outstanding sculptors. At the time of her death, many young Germans had not heard of Sintenis. In recent years, her sculptures have been rediscovered, and her reputation as an artist has risen significantly as her life and work are placed in the context of her times.

In the United States, a number of Sintenis' works are held by major museums, including two lithographs from late in her career (1951), Girl Seated and Profile of a Woman, both in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Perhaps one of Renée Sintenis' "all-time hits" is her Bronze Donkey, which is located at the Farnsworth entrance of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The only work in the museum that visitors are encouraged to touch, the 30-inch donkey has been a favorite with generations of museumgoers in Detroit, particularly young visitors, and over many years has been rubbed to a satiny gold finish.


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John Haag , Associate Professor History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia