by Len Lear
In 1998, after artist Monique Seyler moved to Chestnut Hill, where she later opened and operated an art gallery, Gallery Saint Martin, she met fellow artist Ursula Sternberg, who lived at the top of the Hill with her husband, classical music maestro Jonathan Sternberg.
“Although we would know each other for only a brief year,” recalled Monique, who now lives in Sarasota, Florida, “before her untimely death due to multiple myeloma (at the age of 75), there was an immediate bond from our first meeting.
“With Ursula, it was possible to have an animated discussion one moment, then, perhaps even more importantly, pass time sitting together in silence, with no need for idle chatter, simply enjoying each other’s company…
“Ursula invited me to join her drawing group. I cherished the trips to her house to attend the sessions in her bohemian living room, where I would work in awe of the talented artists collected there. What a rare chance that was…In addition to conversations about art, there were heated discussions about politics, religion, philosophy, cultural events or personal struggles…”
I myself was fortunate enough to meet Ursula, who was originally a fabric designer, after I joined the Local in the mid-’90s, and what a free spirit she was! She would have been right at home in Greenwich Village or San Francisco in the 1960s. Very bright, very articulate but completely unpretentious and unassuming.
So much so that I had no idea Ursula was a world class artist. Only much later did I learn that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds one of Ursula Sternberg’s works in its permanent collection, as does the Rade Museum in Hamburg, Germany; Duke University, the New York Public Library, Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, former Prime Minister of England The Rt. Hon. Edward Heath; Allen Stone Gallery in New York City and many others.
After Ursula’s death on Sept. 22, 2000, her drawing group continued to meet for 10 more years. According to Seyler, “The skills I learned there remain with me and have enriched my own artwork in ways that continue to enfold.”
Ursula’s 43-year marriage to renowned conductor Sternberg took her to many foreign locales, from timeless villages in southern France to remote areas of China, all of which figured into her work.
The late Carol Schwartz, whose eponymous art gallery is still run by her husband, Elliot, once said that Sternberg “painted everything…and her work was primitive and surrealistic at the same time, displaying charm, joy and whimsy.” Sternberg added “artist books” to the paintings in her showings — 10 to 50 pages of sketches and watercolors that tell a story or illustrate a travelogue with her insights and sense of humor. These much-acclaimed books have been shown in Europe and in the U.S.
According to Seyler, “Over the course of her life, Ursula, who was a self-taught artist, developed a masterful visual vocabulary. Her figurative work portrays her subjects in pensive reflection, joyous reverie or simple but profound acts of living.”
Ursula’s work has often been called “eclectic,” but that word does not begin to approach the width and breadth of her body of work. It is hard to imagine that the same person created it all. There is Impressionism, French art posters, African primitivism, sumptuous nudes, German Expressionism, colorful fabric designs, Art Nouveau, psychedelic patterns and colors, layered imagery, plein air, etc.
Although Ursula died almost 14 years ago, The Schwartz Gallery, 101 Bethlehem Pike, will showcase a new exhibit, “Between Two Worlds: The Life and Art of Ursula Sternberg,” from Sept. 5 to Oct. 25, with an opening reception on Friday, Sept. 5, 5 to 8 p.m.
Ursula Sternberg (nee Hertz) was born in 1925 near Cologne, Germany, in an artistic, cultured family that traced their roots back to 16th century Germany. Her parents and grandparents collected important works of art and played host to well-known musicians in their home for concerts. Many members of the family were talented musicians themselves.
In 1936, however, with the Nazis spreading their anti-Semitic poison in every corner of Germany, Ursula’s father, Walter, abandoned his successful women’s apparel business and the family’s ancestral home and moved his family to a town near Amsterdam, Holland. However, after the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, the family moved to another Dutch town, Naarden, where they lived in hiding. Eventually, they were forced to leave Naarden also, and they moved to Belgium, where they lived in hiding until the end of World War II.
At one point in Belgium, Walter, who had been a highly decorated hero of World War I, was arrested in Belgium, and he was put into a vehicle that was headed to a concentration camp. He was rescued, however, by a German officer who had been a family friend in Cologne before the war and who recognized him. Walter did spend three nights in the cellar of a Gestapo headquarters, emptying out buckets of excrement.
Meanwhile, Ursula kept her imagination and talent busy drawing and painting since the age of 6. This talent helped keep her mind intact during the monotonous, frightening years in hiding. Much is known about her life because of the many journals she kept from the 1940s until 2000.
In one of the journals, Ursula wrote that immediately after liberation from the Nazis by the American and British soldiers, “My very first outing, first walk alone as a free girl was — and still is — the best walk I have ever taken. For I still sense the intoxication, the all-invasive sensation of SAFETY; the joy of LIVING, of having hope and a future. Of not having to look over my shoulder, of being able to BREATHE, of just BEING, of being FREE, and free of fear, of being young and being alive!”
Monique Seyler was so inspired by Ursula that she spent the last several years writing a 293-page book about her, “Between Two Worlds: The Life and Art of Ursula Sternberg,” that was recently published by Tricorn Books in England. The gorgeous oversized, hardback book is filled with 290 images of Sternberg’s work as well as extensive biographical material about Ursula and Jonathan, who is now 94 and still living in Chestnut Hill. Some of the information in this article comes from Seyler’s book, which will be available for sale at the Schwartz Gallery exhibit.
The Sternbergs had a daughter, Tanya-Pushkine Rojas of New York city, a son, Peter Raphael Sternberg of Paris, France, and two grandchildren, Luca and Lara-Sophia Rojas of New York City. For more information about the exhibit, call 215-242-4510 or visit www.carolschwartzgallery.com. About the book, visit www.tricornbooks.co.uk.