Tall, charismatic and strikingly beautiful, German sculptor Renée Sintenis (1888-1965) was one of the most magnetic figures of Weimar Berlin. Unlike many of her friends she stayed in the city during the Nazi period, only to have much of her work go up in flames during an air raid towards the end of the Second World War.
While scarcely a household name, Sintenis features in collections held by an impressive roster of notables, including (deep breath) Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Jean-Luc Godard, Roman Polanski, Shirley MacLaine, Brian de Palma, Halle Berry, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Simone Signoret, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Adjani, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Poitier, Charlize Theron and Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s because all of these people have been recipients of the Sintenis-designed bear statuette given out at the annual International Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale) which begins again next week. It coincides with an exhibition of the artist’s work at Berlin’s Georg Kolbe Museum until late March.
In 1930 Berlin-based Scherl’s magazine ran a “psychochirological” feature by Ellen Kissling-Valentin which examined the hands of Albert Einstein, Conrad Veidt, wildlife photographer Bengt Berg – and Renée Sintenis. Here’s what the artist’s extremities apparently revealed:
She is one of our most capable, productive and unique sculptors. She comes from an old Huguenot family and has always been interested in animals. Her father’s house and garden are in the country, where she lived, naturally, amid the animal kingdom. From childhood on she was “solitary” in nature and so she sought companionship in animals all the more. Her studies are largely preoccupied with young animals, interested as she is in their development, structure and suppleness. While she also creates portraits, or studies, primarily from the sporting arena – runners, jumpers, riders – she always returns to animal life.
“My models are a perception, not an idea,” says this thoroughbred artist in whom everything – face, figure, hands – speaks of a strong intellect and character. And there’s a distinctive character in all her works as well. You won’t find anything “in the style of…”. Renée Sintenis is her own person. That’s why she also works “by heart”. She rarely has the living model before her – she creates according to the inner vision. She also works without a framework, something very rare among sculptors.
She told me the same thing as Bengt Berg: “My hands aren’t beautiful. They’re real workers’ hands –” And how beautiful her hands are! What life, energy, power, temperament and artistry they express! They’re free from any signs of vanity. They’re the embodiment of the “noble” worker’s hand.