The woman behind the Bär

She was Berlin’s original hipster artist, a bold and fashionable Weimar Frau who never shied away from using her image to sell her art. Once known worldwide as “The Sintenis”, Renée Sintenis is today remembered as the creator of the Berlinale Bär.

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Photo by Jaro von Tucholka, Archiv Georg Kolbe Museum

She was Berlin’s original hipster artist, a bold and fashionable Weimar Frau who never shied away from using her image to sell her art. Once known worldwide as “The Sintenis”, sculptor Renée Sintenis is today remembered as the creator of the Berlinale’s Golden Bear.

The concept of the “it girl” was invented just in time for Renée Sintenis to epitomise it. The sculptor, born Renate Alice Sintenis in Glatz, Silesia in 1888, is said to have been the most photographed woman in the Weimar Republic. Standing 1.8 metres tall, with her men’s jackets and pageboy cut, she embodied the 1920s neue Frau just as we imagine her: advertising cigarettes, partying all night in the lesbian bars of Schöneberg, riding her horse Horaz through Tiergarten and meeting poets and painters at Ku’damm’s Romanisches Café. Yet behind her carefree appearance, Sintenis was fiercely determined.

At the foundry, she chiselled bronze out of the moulds wearing high-heeled shoes and a protective apron.

“She had a very modern lifestyle,” says Julia Wallner, director of the Georg-Kolbe Museum, which has a number of her works in its collection. “She drove her own car, an American Studebaker, liked to attend boxing events – and she used her image to sell art, which was something new at that time.” Hermann Noack, chief of Charlottenburg’s 122-year-old Noack Foundry, can attest to Sintenis’ drive. For her first exhibition in 1913, she convinced his grandfather to smelt her pieces on credit. “There are pictures of her at the foundry chiselling bronze out of the moulds with her tools, wearing high-heeled shoes and a protective apron,” Noack says.

Sintenis spent her childhood in the Prussian countryside near Neuruppin and moved with her family to Berlin at age 17 in 1905, when her father was appointed to the city’s Court of Appeals. There she attended classes at the School of Applied Arts, an undertaking her parents considered a pleasant pre-marriage hobby. “She was the first-born of three children, and should have been a boy,” explains Silke Kettelhake, author of the 2010 biography Renée Sintenis – Berlin, Boheme und Ringelnatz. As an escape from the “looming future” that her parents had mapped out for her, “she spent her childhood with animals, and kept on drawing horses”.

Though there was little in the way of artistic skill in the family, the “hobby” developed into a serious predilection for sculpture. In 1907, she enrolled at the Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts, one of the few institutions to admit female students at the time. The first signs of her ambition appeared three years later, when her father said he would no longer pay her school fees and asked her to become his secretary. She rebelled and a rift appeared which led Sintenis to change her name from Renate to Renée, leave the family home and move into a tiny unfurnished room at a friend’s house in order to continue her training. To make money, she began modelling for the famous sculptor Georg Kolbe, whose work would greatly influence her own – sadly, none of his works based on her survived into the present day.

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Sintenis’ original bear statue, 1932. Photo by Oliver Raupach

A self-portrait Sintenis exhibited in 1915 caught the attention of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The two became friends and he introduced her to his influential social circle of artistic and literary figures, as well as spreading the word about her to the Berlin elite. In a 1917 letter to Karl von der Heydt, a banker who became Sintenis’ first buyer, Rilke urged him to seek out her pieces at the Berlin Secession on Kurfürstendamm: “I am told she was taught by Kolbe, but the small animals and, above all, the mask on page 32 of the catalogue, are […] wrought from the most personal and hard-earned development.” With her reputation established and work selling, she married the painter Emil Rudolf Weiß that same year. Thirteen years her senior and well connected, he would support Sintenis, further promote her work and, later, tolerate her forays into the Weimar queer scene. By the 1920s she was world-famous and represented by the renowned art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who organised displays in Paris, Brussels, London and New York. She gained a new nickname: “The Sintenis”.

Echoing her love of untamed nature, most of her statues represent animals in motion. Along with athletes (mostly boxers) and self-portraits, she modelled more than 100 different animals: deer, dogs, elephants, horses and, in 1932, a bear standing on its hind legs, arms raised. Typically no higher than 15cm, they were, as Wallner describes them, “modern, but not revolutionary. They were affordable for bourgeois households, so she became very rich with them.” Her work garnered critical acclaim, too: in 1931, Sintenis became the second woman to enter Berlin’s prestigious Academy of the Arts, after Käthe Kollwitz.

Despite such a high profile, Sintenis has been described by close friends as having a somewhat aloof personality, far from her “public” image. In her biography, Kettelhake portrays a woman who preferred to stay in with her beloved terriers and focus on her work, but adds, “Of course, she and Flechtheim knew how to use her image to boost sales.” A master of publicity, the dealer convinced many would-be buyers that a piece by Sintenis should be part of any modern living room. He also published a series of striking portraits by celebrated photographer Frieda Gertrud in his culture magazine Der Querschnitt, one of the Weimar Republic’s most intellectually stimulating publications and the perfect setting for the charismatic and beautiful Sintenis in her prime.

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“Large grazing foal”, 1929.

The Nazi takeover of power put an end to Sintenis’ carefree life in Berlin. With her foreign name, cropped hair and Jewish grandparents, she was a prime target for censorship. Deemed “non-Aryan”, she was expelled from the Academy of the Arts and had her work removed from public museums – one self-portrait was included in the Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937. Meanwhile, Flechtheim and her support network of friends, many of whom were Jewish or gay, had to leave the country. Another crushing blow came in 1942, when her husband – a stable constant amidst such tumultuous times – died suddenly of heart failure, at the age of 77. The bombing of her Kurfürstenstraße atelier in 1945 sent Sintenis into a deep depression. But her tenacity prevailed and she remained in the city, moving into a small apartment near Innsbrücker Platz with Magdalena Goldmann, her housekeeper and, likely, partner – the pair were buried together in Dahlem Cemetery.

After the war, Sintenis received many accolades: she was one of the recipients of the first Berliner Kunstpreis (Berlin Art Prize) in 1948 and was awarded a professorship at the University of the Arts. But even with this reversal in fortune, the 60-year-old Sintenis, tired and ill, withdrew further from society. “Despite all the honours, nobody seemed to be interested in her earlier celebrity under the Weimar Republic,” explains Kettelhake. “She did not enjoy being a teacher and was simply behind the times.” A photograph that appeared in Life magazine depicted the elder Sintenis surrounded by younger artists. “They all show their abstract paintings; Renée is still there with a small animal.”

But Sintenis’ fame found an ambassador in the shape of one such small animal, that little standing bear she sculpted in 1932. In 1953, the first replicas of this Bär were awarded as trophies at the third Berlin International Film Festival; they’ve been handed out to Berlinale winners ever since. Reworked versions of the bear were also offered by the city of Berlin to its guests: in 1963, two years before Sintenis’ death, one was presented to a visiting John F. Kennedy. It’s not a city present anymore, but it is undoubtedly a city icon. And its connection to the remarkable woman who created it remains intact: the Berlinale statue is still smelt every year by the same Noack Foundry that helped out Renée Sintenis over a century ago.