Obituary: Grigorii Iurevich Sternin (1927-2013)

Grigorii Iurevich Sternin, a distinguished scholar of Russian 19th and early 20th century art, Chief Scientific Officer and senior Researcher at the Institute of Art History of the Ministry of Culture, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Honorary Member of the Russian Academy of Arts, died in Moscow on November 23, 2013. He was 86.

Grigorii Iurevich Sternin, who died on November 23, 2013, was among the most influential art historians of his generation, those who began their academic careers just after World War II, during the Cold War. Born in 1927, Sternin studied Art History at Moscow State University, graduating in 1950, and continued his post-graduate work in the Department of Russian Art under the eminent professor A.A. Fedorov-Davydov. He defended his candidate’s dissertation on Russian book illustration of the 1840s in 1953, and worked at one of Moscow’s leading art history publishing houses, Iskusstvo (Art). He became a member of the Union of Artists of the USSR in 1957.

Sternin’s career is most closely connected with the Institute of Art History of the Ministry of Culture in Moscow, where he worked until the end of his life. He served as Research Scholar and Head of the Sector on Fine Arts and Architecture of the Peoples of the USSR between 1962 and 1975, a difficult period marked by signs of liberalization that were not sustained, when artists, writers, and administrators of arts institutions faced obstacles that are hard to appreciate today. Perhaps as a way of finding a perspective on his own times, Sternin became interested in what made artistic innovation happen in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and this was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. “Artistic Life in Russia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries” explored the many elements, some crucial and some tangential, that made up “artistic culture” in a period of complex political and social change. Sternin earned his doctorate in 1973 (in Russia this signifies substantial scholarly achievement beyond the first, candidate’s degree; it is roughly equivalent to full professorship).

Much of Sternin’s research continued to probe the inter-relationships among the arts and other aspects of Russian culture. His publications, more than 200 books and articles, are noted for their breadth of conception and their scrupulous attention to detail; many include chronicles of events with citations from artists’ writings and contemporary periodicals. Among his major works are: Khudozhestvennaia Zhizn’ Rossii na rubezhe XIX - XX vekov (Artistic Life in Russia at the Turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, 1970); Khudozhestvennaia zhizn’ Rossii nachala XX veka (Artistic Life in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, 1976); Vzaimosviaz’ iskusstv v khudozhestvennom razvitii vtoroi poloviny XIX veka; ideinye printsipy, strukturnye osobennosti (Interconnections of the arts in the artistic evolution of the second half of the 19th century; conceptual principles, structural peculiarities, edited volume, 1982); Russkaia khudozhestvennaia kul’tura vtoroi poloviny XIX – nachala XX veka (Russian Artistic Culture of the second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, 1984); Ilia Repin (with Elena Kirillina and others, 1985, 2011); Russkii modern (Russian Art Nouveau, with Elena Borisova, 1988); Khudozestvennaia Zhizn’ Rossii 1900-1910-kh godov (Artistic Life in Russia 1900-1910s, 1991); Khudozhestvennaia Zhizn’ Rossii vtoroi poloviny XIХ veka, 70-80-e gody (Artistic life in Russia in the second half of the 19th century: the 1870s-80s, 1997); Obrazy i liudi Serebrianogo veka (Images and People of the Silver Age, co-authored with L. S. Aleshina, 2002); Khudozhestvennaia Zhizn Rossii 30-40-kh godov 19-ogo veka (Artistic Life in Russia in the 1830s-40s, 2005), Dva veka: Ocherki russkoi khudozhestvennoi kul’tury (Two Centuries: Sketches of Russian Artistic Culture, 2007), Ot Repina do Grigor’eva (From Repin to Grigoriev, 2009). Sternin was an author and editor of the authoritative Istoriia Russkogo Iskusstva (History of Russian Art published by the Academy of Sciences, 1952-1964), specifically volume 10 on the late19th and early 20th centuries; he was closely involved in the conception, editing, and writing of a new History of Russian Art (22 volumes planned), and was the editor of volume 14 on the first third of the 19th century, published in 2011.
The Russian scholarly community recognized Sternin’s contributions. He was named an Honored Artist of Russia in 1994, elected a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1997, and designated a Laureate of the State Prize of the Russian Federation in 2004. At the memorial service at the Institute of Art History in November, colleagues and former students recalled his constant attention to human relationships, both as part of his approach to art history and in his daily life as a teacher and mentor. Generous in providing books, articles, and advice to his students and even to visiting researchers, he was also an astute critic. He could identify problems of interpretation and actively seek ways of finding solutions, without ever dictating or imposing his views. Sternin’s empathetic responsiveness to colleagues and students will be missed as much as his brilliance as a scholar. Grigorii Iurevich Sternin is survived by his wife, art historian Liliia Stepanovna Aleshina.

The text of this obituary was written and shared with SHERA by Alison Hilton, Georgetown University, with Irina Karasik, State Russian Museum

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