Program of the 4th Congress

Irina Karasik

Grigory Yurievich Sternin: “Art Life” as Study Subject and Methodological Innovation

When I was choosing a theme for the Sarabianov Congress, the “NotForever” exhibition was yet to open, and nothing portended the intense polemics that erupted around it and even to a greater extent around the period of art history it covered. It turned out that we have no common view or adequate description language capable of overcoming the former division (when many of the essential art phenomena are a priori left out of consideration) without replacing a search for an integral model of the artistic process with a simple stringing of concurrent phenomena. The situation can well be extrapolated to the assessment of domestic art studies of the 1960s – 1980s with the only difference that there was no clear-cut division into the official and the non-official (but a few figures, such as Evgeny Barabanov, Boris Groys and in part Vladimir Paperny and Igor Golomstok, who fulfilled themselves, can be associated with the latter). Rather, a conventional division into the conservative (active or passive) and the liberal would be justified. Both trends operated in the public field, engaging in overt and covert struggle between each other and naturally enjoyed different degrees of intellectual and institutional freedom. The ranks of the “liberals” were quite close-knit and included strong personalities with well-developed personal concepts and ideological consensus (I will focus on the study of domestic art). Today’s younger generation often indiscriminately lumps everyone together under the blanket term of “Soviet art studies” to reject its legacy with ease in the future, because by definition there is nothing here to rest on: all the contemporary intellectual “swings” skirted that reservation area. Apparently, to begin with, one should differentiate between concepts, such as (quality) Soviet studies[1] – a set of certain ideas and actions connected with the official policy in arts, and (chronologically) “art studies of the Soviet period”.  Under the circumstances, the concepts of the latter naturally came under pressure that caused more or less noticeable deformations, yet on the whole aimed at the adequate understanding of the subject, free from ideological prescriptions and preferences. Many of the art studies of the late Soviet period (even if we confine ourselves to the research based on domestic material) would prove to be, even if read, not apperceived in full measure. It is not so much a matter of historiographical angle as of understanding in the context of the realities of the period. That much is clear: as historians we cannot but see and appreciate the breakthrough made in the late 1960s, for instance, by the publication of the second book of volume Х of the famous Istoria russkogo iskusstva [History of Russian Art] and the overt and covert struggle around it. I mean here something else, namely, insufficient attention to those writings in actual research, inadequate awareness of scholarly continuity and indiscernibility of their methodology. The above is perhaps especially true of the way the scholarly legacy and research stance of Grigory Yurievich Sternin is perceived today.


A not very thick or particularly spectacular outwardly book under the title Khudozhestvennaia zhizn Rossii na rubezhe XIX-XX vekov [Russian Art Life at the Turn of the 20th Century] was published by the Iskusstvo publishing house in 1970. Nevertheless, it really proved “far weightier than many volumes”. Of course, at that time it was the period under review – the last decade of the 19th century – that primarily attracted attention, all the more so since the author announced in the introduction that it was but the first part of the conceived research and hence an even more exciting sequel – the beginning of the 20th century – lay in store for the reader. The blanket ban on the study of that period had just started to be lifted, and the area of research had to be fought for virtually inch by inch: there were next to no writings on that theme. Speaking of concrete areas of the subject matter, of special interest was that connected with Russian Art Nouveau. It seems that the problem of the “new style” was first raised on such a large scale there and, what is more, practically simultaneously with Western art studies. However, something else was more important: that book (followed by five more, which considered developments in retrospect from the 20th to the 19th century[2]) not merely discovered unknown material or unexplored themes for our art studies, but produced a different subject matter that simultaneously became a methodological innovation. In contemporary science such innovations are usually referred to as “turns” (anthropological, social, optical, etc.).

Sternin supplied his first book with an extensive introduction, in which he explained his analytical positions in detail. Every sequel had a similar, if briefer[3] foreword: the scholar kept laying emphasis on the essence of his approach while focussing on the problems of the chosen period.

The methodological insets were woven into the concrete exposition of one chapter after another, which made it possible to keep the empirical material under unceasing intellectual control. Such a strong and autonomous methodological component of a piece of historical writing was at that time of scarce problem studies[4] something out of the ordinary for domestic science. Subsequently Sternin was among those whose efforts sustained that segment of art studies, which can be called the “art studies of meanings”. I mean his further reasoning along the lines of generalizing categories, such as “art culture”, “world view”, “integrity and process”, as well as guidance in organizing research (in the capacity of head of leading informal teams and science editor of numerous innovative publications).

Sternin began by distinguishing between art history and the history of art life, in fact, transforming them into separate albeit interrelated scholarly disciplines, each with its own subject matter and research tools.[5] There are periods when art life develops with particular intensity and exerts significant influence on the content and course of internal art processes. Perhaps it was precisely for this reason that research went backwards (in the chronological sense): the turn of the 20th century was, first, an excellent testing ground for working out methods and, second, it was downright impossible to understand that period properly without that sort of approaches. Furthermore, the epoch of “beginnings and ends” had just started burgeoning and was in want of active support, and that was why progressive scholars concentrated their efforts there. According to Sternin, the differences mentioned above essentially consisted in that traditional history of art could neglect the concrete social context of an artwork and focus on certain constants, such as form, iconography, style and their genesis, proceeding from only the general ideas of “interdependence between the material and spiritual aspects of social life”.[6] For it “the very fact of the existence of artworks contains all the necessary prerequisites for their impact on the intellectual life of the epoch” (KhZh1-5) and the further development of art. Whereas, the history of art life is above all “clarification of the ways and forms of the social being of art in real conditions…” (KhZh2-5) and the mechanisms of its “dialogue with the epoch”[7] based on the “subjective aspect” of the process, which is outwardly expressed in “multifarious daily phenomena” (KhZh1-6).

To begin with, Sternin outlined the range of the phenomena making up art life from “a purely empirical point of view”, as he himself put it (KhZh1-3):

  • art itself and its interrelations with the viewer
  • different types and forms of exhibition activity
  • social aspirations of different artistic organisations and groupings and their actual role in cultural life
  • art criticism and its impact on the creative practice and likewise the reverse influence experienced by press-affiliated art critics when reflecting art development tendencies (KhZh1-4).

Although Sternin assured the reader that that list was a given, it had certain essential characteristics attesting to a special point of view. The scholar included not only objects but also “meanings”, so to speak, in the purely subject matter of his research. The list of phenomena making up art life could well be as follows: art, viewer, exhibitions, organizations, groupings, and criticism. Yet, already at this point there appeared important detailing, stating that it was a matter of precisely interrelations between art and the viewer; and not just groupings, but their social aspirations and actual role. In other words, for Sternin “art life” is not forms, structures, functions, or events, but ties and relations. The wording and rhetoric of his writings corroborate this no less than explicit methodological prescriptions. I tried to single out a certain number of stable definitions in the narrative  (of all books of the cycle), definitions that would graphically show what was of interest to Sternin, what formed “art life” for him, and what had to be considered and seen to understand the essence of the ongoing processes. What I got is a sort of glossary of concepts: artistic/creative mind; spiritual (mental) life; intellectual interests (KhZh2-130);  the intellectual atmosphere of the circle (KhZh3-120); “spiritual demand of the epoch” (KhZh3-11); the public mood (KhZh2-6); the health of society and personality; social psychology; the social and artistic self-identification of Russian society, social and aesthetical self-determination, creative self-assertion (KhZh2-115), artistic view of life, creative health (KhZh2-130); exceptionally keen and socially coloured sensitivity to reality; the phenomenon of artistic perception of the epoch (KhZh2-143); “a field of force” around exhibitions; creative behaviour (and its logic); creative position and reputation; collective artistic aspirations  (KhZh1-163), the socio-psychological type of the artist/creator (KhZh2-113), the public image of a Russian artist (KhZh2-115), the place and role of creative intellectuals (KhZh2-114); the artists’ need for self-analysis and self-esteem, the artists’ forming a new image of themselves and of the purposes of their art (KhZh2-114, 117, 121); the artist’s identification with his/her time (KhZh5-10); coordination of the artists’ subjective intentions with the actual social and aesthetical characteristics of the epoch (KhZh3-107). Using the modern idiom, it is always a matter of reflection[8], perception and assessment.

Within the framework of these categories the scholar was especially attentive to the subtler points, such as views, beliefs and forms of their combination and manifestation such as talks, debates, thoughts, reflections and “gestures”; to sources, such as letters and diaries; to complicated processes, such as collisions, contradictions, disagreements, transformations and “vexing dilemmas” (KhZh1-191). The zone of his attention included “unexpected alliances and bitter public wars of words, reciprocal conciliatory gestures between former opponents and burning conflicts between former associates (KhZh1-161), polarization and regrouping of artistic forces (KhZh1-187) and tactical manoeuvering of leaders (KhZh1-161). Sternin worked delicately with all those vague things, masterfully selecting meaningful facts, separate “stories”, isolated instances and examples and invariably reducing them to a common denominator. He could discern “the essence of historical art processes” behind the “outward outline of art life” (KhZh5-6) and never lost sight of minute differences, combining differentiation and classification in an amazing way.

 In his time Dmitri Sarabianov aptly called Sternin “a master of detecting nuances and tying unique knots, connecting <…> far-apart ideas and situations”.[9] Sternin’s style of narration is characterized by a vector, fan-like rather than linear viewing system: he did not think much of simple solutions, straightforward logic, hard and fast answers or affirmative intonation. He could turn any phenomenon or statement to show different aspects: often, when it seemed that the analysis was over, he would suddenly say, but if we take a different look at it… He found explanations based on antinomy inadequate. Agreeing on one occasion with the opinion of another researcher, he nevertheless stressed its incompleteness: “the rest was much more complicated”.[10] I think this phrase can serve as a metaphor of a scholarly stance and a characteristic of the description language. The exposition branched off, multiplied, got overgrown with new questions and the already drawn conclusions were tested with more reservations and replenished with new arguments.

Take note of a few fundamental points of methodological nature.

  • For Sternin facts, events, thoughts and actions of art life protagonists were always signs, symptoms, incentives, impulses, “passwords” and gestures to “read” in order to see something bigger behind them[11] – the dramas and “troubled feelings” of the epoch; “forms of the interaction of a creative mind with the fast changing social and artistic situation” (KhZh2-6, 7); an aesthetic position of principle (KhZh5-102); “the world-building potential of the man of genius” (KhZh5-106); “the sense-generating system of culture” (KhZh5-107).
  • The idea of art life and cultural life as a powerful sociological factor, of the actual mechanism of the development of Russian pictorial art (KhZh1-6), of “an independent social force that regulates the artist’s freedom of work, ethical principles and aesthetical views” (KhZh1-8).
  • The endless correlation of ideas, intentions, illusions, “subjective incentives for creative self-assertion”(KhZh2-115) of different artistic forces with their actual role in art and society. The emphasis is on that “the overall result of the combination of the real qualities of art and its specific perception” is a crucial “phenomenon of spiritual life”, exercising “its influence both on the artist and the consumer of his work (KhZh2-7).
  • The concept of “art life”, Sternin stressed, includes “not only objective outcomes of the artistic process, but also its subjective prerequisites”, it is important here “to look at the epoch ‘from inside’” (KhZh1-214), taking into account “precisely how those artistic phenomena became imprinted in the minds of contemporaries, how they were experienced and interpreted by them” (KhZh2-7). That is why the main source is diaries, letters, and memoirs, with their value determined not by the facts per se but by the personal vision of those involved in cultural life that rests on man’s perception of himself and his time. Meanwhile, Sternin was far from identifying the position of researcher with views of his contemporaries but appreciated “the opportunity to decide between the warring or arguing parties from the point of view of their own convictions and social psychology” (KhZh1-214, footnotes).


A few words about the inner structure of Sternin’s books on the art life of the late 19th – early 20th centuries. I will focus on them and only occasionally draw on later writings addressing the 19th century due to my own study of precisely that period and for reasons of the ideal and, in this case, exemplary correspondence of theme, material and method. Sternin developed his protracted research (1st book – 1970, 2nd – 1976 and 3rd – 1988) in a special way, paying close attention to justifying the division into periods and seeing in it the problem of a qualitative characteristic of one time or another, when chronological references acquire an “identifying meaning” and “the status of term” (KhZh4-9). At the same time, he never drew impassable boundaries or sharp line between decades in a bid to reveal the “dialectical relationships” between them (KhZh3-5). The study of every period always followed along two lines: the establishment of continuity between the past and the future (often exemplified by the behaviour of former leaders and former communities in new conditions) and the identification of distinguishing features and individual colours typical of exclusively that period. The motive structure of the books had its constants and variables. For instance, the first and third parts have chapters on the perception and impact of foreign exhibitions and, in a broader sense, the relations with Western art.[12] It was precisely Sternin who laid that theme bare, turning it from a neutral historical description into a concept, showing that for the contemporaries (and descendants for that matter) it was not so much a matter of gaining new knowledge as an opportunity to understand “things of our own” through those “of others”, to see how and which things “of others” made it possible to diagnose, formulate, “remedy” and promote  “things of our own”. The way Sternin presented it, art life had little in common with the chronicle of current events.[13] The semantic fulcrums pinpointed exquisitely and exactly (as a rule, defined in the titles of the chapters) served as assemblage points determining “the field of force” of the ongoing processes. Such semantic fulcrums, according to Sternin, were events that were a sort of “measurement units” of art life, remained undetected under other approaches and yet were capable of clarifying many tendencies of art itself. These include the commercial art enterprise Sovremennoie iskusstvo (Contemporary Art), considered in the context of the problem of style in Russian art life at the turn of the 20th century (KhZh1) or the All-Russia Congress of Artists convened in Saint Petersburg in December 1911 (KhZh3). The transformation of interrelations between two influential creative organisations or art systems, such as the “Wanderers” movement and academism, can be such a semantic fulcrum (KhZh1). Sternin was the first to speak seriously about the late Academy Salon as a phenomenon worthy to be studied on its own. Or the twisting “roads of the self-determination of symbolism” (KhZh3). In the course of analyzing these and other themes Sternin invariably broke new ground: for instance, he was the first to bring the Moscow Association of Artists in from the cold, showing its importance on the Moscow culture map, its role in the evolution of Russian Art Nouveau and connection with literary symbolism (KhZh1); he did the same with the New Society of Artists by revealing its proclivity to “neo-classicist” quests that the Apollo editors regarded as “a harbinger of new creative aspirations” (KhZh3-165).  Sternin thought in terms of problems rather than objects, putting into circulation new “thinking models”. To prove this point it is enough to cite the titles of some chapters of his writings, including “The Private Person in Art and Art Life” (KhZh4); “Between the ‘Idea’ and the ‘Roots’ (on Russian artistic consciousness of the 1870s—1880s); Images and Icons in Russian Art and Art Life of the 1830s-1840s” (KhZh5). In this respect I cannot but make special mention of a chapter from the second book published in 1976, “The Russian Artist of the Early 20th Century as Seen by His Contemporaries”. Here Sternin holds forth on the phenomenon of the personality of the artist, significant in itself “irrespective of what he did” (KhZh2-113), on the makeup of the psychological and creative type of the artist, and the mechanisms of personal myth-making as a fundamental characteristic of worldview and the embodiment of the “social and ethical ideals of the epoch” (KhZh2-113), analysing in detail the cases of Nesterov, Serov, Vrubel and Bakst[14] and connecting them with a sophisticated analysis of the existential and aesthetical essence of the problem of individualism in art (KhZh2-143). It was precisely Sternin who was the first to give clear-cut conceptual outlines to that theme. Such issues (creative behaviour, the mythological image of the personality) and analytical prisms  (through the eyes of the contemporaries) are quite popular now, especially in respect of avant-garde art, however, continuity is hardly recognized and the level of execution hardly attains earlier heights.

The closing, fourth chapter of KhZh3 touches upon the problem of the Russian avant-garde, which is rather unexpected bearing in mind the author’s chronology that takes the cultural chronicle to 1914. The factological side is thin(the outlines of Nikolai Kulbin’s activities, the S.K. Makovsky “Salon”, the report S.P. Bobrov made and W.W. Kandinsky’s text he read, the first “Knave of Diamonds” exhibitions) and the ideological just outlined, albeit in pithy phrases (speaking of the atmosphere of “heightened viewer passions” that was whipped up around exhibitions, of “the centrifugal forces prevailing over the centripetal forces”, of “differentiation” and “stratification” of artistic goals, of standard critical charges “of the Futurist pursuit of a new international type of art”[15]). The author was more interested in how the representatives of “left-wing” movements joined, if only in their own way, the quest for “the ultimate goals of culture”[16] and also the motives behind “the worries voiced [by contemporaries] over the Russian avant-garde” (KhZh3-188).

Less attention to the avant-garde is perhaps explained by the fact that for Sternin the avant-garde was of a purely historical rather than personal interest and that he treated that art movement with a certain degree of scepticism. By the time he finished and published his book, Sternin, on the one side, soaked himself in the 19th century[17] and, on the other, saw, according to him, a feverish demand form steadily on that flank of art studies.[18] He had already had a chance to voice his opinion of that theme in greater detail in the preceding years. That is why if we append a chapter preceding the fourth book of Russkaia khudozhestvennaia kultura of the late 19th – early 20th centuries (1908-1917),[19] which contains relevant facts, to KhZh3, everything falls into place.[20] Unlike other researchers, Sternin looked at the avant-garde from within rather than from without: it was for him not an isolated story, but part of the overall picture of art life. The existence of such a view of things seems to me of crucial importance.


Sternin laid no claim to having discovered the theme itself: his contemporaries[21] used the phrase “art life” to denote a fairly definite set of components. There were also a few studies, “the very name of which testified to their authors’ intention to write precisely about art life” (KhZh1-213).[22] However, as the scholar justly observed, there was nothing specific in their attitude to the material. He traced the origin of his method to nominally sociological writings of the late 19th century with its problems of “the forms and ways of practical existence of all sorts of culture in life and the influence of consumer tastes on it fate” (KhZh1-213). As a close reference point he singled out “certain ideas put forth by Soviet art studies in the late 1920s – early 1930s”, but only mentioned the Pamiatniki iskusstva i khudozhestvennogo byta[Monuments of Art and Art Life] series (which published artists’ correspondence and memoirs of contemporaries), first, because it introduced the very notion of “art life”[23] and, second, due to his rejection of vulgar sociological schemes, which presented the personality and its environment (he cited A.V. Lunacharsky’s observation he found important) “as a conductor between life, on the one side, and its artistic expression, on the other, that changed, as it were, nothing” (KhZh1-214). Sternin did not mention A.A. Fedorov-Davydov (perhaps because he considered only methods directly related to the subject matter), however, implied continuity by dedicating his first book to the latter. Somewhat later Sternin would make a point of writing about his teacher,[24] and that text characterized by self-exploration (describing his teacher he tells us much about himself) would make it clear what experience he had drawn from his mentor’s views, what he embraced and developed and what rejected. Indisputably, his interest in problems of methodology and the social context coupled with the rejection of “oversimplified parallels between art and contemporaneous socio-political views and theories”[25] was inherited from Fedorov-Davydov. At the same time, as distinct from the latter, Sternin always viewed sociology of art as but “one of the aspects of studying artistic endeavour” rather than “the very essence of the science of art study”.[26] There are words in his article about his teacher – the desire “to discern the hopes and anxieties of man, the times and the epoch” – that seem to convey the creed of not only Fedorov-Davydov’s but also that of the author’s.[27]


In his writings under review Sternin rarely referenced foreign studies, and whenever he did, they were mostly references to books and articles about Art Nouveau, symbolism and such like. He obviously did not join any existing discourse or used it as a sort of theoretical framework for his subject matter as often happens now when the researcher from the outset states the lines of which of the available approaches he is going to stick to. We have here an utterly independent methodology, developed on his own, yet in tune with the world trends of the science of art but not exhausted by them. I will try to draw an outline of the Western schools and paradigms, which had parallels to or overlapped Sternin’s views in the “problematic field”. The so-called social history of art is of course the first to leap to mind. Let it be noted that, although its origin is associated with the middle of the 20th century[28] (1951 – Hauser), it developed as an influential intellectual movement in the 1970s, thrived in the 1980s and 1990s and became a scholarly discipline in the 2000s.[29] The first important articles and books of T.J. Clark,[30] Thomas Crow,[31] Linda Nochlin,[32] Elizabeth K. Valkenier[33] and other leading proponents of the method appeared in the early 1970s and later, that is, they developed simultaneously and not outstripped Sternin. They proceeded from kindred positions, with their attention to the social context rather than problems of style (form, iconography, symbols) and the desire “to look at the epoch from within” (KhZh1-214) by analyzing a mass of contemporary “eyewitness evidence” and focusing mostly on the study of complex interrelationships between art and society, ideology and art practice. Some of their theme-lines and subjects coincided, such as the relationships between art, the artist and the viewer, and in broader terms the socio-cultural dependence of the perception of art, its specific functioning in society (client, the public, criticism, popular taste, viewer experience). Their study techniques were noticeably similar: general conclusions were often made based on “particular cases” or corroborated by them, with the figures of “ordinary people” and “background” names, events and phenomena brought out of the woodwork. The fundamental difference was that Sternin did not substitute his approach for the history of art, but created a new field, a new subject matter and in this way seemed to remove the main conflict associated with the social history of art and visual research that grew out of it later on and was criticized for the loss of understanding of art history as a field of knowledge of inherent value.

I should stress that the above coincidences are of a general nature and do not detract from the distinct subject matter. At least I have found no parallels with either the very concept of “art life” or the study field underlying it in the social history of art. Speaking of the fundamental research, it after all aimed at a different interpretation of the very sphere of art: the reconstruction of an extensive and ramified social context served to decipher the actual meaning of a concrete work of art or the artistic system of a master or trend. For instance, T. J. Clark showed that the flat surface of Manet’s painterly space was not the artist’s whim or a derivative of the form-building process, but was conditioned by the characteristics of contemporaneous French society, which he reconstructed with the help of all sorts of evidence and facts, ranging from diaries, letters, fiction, personal ads and caricatures to plans and views of Haussmann’s Paris.  Michael Baxandall characterized his 1972 book as “A primer in the social history of pictorial style”.[34] Even when Western scholars addressed similar issues, they likewise strayed elsewhere. Like Sternin, many of them concentrated on exhibitions, institutions and groupings but treated them as isolated segments of the artistic process and interpreted the history of exhibitions rather as that of curatorship while the study of institutions was mostly reduced to their criticism. The wonderful books of Florian Illies about the year 1913 or that of Daniel Schönpflug about the year 1918 are likewise “another kettle of fish”.[35] The reason is, first, because in type they are closer to documentary prose, second, relate distant events as if they happened today (we seem to be reading about present-day developments with the effect of being there) and, third, the narration is fragmented, sporadic, kaleidoscopic and “stop-motion”; what holds it together are not links but rather intersections or unexpected coincidences.

Both the representatives of the social history of art and the approach itself, especially at its initial phase, had close ties with Marxism. T.J. Clark was often called a Marxist while Benjamin Buchloh unambiguously stated that “problems connected with the notion of class”[36] were central to the social history of art. Are there any meeting points here? Sternin, too, naturally referenced Marxism and, what is more, his teacher Fedorov-Davydov actively developed the “Marxist history of art” in the 1920s-1930s. There are few Marxist-Leninist inclusions in Sternin’s books (when I read them in the 1970s, I took no notice of them). Some of them concern general methodology (e.g., reference to Lenin’s articles about Tolstoy and his periodization of the liberation movement with the start of its proletarian stage in the mid-1890s) while other judgements have ideological overtones. More frequently it boiled down to just another characteristic of the intellectual life of the epoch subject to the same analysis as any other: Marxist criticism and its answer to the question of relations between the artist and society, Marxist theory and idealist philosophy – the two poles in terms of social meaning and emotional charge. The “historical optimism” of Marxism “occupied an important place in the diverse gamut of thoughts and emotions, with which the people of the 1890s saw their time and the future of Russia” (KhZh1-110). Although the prescribed rhetoric predominated in those inclusions, Sternin was extraordinarily subtle and compelling in producing real content out of the ideological “ornament”. At the same time, the “given circumstances” of course had their role to play: had it been up to the author, those inclusions would have been few and far between. However, without them, especially given such a divisive and unfavourable period, books would hardly have been authorized for publication. That “Marxism” was in large measure imposed, so to speak, is borne out by the abstract of Sternin’s dissertation for a doctorate degree that he defended in 1972. The unobtrusive and moderately charged ideologically Marxist narrative of the first book (which alone had been published by that time), as the occasion required, reached utmost concentration there as regards the theme and composition (it might have been indeed boosted, but more likely the rest of the text had been routinely cut and oversimplified, which made the “Marxist carcass” even more salient).There were no chances to defend a dissertation considering social processes rather than artworks without such “props”.[37]

In addition to intellect and taste, the assimilated negative experience of the so-called vulgar sociology seemed to safeguard Sternin from outright social dependence. Suffice it to cite the following, “as the not so distant practice of our art studies has shown, attempts to back up the ‘World of Art’ creative endeavours with a ‘theoretical base’, seeing the militant pronouncements of the circle members as nothing but a reflection of the major ideological and social collisions of the epoch and utterly ignoring the concrete situation in Russian art of those years, are fraught with oversimplified and schematic scholarly outcomes” (KhZh1-7). If I am not mistaken, similar fears were voiced as regards the social history of art.

Alongside the social history of art, there were perhaps even more meeting points between Sternin’s method and the Annales School, although I have no evidence that he was interested in their stance. Yet, their ideas were in the air and were shared by A.Y. Gurevich, whose book Kategorii srednevekovoi kultury [Categories of Mediaeval Culture] was soon published in 1972 (I for one saw both texts within the same framework), and Marc Bloch’s classical Apologia istorii [The Historian’s Craft] appeared in Russian in 1973. As in the previous case, it was a matter of parallel development rather than any influences or interactions. The Annales school dealt in “problems”, laid emphasis on the history of the mind and man’s life in time, investigated convictions, collective and individual ideals, and value-based orientations, and used a contextualization strategy.[38] A researcher of historical science stresses that a distinguishing feature of the fourth generation of the School was analysis of not “structure”, but a “web” of relations formed by an event or biography and attention to social practice where ideas of concrete persons clash.[39] All of that seems to be very similar to Sternin’s intentions in respect of both “art lives” and “art cultures” with allowance for a different language of description, different material and specifics of the field of study itself.

In our literature Sternin’s books were mentioned in passing in the context of another theory. When in the early 1990s Boris Bernstein compared the Western institutional approach with work by Soviet aestheticists and sociologists, he discovered a similarity, but not identity.[40] He correlated the concepts “art culture” and “art life”[41] with the concept “artworld” of Arthur Danto and the contribution of George Dickie, who expounded Danto’s concept into a theory. Bernstein defined art life as a “cross-section” or “actual being” of art culture[42] and noted that “roughly with that meaning, although not in full measure, it is used in historical studies, for example, by G.Y. Sternin”.[43] To all appearances, this comparison with respect to books by Sternin was too general and even superficial because he did not deal in the institutional specifics of forms of art life.[44]  At the same time both the “artworld” of Danto and Dickie and Sternin’s “art life” have important identical elements, such as the artist’s relationship with the public or the role of art theory (with Sternin it was rather conventional artistic “views”) for the existence of art as art.  

When writing his early books, the scholar himself did not reference any theories or methods of other authors. But this does not mean that he had no idea of Western literature. What is more, he authored two important and interesting articles analysing trends in foreign art studies.[45] He keenly sensed and accurately described the intellectual turn that had come about. Although he did not directly associate himself with the situation, he analysed and, moreover, in certain cases took a critical attitude to it,[46] nevertheless, his own research clearly forms a very similar discourse. These articles contain quite concrete postulates (such as the place of Russian art in international research, the reasons for the less attention they accord to the 19th century pictorial art compared to literature, the absolute priority given to the Russian avant-garde and  the motives for that, special aspects of the interpretation of Art Nouveau and Symbolism,[47]“justification” of the Academy Salon, the dependence of new thematic and methodological interests on contemporary art practice, the impact of broad interpretations of Symbolism to the interpretative scholarly method as a whole). Without dwelling on them, although the mere listing is evidence of Sternin’s research interests, I will only note his formulation of the essence of the intellectual shift he discussed. According to him, by the mid-1970s Western art studies shifted their focus from the "“structure” of the plastic organism and its “expressive form” to the process of “identifying” reality. Scholars increasingly advocated “the sovereign importance of the reality reflected in art, either reality as it is or as it is transformed by the artist’s inner world”.[48] Now they sought the essence of the development of art not in “the sequence of consecutive modifications of the plastic system”, but in the “horizontal” cross section, the internal relationships between forms of creativity and other spheres of social and spiritual life”,[49] in “openness to their time and the entire multilayered character of the public consciousness of the epoch”.[50] The focus of research turned to the 19th century in its two principal forms: realism and (especially) symbolism (as distinct from the previously dominant, central role of Impressionism) while in 20th century art emphasis was laid on an approach which appeared to succeed symbolism and which previously had seemed marginal (from surrealism to hyperrealism) compared with that leading to abstractionism. The concept of “the motive as the basis of a definite aesthetic model that is very stable within the given epoch”[51]became one of the tools of interpretation. Sternin’s conclusions rest on a scrupulous analysis and abundant quotes from a range of mostly French- and German-language writings[52] (because he had a better command of those languages[53]). The scholar used such sources as the Studies of 19th Century Art series[54] (starting with 1968), the voluminousPropylaen Kunstgeschichte with a fundamental introduction by S. Wentzel to the opening volume (1966), which focussed on reassessing the 19th century and mentioned Russian realism. Sternin accorded special attention to the views of Prof. Rudolf Zeitler of Uppsala University and his article under the telltale heading “The Unknown Century” and no less symptomatic chapters “The Concept of Development as an Obstacle” and “The Concept of Style as an Obstacle” (which were anti-Wölfflinian in the broad sense of the word).  Discussing the new relevance and universality of the category of motive, Sternin relied on J. Schmoll’s article “Apropos Methodological Delimitation of the Concept of Motive”.[55] He linked the potential of that approach primarily to the possibility “to identify a certain accumulation of social, spiritual, artistic and historical experience in the semantics of the plastic image.”[56] It should be said that Sternin joined the discussion of the problem of “reality” in art as an equal and examined the pros and cons of new Western concepts.[57]


So, at the turn of the 1970s Sternin transferred the phenomenon of “art life” from the empirical to conceptual plane. He arrived at his method on his own, although basically his approaches were in line with the world research trends and developed simultaneously in parallel yet without direct interaction. Meanwhile, if I am not mistaken, there are no works in Western art studies that would directly address the phenomenon of social art life (over such a long period at that) as a specific subject matter.

Sternin’s books were duly appreciated in our country and enjoyed a broad response when they were published. Discerning contemporaries of the same (or close) generation gave their due to the “scholarly horizons” of the art life researcher.[58] The “school of thought” that his disciples went to and relied on in their endeavours proved of exceptional importance to them.[59] The significance of the subject itself as a sphere of culture in its own right was soon formalized at the theoretical level.[60] Subsequently, there appeared an entire class of historians of art life per se: some, like V.P. Lapshin,[61] undertook their far more localized studies almost simultaneously with Sternin, others were motivated by his books, and still others produced their dissertations under his supervision. True, Sternin’s ideas were developed extensively rather than in-depth, giving rise to numerous studies based on “geographical” material.[62] This aspect proved a veritable goldmine for local art studies: it made it possible to enlist local forces in research and find a suitable form for describing and “assembling” the local processes, thus placing them (on equal terms) into the overall cultural context, what the traditional history of art failed to do as from its point of view many regional artefacts paled in comparison with those already included in the time-honoured hierarchy of values.

Meanwhile, there turned out to be not so much demand for or at least publicity around the conceptual resource of Sternin’s books. Contemporary authors are of course developing ideas and methods similar to those Sternin substantiated and used (interest in the nature and specifics of the reception process in culture, in describing the group identity of various art associations, in the mechanism and functions of myth-making, in decoding the inner motives of and incentives to staging foreign exhibitions, in presenting some phenomena and problems or others as seen by contemporaries, etc.). Some scholars are working the same field that was laid out by Sternin, elaborating on the subjects he had touched upon.[63]However, references to their predecessor are few and far between.[64] If made, they, as a rule, concern some actual things or quoted sources rather than methods or conceptual conclusions. Nurtured on Western literature, the younger generation of art historians most likely see no methods there. One of the reasons – the author’s Soviet art study lineage – was given at the very beginning. If anything is borrowed from Sternin today, it is only “knowledge” and not approaches. Furthermore, his methods can hardly be transformed into a kit of tools and marked concepts, as often happens with foreign theories. Sternin in general limited the framework of pure theory for fear of losing the peculiar subject of art studies. That is why the theoretical component was dosed and formed no clear balance as it is closely connected with the material. It was only natural that he saw an important independent research goal in “identifying the most significant events in the chronicle of culture life without suppressing the live and whimsy logic of facts with theoretical constructs” (KhZh1-10).


[1] From the point of view of the angle of study subject “Soviet art studies” as an ideological phenomenon get all but more attention.

[2] In the 19th century the sequence was likewise upset: the final book published in 2005 and centered on the 1830s-1840s ought to have come out first.

[3] The last, sixth book was an exception from the point of view of size.

[4] See this situation described by D.V. Sarabianov in the article “Iskusstvoznanie i literaturovedenie”, Iskusstvo, No. 5, 1972.

[5] It seems that such differentiation could eliminate certain problems in the study of art of the stagnation period.

[6] G.Y. Sternin, Khudozhestvennia zhizn Rossii na rubezhe XIX i XX vekov [Russian Art Life at the Turn of the 20th Century], Moscow, 1970, p. 4 (hereinafter in the text KhZh1–4, KhZh2, etc.)

[7] Subtitle in Russkaia khudozhestvennaia zhizn vtoroi poloviny XIX veka. Dialog s epokhoi [Russian Art Life in the Second Half of the 19th Century. Dialogue with the Epoch], Moscow, 1996. G.Y. Sternin (ed., introduction and “Pictorial Art” chapter).

[8] I believe Sternin himself used the word “reflection” only once. See KhZh5-108.

[9] D.V. Sarabianov, “G.Y. Sternin – issledovatel russkoi khudozhestvennoi kultury” [G.Y. Sternin as Explorer of Russian Art Culture], in G.Y. Sternin, Russkaia khudozhestvennaia kultura vtoroi poloviny XIX – nachala ХХ veka. Issledovania i ocherki [Russian Art Culture of the Second Half of the 19th – Early 20thCenturies. Studies and Essays], Moscow, 1984, p. 11.

[10] Reference to Valentine Marcade and the principles of comparing “Russia” and the “West”. See KhZh3-137, 138.

[11] The frequent use of this construction with the preposition “behind” is indicative of the innermost meaning of what is going on coming out through external events.

[12] Books dealing with the 19th century also have such chapters.

[13] That part was assigned to a brief chronicle at the end of every book (the author repeatedly drew the reader’s attention to that circumstance).

[14] He considers along the same lines of “cultural heroes” Sergei Diaghilev and Modest Durnov (KhZh1, nobody paid special attention to the latter until Sternin did).

[15] Sternin cites S.K. Makovsky’s article “Khudozhestvennyie itogi” (Artistic Outcomes). See KhZh3-188.

[16] Sternin uses here the wording of Andrei Bely. See KhZh3-145. For many representatives of the avant-garde, Sternin wrote, the problem of “the artist and Russia” was no less relevant than it was for the authors of the “Apollo” articles (KhZh3-189). He made a point of noting that art critics of the period failed to capture the message.

[17] I will cite a talk with Sternin recorded in November 1980: “Spoke about his work on the beginning of the century, about how he would manage to part with it and fully switch over to the second half of the 19th century after the already 20 years of close ties with the 20th century, even though he thinks he is rather ‘a man of the 19th century’ in both his personal and professional inclinations. The time, too, was very interesting. It won’t be easier, perhaps even harder because everything was far too closely intertwined with social ideas and sentiments; so, much more flexibility will be needed than with respect to the “egocentric” 20thcentury, where all “responsibility” can be “shifted onto the individual”.

[18] Sternin even analysed the reasons for such a “boom” in the West. See G.Y. Sternin, Russkoie iskusstvo v otsenke zapadnoi nauki [Russian Art as Estimated by Western Scholars]. He also believed that when studying the avant-garde, one often faced the danger of seeing the ideas and events “with the eyes and mind of the ‘leftists’ themselves rather than those of the art historian” (Ibid., p. 180).

[19] See G.Y. Sternin, A.A. Sidorov, “Izobrazitelnoie iskusstvo v khudozhestvennoi zhizni Rossii 1908-1917 godov” [Pictorial Arts in Russian Art Life of 1908-1917], in Russkaia khudozhestvennaia kultura kontsa XIX – nachala XX veka (1908-1917) [Russian Art Culture of the late 19th – early 20th centuries (1908-1917)], Book 4, Moscow, 1980, pp. 9-28..

[20] It presented the significant moments and distinguishing features of the “left-wing” segment of art life, including exhibitions, groupings, manifestos, criticism, lines of action, interrelations with foreign art and the “east-west” mythologeme.

[21] Alexander Benois and Alexei Fedorov-Davydov used it.

[22] Sternin mentioned, for instance, N.I. Kovalenskaya, “Khudozhestvennaia zhizn Moskvy” [Moscow Art Life], Iskusstvo, No. 6, 1947, and V.M. Lobanov, “Khudozhestvennaia Moskva nachala veka” [Art Moscow of the Beginning of the Century], Iskusstvo, No. 5, 1964.

[23] In his methodological section Sternin did not mention the formalists, who realized the inadequacy of an isolated study of the evolution of styles and forms and in the late 1920s put forth a similar category of literary life, together with a close understanding of the heart of the matter and, accordingly, of the goal of research: “relations between the facts of literature and those outside it cannot be merely causal, but can only be relations of correspondence, interaction, dependence or contextuality”. (B.M. Eikhenbaum, Moi vremennik [My Annals], Yekaterinburg, 2020, p. 80). There is a reference to Moi vremennik in KhZh4 in connection with the types of literary journals and problem of the development of professionalism in literature (KhZh4-169). The name of Eikhenbaum is mentioned several times in KhZh6 in respect of history rather than theory.

[24] G.Y. Sternin, “A. Fedorov-Davydov – uchyonyi i pedagog” [A. Fedorov-Davydov: Scholar and Educator], in A.A. Fedorov-Davydov, Russkoie i sovetskoie iskusstvo [Russian and Soviet Art]. Articles and essays, Moscow, 1975, pp. 685-698.

[25]Ibid., p. 692. Fedorov-Davydov came to that conclusion, learning from his mistakes of “vulgar sociology”.

[26] Ibid., p. 686.

[27] Ibid., p. 696.

[28] The earliest books of Arnold Hauser appeared in the mid-1950s.

[29] For the social history of art see O. Nazarova, “Vzgliad epokhi: kak sotsialnaia istoriia iskusstva izmenila istoriiu iskusstva italianskogo Vozrozhdeniia” [The View of the Epoch: How the Social History of Art Changed the History of Art of the Italian Renassaince], Iskusstvoznanie, No. 1, 2019, pp. 10-35; V.A. Safonova, Sotsialnaia istoriia iskusstva: k stanovleniiu metoda [The Social History of Art: On the Development of the Method].

[30] T.J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973; The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848—1851, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973; The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.

[31] Thomas Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985; Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

[32] Linda Nochlin, Realism, London, 1971; Linda Nochlin (ed.), The Politics of Vision: Essays of Nineteenth-century Art and Society, London, 1991.

[33] Elizabeth K. Valkenier, Russian Realist Art. The State and Society: The Peredvizhniki and Their Tradition, New York, 1989. If I remember correctly, Sternin subsequently even communicated with Valkenier, and I heard the name Nochlin from him.

[34] M. Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-century Italy. A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

[35] Florian Illies, 1913: The Year before the Storm, Moscow, 2013; 1913. What I Really Wanted to Tell You, Moscow, 2020. Daniel Schönpflug, Kometenjahre: 1918: Die Welt im Aufbruch, Moscow, 2019.

[36] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Sotsialnaia istoriia iskusstva: modeli i poniatiia” [The Social History of Art: Models and Concepts], in Iskusstvo s 1900 goda [Art Since 1900], Moscow, 2015, p 25.

[37] G.Y. Sternin, Khudozhestvennaia zhizn Rossii na rubezhe XIX-XX vekov [Russian Art Life at the Turn of the 20th Century]. Doctorate dissertation abstract. Institute of the History of Art, USSR Ministry of Culture, Moscow, 1972.

[38] O.F. Rusakova, “Metodologicheskiie strategii v sovremennykh istoricheskikh issledovaniiakh: shkola ‘annalov’ i ‘novaia intellektualnaia istoriia’” [Methodological Strategies in Contemporary Historical Research: The Annales School and a “New Intellectual History”], in Metodologicheskiie strategii, pp. 17-49.