Art in the Soviet Union underwent a number of phases – from great restriction in Stalin’s time to some more open, less restricted periods in the decades after. Here, Alyse D. Beale provides an overview of the history of art in the USSR, with a focus on Socialist Realism art.

Lenin in Smolny in 1917 by Isaak Brodsky. An example of Socialist Realism.

Lenin in Smolny in 1917 by Isaak Brodsky. An example of Socialist Realism.

As with all else under Joseph Stalin’s domain, arts within the Soviet Union glistened with the red tinge of communist propaganda. Whereas Realism in the West sought to illustrate an unromanticized vision of daily life, Socialist Realism employed its artists as propagandists. Soviet authorities ordered countless works of herculean factory workers, the victorious motherland in all its monumental glory, and its robust leaders strolling the Kremlin. Yet with Stalin’s death, Soviet art evolved parallel to its country, becoming at once more democratic, realistic, and rebellious. Socialist Realism, once created as propaganda for a political machine, later became a tool for working against the very regime that created it.

 

We recommend you view:Gerasimov, Aleksandr MikhailovichI.V.Stalin and K.E.Voroshilov in the Kremlin after the Rain (1938). 296х386. https://painting-planet.com/iv-stalin-and-voroshilov-in-the-kremlin-by-alexander-gerasimov/

 

What is Socialist Realism?

Socialist Realism in its early form was not so much art, but a political machine that sought to indoctrinate every citizen with communist ideology. The movement first appeared in 1932 at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers and was later adopted as the Soviet Union's official and sole art form two years later when the Soviet Writer's Congress outlined the criteria for all future works for art. Socialist Realism, as Karl Radekexplained during the Congress, meant a reflection of "that other, new reality -- the reality of socialism...moving towards the victory of the international proletariat…[and a] literature of hatred for putrefying capitalism."

 

We recommend you view:Mikhail Khmelko.The Triumph of the Victorious Mother-Motherland (1949) . https://01varvara.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/mikhail-khmelko-the-triumph-of-the-victorious-mother-motherland-1949/

 

The Writer's Congress mandated that Socialist Realism embody the Soviets' vision of themselves and their future. The movement emphasized monumental sculptures and buildings to depict the country’s strength and wealth. Bold music prompted workers to action, and paintings displayed cheerful workers, happy peasants, or aggrandized leaders, such as Stalin and Lenin. Each work of art had to meet four requirements: it must be proletariat, typical, realistic, and partisan. Each artwork must show a connection to the proletariat on a basic level, meaning that they be simple to understand and depict scenes from the common man rather than the bourgeoisie. More importantly, each work ought to be partisan, an unquestionable endorsement of the communist party. Socialist Realism left no room for interpretation; it was either total support for the regime, or it was treason.

 

Art in Thaw

Stalin's death ushered in a somewhat freer era, popularly known as "the thaw" under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Though arts within the Soviet Union remained restricted, Stalin's death allowed many new artists to enter the scene. Existing artists, too, embraced this more relaxed atmosphere and created more freely and originally. 

As the country underwent a de-Stalinization, authorities altered works to eliminate Stalin's likeness. The Stalinskaya Station was renamed as Semenovskaya, and removed the dictator's portrait and quote from its walls. At Belorusskaja Station, the new regime replaced a mosaic of Stalin with a red labor flag. 

 

We recommend you view:On left, Stalinskaya Station. On right, the renamed Semenovskaya Station with Stalin's head removed.  Eugenia. "Moscow Underground Without Stalin - See The Gaps." Real USSR: Lifting the Iron Curtain. March 2, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.realussr.com/ussr/moscow-underground-without-stalin-see-the-gaps/. 

 

Because the USSR remained highly censorious, even during “the thaw,” many artists opted to create truly realistic works that avoided any political references at all. Other artists and writers, such as V. Dudintsev who penned Not By Bread Alone, an indirect criticism of the regime, pushed the limits of what Khrushchev would allow as art, and helped pave the way for the late Socialist Realism movement.

Though Khrushchev publically supported more liberal policies concerning the arts, he often contradicted himself, which inadvertently popularized the later, more defiant movement. When the 1957 All World Festival of Youth introduced the USSR to an array of American modern and pop art, Khrushchev denounced it and martyred artists unwilling to conform to state guidelines. 

Late Socialist Realism garnered even more support when authorities ended a 1974 art show with bulldozers and a show of force. Government critics thereafter renamed the event as the "Bulldozer Exhibition." These actions divided art within the Soviet Union into two sects: official and unofficial. While the official state art remained Socialist Realism, unofficial art became more rebellious.

 

A Painted Rebellion

The Severe Style and Sots Art were two artistic movements that grew from Soviet artists’ rebellion against traditional Socialist Realism. While the Severe Style under Khrushchev’s rule critiqued the government implicitly, the later Sots Art movement grew increasingly blatant in their criticisms, and even mockery of, the Soviet Union.

The Severe Style portrayed Socialist Realism much more realistically than the overly propagandized, early works. Late Socialist Realism became more pessimistic in their view of the working class and embraced western styles of Expressionism. Many artists, sick of communist ideology, refused to paint any topics resembling works done under Stalin at all. Instead, they opted to create depictions of daily life or images that represented change in their country. The Severe Style favored construction sites for this reason, as it implied support for a newer, freer country.

 

We recommend you view:Bohouš Cizek.Untitled (circa 1960). http://www.eleutheria.cz/socpresent.php?lang=en&image=023

 

Technically the fusion of Soviet and Pop Art, the Sots Art movement was a complete rejection of the state-sponsored Socialist Realism. Sots Art is defined by its satirical nature and inclusion of Pop Art as a means of criticizing Soviet policies. Art critics claimed that Sots Art pieces, such as those done by Komar and Melimid (famous for their representation of Stalin sitting aside E.T., with a hiding Hitler in the shadows) were "at once subversive and nostalgic." It was a "manifestation of so-called styob, which can be translated as a kind of 'mockery' that involves miming something to such a degree that the original and the parody become indistinguishable."

 

We recommend you view:Komar & Melamid.Yalta Conference (1982).Tempera and oil on canvas, 72”X48”. http://russian.psydeshow.org/images/komar-melamid.htm

 

Art in Transition

Late Socialist Realism became a channel for protest, but also a symbol of their society’s transition to becoming, though with varying degrees, more democratic, realistic, and free.

Perhaps Soviet artists' boldest move was exposing the lie of happiness under Stalin's totalitarian regime. They did so not by political sabotage or physical rebellion, but by implementing ink and paint to portray what life was truly like for the ordinary Soviet citizen. Late Socialist Realism took no part in "heroic idealization of the working man," as Stalin had. These new artists exposed the monotony, drudgery, and grime of factories and fields if they chose this subject at all.

 

We recommend you view: Ivan Babenko. Waiting, set in 1945 at the end of WWII (1975-1985). Oil on canvas, 123x167 cm.

https://kieramotorina.tumblr.com/post/118353730352/week-8-waiting-ivan-babenko-1945

 

Late Soviet art became more democratic in the sense that it became available to all, rather than just state-sanctioned artists. Shortly after Stalin's death, the first public art competition took place, accepting submissions anonymously and allowing non-established artists to enter. Even the jury had become more democratic, composed of those with various professions and without allegiances and vested interests.

 

Embers to Flames

Socialist Realism ended with the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Artists, glad to be free from a controlling communist regime, began creating works independently from the state. It seemed as though all were glad to forget Soviet art and life in general. A "fatigue" of anything remotely Soviet led many to dismantle and hide works of Socialist Realism.

Recently, however, the discussion of Socialist Realism has gone from "stultifyingly boring" to trendy. Art collectors and Russian moguls began snatching Socialist Realism pieces, interested more in their history than in the artists' ideologies or techniques. Such pieces have been put on display around the world, featured in exhibitions from Berlin to London and even Minneapolis. One article, interestingly named "Socialist realism: Socialist in content, capitalist in price," dubbed 2014 "the year of socialist realism." The article described a 2014 Sotheby's auction that featured around forty Socialist Realism works, but the exhibition was only one of many. A June 2014 auction estimated that about twenty-four of the pieces were collectively worth about $7.7 million. Socialist Realism, once a tabooed subject of art history, gained a universal interest in a way that it failed to do even in its prime.

 

We recommend you view:Yuri Ivanovich Pimenov.First of May Celebration (1950)
This work, celebration International Worker's Day, was sold for 1.5 million by Sothebys London. https://tmora.org/2009/02/02/russkiy-salon-select-favorites-and-newly-revealed-works/yuri-ivanovich-pimenov-first-of-may-celebration-1950-132x300/

 

What do you think of Socialist Realism? Let us know below.

References

 

  1. Eugenia. "Moscow Underground Without Stalin - See The Gaps." Real USSR: Lifting the Iron Curtain. March 2, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2015. 

  2. Hosking, Geoffrey A. The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.409.

  3. Khidekel, Regina. It's the Real Thing: Soviet & Post-Soviet Sots Art & American Pop Art. Minneapolis, Minn.: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum :, 1998. P. 19.

  4. Lindsay, Ivan. "Socialist Realism." Agents | Dealers - An Authority on Russian Art. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.russianartdealer.com/socialist-realism/.

  5. Neumeyer, Joy. "Socialist Realism’s Russian Renaissance." Socialist Realism's Russian Renaissance. May 19, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.artnews.com/2014/05/19/socialist-realism-has-a-russian-renaissance/.

  6. Pyzik, Agata. "Get Real: Why Socialist Realist Painting Deserves Another Look." The Calvert Journal. December 18, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://calvertjournal.com/articles/show/3475/socialist-realism-Soviet-official-painting.

  7. Radek, Karl. "Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art." Karl Radek: Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art (August 1934). Accessed December 6, 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/radek/1934/sovietwritercongress.htm#s7

  8. "Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art." Guggenheim. https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/reflections-socialist-realism-and-russian-art.

  9. "Socialist Realism History, Characteristics of Political Propaganda Art." Encyclopedia of Art Education. Accessed December 6, 2015. 

  10. Thorpe, Vanessa. New Exhibition in Berlin Brings Forgotten Soviet Art Back to Reality. October 24, 2009. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/oct/25/soviet-art-painting-berlin-exhibition.http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/socialist-realism.htm.

  11. Vinogradova, Yulia. "Socialist Realism: Socialist in Content, Capitalist in Price." Socialist Realism: Socialist in Content, Capitalist in Price. July 24, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://rbth.com/arts/2014/07/24/socialist_realism_socialist_in_content_capitalist_in_price_38351.html.