Summary of Socialist Realism
Socialist Realism generally refers to the formally realistic, thematically artificial style of painting which emerged in Russia in the years following the Communist Revolution of 1917, particularly after the ascent to power of Josef Stalin in 1924. The term also encompasses much of the visual art produced in other communist nations from that period on, as well as associated movements in sculpture, literature, theater, and music. Russia had a proud history of realist painting as social critique, notably through the work of Peredvizhniki artists such as Ilya Repin, and had also been at the forefront of developments in avant-garde art during the early 1900s. But as the realities of socialist rule began to bite in the USSR, artists were increasingly compelled - often on pain of imprisonment or death - to present positive, propagandist images of political leaders, cultural icons, and everyday conditions in the new Soviet republic. Initially incorporating artists of talent and daring such as Isaak Brodsky and Yuri Pimenov, by the 1940s Socialist Realism was a stifling paradigm in which all political critique and obvious formal experiment was snuffed out. Nonetheless, it continued to channel the activities of technically gifted artists, writers, and even composers - Sergei Prokofiev's 1939 cantata Zdravitsa, composed for Stalin's 60th birthday, is still widely recognized as a significant work, in spite of its brazenly propagandist libretto, and unsavory political subtexts. This is one of many fascinating examples of what happens when a totalitarian regime attempts to extend its control over every avenue of cultural expression.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- There is an important distinction to be made between Socialist Realism and Social Realism; though to some extent, the former grew out of the latter. The stylistic heritage of Socialist Realism was in the tradition of Realist painting which, in Europe and in Russia during the late nineteenth century, had pushed back against the pompous Neoclassical history painting populating state-sanctioned galleries. From Gustave Courbet in France to Russia's own revolutionary Peredvizhniki group, Realism had been a force not just for political critique, but also for celebrating nature and the common lot of humanity. Socialist Realism in Russia and elsewhere maintained the naturalistic style and (superficially at least) the egalitarian impetus of this older movement. But it generally existed in cultures where truthful visual reportage had become impossible. As a result, it maintained the veneer of Realism while generally abandoning its underlying vision.
- Boris Iagonson, a popular artist of Stalin's era, stated that the success of Socialist Realist painting lay not in any stylistic innovation, but in the "staging of the picture". Socialist Realist paintings often have something of the quality of film-stills, as various actors, playing assigned roles in choreographed scenes, are presented in a highly accurate style, as archetypes of the type of citizen that would populate the successful Socialist state. Well-fed and tireless peasants, fearless leaders, visionary scientists, legendary explorers, and various other exemplars of the Socialist cause, litter the canvases produced in Russia and across the non-democratic part of the Socialist world between the 1920s and 1950s.
- Like every art movement in history, Socialist Realism supported artists of technical skill and vision (indeed, it is worth acknowledging that only in relatively recent history, and only in certain parts of the world, has art achieved a position of freedom from political propaganda). Isaak Brodsky is one of the many prodigiously talented painters who plied their trade in a style which imposed thematic and formal limits on it. By the 1940s and 1950s, a younger generation of artists, most of whom were born into Soviet rule, were producing a more staid body of images. However, some continued to innovate by whatever means were open to them, turning to effects of lighting, for example, or Impressionist technique, as ways of imposing a stamp of individuality on their work.
Overview of Socialist Realism
It is an irony of cultural history that one of the most proscriptive movements in twentieth-century art emerged from one of the most subversive and dynamic artistic cultures to be found anywhere in the world a few years previously. At the turn of the century, Russian art had stormed onto the international scene. Avant-garde experiment accompanied a climate of political agitation, peaking in the years preceding and following the Russian Revolution of 1917, when movements such as Rayonism and Cubo-Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Russian Futurism, Suprematism, and Constructivism were conceived. Painters, designers, architects, and sculptors such as El Lissitzky, Kazemir Malevich, and Alexander Rodchenko redefined millennia of artistic tradition, producing some of the most formally subversive early-modern art anywhere in the world. Within the literary sphere, poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky were making similar leaps forward. This wave of activity often had a distinctly nationalist animus: in 1912, the Russian Primitivist painter Natalia Goncharova declared that "[c]ontemporary Russian art has reached such heights that, at the present time, it plays a major role in world art. Contemporary Western ideas can be of no further use to us."
Important Art and Artists of Socialist Realism
In this work - whose title is also translated as "Give Us the Heavy Industry" - we see five men toiling in a steel factory. The work is hard; they are wearing leather to protect themselves as they struggle bare-chested towards a vast flame. The glare from the fire occupies a large corner of the canvas, but the men are clearly the subject of the work. Their profiles show stoical expressions; they are unflinching in the blistering heat. In the background, other men push coal towards enormous furnaces, while an open door revealing a cityscape beyond reminds us of the people who will benefit from their labor. Stylistically, the piece is a striking blend of Socialist Realist motifs and Pimenov's early avant-garde influences, typical of the early period of the movement.
Born in 1903, Pimenov was too young to be involved in the avant-garde activities of the 1910s, but his workers' exaggerated, elongated, and sinuous forms express his youthful debt to German Expressionism, while the almost collage-like appearance generated by bold, distinct blocks of color is loosely reminiscent of Constructivist photo-montage. At the same time, the work encapsulates many of the thematic norms of Socialist Realism: its nominal subject is the industrial might of the new Soviet state, but its real theme is the glory of collective human labor dedicated to that cause. Unified by their physical strength, the men's collaborative endeavor is also symbolized by their shared postures as they lean in towards the heat, one of them rendered in glowing gold like a hero of classical statuary. The blackened faces of the men at the front of the group take on an almost cyborg-like quality, metaphorically merging with the spirit of industry as they become embodiments of the "New Soviet Man". At the same time, this machine aesthetic is itself redolent of the avant-garde spirit of Cubo-Futurism, soon to be crushed under the heel of state-sponsored Socialist Realism.
In its striking blend of propagandist motifs and stylistic invention, Pimenov's work is an interesting example of early Socialist Realism, and indicates the limited creative freedom which artists continued to be afforded.
Brodsky's portrait of Lenin, one of the most iconic works of Socialist Realist art, depicts Lenin at the Smolny Institute, the headquarters of the revolutionary government in the months immediately following the October Revolution. All the details of the scene are intended to contrast with the excessive opulence of Tsarist Russia, from the dustsheets thrown over the chairs in the makeshift office to Lenin's humble attire and expression of calm concentration. Standing at nearly three meters high, the canvas presents the leader as almost life-size, enhancing the quality of naturalistic accuracy which pervades the work. The rendering of the polished wood of the furniture, the texture of the fabrics, and the gleaming floor, show Brodsky's technical talent - the piece is almost photographic in its accuracy.
Born in 1884 in modern-day Ukraine, Isaak Brodsky was one of the most talented Russian artists of his generation, and had been tutored in his youth by Ilya Repin, figurehead of the Peredvizhniki group, who was responsible for iconic works such as Barge-Haulers on the Volga (1870-73). Though he was of an age to participate in the revolutionary aesthetic experiments of the 1900s-10s, Brodksy's political commitments found expression through an accurate but emotive painting style influenced by late-nineteenth-century Russian Realism and European Naturalism. Indeed, he was arguably the last great artist of the Peredvizhniki era; in its close attention to informal physical posture, this work stands in the great tradition of Russian Realist portraiture inaugurated in the previous century by artists such as Ivan Kramskoi.
Lenin in Smolny was one of a number of works which Brodksy produced after Lenin's death in 1924 to canonize the leader. Like many works of Socialist Realism, it looks back to a halcyon period or event in the early history of the Soviet Union - in this case the first few months of revolutionary government - rather than engaging with the complexities of contemporary reality. Nonetheless, it gives a sense of the fervor and optimism of those early days, and of the faith that was placed in Lenin's leadership, while at the same time predicting the less accomplished version of Brodksy's Realist style that would be imposed from above after 1932.
Yuri Pimenov's 1937 painting places the viewer in the back of an open-top car cruising through central Moscow, a female driver at the wheel. All around is progress: cars are everywhere, a tram moves towards new high-rise buildings, while an entrance to the new and much vaunted Moscow subway is visible to the side. Scattered across the scene like flecks of color, busy people hurry about their day. Layers of symbolic imagery can be detected beneath the everyday surface of the image; the red flower propped on the windshield of the car, for example, indicates the artist's support for the Soviet Government.
In spite of the strict enforcement of Socialist Realist principles by this point in Stalin's regime, Pimenov's work indicates the limited but inevitable extent to which stylistic experiment continued to be practiced by Russian artists. The painting is broadly Impressionist in style, as if recreating the feel of rainswept streets; but the hazy quality also evokes a sense of dreamy aspiration (just as the female driver nods to social and cultural progress under the new regime).
At the same time, as with much Socialist Realist art of the 1930s, it is impossible not to see this image as expressing a grim dramatic irony. The previous year, the so-called "Moscow Trials", in which swaths of government officials and members were tried as saboteurs on spurious grounds, had commenced in courtrooms across the capital. This brought forth the era known as the "Great Terror", which saw unprecedented levels of police surveillance and extra-judicial killings. Artists and writers feared for their lives in this climate, and the "New Moscow" in which Pimenov was working was very different from the one he was compelled to represent; and open-top motor cars (or any car for that matter) were a luxury unimaginable for the majority of the country's population.
Useful Resources on Socialist Realism
- Art Under StalinOur PickBy Matthew Cullerne Bown / November 1, 1991
- Socialist Realisms: Great Soviet Painting 1920-1970By Matthew Bown and Matteo Lanfranconi / October 16, 2012
- Glorifying Labor in Socialist Realism SculptureSoviet Art Website
- Groups in Russian Avant-garde and Other in the 19-20th CenturiesThe Russian Avant Garde website
- Russian Art and Ideology: Late 1920s-1940sThe Guggenheim
- Soviet LiteratureBy Maxim Gorky / The Marxists Internet Archive / 1934
- Soviet Realism - Early YearsOur PickMusings on Art
- From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist RealismBy Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu / The Tate Website
- Get Real: Why Socialist Realist Painting Deserves Another LookOur PickBy Agata Pyzik / The Calvert Journal / December 2014
- Painting Over 'The Founding Ceremony of ChinaBy Liu Jue / The World of Chinese / May 22, 2013
- Tate Modern to Show Soviet Propaganda Art by Aleksandr DeinekaBy Mark Brown / The Guardian / November 7, 2017