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Socialist Realism

Socialist Realism Collage

Started: 1922

Ended: mid-1980s

"The vast scope of work performed by the united, happy workers at the collective farm astonished me. Being there made me clearly realize what a big debt our art still owed to our great people, how little it had done to reveal all the greatness and dignity of the Soviet people, and the vastness of the Socialist reconstruction that our country was going through."

Tatiana Yablonskaya

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

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.
Socialist Realism Image


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."

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