Socialist Realism
History, Characteristics of Political Propaganda Art.
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Socialist realist poster entitled:
Unmask Him! (1930)
It warns workers to be on the
lookout for wreckers and
saboteurs in factories.

Socialist Realism (c.1920-80)

Characteristics

Socialist Realism refers to any painting or sculpture, created in a realist style, which contains a socialist message. Sometimes called Communist Art, this political type of realist painting is best exemplified by the style of Russian art which was introduced during the late 1920s/early 1930s, during the Stalinist era, and which became obligatory for all artists. Socialist Realist painting and sculpture was a key element in the ongoing communist propaganda campaign aimed at citizens of the Soviet Union (USSR). Designed to appeal to a mass audience, it sought to inspire them with admiration for hard working citizens trying to build a communist society. While heroic idealization of the working man was its leitmotif, its pictures were characterized by an easily understood form of realism, painted in bold colours. Socialist Realist sculptures were usually monumental pieces with a strong figurative element. However, posters were by far the most popular and ubiquitous form of Socialist realist art. Much of this agitprop activity was directed by Stalin's culture chief, Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948). Other totalitarian countries (eg. Albania, China, North Korea) pursued similar aesthetics, as did Nazi Germany. Nazi art, for instance, produced under Joseph Goebbels, promoted National Socialist ideology, as exemplified by the disgusting anti-semitic posters of Hans Schweitzer (Mjolnir) (1901-80) and the powerful propagandist films and photos of Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003).

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History

The first modern instance of Socialist Realism consisted of the campaign of large-scale Mexican murals, launched in 1921 by President Alvaro Obregon (1880-1928) and his education minister Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), noted for his philosophy of "indigenismo". The three principal artists behind this nationwide campaign of mural painting included the communists Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), as well as the non-communist Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). In the United States, Rivera worked with Ben Shahn on a political fresco for the RCA building in New York.

Socialist Realism was formally proclaimed in a 1932 decree entitled "On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations". It replaced the previous transitional style known as "Heroic Realism", which had taken shape in the 1920s, as a result of three factors.

First, the activities of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR), whose main aim was to depict the everyday lives of the peasantry and the urban proletariat. Influenced by traditional academic realism, as taught in the Fine Arts Academy in St Petersburg, and by the paintings of realist artists like the portraitist Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887), the genre-painter Vasily Perov (1834-1882), the versatile Ilya Repin (1844-1930), and the history painter Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), AKhRR members sought above all to capture the authenticity of life in Soviet Russia.

 

Second, the rules laid down by the Bolshevik Institute of Artistic Culture INKHUK (Institut Khudozhestvennoi Kulturi), whose role was to use the arts to glorify Bolshevik achievements. By 1922-3, INKHUK was already pressurizing Russian artists to give up "easel art" and switch to industrial designwork, in order to create "socially beneficial art". Then, in 1927-8, when it became clear that Stalin's campaign for rapid industrial growth required more direct propaganda support, the authorities made Heroic/Socialist Realism the only approved style of painting and sculpture.

Third, the suspicion felt by the Bolshevik ruling class towards all avant-garde artworks, which it associated with decadent bourgeois art. (See also Hitler's view of Degenerate Art.) This meant that all abstract art, as well as modern art movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Rayonism and Constructivism, were sooner or later suppressed in favour of Soviet Realism. The death and destruction wrought by the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) gave a massive (if unwelcome) boost to Russian socialist realism, as artists were mobilized to inspire popular morale. Post-war culture throughout the Soviet bloc - which now included Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany and the Baltic States - made widespread use of socialist realism, until the late Brezhnev era (c.1980).

Different From Social Realism
At the same time as Socialist Realism emerged in Russia during the early 1930s, another unrelated movement - known as Social Realism - appeared in America. Associated with the economic hardship caused by the Wall Street Crash, the Depression and the Dustbowl problems of the midwest, Social Realism drew attention to the social effects of these disasters, and their impact on individual victims. The movement is embodied in the work of Ben Shahn (1898-1969). By comparison, Socialist Realism was nothing more than government controlled political propaganda.

Subjects

The subject matter of socialist realist poster art, painting, and sculptures, varied according to the political priorities of the moment. Economic campaigns necessitated images which (eg) celebrated outstanding "Stakhanovite-type" worker-achievements; warned against "wreckers" [see poster, above]; exalted the completion of large-scale projects, like power stations, steel mills, and the like. Political campaigns required pictures which (eg) promoted portraits of Stalin the wise leader; celebrated the NKVD leader Yezhov; lauded the successes of collective farms; glorified the power of the Red Army, and so on.

Socialist realist art was assessed in relation to four basic tenets: orientation towards the people (narodnost), ideological narrative (ideonost), class content (klassnost), and - most important of all - the role of infusing workers with the spirit of communism (partiinost). Put simply, socialist realism was "political art", and aesthetic considerations always took second place to the political message of the painting or sculpture. Thus matters like composition, size/position of figures, colour, tone, perspective were political issues to be decided by the cultural authorities. Furthermore, when leaders were purged, their presence in official group portraits was removed. And no matter how "realist" the portrait, Stalin's physical deformities (withered arm, and foot) were never depicted.

Posters typically employed stereotyped images of proletarian figures, while sculpture, like socialist realist architecture, tended to impress viewers by size alone. Huge statues of Stalin, as well as huge sculptures of heroic male and female workers, went hand in hand with monumental buildings, squares, streets, and factories.

Significance

Socialist realism was (and to some extent, still is) a form of communication between ruler and ruled - a form of political propaganda, mostly. As a type of political art, it cannot be judged by the same aesthetic criteria that we apply to Western art, even though all culture is political to some degree. Instead, one might compare it to the politico-religious propaganda of the medieval era, when Gothic architects and craftsmen created stories of the Gospel in stained glass, in order to inspire and communicate with the illiterate peasantry and townspeople of Europe.

Illustrative Examples

Most socialist realist posters were created by unknown artists. Examples of socialist realism paintings, which can be seen in the best art museums in Russia and the Ukraine, include:

- Boris Yakovlev: Transport Returns to Normal (1923) Tretyakov Gallery
- Alexander Deineka: Building New Factories (1926) Tretyakov Gallery Moscow
- Petrov-Vodkin: Death of a Commissar (1928) State Museum, St Petersburg
- Gerasimov: Lenin on the Tribune (1930) Lenin Museum Moscow
- Sergei Maliutin: The Brigade's Lunch (1934) Tretyakov Gallery Moscow
- Yezhov's Steel Gauntlet (1937) Krokodil Cartoon
- Semyon Chuikov: Daughter of Soviet Kirgizia (1948) Hermitage St Petersburg
- Arkady Plastov: Threshing on Collective Farm (1949) Museum of Art Kiev

 

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