Socialist Realism and the Soviet Era
This exhibition brings together thirty works of art from a country that no longer exists, the Soviet Union, making a brief excursion into the art of Imperial Russia. This assemblage of renowned names includes Ilya Mashkov, Sergei Gerasimov, Arkadi Plastov, and many other 20th-century masters who lived in Soviet Russia (one of the fifteen Soviet republics), illustrating the troubled path of artistic expression during the era.
The young Soviet country was seething with artistic unrest in the early Soviet years. Traditional and experimental art movements clashed amid the wreckage of the old social order. Daringly innovative, avant-garde artists wanted brand new art for a young socialist country, while realist artists of the 1920s called for a return to the classics.
Whatever unique qualities avant-garde art possessed, accessibility was not one of them. The Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii stated in 1921, ”Art for the masses should be traditional and classical, clear to the point of transparency, relying on healthy, convincing realism and eloquent, accessible symbolism.”
In the early 1930s, Stalin banned all independent artist groups introducing one state-controlled artists’ union and one artistic style, the ill-famed Socialist Realism. Based on pictorial illusionism and ideological narratives, Socialist Realism was the ‘big style’ of the totalitarian and imperialist cultural regime that emerged. The quest for revolutionary art was over, and a period of restrictive conservatism set in.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, during Krushchev’s Thaw, stringent political control over artistic production was diminished, encouraging creativity. However, a crackdown on independent art followed in 1962, when Khrushchev visited an exhibition in Moscow’s Manege gallery and was very displeased to see artworks that deviated from conventional realism. Artists who did not want to conform to official dogma went underground.
But the dissenting spirit of the 1960s persisted. Bidding farewell to Stalin’s grim legacy, many official artists of the 1960s-80s sought to eliminate the propagandistic posture, artificiality, and reality-bending attitudes of the Stalinist-era art — still complying with four taboos imposed by Soviet officialdom: political dissent, non-realist art styles, religion, and eroticism.
However, the visual archive of Soviet art should not be confused with its ideology. Art has a way of resisting all and any ideologies, revealing individual choices and idiosyncrasies as well as the unique intersectionalities of creators.