Just as the distrust, antagonism, and apparent irreconcilability of the Cold War polarized global affairs into communist-Soviet and capitalist-Western camps, so too did it divide the narrative of twentieth century art history. Representing a withered branch of that now-defunct bifurcation, Soviet Socialist Realism is both disconnected from dominant narratives in Western painting and discredited by the Soviet regimes that created it. Absent even from St. Petersburg’s own Hermitage, the movement is largely excluded from major museum collections–banished, it seems, to the gulags of unlucky artistic movements.[i]
Yet if Soviet Socialist Realism is to be doomed in art history for its connection to Stalin’s tyranny and communist agitprop, the same connections must redeem it to history and political science as cogent evidence that documents Soviet ambition and anxiety during the Cold War. Primed in this way, Socialist Realism can be understood to have represented more than cultural context or the aesthetic trappings of a place in time. Rather, it functioned as a state apparatus responding to the same political and historical realities that guided military or economic initiatives in the Soviet Union. Its objectives were the same too: Soviet Socialist Realism consolidated control of Communist Party under Stalin and projected its power at large.
Written in 1946 by the American ambassador to Moscow, George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ offers an insightful and incisive analysis of Soviet outlooks in the Post-War era of Stalin. In outlining the convictions of the Soviet Union’s ideology and the eccentricities of its policy, Kennan identifies systemic points of opposition with its adversaries and within itself. Soviet Socialist Realism needed to contend with at least three of these.
First, at the international level, the style had to challenge the Western canon of painting in competitive pictorial terms. In the spirit of dialectical materialism, this meant that proletarian culture could not develop quietly alongside its bourgeois heritage; rather, revolution would need to seize and reappropriate Western artistic traditions of portraiture or history painting just as it would with industry or property. Kennan describes the equivalent Soviet paranoia that the “USSR still lives in an antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence.”[ii]
The internal affairs of the Communist Party demanded a monolithic aesthetic from Socialist Realism, one that could not tolerate earlier or alternative movements in the Russian avant-garde. Thus, aesthetic dissonance even from the rival left-wing schools of Constructivism, Suprematism, and Futurism translated into political and anti-partisan dissent. In his cable, Kennan highlights this Communist perception that “most dangerous of all are those whom Lenin called false friends of the people, namely moderate-socialist or social-democratic leaders (in other words, non-Communist left-wing).”[iii]
Lastly, Soviet Socialist Realism grappled with domestic mythologies of the Party line. The style addressed the people of the Soviet Union directly, offering them the visual ideology of Communism, the illusions of its material success, and instruction on how to forge those Potemkin dreams into Soviet realities. Ambassador Kennan identifies the same processes at work in an “apparatus of power” used to shape the minds of the Russian people with “great skill and persistence.”[iv]
These political outlooks manifest themselves in the visual characteristics of Soviet Socialist Realism–its preferred content, formal qualities, and guiding visual theory. An excerpt from the introductory text at the Soviet Pavilion at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair introduces the essential traits:
What is it that is new in Soviet painting? What distinguishes it from the rest of modern painting in the world? […] The answer to these questions lies in the work of Soviet artists themselves – in the truthful portrayal of life in the Land of the Soviets, in the subjects of their paintings, devoted to the New Socialist man, his life, struggle and labor, his ideals, emotions and dreams. It lies in the very nature of Soviet art, which is impregnated with great humanitarian ideals. It lies in the simplicity and plastic clarity of the pictorial language of Soviet paintings, sculpture and graphic art. In his work the Soviet artist primarily addresses the people.[v]
Even at the risk of echoing Soviet doublespeak, this explanation of Soviet Socialist Realism proves valuable inasmuch as it lays bare the intent of the Communist Party that determined the artistic direction of Russia.
Yet a simpler, more cogent description might be found in the nominal terms of Soviet Socialist Realism itself. Soviet in content, paintings often apotheosize Lenin and Stalin, while landscapes and genre scenes focus on the identifiably Russian steppe and laborer. Realistic in form, these paintings use illusionistic devices of lifelike color and linear perspective to create convincing images of the real world; they tend to avoid abstraction. Socialist in theory, the style self-consciously integrates the political objectives of shaping popular opinion by using leading titles and clear narratives that provide legible messages.
Thus, if Kennan’s telegram limns a schematic approach to questions of Soviet outlooks under Stalin, the art of Soviet Socialist Realism offers a form of visual shorthand by which the same political objectives are encoded or expressed internationally, domestically, and internally within the Communist Party.
Introduced by Stalin’s 1932 decree “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations,” the promulgation of Soviet Socialist Realism coincided with a series of dramatic centralization policies during the Five Year Plans of the 1930s.[vi] Each of these initiatives addressed a perception of Soviet inferiority in relation to Western powers, proposing a reorganization of property and labor as the solution. [vii] It followed that artists and architects could be usefully grouped into unitary ‘creative unions’ that would streamline aesthetic presentations in the same way that collectivized agriculture would increase efficiency under the first Five Year Plan.[viii],[ix]
The task for Soviet Socialist Realism, then, was to legitimize the Soviet Union as a cultural force in revolutionary opposition to the West. Among Soviet intelligentsia, “the Russian tradition was associated with backwardness and humiliation, evoking disgust rather than compassion.”[x] Again, the fearful perception of inferiority is invoked within Party meetings to produce an official policy that would correct it. In this case the solution lay in reframing pictorial conventions long associated with aristocratic or bourgeois art and constructing new, revolutionary meanings.
Consider the tradition of ceremonial portraiture in Western Europe, the salient attributes of which can be found in Jacques-Louis David’s Coronation of Napoleon (1805-1807, Figure I, appended at end). David presents an impressive display of absolute power through the use of a clear narrative, rich coloration, thronging adorants, and opulent settings. Georges Becker’s Coronation of Emperor Alexander III (1888, Figure II) reiterates the same decadent idiom, this time in the name of the same tsarist dynasty that would be overthrown by communism.
Less expected, however, are the similarities found in Yuri Kugach’s Praised be the Great Stalin! (1950, Figure III) or Mikhail Khmelko’s To the Great Russian People (1949, Figure IV). Andrei Zdhanov, Leningrad’s Party Leader and Stalin’s close advisor on cultural affairs, explains succinctly:
We Bolsheviks do not reject the cultural heritage. On the contrary, we are critically assimilating the cultural heritage of all nations and all times in order to choose from it all that can inspire the working people of Soviet society to great exploits in labor, science, and culture.[xi]
The Party would not “deprive itself of the tried weapon of the classics, but on the contrary give it a new function and use it in the construction of the new world.”[xii] Rather than formulate a new and unfamiliar pictorial language to communicate ideas of grandeur and power – and even of intimidation – the Communist Party reinterpreted what had been proven effective before. In the process, artists like Kugach and Khmelko simultaneously undermined the memory of pre-Revolution imagery and armed the Soviet state with a powerful visual culture. The painters of Soviet Socialist Realism had no need to reinvent the color wheel.
Cultural programs in the Soviet Union demonstrate that the government deliberately engaged in fostering this artistic rerouting. In addition to the cascade of bureaucratic hierarchies that led from provincial artist unions right up to the Politburo, the Communist Party introduced Stalin Prizes for artists in 1939, which offered monthly stipends (a princely sum of 500 rubles) to fifty of Stalin’s favored artists each year.[xiii] This privilege of partisan artists recalls the perks enjoyed by another of Stalin’s favored groups–nuclear physicists.[xiv] Indeed, Stalin’s nuclear espionage program of reapplying American research on the atomic bomb towards Soviet development follows the same patterns of co-option seen in Soviet Socialist Realism. In both cases, the competitive antagonism in the Soviet outlook on world affairs determined government policy.
The positive reinforcement that Stalin Prizes offered to artists who served the Communist Party’s agenda was matched by the repression of those who did not. Stalin paired the carrot with the stick. The emphasis on Soviet supremacy demanded a rooting out of ‘cosmopolitanism,’ a policy that led to death or irrelevance for many foreign and Jewish artists living in the Soviet Union.[xv] The Russian avant-garde that had flourished since the Revolution of 1917 shared with Soviet Socialist Realism the common objective of dismantling bourgeois culture, but it adopted a different and irreconcilable approach in achieving it. Simply put, the abstraction of movements like Constructivism, Suprematism, and Futurism was antithetical to the representational style of Soviet Socialist Realism. Kazimir Malevich, a pioneer of geometric abstraction and a leading exponent of Suprematism, demonstrates this difference quite starkly with Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918, Figure V). Malevich negates every tradition in Western painting, refusing to depict anything recognizable in the real world, draining his canvas of lifelike color, and even reducing line to the slight offset of whites that suggest the shape of squares. In theory the painting would seem well suited to communist ideals. It is liberated of constraints and the unity of color suggests the harmony of a classless society. In practice under Stalin’s rule, however, students at the Academy of Arts in Leningrad were expelled if they were discovered to have visited Malevich’s studio.[xvi]
Drastic as that sounds, Stalin’s justification was probably not simply a matter of personal taste. The suppression of these alternative movements confirms the degree to which Stalin was aware of art’s capacity for political implication. That is, Stalin would have had no reason to suppress these Suprematists if it had “confined itself to artistic space, but the fact that it was persecuted indicates that it was operating in the same territory as the state.”[xvii] Though they were themselves products of the Revolution of 1917, artists like Malevich did not fit with prevailing artistic views of the Communist Party by the time of Stalin. That made them false friends of the Party, a status that Kennan highlighted as particularly intolerable to Soviet leadership.
Alexander Deyneka’s Future Pilots (1937, Figure VI) demonstrates how a Soviet Socialist Realist painter might acceptably reinterpret Malevich’s interest in white-based compositions. Forms are again slightly geometricized and colors muted, but Deyneka produces a transparently jingoistic narrative of young swimmers inspired to join the Soviet Air Forces. To make the incompatibility of these images perfectly clear, it is worth pointing out that New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White in 1935, two years before Future Pilots was painted.[xviii] If the perception of indivisible Soviet power was to be preserved, the monolithic art of Soviet Socialist Realism could not be subverted by counter-examples.
The ultimate irony of this schism between Soviet Socialist Realism and the earlier avant-garde lies in the fact that the state-sponsored program of art was better equipped to meet the needs of a new revolutionary society in Russia. Soviet Socialist Realism was, after all, far less radical in form than Suprematism. Yet its combination of revolutionary symbolism with legible depiction resulted in paintings that stood as hieroglyphs readily marshaled to serve various Soviet mythologies. That is, the extent to which Soviet Socialist Realism depicted scenes of industrious Laborers, brave Heroes, and great Leaders enabled it to create recognizable types to be emulated and admired by the Soviet people.
Vyacheslav Mariupolski’s A Leader in the Pioneers (Her First Report) (1949, Figure VII) reveals the simple insistence of these types. The subject, a girl in the Soviet youth group of Young Pioneers, reads from neatly copied pages in a manner that visualizes the tradition of Communist Party speeches. More forcefully, the girl’s poised features are framed by a print of Stalin’s portrait behind her. Notably, this image of flourishing female leadership occurs in the Soviet Union 15 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed in the United States. The heroification of simple moments like this begins to involve the entirety of the Soviet people and the full experience of their lives in service of the Party. This alignment between the art of Soviet Socialist Realism and national interests is furthered by Fedor Reshetnikov’s Low Marks Again (1952, Figure VIII). A sympathetic family composition, the painting nevertheless cautions that academic failure will be met with disappointment– seen most clearly in the standing sister who is already studying her books. Extrapolated into the contemporary Cold War realities, national interest in education must have run high on tensions of a nuclear arms race. The Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1953, a year after Low Marks Again was painted.
These paintings are accessible even to the most uneducated laborer in that they presume none of the visual theory required to appreciate or understand the abstract work of Malevich. Another part of the seductive intimacy of Soviet Socialist Realism lay in the venues of its display. Exhibited in public museums, the paintings were collectively owned by the people of the Soviet Union like any other resource of the state.[xix] That is, the Soviet people had a personally motivated interest in the perpetuation of ideas, worlds, and myths presented in socialist realism.
The sophistication is deepened further when Soviet Socialist Realism is considered in relation to mimesis, or the representation of the real world in art. A mimetic painting is thus successful in recreating nature on canvas. However, the elisions and liberties taken with Fedor Shurpin’s The Morning of our Native Land (1948, Figure IX) demonstrate that Soviet Socialist Realism was less concerned with capturing the real world so much as developing a convincing mythology for the Soviet Union. In the painting, Stalin is shown standing in a collectivized field, with tractors already at work preparing the soil. Nearby factories are indicated by billowing smoke, and telegraph wires hint at the interconnectedness of the vast Soviet Union. Yet the story presented is impossible. While Shurpin painted The Morning of our Native Land in 1948, Stalin did not pose for any artist after World War II.[xx] Shurpin’s own description of the painting reveals the warped reality: “In the sound of the tractors, the movement of trains, in the fresh breathing of the limitless spring fields–in everything I saw and felt the image of the leader of the people.”[xxi] If Soviet Socialist Realism is mimetic, it is so only through “the mimesis of Stalin’s will.”[xxii] The artist became a creator of myths that shape reality–in this case, the cult worship of Stalin that sustained his power.
Soviet Socialist Reactionism
With the passing of the Cold War, perhaps the most enduring mark left by the Soviet strain of Socialist Realism lies in the reaction it provoked within Western art. Clement Greenberg, the influential New York art critic who was one of the earliest and most insistent supporters of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, reproached the early stages of Soviet Socialist Realism in a 1939 essay titled ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch.’ The thesis is at least as concerned with politics as it is with aesthetics. Greenberg presents the repressive regimes of Hitler and Stalin as inextricably linked to the “kitsch,” propagandizing art of the Third Reich and Soviet Socialist Realism: “Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the ‘soul’ of the people.”[xxiii] The only aesthetic antidote innocent of state manipulation, Greenberg suggests, would be found in art of the avant-garde, which he posits is and will continue to be led by American painters.
The dominant trajectory of Western art in the twentieth century towards abstraction, expressionism, and the exaltation of pure form indicates that Greenberg was mostly correct–but not about the freedom from government manipulation. The revelation in 1967 of CIA funding for the Association for Cultural Freedom to promote American abstract art abroad demonstrates that the American government was actively concerned with opposing the art of Soviet Socialist Realism.[xxiv] Guided by a compulsion to reject emphatically all things totalitarian and communist, including their aesthetics, Western art in the twentieth century allowed itself on some level to be defined by its Soviet antithesis. Somewhat startlingly, it follows that Stalin’s firm control of the arts in the Soviet Union allowed him to indirectly shape the art world of the West, too.
This essay was awarded a 2013 Acheson Prize Honorable Mention.
Cassius Clay (’13) is a History of Art major in Berkeley College.
[ii] George Kennan, “Long Telegram,” February 22, 1946, reproduced at <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan.htm>.
[v] Quoted in The Aesthetic Arsenal: Socialist Realism under Stalin (Long Island City, New York: The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S.1 Museum, 1993), 8.
[vi] Sergei V Ivanov, Unknown Socialist Realism. The Leningrad School (St. Petersburg: NP-Print Edition, 2007), 28-29.
[vii] Hal Foster et al., Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, volume 1: 1900-1944 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 260.
[viii] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 33.
[ix] Matthew Cullerne Bown, Socialist Realist Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 140-141.
[x] Groys, 4.
[xi] Martin McCauley, Who’s Who in Russia Since 1900 (New York: Routledge, 1997), 329.
[xii] Groys, 39.
[xiii] Bown, 138.
[xiv] John Lewis Gaddis, Lecture: “The Nuclear Arms Race,” Yale University, New Haven, September 19, 2011.
[xv] Bown, 221.
[xvi] Vassily Rakitin, “The Avant-Garde and the Art of the Stalinist Era,” in The Aesthetic Arsenal: Socialist Realism Under Stalin (Long Island City, New York: The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S.1 Museum, 1993), 26.
[xvii] Groys, 35.
[xviii] The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999), 85.
[xix] Greg Castillo, “People at an Exhibition” in Socialist Realism Without Shores (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1997), 101.
[xx] Bown, 234.
[xxi] Fedor S. Shurpin, quoted in Matthew Cullerne Bown, Socialist Realist Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 237.
[xxii] Groys, 53.
[xxiii] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review Volume 6 (Fall 1939): 46.
[xxiv] Central Intelligence Agency, “Origins of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, 1949-50” <https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/95unclass/Warner.html#rft1>.
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Castillo, Greg. “People at an Exhibition.” Socialist Realism Without Shores (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1997)
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Golomstock, Igor. “Problems in the Study of Stalinist Culture.” In The Aesthetic Arsenal: Socialist Realism Under Stalin. (Long Island City, New York: The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S.1 Museum, 1993)
Foster, Hal et al., Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, volume 1: 1900-1944 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005)
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Ivanov, Sergei V. Unknown Socialist Realism The Leningrad School. (St. Petersburg: NP-Print Edition, 2007)
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McCauley, Martin. Who’s Who in Russia Since 1900 (New York: Routledge, 1997)
Rakitin, Vassily. “The Avant-Garde and the Art of the Stalinist Era.” In The Aesthetic Arsenal: Socialist Realism Under Stalin. (Long Island City, New York: The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S.1 Museum, 1993): 26
The Museum of Modern Art. MoMA Highlights, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004)