Matthew Bown

Matthew Bown is a gallery owner and author of four books on Soviet art. He was born in London where he received an art degree before he began traveling to Russia in the 1980’s. His books on Socialist Realism are indispensable to the student of 20th century Russian art; they are among the few books, in English or any language, which take on the challenge of understanding and appreciating Soviet Realist art, often dismissed outright as morally and aesthetically bankrupt propaganda. Below are reviews, excerpts, and synopses of these four important books, which are becoming harder and harder to find these days.

Art of the Soviets: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in a One-Party State, 1917-1992

Maybe the best introduction to Art of the Soviets is, well, the actual introduction, lifted from Google Books. (Only some sections of the text are available online.)

In Art of the Soviets, Bown proposes “a shift of emphasis away from the work of the ‘avant-garde’ which has long preoccupied western art historians, in favor of a broader, more inclusive scheme that recognizes the existence of many types of art, some modernist but some deeply anti-modernist, but each to a greater or lesser extent guided by (sometimes coerced by) the apparatus of the overarching state.”

He goes on to explain how, “According to one long-standing Western orthodoxy, Soviet history – and, give or take a year or two, culture – can be divided into just two opposing periods: the ‘revolutionary’ period of 1917 to 1924 ( the date of Lenin’s death), deemed a period of classic revolutionary struggle and utopian aspirations, and the period of  ‘corrupted communism’ which succeeded it, in which the great ideals of democracy, emancipation, and the ‘withering away of the state’ ( Lenin’s phrase from his 1924 book State and Revolution) became grotesquely inverted. This inversion – Stalinism – is generally held to have given birth to the cultural dogmas of  Socialist Realism, and it is still the conventional view that Socialist Realism dominated Soviet art and culture right up to 1985 and the beginnings of perestroika (reconstruction) – despite the heroic resistance of the artistic ‘underground’ – and moreover the art produced under this doctrine was stylistically monotonous and aesthetically inferior.

This book advances the idea that Soviet culture was less monolithic, more heterogeneous, and, quite simply, more interesting and important than this simple stereotype suggests.”

Art Under Stalin

Here’s a brief synopsis of the book from the publisher’s website:

“Bown’s analysis focuses on the art of the Stalin era, from 1932 to 1953, and includes discussion of the pre- and post-Stalin years. The author illuminates the political and social framework of the time and provides an expose of Stalinist aesthetics, socialist realism in art and neo-classicism in architecture, the Cult of Personality, art-world debates, and isolationism.”

A Dictionary of Twentieth Century Russian and Soviet Painters 1900-80’s

This book compiles information on about 13,000 20th century Russian painters. It is 327 pages, has 350 plates ( over 300 in color) and as of June 6 this year, the distributor had 8 copies left.

Socialist Realist Painting

Here’s an excerpt from a 1998 review in Artforum International:

“The last uncharted territory in twentieth-century painting, Soviet Socialist Realism has something for everyone – historical pathos, political minimalism, modernist hubris, postmodernist irony, mixed-media extravaganzas, pop iconography, mad conceptualism, proto-photorealism (among fifty-six other varieties of figurative art), and a host of unknown masters. It’s an altogether underleveraged franchise – although Matthew Cullerne Bown’s massive Socialist Realist Painting makes a strong bid for a friendly takeover.

Socialist Realist Painting is a lavish, albeit physically unwieldy, amalgam of scholarly history and deluxe picture book. If the text exudes a sense of mission, it may be because Socialist Realism has been doubly repressed
Being subjected to or characterized by repression.
. Almost from its inception, the mode was ridiculed throughout the non-Soviet world as an egregious form of soul-destroying, Stalin-worshipping kitsch. Even in the Soviet Union, classical Socialist Realism became, as Boris Groys wrote in The Total Art of Stalinism, ultimately and officially “no less taboo than the art of the avant-garde” it had supplanted. Indeed, during the thirty-five years between the death of Stalin and perestroika, the two tendencies might well have been crated up and hidden together in Soviet museum basements.”

(full text here)

These books can be found used on Amazon and Ebay, and, more inexpensively, through interlibrary loan services. Matthew Bown is also the author of an excellent blog on Russian culture –  IZO – featuring posts on everything from museum exhibitions and global politics to the most everyday trivia about Russian life.

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Author: Barry O'Keefe

Artist/printmaker from Richmond, Va

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