The New York Times recently ran a piece on an apartment decorated in the Stalin Empire style by a St. Petersburg antiques dealer. According to the article, Bobovnikov is a collector of, “ideological art of the early soviet period.” Several examples of Socialist Realist painting are visible in the article’s image gallery.
Naturally, reveling in nostalgia for the official architecture and design of an infamous totalitarian regime raises some questions. Is this allowed? Can aesthetic value be separated from ideological content? There is no universal consensus. Italian Futurism is widely exhibited, discussed and admired. State supported artists of the Third Reich*, however, may incapable of “rehabilitation.”
A typical western perspective tends to divide Soviet art into 3 categories: Pre-Stalinist experimental work, Socialist Realism, and subversive, “non-conformist” art. We are permitted to admire the revolutionary work of Mayakovsky, early Deneika, Rodchenko, Tatlin & co. We are, of course, permitted to admire the subversive work of Kabakov and Komar and Melamid. Socialist Realism, however, is still viewed as fully complicit in the crimes of the regime. As Solzhenitsyn put it in The Oak and the Calf, “This solemn pledge to abstain from truth was called socialist realism. Even writers of love poems, even those lyric poets who had sought sanctuary in nature or in elegant romanticism, were all fatally flawed because they dared not touch the important truths.”
The aesthetics of architecture and design may be sufficiently abstract to divorce from ideological content, but what about other art forms? Ballet, classical music and folk music were all used as tools of the soviet state. Composers, dancers and performers were subject to strict censorship. The work they produced, however, is not dismissed as malignant kitsch. The technical skill and strength of these artists is appreciated, and the burden of censorship is viewed as an oppressive yoke talented artists were forced to carry in order to preserve a valid artistic tradition. It’s possible that with increased awareness of the continuity of the Realist tradition from the 19th century, Socialist Realist painting, too, can be approached from a different perspective.
Excerpt from the article:
As it happens, Stalin Empire style, which draws on Art Deco and the clean lines of Mussolini-era Italian design, is enjoying something of a mini-revival in Russia, said Xenia Adjoubei, a lecturer in architectural history and theory at the British Higher School of Art and Design who also has a design practice in Moscow.
Stalinist-era interiors are now widely appreciated for their beautiful and minimalist look, she said. But recreating one of those interiors from scratch, she acknowledged, might strike some as odd — even a little creepy.
“But it is only unnerving if you see this person as wanting to recreate the lifestyle of a member of the NKVD,” Ms. Adjoubei said, referring to the secret police of the 1930s. “He’s probably just appreciating the aesthetic value.”
* Arno Breker is a good case study.