Saving the Art of Socialist Realism


*image courtesy of exhibition website

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new exhibition of Russian art is drawing attention to a marginalized, controversial movement which has been hiding for two decades in “basements and corners” across Russia. That movement, oddly enough, is Soviet Realism. “Behind the Iron Curtain – The Art of Socialist Realism” at the Jeschke-Van Vliet Gallery in Berlin re-examines Soviet Realism at a time when avant-garde and dissident art commands most of the art world’s attention regarding the Soviet period.

Gaia Fusai, one of the collectors involved in the exhibition told the New York Times that after Gorbachev came to power, “The paintings were put into basements or corners, or thrown aside as if that part of the past had no meaning. But that art is part of the former Soviet Union’s history. You can’t just blot it out. So a group of collectors decided to go about trying to find these paintings. It is about saving the art of Socialist Realism.”

The exhibition aims to draw attention to this fading piece of Soviet culture for its historical value, but also to restore the movement’s artistic legitimacy. Socialist Realism is often condemned as an oppressive style, useful only for expressing surreal visions of a socialist utopia; the words “Socialist Realism” conjure images of monumental works depicting Lenin and Stalin – but this is only a side – albeit, the most visible side, of Soviet Realism. An excellent article by Judy Dempsey in the New York Times discusses some ways in which work included in the show works around the restrictiveness of the Socialist Realist style:

“Inevitably there are the paintings of the big, collectivized farms. But not all show contented tractor drivers. “Wheat Harvest,” painted in the late ’70s by Kodev Petr Ivanov, a Ukrainian born in 1899, shows a combine harvester, but well in the background. In the foreground, the wheat with all its texture and colors is where the artistic freedom shines through.

A painting by another Ukrainian, Vosnyuk Petr Stepanovich, shows a teacher observing young students in a woodworking class. The boys wear the scarves of the Young Pioneers, or young Communists. But the eye focuses more upon the wood carvings and details in the painting that was completed between 1968 and 1970.”

Dempsey picks up on an important, but often overlooked pillar of the Socialist Realist genre – academic study. As much as the movement emphasized “political consciousness,” it demanded an intensity of observational drawing and painting not seen in many other 20th century styles. This aspect of the movement had strong ties to pre-revolutionary Russian Realism, and the beauty of careful observation is undeniable in much of Soviet Realist art. Just as there are works which focus chiefly on the political goals of the movement, and tend towards pure propaganda, there are works which focus on the movement’s academic side. Perhaps more than the monumental works of Russia’s leaders, it is these landscapes and portraits – memories from almost a century of Russia’s past – which are in danger of being forgotten.

Ms. Fusai responded to Dempsey’s analysis of these largely a-political works saying, “That is what this exhibition is about. It is more than just propaganda. It is about a time in the Soviet Union. That is why we want to show these paintings to a wider audience. We want to fill the black holes of history. ”

The organizers have a complete exhibition catalog and a press release with a brief outline their goals, as well as interesting background on the restoration process available for download in English here, on the exhibition website. The show will run through November 30th.