Socialist realism is a style of realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other socialist countries. Socialist realism is a teleologically-oriented style having as its purpose the furtherance of the goals of socialism and communism. Although related, it should not be confused with social realism, a broader type of art that realistically depicts subjects of social concern. Unlike social realism, socialist realism often glorifies the roles of the meek and working class and the struggle for its emancipation.
In conjunction with the Socialist Classical style of architecture, Socialist realism was the officially approved type of art in the Soviet Union for nearly sixty years. All material goods and means of production belonged to the community as a whole; this included means of producing art, which were also seen as powerful propaganda tools.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, Russian and Soviet artists embraced a wide variety of art forms under the auspices of Proletkult. Revolutionary politics and radical non-traditional art forms were seen as complementary. In art, Constructivism flourished. In poetry, the non-traditional and the avant-garde were often praised.
This, however, was rejected by some members of the Communist party, who did not appreciate modern styles such as Impressionism and Cubism, since these movements existed before the revolution and were thus associated with "decadent bourgeois art". Socialist realism was, to some extent, a reaction against the adoption of these "decadent" styles. It was thought that the non-representative forms of art were not understood by the proletariat and could therefore not be used by the state for propaganda. Alexander Bogdanov argued that the radical reformation of society to communist principles meant little if any bourgeois art would prove useful; some of his more radical followers advocated the destruction of libraries and museums. Lenin rejected this philosophy, deplored the rejection of the beautiful because it was old, and explicitly described art as needing to call on its heritage: "Proletarian culture must be the logical development of the store of knowledge mankind has accumulated under the yoke of capitalist, landowner, and bureaucratic society." Modern art styles appeared to refuse to draw upon this heritage, thus clashing with the long realist tradition in Russia and rendering the art scene complex. Even in Lenin's time, a cultural bureaucracy began to restrain art to fit propaganda purposes. Leon Trotsky's arguments that a "proletarian literature" was un-Marxist because the proletariat would lose its class characteristics in the transition to a classless society, however, did not prevail.
Socialist realism became state policy in 1932 when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin promulgated the decree "On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations". Accordingly, the Moscow and Leningrad Union of Artists was established in 1932, which brought the history of post-revolutionary art to a close. The epoch of Soviet art began. In Leningrad well-known artist and art teacher Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin was elected the first president of the Union of Artists. This choice laid down the foundation of the lasting development of the Leningrad Union of Artists and Academy of Arts as a unified creative body. In 1931-2, the early emphasis on the "little man" and the anonymous laboring masses gave way to the "hero of labor", derived from the people but set apart by the scale of his deeds. Writers were explicitly enjoined to develop "heroization". This reflected a call for romantic art, which reflected the ideal rather than the realistic. Furthermore, it should show one clear and unambiguous meaning.
The first exhibition organized by the Leningrad Union of Artists took place in 1935. Its participants – Mikhail Avilov, Isaak Brodsky, Piotr Buchkin, Nikolai Dormidontov, Rudolf Frentz, Kazimir Malevich, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, and Alexander Samokhvalov among them – became the founding fathers of the Leningrad school while their works formed one of its richest layers and the basis of the largest museum collections of Soviet painting of the 1930-1950s.
In 1932, the Leningrad Institute of Proletarian Visual Arts was transformed into the Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (since 1944 named Ilya Repin). The fifteen-year period of constant reformation of the country’s largest art institute came to an end. Thus, basic elements of the Leningrad school – namely, a higher art education establishment of a new type and a unified professional union of Leningrad artists, were created by the end of 1932. In 1934 Isaak Brodsky, a disciple of Ilya Repin, was appointed director of the National Academy of Arts and the Leningrad Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Brodsky invited distinguished painters and pedagogues to teach at the Academy, namely Semion Abugov, Mikhail Bernshtein, Ivan Bilibin, Piotr Buchkin, Efim Cheptsov, Rudolf Frentz, Boris Ioganson, Dmitry Kardovsky, Alexander Karev, Dmitry Kiplik, Yevgeny Lansere, Alexander Lubimov, Matvey Manizer, Vasily Meshkov, Pavel Naumov, Alexander Osmerkin, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, Leonid Ovsyannikov, Nikolai Petrov, Sergei Priselkov, Nikolai Punin, Nikolai Radlov, Konstantin Rudakov, Pavel Shillingovsky, Vasily Shukhaev, Victor Sinaisky, Ivan Stepashkin, Konstantin Yuon, and others.
Art exhibitions of 1935–1940 disprove the claims that artistic life of the period was suppressed by the ideology and artists submitted entirely to what was then called "social order". A great number of landscapes, portraits, and genre paintings exhibited at the time pursued purely technical purposes and were thus ostensibly free from any ideology. Genre painting was also approached in a similar way.
In the post-war period between the mid-fifties and sixties, the Leningrad school of painting was approaching its vertex. New generations of artists who had graduated from the Academy (Repin Institute of Arts) in the 1930s–50s were in their prime. They were quick to present their art, they strived for experiments, and were eager to appropriate a lot and to learn even more. Their time and contemporaries, with all its images, ideas, and dispositions found it full expression in portraits by Vladimir Gorb, Boris Korneev, Engels Kozlov, Felix Lembersky, Oleg Lomakin, Samuil Nevelshtein, Victor Oreshnikov, Semion Rotnitsky, Lev Russov, and Leonid Steele; in landscapes by Nikolai Galakhov, Vasily Golubev, Dmitry Maevsky, Sergei Osipov, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Alexander Semionov, Arseny Semionov, and Nikolai Timkov; and in genre paintings by Andrey Milnikov, Yevsey Moiseenko, Mikhail Natarevich, Yuri Neprintsev, Nikolai Pozdneev, Mikhail Trufanov, Yuri Tulin, Nina Veselova, and others.
In 1957, the first all-Russian Congress of Soviet artists took place in Moscow. In 1960, the all-Russian Union of Artists was organized. Accordingly, these events influenced the art life in Moscow, Leningrad, and the provinces. The scope of experimentation was broadened; in particular, this concerned the form of painterly and plastic language. Images of youths and students, rapidly changing villages and cities, virgin lands brought under cultivation, grandiose construction plans being realized in Siberia and the Volga region, and great achievements of Soviet science and technology became the chief topics of the new painting. Heroes of the time – young scientists, workers, civil engineers, physicians, etc. – were made the most popular heroes of paintings.
In this period, life provided artists with plenty of thrilling topics, positive figures, and images. Legacy of many great artists and art movements became available for study and public discussion again. This greatly broadened artists’ understanding of the realist method and widened its possibilities. It was the repeated renewal of the very conception of realism that made this style dominate Russian art throughout its history. Realist tradition gave rise to many trends of contemporary painting, including painting from nature, "severe style" painting, and decorative art. However, during this period impressionism, postimpressionism, cubism, and expressionism also had their fervent adherents and interpreters.
The Union of Soviet Writers was founded to control the output of authors, and the new policy was rubber stamped at the Congress of Socialist Writers in 1934. It was enforced ruthlessly in all spheres of artistic endeavour. Artists who strayed from the official line were severely punished. Form and content were often limited, with erotic, religious, abstract, surrealist, and expressionist art being forbidden. Formal experiments, including internal dialogue, stream of consciousness, nonsense, free-form association, and cut-up were also disallowed. This was either because they were "decadent", unintelligible to the proletariat, or counter-revolutionary. In response to the 1934 Congress in Russia, the most important American writers of the left gathered in the First American Writers Congress of 26-27 April 1935 in Chicago, at the meetings which were supported by Stalin. Waldo David Frank was the first president of the League of American Writers's, which was backed by the Communist Party USA. A number of novelists balked at the control, and the League broke up at the invasion of the Soviet Union by German forces.
The restrictions were relaxed somewhat after Stalin's death in 1953, but the state still kept a tight rein on personal artistic expression. This caused many artists to choose to go into exile, for example the Odessa Group from the city of that name. Independent-minded artists that remained continued to feel the hostility of the state. In 1974, for instance, a show of unofficial art in a field near Moscow was broken up and the artwork destroyed with a water cannon and bulldozers (see Bulldozer Exhibition). Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika facilitated an explosion of interest in alternative art styles in the late 1980s, but socialist realism remained in limited force as the official state art style until as late as 1991. It was not until after the fall of the Soviet Union that artists were finally freed from state censorship.
After the Russian Revolution, socialist realism became an international literary movement. Socialist trends in literature were established in the 1920s in Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Writers who helped develop socialist realism in the West included Louis Aragon, Johannes Becher, and Pablo Neruda.
The doctrine of socialist realism in other People's Republics, was legally enforced from 1949 to 1956. It involved all domains of visual and literary arts, though its most spectacular achievements were made in the field of architecture, considered a key weapon in the creation of a new social order, intended to help spread the communist doctrine by influencing citizens' consciousness as well as their outlook on life. During this massive undertaking, a crucial role fell to architects perceived not as merely engineers creating streets and edifices, but rather as "engineers of the human soul" who, in addition to extending simple aesthetics into urban design, were to express grandiose ideas and arouse feelings of stability, persistence and political power.
Today, arguably the only countries still focused on these aesthetic principles are North Korea, Laos, and to some extent Vietnam. The People's Republic of China occasionally reverts to socialist realism for specific purposes, such as idealised propaganda posters to promote the Chinese space program. Socialist realism had little mainstream impact in the non-Communist world, where it was widely seen as a totalitarian means of imposing state control on artists.
The former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was an important exception among the communist countries, because after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, it abandoned socialist realism along with other elements previously imported from the Soviet system and allowed greater artistic freedom. Miroslav Krleža, one of the leading Yugoslav intellectuals, gave a speech at the Third Congress of the Writers Alliance of Yugoslavia held in Ljubljana in 1952, which is considered a turning point in the Yugoslav denouncement of dogmatic socialist realism.
The initial tendencies toward socialist realism date from the mid-19th century. They include revolutionary literature in Great Britain (the poetry of the Chartist movement), Germany (Herwegh, Freiligrath, and G. Weerth), and France (the literature of the Paris Commune and Pottier's "Internationale.") Socialist realism emerged as a literary method in the early 20th century in Russia, especially in the works of Gorky. It was also apparent in the works of writers like Kotsiubinsky, Rainis, Akopian, and Edvoshvili. Following Gorky, writers in several countries combined the realistic depiction of life with the expression of a socialist world view. They included Barbusse, Andersen Nexø, and John Reed.
The political aspect of socialist realism was, in some respects, a continuation of pre-Soviet state policy. Censorship and attempts to control the content of art did not begin with the Soviets, but were a long-running feature of Russian life. The Tsarist government also appreciated the potentially disruptive effect of art and required all books to be cleared by the censor. Writers and artists in 19th century Imperial Russia became quite skilled at evading censorship by making their points without spelling it out in so many words. However, Soviet censors were not easily evaded.
Socialist realism had its roots in neoclassicism and the traditions of realism in Russian literature of the 19th century that described the life of simple people. It was exemplified by the aesthetic philosophy of Maxim Gorky. The work of the Peredvizhniki (The Itinerants (or Wanderers), a Russian realist movement of the late 19th / early 20th centuries), Jacques-Louis David and Ilya Yefimovich Repin were notable influences.
Socialist Realism was a product of the Soviet system. Whereas in market societies professional artists earned their living selling to, or being commissioned by rich individuals or the Church, in Soviet society not only was the market suppressed, there were few if any individuals able to patronise the arts and only one institution – the State itself. Hence artists became state employees. As such the State set the parameters for what it employed them to do. What was expected of the artist was that he/she be formally qualified and to reach a standard of competence. However, whilst this rewarded basic competency, it did not provide an incentive to excel, resulting in a stultification similar to that in other spheres of Soviet society.
The State, after the Congress of 1934, laid down four rules for what became known as "Socialist Realism":
That the work be:
- Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
- Typical: scenes of every day life of the people.
- Realistic: in the representational sense.
- Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.
Socialist realism held that successful art depicts and glorifies the proletariat's struggle toward socialist progress. The Statute of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 stated that socialist realism
is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.
Its purpose was to elevate the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work, and recreation as admirable. In other words, its goal was to educate the people in the goals and meaning of Communism. The ultimate aim was to create what Lenin called "an entirely new type of human being": New Soviet Man. Stalin described the practitioners of socialist realism as "engineers of souls".
The "realism" part is important. Soviet art at this time aimed to depict the worker as he truly was, carrying his tools. In a sense, the movement mirrors the course of American and Western art, where the everyday human being became the subject of the novel, the play, poetry, and art. The proletariat was at the center of communist ideals; hence, his life was a worthy subject for study. This was an important shift away from the aristocratic art produced under the Russian tsars of previous centuries, but had much in common with the late-19th century fashion for depicting the social life of the common people. In practice, this entailed realistic depictions of objects, so that ordinary people could understand; a theater could not use a box to represent a chair.
The artist could not, however, portray life just as he saw it; because everything that reflected poorly on Communism had to be omitted, and indeed, people who were not simply good or evil could not be used as characters. All characters were poured into a heroic mold, sometimes termed heroic realism. This reflected a call for heroic and romantic art, which reflected the ideal rather than the realistic. Maxim Gorky urged that one obtained realism by extracting the basic idea from reality, but by adding the potential and desirable to it, one added romantism with deep revolutionary potential; "critical realism" had been appropriate for older, corrupt societies, but criticism of society must now give way to optimism. Art was filled with health and happiness; paintings teemed with busy industrial and agricultural scenes, and sculptures depicted workers, sentries, and schoolchildren. Literature was filled with "positive heroes" that were frequently extremely tedious.
Compared to the eclectic variety of 20th century Western art, socialist realism often resulted in a fairly bland and predictable range of artistic products (indeed, Western critics wryly described the principles of socialist realism as "girl meets tractor"). Painters would depict happy, muscular peasants and workers in factories and collective farms; during the Stalin period, they also produced numerous heroic portraits of the dictator to serve his cult of personality. Industrial and agricultural landscapes were popular subjects, glorifying the achievements of the Soviet economy. Novelists were expected to produce uplifting stories in a manner consistent with the Marxist doctrine of dialectical materialism. Composers were to produce rousing, vivid music that reflected the life and struggles of the proletariat. It was argued that mere photographic replication of facts was merely "naturalism", while socialist realism was distinguished by a will and purpose on part of the artist, and his recognition of these facts as part of a vision of the whole. Even diarists would attempt to fit their accounts of their daily lives into suitable purpose-driven, future-oriented accounts.
Socialist realism thus demanded close adherence to party doctrine, and has often been criticized as detrimental to the creation of true, unfettered art – or as being little more than a means to censor artistic expression. Vsevolod Kochetov is one of the typical representatives who rigorously applied those doctrines even in 1960s and early 1970s. Czesław Miłosz, writing in the introduction to Sinyavsky's On Socialist Realism, describes the products of socialist realism as "inferior", ascribing this as necessarily proceeding from the limited view of reality permitted to creative artists.
Not all Marxists accepted the necessity of socialist realism (Marx's, Engels' and Trotsky's views on art and culture were very liberal and may have balked at the propagandism of Socialist realism themselves). Its establishment as state doctrine in the 1930s had rather more to do with internal Communist Party politics than classic Marxist imperatives. The Hungarian Marxist essayist Georg Lukács criticized the rigidity of socialist realism, proposing his own "critical realism" as an alternative. However, such critical voices were a rarity until the 1980s.
Notable works and artists
Maxim Gorky's novel Mother is usually considered to have been the first socialist realist novel. Gorky was also a major factor in the school's rapid rise, and his pamphlet, On Socialist Realism, essentially lays out the needs of Soviet art. Other important works of literature include Fyodor Gladkov's Cement (1925), Nikolai Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Tempered and Mikhail Sholokhov's two volume epic, Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to the Sea (1940). Yury Krymov's novel Tanker "Derbent" (1938) portrays Soviet merchant seafarers being transformed by the Stakhanovite movement.
Martin Andersen Nexø developed socialist realism in his own way. His creative method was characterized by a combination of publicistic passion, a critical view of capitalist society, and a steadfast striving to bring reality into accord with socialist ideals. The novel Pelle, the Conqueror is considered to be a classic of socialist realism. The novel Ditte, Daughter of Man had a working-class woman as its heroine. He battled against the enemies of socialism in the books Two Worlds, and Hands Off!.
The novels of Louis Aragon such as The Real World depicts the working class as a rising force of the nation. He published two books of documentary prose, The Communist Man. In the collection of poems A Knife in the Heart Again, Aragon criticizes the penetration of American imperialism into Europe. The novel The Holy Week depicts the artist's path toward the people against a broad social and historical background.
Hanns Eisler composed many workers' songs, marches, and ballads on current political topics such as Song of Solidarity, Song of the United Front, and Song of the Comintern. He was a founder of a new style of revolutionary song for the masses. He also composed works in larger forms such as Requiem for Lenin. Eisler's most important works include the cantatas German Symphony, Serenade of the Age and Song of Peace. Eisler combines features of revolutionary songs with varied expression. His symphonic music is known for its complex and subtle orchestration.
Closely associated with the rise of the labor movement was the development of the revolutionary song, which was performed at demonstrations and meetings. Among the most famous of the revolutionary songs are The Internationale and Warszawianka. Notable songs from Russia include Boldly, Comrades, in Step, Workers' Marseillaise, and Rage, Tyrants. Folk and revolutionary songs influenced the Soviet mass songs. The mass song was a leading genre in Soviet music, especially during the 1930s and the war. The mass song influenced other genres, including the art song, opera, and film music. The most popular mass songs include Dunaevsky's Song of the Homeland, Blanter's Katiusha, Novikov's Hymn of Democratic Youth of the World, and Aleksandrov's Sacred War.
In the early 1930s, Soviet filmmakers applied socialist realism in their work. Notable films include Chapaev, which shows the role of the people in the history-making process. The theme of revolutionary history was developed in films such as The Youth of Maxim, by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, Shchors by Dovzhenko, and We are from Kronstadt by E. Dzigan. The shaping of the new man under socialism was a theme of films such as A Start Life by N. Ekk, Ivan by Dovzhenko, Valerii Chkalov by M. Kalatozov and the film version of Tanker "Derbent" (1941). Some films depicted the part of peoples of the Soviet Union against foreign invaders: Alexander Nevsky by Eisenstein, Minin and Pozharsky by Pudvokin, and Bogdan Khmelnitsky by Savchenko. Soviet politicians were the subjects in films such as Yutkevich's trilogy of movies about Lenin.
Socialist realism was also applied to Hindi films of the 1940s and 1950s. These include Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar (1946), which won the Grand Prize at the 1st Cannes Film Festival, and Bimal Roy's Two Acres of Land (1953), which won the International Prize at the 7th Cannes Film Festival.
The painter Aleksandr Deineka provides a notable example for his expressionist and patriotic scenes of the Second World War, collective farms, and sports. Yuri Pimenov, Boris Ioganson and Geli Korzev have also been described as "unappreciated masters of twentieth-century realism". Another well-known practitioner was Fyodor Pavlovich Reshetnikov.
Socialist realism had a significant impact on art in Russia and elsewhere. In Russia, the works of authors such as Gorky, Mayakovsky, Sholokhov, Tvardovsky, Fadeyev, Leonov, and many other writers became established classics, achieved worldwide renown, and have become a firm part of the world's cultural heritage. Socialist realism was credited for helping talent to develop and art to flourish in many forms and for making it more accessible to the masses.
Mikhail Bulgakov wrote his work, The Master and Margarita, in secret, despite earlier successes such as White Guard. In 1936 Dmitri Shostakovich was criticized for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in a Pravda article entitled "Muddle instead of Music",. Sergei Prokofiev too found his musical language increasingly restricted in the years after his permanent return to the Soviet Union in 1935 (especially in the wake of the 1948 Zhdanov Decree), although he continued to compose until the end of his life five years later.
The political doctrine behind socialist realism also underlay the pervasive censorship of Communist societies. Apart from obvious political considerations that saw works such as those of George Orwell being banned, access to foreign art and literature was also restricted on aesthetic grounds. Bourgeois art and all forms of experimentalism and formalism were denounced as decadent, degenerate and pessimistic, and therefore anti-Communist in principle. The works of James Joyce were particularly harshly condemned. The net effect was that it was not until the 1980s that the general public in the Communist countries were able to freely access many works of Western art and literature.
Socialist-Realist allegories surrounding the Palace of Culture and Science
A relief from the Soviet military cemetery in Warsaw showing workers greeting victorious soldiers.
- Social realism
- Capitalist realism
- Heroic realism
- Socialist realism in Romania
- Socialist realism in Poland
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Socialist realism.|
- Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden: Socialist Realist Art Conference
- Marxists.org Socialist Realism page
- Virtual Museum of Political Art – Socialist Realism
- Sergei V. Ivanov. The Leningrad School of painting. Historical outline.
- Research Guide to Russian Art