The Arts in Society’s Updates

Get Real: Why Socialist Realist Painting Deserves Another Look

Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons / Urek Meniashvili by CC BY-SA 3.0 | Article Link | by Agata Pyzik

I have a confession to make. In the last few years I have acquired a morbid fascination with socialist realism. This is hard to admit, partly because the cult of the Russian avant-garde is so enduring, with countless retrospectives in the US and UK alone. Their successors, such as the Moscow Conceptualists, or Leningrad's postmodernists, for example Timur Novikov, are nearly equally honoured, although mostly in the west; in Russia even after 1991, suspicion towards avant-garde aesthetics did not end. In the opinion of most art lovers, critics and specialists, socialist realism, also known as sots-realism, remains possibly the most rejected period of Soviet art, identified with pernicious politics and backwards aesthetics. For decades, it was a “don't touch” moment of art history.

But this moment lasted almost as long as the Soviet Union and for anybody who wants to explore this system it has to be carefully studied. Socialist realism was a traditionalist, representational from of art, famously “national in form, socialist in content” and concerned primarily with literature and only later with painting, sculpture and architecture. Although it was never articulated as such, this nationalist form drew mostly upon classical and various neo-classical art styles such as Renaissance. Despite claims to “realism”, it was never really realistic, depicting communist reality not as it was but as it should be. There was no space for any critique. Yet it would be a mistake to only identify sots-realism with the troubling idealised images of heroic leaders, battles or peasants.


Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons / Urek Meniashvili by CC BY-SA 3.0