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.
What fascinated me was that it never actually disappeared as a style in the USSR; it lasted the whole Soviet period and as the regime went through periods of softening and hardening, its forms followed suit. Although right-thinking art lovers may see it as insufferably mediocre, boring, ghastly regime art, what is less known is that the realist mode remained dominant for the whole post-1953 period and had many permutations: it flirted with modernist painting and critiques of state policies. Yet this later phase remains mostly unknown, overshadowed by its most blatantly propagandistic early period.
Realist art in the 20th century has had lot of bad press, and often deservedly so. At its worst, it symbolises a Stalin-directed return to traditional, academic art, a result of an aggressive attack on the avant-garde aesthetics of the 1920s, which had been associated with abstraction and leftist politics. The proclamation of socialist realism as the only acceptable and official art of the USSR coincided with the consolidation of Stalinism. The result was that avant-garde artists were unable to practice their art but were also persecuted, considered “Trotskyite deviationists”, sent to camps or even, in some cases, killed. Some artists — as well as writers, poets and filmmakers — paid the highest price for continuing to practice their art after Stalin took over, including Boris Pilnyak, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Gustav Klutsis and Alexei Gan. What followed is usually seen as the kitschy dross of hideous Stalinist propaganda — brutality rendered in a dour, sentimental way.
Although after 1991 most of this art was gradually ushered away from public view, what remains in the big national museums of any post-communist country tells a different story. This is the case with the Institute of Russian Realist Art. Even within the earliest period, at the turn of the 1930s there is variety within the supposedly monolithic style. Artists like Deineka, Pimenov, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Alexander Tyshler show how even within the strict, terrifying requirements of the Stalinist period, realist art was influenced by socially critical painting of the time, such as the gritty German realism of Otto Dix or George Grosz. They took as their subject the post-revolutionary period, marked by the compromise with capitalism of the New Economic Policy. In the late 1920s, associations such as the Society of Easel Painters, to which both Pimenov and Deineka belonged, wanted to combine the western modernist approach of schools like Bauhaus with a more straightforward illustration of the positive aspects of life in a communist state.
When Stalin died, the socialist realist style was not revoked, as it was in, for instance, architecture. Figurative art was still to be created under the dictates of party-controlled art academies. However, socialist realism didn’t stand still, but developed into a new kind of realism, called the “severe style”. Inspired by Mexican muralists, the Italian realist Renato Guttuso and even medieval masters like Giotto, artists such as Viktor Ivanov or Evsei Moisenko developed a more humane and pessimistic vision of the working classes. This was realism, but without the characteristic sots-realist idealisation and glorification of Soviet reality. While, after Stalin, first secretaries were not fans of the avant-garde, the thaw ushered in by Nikita Khrushchev was an interlude in which the likes of the young Victor Popkov and the now older Pimenov created fascinating, enigmatic and original forms of realist painting.
Tellingly, from the 1970s onwards, the non-conformists began, as a way to shake off its dominance, to directly confront the realist tradition. If for Clement Greenberg, sots-realism was kitsch, then Sots Art paintings were consciously kitsch. It was yet another manifestation of so-called styob, which can be translated as a kind of “mockery” that involves miming something to such a degree that the original and the parody become indistinguishable. In other words, merging with Soviet ideology to a degree so extreme that it becomes one with it as a way of resistance. Realist art did not per se have this ironic distance, something you can see in the way it fetishised its surfaces, whether it was naive daubs resembling folk art or the ostentatious display of an academic painterly technique.
Non-conformist artists, partly because they had rejected realism, were useless in portraying this new reality. And yet, many of these late realists would go on to produce propagandistic images for a new Russian nationalism, reminding us that there was a continuity between the late, bankrupt USSR and capitalist Russia. Because of this, it is hard in the end to make up one’s mind about the value of sots-realist aesthetics as a viable tool of resistance to oppression. Doesn’t the heavy, monumental paintings of Korzhev remind us too much of Stalinist times, the rejection of which for an untamed capitalism pushed us into this misery in the first place?
Since the USSR ended, it is the underground artists playing games with Soviet iconography that have been celebrated in the west, rather than these portrayals of the new reality. But in Russia itself there is a less perceived discrepancy between avant-garde and realist aesthetics than is suggested by western accounts. The two genres have similar roots and both find inspiration in Orthodox icons and the lubok (woodcut) tradition. Moreover, the fact that some abstract painters, including Malevich, started to shift towards realism in the 1920s, while other realist painters such as Deineka were clearly modernists in their own way, illustrates that they are not totally distinct. The paintings of the late realists, belated and irrelevant to the time they lived in, perhaps, remain a strange and painful testimony to 20th century Russian history and art. Yet looking at the otherwordly, realist yet uncanny paintings of Deineka, we might see some future Soviet Union that never came to existence.