Socialist Realism – Art and Culture in Socialism

“I turned into the zero point of form and from nothing I came to creation, that is, to Suprematism, to the new realism in painting – to non-representational creation.”[1] With these words the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich described his in 1916 Process from Futurism and Cubism to Suprematism. A modern art form in Russia that lasted until the 1930s and is considered one of the most important abstract art movements.

Art and culture should undoubtedly be associated with creative freedom and development for both recipients and creators, and should not be able to experience any limitations.

However, this was and is not the case everywhere in the world. Art movements, styles and phases have always been shaped by socio-cultural, political and economic circumstances. Censorship through political influences often led to completely new artistic expressions. But what happens when a state intervenes in the entire art and cultural world of a country? When all painters, writers, architects, musicians, etc. have to obey the most precise specifications and face dangerous consequences if they disobey?

A new art style that should stay

In 1932, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, under then-Prime Minister Joseph Stalin, enacted a new state art style that would permeate and control the country’s entire cultural scene:

socialist realism. From now on, art was to serve as a means of state propaganda and depict the Soviet state and its ideals in a realistic form. Strict guidelines dictated exactly what could and could not be displayed.

Finally, in 1948, the then Soviet culture officer, Alexander Lwowitsch Dymschitz, demanded that socialist realism be extended to the entire Soviet zone of occupation. Until the 1990s, he then shaped and controlled all areas of the artistic world in socialist countries around the world. The new art direction was to focus on topics from Soviet working life and present them in a realistic form. Any deviations from the government guidelines were forbidden. Artists in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and all other applied arts were committed to the implementation of these ideals. Those who did not comply with the strict guidelines were punished with censorship and exclusion. As a result, many artists ended up in penal camps and prisons or were even murdered. Numerous people affected by the art scene fled into exile in order to be able to live and work there as free people.

How did that happen?

Socialist realism arose from a revolutionary consciousness in the 1920s and from a method of artistic design oriented towards the goals of the communist party. The societal and socialist-oriented awakening that echoed from the October Revolution of 1917 was reflected in the arts and finally culminated in a pluralism of styles.[2] In the early 1920s, abstract and representational art were given equal weight and a new avant-garde, inspired by social upheavals, emerged. Cultural associations were formed that primarily focused on a proletarian cultural revolution that would sweep through society. However, this phase of artistic freedom came to an end in 1928 with the beginning of Joseph Stalin’s autocracy and the introduction of his first five-year plan. The Soviet economy was now to be controlled centrally in the form of a planned economy that permeated all areas of public life. There was a forced reorganization of the socio-economic production conditions in the country, to which art and culture were also subjected.[3] The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union declared socialist realism to be the valid and binding aesthetic of the Soviet Union, which was to remain the only accepted art direction until the collapse of the state.

Pictures like this one from the 1920s, by painter Kasimir Severinovich Malevich, were banned in socialist realism.


What changed?

In the fine arts, social realism drew on the traditions of the so-called Peredvizhniki and the “Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia”. The Peredvizhniki were a group of 19th-century Russian painters who were exponents of Realism.

The artists’ association was founded in 1922 and renamed the “Association of Artists of the Revolution” in 1928. In 1932 it was dissolved by Stalin and transferred to the Central Union of Artists of the Soviet Union. From 1934, by order of Stalin, everything that was creative was organized centrally. In their approach, the artists should always be “truthful” and “concrete”.

Metaphors and abstractions were forbidden. The people were to be portrayed as happy individuals loyal to the party and willing to work, so that a belief in the future of the Soviet Union could be created for the viewers of the art. With beautiful, realistic representations, optimism should be created in the population. All modernism, the avant-garde of the 1920s, and any art criticism or experiments that went beyond state guidelines were declared null and void in one fell swoop. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, there remained a deep gulf between the artistic processes and the determining ideological norm in all the countries affected, which still has an impact today.

This work by Russian painter Ilya Ivanovich Mashkov is a good example of the Socialist Realism style. It depicts a woman harvesting tobacco.

This dossier aims to provide an insight into the art world of socialism. The works of numerous artists over several generations were shaped by the ideological claims of socialist realism. Those who stayed and submitted to the socialist adjustments benefited as artists in the service of the state. Those who disagreed with the ideology had to flee into exile.

Behind every work of art of this past time there are people and their stories, which are presented here in more detail.





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Artists of Socialist Realism

Isaak Isrilewitsch Brodski (1883 – 1939)

In 1922, the Ukrainian painter and graphic artist Isaak Israilevich Brodsky was a co-founder of the “Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia.” During his time as an artist, he primarily created scenes of revolution and reconstruction, as well as landscapes and portraits of politicians. From 1934 to 1939 he was director of the USSR Academy of Arts. He is considered one of the main representatives of socialist realism. His best-known value is the picture shown below “W.I. Lenin in Smolny” from 1930, which shows Vladimir Ilyich Lenin reading (1).

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Mikhail Savitsky (1922-2010)

The painter Mikhail Savitsky was nominated People’s Artist of USSR in 1978 and was a member of the Russian Academy of Arts and the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, ultimately nominated “Hero of Belarus” in 2006. His tragic past with his military involvement during the Great Patriotic war and his fighting for life in the Nazi camps had a great influence on his art which is soaked with t darkness and pain coming from those experiences. His success in Soviet times started with the famous “Partisan Madonna” (1967) as a symbol of Belarusian fight as well as other works such as “Leaving in the Night” (1980), “First decrees” (1977) and “Tale of bread” (1980).

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Czech Republic
Jiří Kroha (1893 – 1974)

Jiří Kroha was a Czech architect, painter, sculptor, set designer, and educator. He was an important representative of Czech architecture in the interwar period. In the 1930s he undertook a six-week trip to the Soviet Union and upon his return began a political career in the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
Jiří Kroha worked on housing projects and organized propaganda installations for exhibitions and political events.

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Maria Medvecka (1914 – 1987)

Maria Medvecka was a Slovak painter representer of the Realistic Impressionism. She graduated at the Pedagogical Academy in Bratislava and worked for many years as teacher. After the Second World War she refined her art in Vienna and Prague. She was highly committed to the realization of paintings of his native city Orava and works celebrating the Soviet regime.

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Czeslaw Znamierowski (1890-1977)

The Soviet Lithuanian painter Czeslaw Znamierowski contributed to the Socialist realism with a huge collection of stunning landscape making nature one of his major themes.  The stylistic features of his painting were highly influenced by the socio-political environment surrounding him. The figure of Lenin had a peculiar influence on his art as he clearly declared in 1970: “My motto has always been Lenin’s principle, that art is for the people and must be widely comprehensible by all.”

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Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961)

Novelist, short-story writer, journalist and political figure among the most popular representers of the Romanian culture. He became popular with the collection “Povestiri” (stories) published in 1904. He adventured into different realities in literature and life. As well as being writer of Historical novels with medieval Moldavian and Romanian settings (such as “The Șoimărești Family” 1915), (“The Jderi Brothers” 1935-41) folkloristic narratives such as “Ancuța’s Inn”(1968) and children’s tales, he moved from one side to another in political life becoming associate of the communist party. From the communist influence he produces work such as the famous political novel Mitrea Cocor and the popular slogan “The Light Arises in the East” sealing his relationship with the socialist realism.

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Nikolaj Kormashov (1929 – 2012)

The artist is remembered for his participation in the cultural wave of the 60s, when artists were trying to break with the Soviet dogmas and socialist schemes. However, the most crucial production of the painter is to be reconducted to the 50s, when the main themes related to the Socialist realism were expressed. Born in Vladimir Oblast in Russia, he lately graduated from Ivanovo Art school in 1951 in Tallin and decided to live permanently in the city, becoming an important artistic personality. His works of the Soviet period related to the Soviet modernism deals with the labor ideals with an interest in sacrality and icon art. He was awarded as with the title of People’s artist of Estonia in 80s.

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Dziga Vertov (1896-1954)

Born as Denis Abramovich Kaufman, documentary films and newsreels director, he renamed himself “Dziga Vertov” sounding like “the humming top”. He started documentary footage editing working for Kinonedelya, the first Soviet weekly newsreel. He started his career as film director with “The Anniversary of the Revolution” in 1919, followed by a variety of productions aiming at the poetic aspect of the movies, leaving out formalities and standard patterns. He believed in the power of the “Kino eye” over the Human one, asserting it as the best method for communists. He is mostly remembered for his feature-length “Kino-EyeLife Caught Unawares” (1924) awarded at the Paris World exhibit and other films like “Stride Soviet!” (1926) and “A Sixth of the World” (1926). His controversial work “Man with a Movie Camera” directed with the collaboration of his brother and wife, seeing with suspect by the Central government, came out in 1929 as Ukrainian Soviet silent documentary film.

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Guri Madhi (1921-1988)

After participating in the Second World conflict and attending the Academic of Arts of Leningrad he returned to Albania starting an artistic career culminating with the famous socialist award “Artist of the People”. He was among the founders of the Albanian Fine Arts Academy and after the Purge of 1966 he managed to return to Albania in 1970 and being recognized as one of the finest representers of the Albanian socialist art within the communist percept. He was a professor for many years at the Misja Academy and at the Academy of Fine Arts.

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Ivan Funev (1900-1983)

“I am for the new artistic realism in art, which paints life as it is, with a certain purification and generalization that avoids naturalism. I strive to give the images I create a living reality, always accompanied by an artistic interpretation (hint) for their future development…” (Funev, 1938).
These words perfectly represent the artistic ideal of Ivan Funev, recalled as one of the most known artists of the Bulgarian communist Era. The artist specialized in Sculpture at the State Academy of Arts and travelled to Europe (Rome and Paris) to refine the discipline. Among his main works there are “Strike Post”, “Third Class”, “The Worker – Winner” and his leadership for the collective creating the “Monument to the Soviet Army” in Sofia (1953). In 1961 he received the title of “People’s artist”.


German Democratic Republic (GDR)
Eva Schulze-Knabe (1907–1976)

In the early 1950s, socialist realism also established itself as the official art of the GDR. As in other areas, the GDR acted in agreement with the Soviet Union. Eva Schulze – Knabe was one of the most important artists of the GDR. Due to her past as a resistance fighter against the Nazi regime, she fitted ideally into the state and history of the GDR. One of her most important portraits from the GDR era is that of the “worker’s woman”. The picture “Demonstrating Women” shown here is also a classic example of East German socialist realism (4).

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Dmitrij Nalbandyan (1906-1993)

As one of the most known painters of the Soviet Era, Dmitri Arkadievich Nalbandyan distinguishes himself in the art world especially for his portraits of the most prominent figures of the time such as Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and other representers of the party. His portraits reflect the exaltation of the typical “Soviet man” and the major historical episodes marking the Soviet era. His attachment to the Soviet Ideology is also evident in his involvement in mass state propaganda though posters and satirical pictures during the Secondo World WarTo be remembered among his major works are: “Lenin and Stalin at the development of the GOELRO electrification plan” (1957) and “Yerevan is being built” (1972).

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Ucha Japaridze (1906-1988)

Ucha Malakievich Japaridze is remembered as a prominent figure of the Georgian art and the Soviet art production of the XX century. The main influences to be traced in its paintings and portraits goes from mysticism to symbolism combining national mythologies and Soviet cultural patterns.  Among the main works of the artists there are the “Sleeping Shepherd” (1935, pastel) in which symbolistic style and rural representations contribute to exalt the patriotic vision of the country. A museum holding his graphics and paintings was established in his home-studio in 1988 in Tbilisi.

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Liu Wenxi (1933 – 2019)

In the early 1950s, socialist realism also established itself as the official art of the GDR. As in other areas, the GDR acted in agreement with the Soviet Union. Eva Schulze – Knabe was one of the most important artists of the GDR. Due to her past as a resistance fighter against the Nazi regime, she fitted ideally into the state and history of the GDR. One of her most important portraits from the GDR era is that of the “worker’s woman”. The picture “Demonstrating Women” shown here is also a classic example of East German socialist realism (4).

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