1920 - 1928
the end of the Civil War and the New Economic Policy (NEP)
- Symbolic answers to the Revolution
- Documentary realism of AKhRR
- Modernist realism of OSt and Krug
The end of the Civil War brought about the collapse of the avant-garde hegemony. The conditions of relative peace and the cultural variety encouraged by Lunacharsky enabled artists to envisage the new proletarian art in diverse ways, most of them oriented in one way or another towards the image of the real world. Boris Kustodiev's A Bolshevik is a symbolic image that depicts the Revolution in fairy-tale terms. Pavel Filonov, who assembled a circle of disciples around his School of Analytical Art in Petrograd (Leningrad from 1924), remained close to pure abstraction while incorporating traces of the figurative into works such as The Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat.
Isaak Brodsky was among the earliest "reliable anti-Futurists" hoped for by Lenin. He worked on his vast group portrait The Ceremonial Opening of the Second Congress of the Third International from 1921 until 1924. It initiated the genre of conference scenes, a cult of the apparat, that was to become central to Soviet art. Brodsky was one of the key members of AKhRR (the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia), founded in 1922 largely by artists with an academy training around a manifesto that exalted "heroic realism", a clear precursor of the term "Socialist Realism" that was introduced a decade later.
AKhRR's commitment to depict life with documentary truthfulness appealed to the bulk of artists and politicians. It established itself as the most influential artistic organisation of the 1920s. Largely thanks to the patronage of the Red Army, AKhRR helped create the system of official commissions that became the backbone of Socialist Realism. AKhRR's 1928 exhibition to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the army was one of the biggest of the decade and received an approving comment from Stalin in the visitors' book. It included works by AkhRR and non-AKhRR artists, including Pyotr Shukhmin's The Order to Attack, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's Death of a Commissar and Aleksandr Deineka's The Defence of Petrograd - all episodes from the 1918-21 Civil War.
While academy-trained artists gravitated around AKhRR, students out of the post-Revolutionary art schools sought a way to reconcile documentary realism with the forms of Modernism. In 1925 several young Moscow artists (including Deineka, Yuri Pimenov, Aleksandr Labas and Petr Vilyams), determined to respond to contemporary social and political demands without sacrificing modernity, founded OSt - the Society of Easel Painters - in an effort to achieve "revolutionary contemporaneity and clarity of subject". Industry, modern technology, sport and social conflict were their preferrred subjects. The blend of heroic and documentary, the modern sense of space and form and the tragic subject of Deineka's The Defence of Petrograd combined to make it the most widely-praised painting of the 1920s.
In Leningrad, a group of young artists from the Academy founded Krug (The Circle), which had a similar programme to OSt, a mix of revolutionary subjects and new form intended to forge the "style of the epoch", of which Aleksandr Samokhvalov's Conductress is emblematic.
From this pluralist context emerged enduring themes in Soviet art - progress (industrial, technological, social, physical, educational, political) and the vital importance of the human figure - the New Person foreseen by Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century and central to the aesthetic theories of Lunacharsky.
1928 - 1936
from the rise of Stalin to the attacks on formalism
- The struggle for a proletarian art
- Neo-primitive figuration
- Birth and early development of Socialist Realism
The years 1928-29 marked the transition from collective leadership to that of Stalin alone, who in October 1928 effectively ended the New Economic Policy by launching of the first Five Year Plan. Trotsky, to the left of Stalin, was forced into exile, while the so-called "Right Opposition", under the leadership of Bukharin, was routed. A policy of forced collectivisation was imposed on Soviet farmers, with tragic results.
In the ensuing political and social turmoil the slogans of class struggle resurfaced. Soviet art entered its "proletarian" phase (1928-32). Lunacharsky's policy of aesthetic pluralism withered and he himself resigned in 1929. New, communist-dominated groups were formed. These included Oktyabr (October) and the RAPKh (Russian Association of Proletarian Artists). Both groups rejected easel painting in favour of mass art forms such as murals, collective works, production art and textile design.
Among the effects of the new emphasis on the proletarian in art was greater attention to amateur artists, which in turn conditioned a number of professionals. Georgi Rublev, a young graduate from the Moscow art school (VKhuTeIn), produced a whole series of works in a neo-primitive style. A similar approach was widespread among painters in non-European territories of the Soviet Union.
By the beginning of 1932 the resistance of the peasantry had been crushed and industrialisation enforced. The class struggle whipped up by the Party was now played down and the notion of proletarian art considered outdated. Artists were now required to gather into a single collective union, thus putting an end to an era of febrile organisational variety.
The kind of art to be made by artists collectivised into the new unions was resolved when the term Socialist Realism was settled on in 1932 at a number of meetings at the highest political level. The key concepts were were focused around Party loyalty (partiinost) and ideological content (ideinost). Socialist Realism was intrinsically romantic and oriented to an ideal, "radiant" future, a kind of substitute for Heaven. A repertoire of recurrent metaphors (the body, youth, sunshine, technology, flight) gave pictorial form to the utopian essence.
The cult of the leader, although increasingly intrusive, had not yet reached the climax that would mark the later years of Stalin's rule. Georgi Rublev's Portrait of Stalin, painted around 1935, offers an offbeat, domestic image of the leader that would be unthinkable even a couple of years later. Paintings from the early 1930s such as Aleksandr Labas's Airship and Orphanage and Pyotr Vilyams' Construction of a Workshop, display a continuing interest in Modernist ideas, while the mission to reconcile realism and abstraction was still upheld by veterans of the avant-garde such as Malevich and Nikritin.
But following the institution of Socialist Realism the deployment of Modernist pictorial principles became increasingly controversial, risky even. Works such as Samokhvalov's Militarised Komsomol, full of the pictorial rhythms urged by Lunacharsky, and Deineka's A Parachutist Over the Sea illustrate the limit of formal experimentation that was acceptable in the early years of Socialist Realism. As the 1930s progressed, the art establishment grew increasingly insistent in its calls for artists to emphasise subject over form and to adhere to the representational norms of academic realism.
1936 - 1941
Terror and the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War
- Reappraisal of the art of the past and the Theory of Reflection
- Great exhibitions of Soviet art and the rise of the kartina
- Varieties of realism and the campain against formalism
A series of editorials by hardline critics published in Pravda in 1936 marked the beginning of an aggressive official campaign against formalism that stamped out the Modernist influence which had survived into the earlier part of the decade. The fortunes of many celebrated names plummeted. Deineka himself was discredited and his work sold off at bargain-basement prices.
Although in theory the proletariat remained the spearhead of the Revolution, the alternative concept of the "people" (narod) developed into a mainstay of the Soviet interpretation of Marxism - so-called Marxism-Leninism. Thus, during the "terror" years of 1938-39 spies, Trotskyites and "saboteurs" were accused of being "enemies of the people" rather than of the proletariat. On a cultural level this served to justify the wholesale incorporation into the official canon of the art of the past, regardless of its class origins, as long as it could somehow be construed as being beneficial to the people.
To buttress the return to nineteenth-century pictorial language, a new aesthetic theory, the Theory of Reflection, was developed, based on Lenin's insistence that perception was a reflection or mirror-image of reality. Yet this realistic reflection, according to Soviet therists, incorporated an obligatory idealism: faith in the bright future of the Soviet people. This was nothing much more than Lunacharsky's "realistic idealism" now re-attributed to Lenin. In the popular understanding, Socialist Realism became, in the words of court painter Aleksandr Gerasimov, an art "socialist in content and realistic in form".
Exhibitions became ever more compendious, individual canvases ever bigger. At the 1938 exhibition organised to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Red Army, Brodsky presented his portrait of Kliment Voroshilov, the army chief and champion of traditional realism. Vasili Efanov's Meeting of Students of the Zhukov Airforce Academy with Artists of the K. S. Stanislavski Theatre
, was an expression of the bond between people and army that was a diktat of Soviet ideology. Also shown was The Bathing of the Horses by Arkadi Plastov, an artist from a remote village in the steppe who was unknown in Moscow before the mid-1930s. Plastov's work illustrated official subjects but was psychologically unaligned with the State ideology: here, the everyday lives of the soldiers are a pretext for a meditation on the organic bond between Man and Nature painted under the influence of Impressionism.
The following year, the imposing Industry of Socialism exhibition sanctioned the definitive triumph of the kartina - the grand format thematic painting interpreted as the natural heir of 19th century social realism. Works ranged from history paintings such as Boris Ioganson's In an Old Factory in the Urals, through to images of contemporary labour such as Vasili Yakovlev's Gold Diggers Writing a Letter to the Creator of the Great Constitution, to classic images of the Stalin Cult such as Shegal's Leader, Teacher and Friend.
Towards the end of the decade the debate on artistic form crystallised into an ideological diatribe against Impressionist tendencies in painting. Impressionism was denounced as a bourgeois influence. Vagueness of image was accounted counter-revolutionary. The campaign in favour of academic precisionism seems to have reflected Stalin's taste, which would explain the prestige ascribed to Brodsky and his pupil, Aleksandr Laktionov, who graduated from Brodsky's studio at the Leningrad Academy with Hero of the Soviet Union, Captain Yudin Visiting the Tank Corps of the Komsomol.
After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the defence of the homeland became the overriding theme in official rhetoric. Stalin schemed to keep the country out of the conflict, but all political manoeuvrings were rendered null by the shock of the Nazi invasion launched on June 22nd 1941.
1941 - 1945
the Great Patriotic War and its aftermath
- Wartime artistic production
- Post-war triumphalism
- The emergence of Russian national feeling
As German troops advanced, artworks from the great museums were evacuated eastwards. The staff and students of major art institutes were transferred to Samarkand, in Central Asia. Artists were conscripted into the war effort. Some were employed in mobile units producing posters and other propaganda material. Others were enabled to make paintings on war subjects. Some of the best-known works of Soviet wartime art such as Sergei Gerasimov's The Mother of a Partisan, the devastated cityscape of the liberated Stalingrad by Efanov and Deineka's Shot-Down Ace were painted in peaceful evacuation in the Uzbek city of Tashkent. Less well established artists or the politically suspect were sent to the front as ordinary soldiers, where many of them perished.
The harshness of the Nazi offensive obliged Stalin to make concessions to popular sentiment. A limited religious revival was permitted, including reintroduction of the Holy Synod, and the embers of Russian nationalism were fanned. The figure of the thirteenth-century hero Alexander Nevsky, painted by Pavel Korin as the central panel of a triptych in a style harking back to pre-Revolutionary movements such as The World of Art exemplifies the aesthetic consequences of this revived national feeling. Such paintings also marked the first inklings of the broad decline of Communist utopianism and its replacement by Russian patriotic sentiment.
One of the most remarkable and tragic tales of the war concerns the artists in Leningrad, who remained locked in the city sharing the suffering of the population throughout the 900 days of siege. Starving and in freezing conditions, the artistic community joined hands in a heroic resistance, paying a high price in terms of loss of life.
In 1943 the battles along the Volga, the greatest of which was at Stalingrad, turned the tide of war in favour of the Soviet troops. Artists and art students returned from evacuation in Central Asia. The Red Army began its advance on Berlin and in May 1945 victory was proclaimed. From this moment onwards the experience of the Second World War - known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War - became the dominant theme in Socialist Realism. As the precepts of Marxism-Leninism progressively lost their lustre in the eyes of the population, the wartime experience was converted into a unifying patriotic narrative on which the Party increasingly relied to claim the trust of the people.
In post-1945 painting triumphalism became a genre in itself which reached back to multiple historical models. The stylistic and iconographic resonances identifiable in Vasili Yakovlev's image of the brutal Marshal Zhukov triumphant over the Nazi banner run from ancient art through the Baroque to nineteenth-century Romanticism. Mikhail Khmelko's Triumph of the Victorious People exemplifies the kind of huge canvases that were now produced to commemorate the victory over Nazism. Both works exemplify the precisionist finish favoured in the late Stalin era.
However, the single most celebrated image produced in the war's aftermath was not remotely triumphalist. Aleksandr Laktionov's A Letter from the Front is set in the old Russian town of Zagorsk. It depicts a way of life existing outside the proletarian ferment of the cities, unscathed by the communist project. Laktionov's conjuring of a whole world excluded from Soviet art since the 1920s reflected the growth of Russian national feeling at the expense of communist utopianism and foreshadowed developments in Soviet art after the death of Stalin.
1945 - 1954
from the end of World War II to the advent of Khrushchev
- The Zhdanovshchina and the Theory of Conflictlessness
- The Cult of Stalin
- Cracks in the Socialist Realist orthodoxy
Hopes that victory would lead to a more liberal dispensation in the art world were dashed in 1946 when the Central Committee issued three decrees designed to shape production across all the arts. A fourth decree of 1948 amplified the message. The decrees restated uncompromisingly that art should serve the interests of the Party and warned against pessimism, decadence, lack of ideology, Western influence, corrupt tastes and morals and false originality. Post-war cultural policy was vigorously promoted by Leningrad politician Andrei Zhdanov, after whom this period in cultural history is known as the Zhdanovshchina.
Aesthetic theory evolved to reflect official requirements. The Theory of Reflection was refined to incorporate the new Theory of Conflictlessness, based on the assumption that Soviet society was no longer producing serious social conflicts. Conflict, insofar as it was depicted in art, was reduced to friction between good and better elements in society. This theory exerted a broad influence, sanctioning the production of innumerable bland flattering images of Soviet society.
Tatyana Yablonskaya's Corn is a paradigm of post-war Socialist Realism. The heroine's sunlit face suggests the identity of work and pleasure. The mise-en-scene is public, the collective is emphasised. Emotions are uncomplicated and externalised. There is a neo-baroque network of dynamic connections between the figures by look, gesture and shout. Andrei Mylnikov's In Peaceful Fields is less muscular, more frankly saccharine and decorative than Yablonskaya's, although it too stresses delight in labour. The young Kirghiz schoolgirl in Semyon Chuikov's A Daughter of Soviet Kirghizia reprrsents enlightenment in the Central Asian republics. Her proud gaze, like that of innumerable other protagonists of the art of the time, is fixed on the radiant future.
However, the art of the late Stalin era was not monolithic. Paintings of peasant life produced by Arkadi Plastov were remarkable for their rejection of the pious official attitude to toil on the land. Reaping presents the simple meal of a farm labourer and a trio of children. It evokes post-war farm-life not as an idyll of laughter, enthusiasm and new technology but as a dour continuation of ancient peasant existence. Plastov's frank evocation of the timeless elements of peasant life, tolerated if not always rewarded by the art establishment, emphasises the degree to which, after the War, Russian cultural values came to co-exist with Marxism.
The post-war years saw the apotheosis of what came, after Stalin's death, to be called the Cult of Personality. The immense Leading People of Moscow in the Kremlin epitomises the ceremonial-laudatory style in favour at this time. The superiority and isolation of the leader is emphasised by the elevation of his sculptural portrait above the level of the crowd. Such compositions told a tale of the union of people and Party that yet emphasised ideological hierarchy.
The post-war emphasis on neo-academic finish correlated with the teaching of the Theory of Reflection that sensations were 'copies, photographs, images, mirror-reflections' of things. Critics emphasised the link between high detail and philosophical materialism. Vasili Yakovlev, the author of critical texts on the subject of high finish, painted A Conversation About Art as a programmatic, if eccentric, statement about devotion to the classical heritage and attention to pictorial detail. The correlative of this official emphasis, which reflected Stalin's own taste in art, was a critical assault on the influence of Impressionism.
As Stalin's health declined his grip on power began to weaken and signs of dissent in art grew increasingly frequent, encouraged from 1950 by public criticism of the Theory of Conflictlessness. Fyodor Reshetnikov's Low Marks Again presents a subject, disappointment, that was hitherto unknown in Socialist Realism. At first, intimations of anti-social behaviour were confined to pictures of children, but following Stalin's death in 1953 artists began to deal with a whole range of social issues. Sergei Grigorev's He's Come Back, the image of an abusive alcoholic father, would have been inconceivable in Soviet art even a couple of years earlier.
1954 - 1964
the Khrushchev era
- Soviet Impressionism and the Severe Style
- The Manege scandal
Khrushchev approached de-Stalinisation in a gradual but determined fashion. In 1956 he condemned the personality cult and later removed Stalin's body from the mausoleum on Red Square. He put an end to political repression on a vast scale. His policies ushered in a period of cultural liberalism, the so-called Thaw.
Inspired by the example of Arkadi Plastov, a growing number of painters began to portray Soviet rural life not from the point of view of collectivised utopia but out of a need to declaim the simple values of human existence. Vladimir Gavrilov's A Fresh Day is typical of this country-life genre, which absorbed the principles of plein air painting into the kartina, effectively launching an Impressionist revival that contrasted strongly with Stalinist policies.
The detached, aloof aura of the typical Stalin-era hero was replaced by cordiality and accessibility. Implicit in the enjoyment of nature and in the attention devoted to leisure time in works such as Anatoli Levitin's A Warm Day
Art criticism of the late 1950s, itself liberated from the straightjacket of Stalinist norms, identified a new current on the Soviet contemporary art scene which the critic Aleksandr Kamensky dubbed the "Severe Style". This was a synthesis derived from diverse international influences including Renato Guttuso, the Mexican muralists and the English Kitchen Sink painters and also from denigrated Soviet art of the 1920s. The laconic compositions of Deineka and the OSt artists shaped the work of painters such as Tair Salakhov, who based the composition of his diploma work at the Leningrad Academy on Deineka's The Defence of Petrograd, and Viktor Popkov.
The heroism of the Socialist Realist protagonist was not diminished, but it was transformed. The Severe Style was not only an evolution in style but also in ethics to allow the intimation of suffering. Paintings such as Mikhail Trufanov's Miner and Geli Korzhev's triptych Communists emphasise the stresses involved in building Communism.
tSome artists went further in rethinking the modes of heroism. Viktor Popkov's Builders of Bratsk replaces the glorification of collective labour with an inner, private and inscrutable world.
The inevitable clash between innovators and conservatives erupted in Moscow in 1962, during a large exhibition at the Manezh gallery that reinstated many artists who had fallen from favour under Stalin and reserved the final room for exponents of the Severe Style. When Khruschev visited the show his annoyance was manifest, particularly when confronted by Pavel Nikonov's Geologists, a painting which seemed by its simplifications of form to undermine the whole narrative-and thus ideological-apparatus of Soviet art. Next day, Pravda described Khrushchev's outrage. The Central Committee rejected co-existence with bourgeois culture. The heads of the Moscow artists' union were ousted; young artists' exhibitions were halted; erring critics were required to pen letters of repentance. There was an incipient reversion to Stalinist norms. Nikonov's Geologists did not in fact usher in the quick collapse of Socialist Realism, but it symbolised profound changes that were underway in Soviet painting.