In conjunction with the Socialist Classical style of architecture, Socialist realism was the officially approved type of art in the Soviet Unionfor 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. During the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks established an institution called Proletkult (the Proletarian Cultural and Enlightenment Organizations) which sought to put all arts into the service of thedictatorship of the proletariat.
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 nontraditional 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 Impressionismand 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 bouregeois art would prove useful; some of his more radical followers advocated the destruction of libraries and museums. Lenin rejected this philosophy, and deplored the rejection of 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.
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 – Piotr Buchkin, Rudolf Frentz, Alexander Samokhvalov, Isaak Brodsky, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Kazimir Malevich, Nikolai Dormidontov, Mikhail Avilov 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 15-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 Konstantin Yuon, Pavel Naumov, Boris Ioganson, Semion Abugov, Pavel Shillingovsky, Dmitry Kardovsky, Alexander Osmerkin, Nikolai Radlov, Yevgeny Lansere, Alexander Lubimov, Rudolf Frentz, Nikolai Petrov, Victor Sinaisky, Vasily Shukhaev, Dmitry Kiplik, Nikolai Punin, Vasily Meshkov, Mikhail Bernshtein, Efim Cheptsov, Ivan Bilibin, Matvey Manizer, Piotr Buchkin, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, Alexander Karev, Leonid Ovsyannikov, Sergei Priselkov, Ivan Stepashkin, Konstantin Rudakov 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, 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 Lev Russov, Victor Oreshnikov, Boris Korneev, Leonid Steele,Oleg Lomakin, Semion Rotnitsky, Vladimir Gorb, Samuil Nevelshtein, Engels Kozlov, in landscapes by Nikolai Timkov, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Sergei Osipov, Alexander Semionov, Arseny Semionov, Vasily Golubev, Nikolai Galakhov, Dmitry Maevsky, in genre paintings by Nikolai Pozdneev, Yuri Neprintsev, Yevsey Moiseenko, Andrey Milnikov, Nina Veselova, Mikhail Trufanov, Yuri Tulin, Mikhail Natarevich, 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 and 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, 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 – 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 its first president See the League of American Writers which was backed by the Communist Party USA. A number of the 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 artworks destroyed with a water cannon and bulldozers (see Bulldozer Exhibition). Mikhail Gorbachev's policy 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, held a speech at the Third Congress of the Writers Alliance of Yugoslavia in Ljubljana in 1952, which is considered a turning point in the Yugoslav denouncement of dogmaticsocialist 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.
Even so, many of the art works glorifying Joseph Stalin and other leaders are hardly in keeping with these ideals and the charge that art be understandable to the whole people negated the Western notion of the avant garde (despite the Bolsheviks casting themselves as a political "vanguard") and discouraged experimental approaches. The realism achieved was often technically very good and similar to many Western works intended as magazine illustration or bookjackets, rather than High Art. The partisan quality tends to attract the most criticism, in that it often predominated to the exclusion of the other tenets, so that paintings of peasants feasting after bumper harvests was neither real nor typical of the lot of many of those depicted, especially in the Ukrainian Famine.
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 1936Dmitri 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.