First of all I would like to make a brief note on what distinguished Russian socialist realists with Russian nonconformist artists. Then I will analyze the works that were created by these different two groups of artists.
The socialist realism era started with the communist reign on the territory of the Soviet Union. It was propagated by the socialist realism doctrine which would subordinate all art to the purpose of the state (Morris, 203). In other words it would meant that all artists were subject to censorship from the state and thus had to create something that would be wanted and liked by the communist party of the soviet union. Thus, the communist state used art as a mean of propaganda. During the Stalin era, art would be used to support Stalin’s cult of personality (Kohn, 70).
Among the most famous social realist artists were Alexander Gerasimov who was Stalin’s personal painter. He would work for other soviet leaders like Kliment Voroshilov.
At that time artists who were outcasts were those who supported the art that existed prior to the soviet socialist revolution, i.e. western styles like avant-garde, expressionism, cubism, etc. During the soviet times there arts represented the old, pre-soviet regime and thus were labeled as bourgeois art which would only corrupt the society and spoil people rather than allowed them to stay motivated and work for the good of the soviet union. These artists were oftentimes labeled as social parasites who did not do anything good for the society in terms of production yet only corrupted soviet citizens with their meaningless works. Most of these artists who could not escape abroad would either be put in medical institutions and accused of insanity, or would be placed in prisons, labor camps or executed altogether (Osokina, 165). It was only after the collapse of the soviet union that these artists would be able to return to Russia or start making the very art they liked. Boris Vladimirski was one of the artists who would also strive to adhere to the socialist realism school of painting and his work will be analyzed further in the essay. Non conformist artists were those who did not want to obey the party’s rule and create art for propaganda purposes only (Zimmerli, 74). Non-conformist art was just the opposite from the official art and involved much abstractionism. The communist leader, Nikita Khrushchev would repeatedly call this non conformist art as “shit” and would call the non-conformist artists “homosexuals” who had nothing else to do but to create “shit” (Prokhorov, 122).
Now let’s refer to some of the works as depicted by the both groups.
The first social realism work was created by Boris Vladimirski and it is titled “roses for Stalin”. Another work was created by Wladimir Gawriilowitsch Krikhatzkij and it titled “The first tractor”. The non-conformist works are represented by the creation of Leonid Sokov and titled “Marilyn and Joseph at the table” and the other one was created by Oscar Rabine and titled “Composition with Russian newspaper vodka and fish”.
The first two works were created and approved by the communist party of the soviet union for their propaganda and aesthetic looks. On the first drawing we see how children-pioneers (boy scouts) give flower to the leader of the soviet union, Joseph Stalin. The faces of children and the leader are serious and represent some hidden thought, let alone enigmatic “Russian soul”. Stalin hugs one kid in a manner to show everyone that he likes children and that all children of the soviet union certainly will have a bright future. The greenery in the background and the sea show us that it probably takes place in the Crimea (near the scout camp Artek) which is the site for the brightest soviet kids. This work allows one to understand the importance of being the best student who conforms to the socialist demands and who in turn will be eligible to see the leader of the nation.
The other work depicts the first tractor as introduced to some Russian village to help collective farmers with their hard labor. This work certainly show us that the communist party keeps their promise of reducing the amount of menial labor. From looking at the picture one sees how the communist party cares about the villagers and other soviet citizens by providing them exactly what they need (tractor in that case). All the villagers stopped to look at how this “steel horse” works on their farmland and wave their hands glorifying the new communist regime which now allowed peasants to work with tools rather than with their hands on the communal land.
The non-conformist works as presented in this essay look just the opposite from the state-sponsored/supported works of social realists. The first work is more of a mockery which shows how Mr. Stalin (the one who gets flowers from boy scouts during the day) has a wild party with Merlyn Monroe, the symbol of western sexuality and corruption. Apparently, this drawing has no particular meaning as Stalin did never see Monroe or had a party with her, yet this drawing certainly shows one that communist leaders might not be that ideal as pictured on the social realist posters and drawings.
The last work as created by Oscar Rabine is an abstraction featuring Vodka, the fish, the ambulance, the swan and the newspaper. The colors are dark and depressive, while it takes a while to understand what these elements of the drawing actually mean. It is no wonder that the communist leaders who did not want to take their time to think about why would an ambulance and a fish be pictured on one painting, would call that work “shit” and call the artist who created it “insane”, “schizophrenic” and “gay”.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the works of socialist realists do differ tremendously from the works of non-conformists. The works of socialist realists were supposed to be simple, bright, and motivating. People who look at those were supposed to develop the positive attitude towards the communist party, their leaders and the work. Everything was put simply and seen clearly. The works of non-conformists depicted the pre-communist western art which focused more on personal perception and expression rather than on state propaganda. Thus, in order to understand them properly one had to take some time, know as much about the artist who created it as possible, let alone think and find some hidden meaning if there was some put there by the artist. The socialist realist paintings were all alike in their purpose, so after seeing one of them one could easily understand what others meant.
Bibliography: Kohn, Werner, Culture and art in a socialist society: Notes on everyday life in the GDR, Prentice Hall, 2003. Prokhorov, Gleb, Art Under Socialist Realism: Soviet Painting 1930-1950, McGraw Hill, 2001. Morris, William, The socialist ideal of art, NY Random House, 2003. Osokina, Elena, Our Daily Bread: Socialist Distribution and the Art of Survival in Stalin's Russia, 1927-1941, Wiley and sons press, 2002. Zimmerli, Jane Voorhees, Beyond Memory: Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art (The Dodge Soviet Nonconformist Art Publication Series), Barrons books, 2002.
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