From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s-1980s

March 21, 2012

The current exhibit at The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) is a pleasure for the senses but a challenge for the intellect. “From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s-1980s” presents a narrow view of Soviet Socialist Realist art, focusing on the theme of industrialization in paintings during the post-Stalin era. This thematic restriction might give the impression that artistic subject matter in the USSR was severely limited during this time period, but this is not the case, as even a cursory look at the lyrical landscapes, genre scenes and floral still lifes of artists not represented in the exhibit, such as Irina Baldina, Eugenia Antipova and Tatiana Kopnina, demonstrate. 

Some of the best paintings in the current exhibit come from the 1960s. Tamaz Ambakovich Dzhincharadze’s “A Miner” (1962) is a powerful image of exhaustion executed in bold brushstrokes and subdued tones. In this painting, there is no glorification of the working man, but an intimate yet unsentimental view of a human being resting after a hard day’s work. The image provokes a quiet respect, rather than pity, for these workers.

Yuri Ivanovich Bosko’s “A Woman of the Volga” (1967) uses a high-keyed palette to present a view of Russian women as independent, hard-working and content with their role as working women. The Volga River, ubiquitous in Russian painting, is not a mere backdrop to the figure, as it holds symbolic significance in Russia as “Mother,” emphasizing the esteem for working women in the Soviet state.  

There is still very little exposure to and knowledge of Soviet art among Western audiences, given the isolation of that country after the 1917 revolution and the later tangle of propaganda and fact during the Cold War. This places an educational burden on museums to present Socialist Realism in context, which, unfortunately, was done poorly in the present case. The curator’s wall placards do little to clarify Socialist Realism, whose origins predate the revolution and Stalin.

The term “Socialist Realism” conjures up visions of dreary, inferior, propagandistic works executed in a rigid, academic style and imposed on artists by the totalitarian state. But this may be an overly simplistic view, rooted in years of economic and political competition between the Soviet Union and the West.

The painter Aleksandr Gerasimov described Socialist Realism in a 1939 speech as an art “realistic in form and socialist in content.” While much Socialist Realist art was meant to glorify the revolution and the workers’ state, even during Stalin’s time Russian artists produced Socialist Realist works of superb beauty in a diversity of styles. The Russian Impressionist period in particular, which lasted from approximately 1930 to 1980, was greatly influenced by French art and has only recently, since the 1990s, been carefully studied by Western scholars. Like 1930s Regionalism in America, much Socialist Realist art is genre art, focusing on the lives of common people, and on the land.

Placing this aesthetic into its peasant revolutionary context, author Matthew Cullerne Bown notes in his 1998 book, Socialist Realist Painting, that Socialist Realism also had a populist character. The dominance of Socialist Realism was “not purely and simply an art conditioned by politics, but, equally and perhaps more profoundly, an art conditioned by conservative common tastes—tastes shared in some measure by Stalin and the politburo, Russian painters, and the population as a whole.” 

After WWII, Socialist Realism became a key cultural actor in the Cold War between the USSR and the West. To counter the almost total dominance of Western art by abstract painting and notions of the unconscious, Stalin’s government promoted Socialist Realism as a morally superior aesthetic, implying that art must reflect society as a whole, not just the individual’s subconscious mind or ego. 

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Kruschev’s “Thaw” resulted more in a mild tolerance for artistic experimentation than a change in official policy. According to Bown, “Gradually, new subjects gained popularity, such as the development of virgin land, used as romanticized propaganda for a program to populate uninhabited areas of the Soviet Union. A new Soviet hero emerged in the art of the time as friendlier, more relaxed, and in a sense less puritanical, but more bourgeois in his or her material view of the world…. Sketchiness was, in fact, approved, and high finish ceased to be a prerequisite. Art officials encouraged artists to paint from life and to use natural light.”

But in 1962, Khrushchev made clear that he would limit artistic experimentation when he referred to several abstract works at the exhibition of the 30th anniversary of the Moscow Artist’s Union as “shit,” and criticized the artists for being “homosexuals.” The “Thaw” was clearly over, but Soviet artists continued to experiment with subject matter, color and form, producing works of substantive content and exquisite beauty. 

Don’t miss this exhibit, but it might be better to either ignore the curator’s placards and enjoy the paintings, or, if you prefer to understand the historical context of art works, brush up on your Russian history before seeing this show.

The exhibit runs through August 12, 1012.

Photos were not allowed; for a preview of the show and more information, go to:

Recommended Reading:

Unknown Socialist Realism. The Leningrad School, by Sergei V. Ivanov. Russian Painting Collectors’ Club,  2007.

Times of Change: Art of the Soviet Union 1960-1985, by E A Petrova, et al. St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2006.

Socialist Realist Painting, by Matthew Cullerne Bown. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

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