Socialist realism: Wikis


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Socialist realism is a style of realistic art which developed under Socialism in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other communist countries. Socialist realism is teleologically-oriented style which has as its purpose the furtherance of the goals of socialism and communism. Although related, it should not be confused with Social realism a type of art that realistically depicts subjects of social concern. Unlike Social realism, Socialist realism often glorifies the roles of the poor.


Soviet Union

In conjunction with the Socialist Classical style of architecture, Socialist realism was the officially approved type of art in the Soviet Union for nearly sixty years. Communist doctrine decreed that 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 the dictatorship 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 Impressionism and 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.

Sculpture in a Moscow subway station

Socialist realism became state policy in 1932 when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin promulgated the decree "On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations". 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. Form, 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.

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[citation needed].

Other Socialist States

The people of Wuhan fighting the flood of 1954, as depicted on a monument erected in 1969

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, Jaroslav Hašek, and Pablo Neruda. [1]

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". The general theme, extending beyond simple aesthetics into an urban design, was meant 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.[2] 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 dogmatic socialist realism.

Due to its controversial nature, socialist realism can be quite taboo in Western nations. For example, in 2007, the Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin was selected as the lead sculptor for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. But because Mr. Lei has worked on various socialist realism pieces back in China (such as carving statues celebrating Mao Zedong), his selection was heavily criticized by many in the US, such as by the Chinese dissident Harry Wu. Furthermore, in 2008, the U.S. Commission of Fine Art rejected Lei's design for the King Memorial Sculpture. In a letter dated 28 April, the commission wrote that Yixin's presentation was an inappropriate expression of Dr. King and that Yixin's model recalled the genre of political sculpture that has recently been destroyed in other countries, hinting at the removal of many socialist realism statues during the collapse of the Soviet Union.


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. [3]

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 ("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;

13 May 1967.Cinemacenter Avrora. Architect E.A. Serdjukov.1300 Seats.

1. Proletarian- art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.

2. Typical- scenes of every day life of the people.

3. Realistic - in the representational sense.

4. 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.[citation needed]


Socialist-Realist allegories surrounding the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw

Socialist realism held that successful art depicts and glorifies the proletariat's struggle toward socialist progress. The Statute of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 stated that socialist realism

is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.
—Page 148, On Socialist Realism" by Andrei Sinyavsky writing as Abram Tertz, ISBN 0520046773

Its purpose was to elevate the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work, and recreation as admirable. In other words, its goal was to educate the people in the goals and meaning of Communism. The ultimate aim was to create what Lenin called "an entirely new type of human being": New Soviet Man. Stalin described the practitioners of socialist realism as "engineers of souls".

The "realism" part is important. Soviet art at this time aimed to depict the worker as he truly was, carrying his tools. In a sense, the movement mirrors the course of American and Western art, where the everyday human being became the subject of the novel, the play, poetry, and art. The proletariat was at the center of communist ideals; hence, his life was a worthy subject for study. This was an important shift away from the aristocratic art produced under the Russian tsars of previous centuries, but had much in common with the late-19th century fashion for depicting the social life of the common people.

Compared to the eclectic variety of 20th century Western art, socialist realism often resulted in a fairly bland and predictable range of artistic products (indeed, Western critics wryly described the principles of socialist realism as "girl meets tractor").[4] Painters would depict happy, muscular peasants and workers in factories and collective farms; during the Stalin period, they also produced numerous heroic portraits of the dictator to serve his cult of personality. Industrial and agricultural landscapes were popular subjects, glorifying the achievements of the Soviet economy. Novelists were expected to produce uplifting stories in a manner consistent with the Marxist doctrine of dialectical materialism. Composers were to produce rousing, vivid music that reflected the life and struggles of the proletariat.

Socialist realism thus demanded close adherence to party doctrine, and has often been criticized as detrimental to the creation of true, unfettered art – or as being little more than a means to censor artistic expression. Czesław Miłosz, writing in the introduction to Sinyavsky's On Socialist Realism, describes the products of socialist realism as "inferior", ascribing this as necessarily proceeding from the limited view of reality permitted to creative artists.

Not all Marxists accepted the necessity of socialist realism (Marx, Engels and Trotsky's views on art and culture were very liberal and may have baulked at the propagandism of Socialist realism themselves). Its establishment as state doctrine in the 1930s had rather more to do with internal Communist Party politics than classic Marxist imperatives. The Hungarian Marxist essayist Georg Lukács criticized the rigidity of socialist realism, proposing his own "critical realism" as an alternative. However, such critical voices were a rarity until the 1980s.

Notable works and artists

Maxim Gorky's novel Mother is usually considered to have been the first work of socialist realism. Gorky was also a major factor in the school's rapid rise, and his pamphlet, On Socialist Realism, essentially lays out the needs of Soviet art. Other important works of literature include Fyodor Gladkov's Cement (1925) and Mikhail Sholokhov's two volume epic, Quiet Flows the Don (1934) and The Don Flows Home to the Sea (1940).

Martin Andersen Nexø developed socialist realism in his own way. His creative method was characterized by a combination of publicistic passion, a critical view of capitalist society, and a steadfast striving to bring reality into accord with socialist ideals. The novel "Pelle, the Conqueror" is considered to be a classic of socialist realism. The novel "Ditte, Daughter of Man" had a working-class woman as its heroine. He battled against the enemies of socialism in the books "Two Worlds", and "Hands Off!".

The novels of Louis Aragon such as "The Real World" depicts the working class as a rising force of the nation. He published two books of documentary prose, "The Communist Man." In the collection of poems "A Knife in the Heart Again", Aragon criticizes the penetration of American imperialism into Europe. The novel "The Holy Week" depicts the artist's path toward the people against a broad social and historical background.

Hanns Eisler composed many workers' songs, marches, and ballads on current political topics such as "Song of Solidarity", "Song of the United Front", and "The Cominten." He was a founder of a new style of revolutionary song for the masses. He also composed works in larger forms such as "Requiem for Lenin". Eisler's most important works include the cantatas "German Symphony", "Serenade of the Age" and "Song of Peace." Eisler combines features of revolutionary songs with varied expression. His symphonic music is known for its complex and subtle orchestration.

Closely associated with the rise of the labor movement was the development of the revolutionary song, which was performed at demonstrations and meetings. Among the most famous of the revolutionary songs are "The Internationale" and "Warszawianka". Notable songs from Russia include "Boldly, Comrades, in Step", "Workers' Marseillaise", and "Rage, Tyrants". Folk and revolutionary songs influenced the Soviet mass songs. The mass song was a leading genre in Soviet music, especially during the 1930s and the war. The mass song influenced other genres, including the art song, opera, and film music. The most popular mass songs include Dunaevsky's "Song of the Homeland", Blanter's "Katiusha", Novikov's "Hymn of Democratic Youth of the World", and Aleksandrov's "Sacred War".

In the early 1930s, Soviet filmmakers applied socialist realism in their work. Notable films include "Chapaev", which shows the role of the people in the history-making process. The theme of revolutionary history was developed in films like "The Youth of Maxim", by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, "Shchors" by Dovzhenko, and "We are from Kronstadt" by E. Dzigan. The shaping of the new man under socialism was a theme of films like "A Start Life" by N. Ekk, "Ivan" by Dovzhenko, and "Valerii Chkalov" by M. Kalatozov. Some films depicted the part of peoples of the Soviet Union against foreign invaders: "Alexander Nevsky" by Eisenstein, "Minin and Pozharsky" by Pudvokin, and "Bogdan Khmelnitsky" by Savchenko. Soviet politicians were the subjects in films such as Yutkevich's trilogy of movies about Lenin.

Socialist realism was also applied to Hindi films of the 1940s and 1950s. These include Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar (1946), which won the Grand Prize at the 1st Cannes Film Festival, and Bimal Roy's Two Acres of Land (1953), which won the International Prize at the 7th Cannes Film Festival.

The painter Aleksandr Deineka provides a notable example for his expressionist and patriotic scenes of the Second World War, collective farms, and sports. Yuri Pimenov, Boris Ioganson and Geli Korzev have also been described as "unappreciated masters of twentieth-century realism".[5] Another well-known practitioner was Fyodor Pavlovich Reshetnikov.


A relief from the Soviet military cemetery in Warsaw showing workers greeting victorious soldiers.

Socialist realism's rigid precepts and enforcement greatly hindered the freedom of Soviet artists. Many artists and authors found their works censored, ignored, or rejected. Mikhail Bulgakov, for instance, was forced to write his masterwork, The Master and Margarita, in secret, despite earlier successes such as White Guard. Sergei Prokofiev 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. Many then joined Western observers in denouncing socialist realism as mere propaganda.[citation needed]

The Sots Art paintings of Komar and Melamid can be viewed as a parody of socialist realism.[citation needed]


Lenin Stalin
"Lenin" by Alexei Nesterenko
by Alexei Nesterenko
"Lenin" by Stepan Karpov
by Stepan Karpov
"Vladimir Ilyich Lenin" by Isaac Brodskiy
by Isaac Brodskiy
Gigantic monument to Stalin in Prague - Letná (1955-1962)
Monument in Prague-Letná (1955-1962)
Ordinary life
"Miner" by Boris Vladimirski
"Miner" by
Boris Vladimirski
"Female Worker" by Boris Vladimirski
"Female Worker"
by Vladimirski
"Wedding on a Tomorrow Street" by Yury Pimenov
""Wedding on a Tomorrow Street"
by Yury Pimenov
Revolution and War
The First Tractor by Vladimir Krikhatsky
The First Tractor
by Vladimir Krikhatsky


See also


References and further reading

  • Bek, Mikuláš, Geoffrey Chew, and Petr Macek (eds.). Socialist Realism and Music. Musicological Colloquium at the Brno International Music Festival 36. Prague: KLP; Brno: Institute of Musicology, Masaryk University, 2004. ISBN 8086791181
  • Golomstock, Igor. Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People's Republic of China, Harper Collins, 1990.
  • James, C. Vaughan. Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.
  • Ivanov, Sergei. "Unknown Socialist Realism. The Leningrad School". Saint Petersburg, NP-Print, 2007 ISBN13 9785901724217
  • Prokhorov, Gleb. Art under Socialist Realism: Soviet Painting, 1930-1950. East Roseville, NSW, Australia: Craftsman House; G + B Arts International, 1995. ISBN 9768097833
  • Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the United States: 1900–1954. Some Interrelations of Literature and Society. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.
  • Sinyavsky, Andrei [writing as Abram Tertz]. "The Trial Begins", and "On Socialist Realism", translated by Max Hayward and George Dennis, with an introduction by Czesław Miłosz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960–1982. ISBN 0-520-04677-3

External links

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