Socialist Realism

The post-revolutionary wave of artists attempted to retain some formal freedom. They painted pictures thematically corresponding to the spirit of the new age, yet lying within the stylistic framework of the avant-garde experiments – Alexander Deineka’s Textile Workers (1927) and Alexander Samokhvalov’s Conductress (1928).

Even this compromise was not enough for the Soviet authorities. In the early 1930s, all trends and movements were replaced by a single style – Socialist Realism. Artists were supposed to extol the achievements of Socialism and the wisdom of the Party leadership, teaching citizens to love the motherland and do all they could for its wellbeing.

Many Soviet artists churned out insipid propaganda pieces leaving no visible trace in the history of Russian art. Some canvases, however, possessed undoubted artistic merits. Alexander Gerasimov’s Hymn to October (1942) is an iconic image symbolising the future victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. The artist employs the colour red – a traditional sign of joy and grandeur in Russia – and lights up the centre of the canvas, which depicts Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders. These powerful and ringing devices instilled a hope of victory in 1942, when the outcome of the war was still uncertain.

Alexander Deineka’s Defence of Sebastopole (1942) is equally optimistic. Despite the losses on both sides, the enormous figure of the Soviet soldier overcoming the enemy suggests the inevitable victory over the German invaders. The laconic tones of white, black and red and the simple, poster-like composition are memorable and expressive.

The theme of tragedy was very rare in Socialist Realism. Images of war – painted while battles were still raging at the front – were expected to encourage and uplift the rest of the nation. Wartime artists created many masterpieces in different forms of art.

The Socialist Realists interpreted all aspects of life during peacetime in equally optimistic tones. Arkady Plastov painted Collective Farm Celebration (1937) in years of famine. The table laden with food and drink, the happy and well-dressed collective farmers and the slogan that “life has become better, life has become merrier” depict a world of abundance. Like the films of those years, works of fine art were expected to convince the wretched inhabitants of poor collective farms that life was gradually changing for the better and that happiness was just around the corner.

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