Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art
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Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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October 5, 2005–January 22, 2006
Socialist Realism was the official style of Soviet art from the mid-1930s until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It emerged as the result of the state’s efforts to intensify and codify its control over the arts and was charged with transforming the nation’s inhabitants into Soviet citizens—in the words of one of its leading spokesmen, Andrei Zhdanov, effecting the “ideological remolding and education of working people in the spirit of socialism.” Toward this end, Socialist Realist artworks were tasked with the portrayal of the radiant Communist future rather than the actual, often grim conditions of Soviet life.
Particularly in the West, Socialist Realism has often been dismissed as Communist kitsch, mere political propaganda monolithic in form and lacking in artistic merit. While this criticism is undoubtedly warranted in many cases, Reflections, an exhibition of twenty-five paintings from the collection of The Museum of Russian Art, in Minneapolis, indicates that this is clearly not true of all Socialist Realist artworks. As seen in Reflections, Socialist Realism encompassed an impressive range of themes, genres, techniques, and practices. It also changed over time in response to historical events and circumstances like World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and the Khrushchev Thaw of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which witnessed a relative relaxation of censorship of the arts.
Numerous artists worked not only for the state in an official capacity, but also unofficially, and they created works for themselves in addition to their family and friends. No less accomplished than the art they produced for government commissions, the body of private works made after World War II reflects the plurality of formal styles—including impressionism and expressionism—as well as the depiction of both politically neutral and personal subject matter. Reflections both attests to the fact that artists in the Soviet Union inventively negotiated the boundaries of Socialist Realism and challenges the notion that all Soviet painting reflected a rigid, codified approach. Indeed, the art displayed in this exhibition underscores the point that many artists produced works of subtle beauty that managed to question Socialist Realism’s utopian message while also expressing a unique creative vision.