Art and Ideology: Late 1920s–1940s
The Russian Revolution in 1917 ended more than 300 years of tsarist rule. It not only changed life in Russia, but also effectively divided the world into two hostile camps, communist and capitalist, a schism that would dominate much of the history of the 20th century.
Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, formed a new country, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), commonly called the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule the government controlled everything. All agricultural land was organized into large collective farms, where everyone worked for the state. Employment, food, housing, and education were made available to everyone, but political and civil rights were severely curtailed.
During the first five years of Soviet rule, Russia was plagued by civil war, famine, invasion, and rebellions by nationalities fighting for independence. In 1924, Lenin died, and a struggle for power raged at the highest levels. Starting in 1927, Josef Stalin initiated the first of the Soviet Union’s five-year plans, which focused on harnessing all economic power to the state. Industrialization proceeded swiftly and peasants were brutally collectivized. Artists were next on his list.
In 1932, the Soviet state proclaimed that all artists must embrace the Socialist Realist philosophy and style. Its principles included loyalty to the Communist Party and correct ideological stance and content. Those who did not conform could be interrogated, imprisoned, or even executed.
From the start, the new Soviet state enlisted art to serve an educational and instructional function to reinforce cultural values. Communist Party leaders firmly enforced the doctrine that the arts must serve society by educating and inspiring the masses, and artists were instructed to look to art of the past. Works of art had to reveal the spirit of socialism and reflect the Communist Party viewpoint. Its purpose was to further the goals of communism and to glorify the proletariat’s (the working classes) struggle toward socialist progress. This new Soviet art should be optimistic, heroic, and make visible the spirit of socialism for both national and international audiences. Its practice was marked by strict adherence to party doctrine and to conventional techniques of realism.
Under the Soviet regime the ancient religious ideals of Orthodox Russia were shunned and replaced by official atheism. The Communist Party and its leaders supplanted God as the focal point of Soviet life. Socialist Realism became synonymous with the state. Most importantly, it portrayed the Soviet Union’s future as being filled with an unequaled prosperity that would forever shame capitalism and its proponents. Socialist Realism portrayed life only as the Bolsheviks wanted it seen, and in many ways created an idealistic world of fantasy that overlooked massive failures, such as the death and suffering that continued in labor camps throughout the country. The rise of Socialist Realism was rapid and dramatic and would heavily influence artistic life in the Soviet Union through the 1980s.
About this work
Deineka’s work, although figurative, is strikingly modernist in style with its large flattened areas of bright colors. Trained not as a painter but as a graphic artist, he also produced popular posters with collectivist themes, glorifying work and the future of the Soviet Union. Deineka’s paintings introduced convincing depictions of the Soviet “New Person” dreamed of by Russian revolutionaries. To meet state-imposed guidelines, the heroes and heroines of Socialist Realist painting were required to be recognizable and appealing to the public and the embodiment of a social thesis. The New Person in the painting of the 1930s was inevitably healthy, typically smiling, and often engaged in vigorous activity.
Collective Farm Worker on a Bicycle is considered one of the key works of early Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism of the 1930s was a highly symbolic visual language filled with both romance and lyrical distortion of reality. Deineka and his colleagues strove to transmit the idea that a new and improved society would be achieved through the application of collectivism and technology. Nowhere was the basic premise of Socialist Realism—the promised bright future—more apparent than in paintings showing life on the collective farms. Here the sun shone, modern farm machinery was available (although in fact the proportions of collective farms provided with tractors in the 1930s was not high), and the anguish of collectivization was nowhere to be seen. Deineka’s painting put an idyllic gloss on country life, showing the land and its people transformed by technology and modern farming techniques. A truck visible in the background and the shiny bicycle, still rare commodities in the Soviet countryside, would have been easily read by contemporaries as desired symbols of modernity.
Since medieval times, color had been used symbolically. The bright red dress of the peasant woman and her elegant white shoes portray her as a prosperous and emancipated citizen. The color red, inserted into paintings in the form of banners, flags, scarves, and garments, was a symbol of communism and an affiliation with communist ideals. Red also referred to the blood shed by the working class in its struggle against capitalism. White also had several symbolic meanings. Stalin was regularly dressed by painters in white, a symbol of moral purity. The color also signified heaven.
Russian culture, strongly influenced by the Byzantine Empire, had traditionally curtailed the rights of women. The Bolsheviks viewed this bias against women, along with many other aspects of traditional Russia, as undesirable. Reforms in vocabulary went hand-in-hand with the introduction of new agricultural, industrial, and artistic measures designed to advance the society to a socialist utopia. In an effort to remove gender-biased language, everyone became not a man or a woman, but rather a “comrade.” This change can be seen in the depiction of women. Deineka’s full-blooded and full-bodied women were of crucial significance in establishing the sturdy, woman-type of Socialist Realism.
- Describe this painting. Which elements seem realistic? Which elements seem idealized or utopian? What symbols and messages can you find?
- What characteristics of Socialist Realism can you find in this painting? Explain your answer by citing particular elements.
- Socialist Realist painting frequently suggests the passage through time toward a brighter future. How has the artist constructed this work to suggest movement and the passage of time?
- Describe the woman in this painting as fully as possible. Where does she live? Where do you think she is heading? What might she do in a typical day? If you met her along this road, what do you think she would say to you? Compare your answers with those of your classmates’.
- In 1935, when Deineka painted this work, the bicycle and new white shoes would have been immediately understood as the fruits of hard labor. The message was that exemplary collective farmers could expect to enjoy material rewards. This type of message can be found in abundance in contemporary society. Look through magazines and find some examples. Then discuss whether or not you consider these images to be propaganda.
- The Soviet Union created a new art form: Socialist Realism. Why would the state want to become involved in the arts? What were some of the consequences of state regulation for artists?
- Women were depicted in highly specific ways in Socialist Realist art. They were usually young, strong, and active. What is the image of the ideal woman in contemporary American society? Find images that you think express contemporary ideals and discuss what characteristics you associate with them.
- Although Socialist Realism showed Soviet life as ever improving, the reality of life during Stalin’s rule was actually harsh and brutal. Research this historical period and contrast the official image that was depicted in Social Realist work with actual realities and events.
- Socialist Realism portrayed images of what communists believed a perfect society would look like. It depicted certain ideas and ideals. How would you envision a perfect society? What ideals would it embrace? How would you articulate or envision that society? Create a work that communicates your vision for a more perfect way of life.