Revolutions in Art: Socialist Realism and Its Legacy. With the participation of Sepherot Foundation (Liechtenstein)

7 April – 9 July 2017

Since 1913, revolutionary development has put art into a state of turmoil as never known before. The “zero point of painting” was reached with Black Square (1913) by Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Only a few years later in 1917, the October Revolution shook Russia, where the experiment of building an ideal society based on real (or existing) socialism began. Paintings in the style of Socialist Realism delineated its ideological program. What shape revolutionary design and art should take was one of the burning issues in artistic debates of the period. During the 1920s, various groups of artists pursued all kinds of styles. The constructivists and production artists applied themselves to designing everyday objects, tools, and appliances. And the Society of Easel Painters with Alexander Deineka (1899–1969), Alexander Labas, and Sergei Luchishkin continued to paint pictures, cultivating a modern, though representational style. In contrast, the aesthetically conservative revolutionary artists (AKhRR), with leading protagonist Isaak Brodsky, made up the largest group of painters and found strong support among the Communist Party leaders. As of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin’s increasingly authoritarian regime progressively began to restrict freedom of artistic expression. Then, very early in the 1930s, the press began criticizing the modern artistic vocabulary on account of its “formalism” and reliance on “bourgeois influences.” Finally, in 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party officially took over the control of national art production and stipulated that all artists become members of the Union of Soviet Artists. At the first congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, author Maxim Gorki, as well as Stalin’s close confidant Andrey Zhdanov, ultimately defined Socialist Realism as “revolutionary romanticism” with the goal of representing reality as "revolutionary development." Soviet art henceforth had the task of educating the proletariat in the spirit of socialism and fostering ideological change. Despite the fact that this goal still had much in common with the utopian ideals of the early Russian avant-garde—which flourished in the decade after Lenin seized power - Socialist Realism preempted abstraction as the artistic mode of expression in official, public spheres. Figurative painting and sculpture representing socialist subject matter in a realistic style became the accepted artistic vocabulary. The most successful painters of the 1930s, such as Isaak Brodsky, Alexander Deineka, and Sergei Gerasimov, were admired for works of art that depicted Soviet achievements and heroes (farmers, workers, heads of the party) while making light of problems and whitewashing the system’s faults, visualizing a communist utopia as the goal that all were working toward. Their portrayal of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan that began in 1928 was eulogistic. The plan led to the transformation of agrarian Russia into a strong industrial power in the 1930s. Artists working in the Socialist Realism style glorified the collectivization of agriculture in hyperbolic imagery, ignoring the famine and other problems it brought with it if possible. Stalin’s ideological purges in the 1930s - during which practically half of the Communist Party members were either incarcerated, tortured, or executed - pointed the way of growing repression, which all Soviet citizens, including artists, were facing. Even though the classical motifs and the artistic language of Socialist Realism reigned as the official aesthetic style for fifty years, it varied from artist to artist. It was spread by paintings and mass media such as posters and delivered an iconic world of imagery that was deeply rooted in Soviet visual culture and shaped popular imagination for generations. The above is the point of departure for an exhibition of Socialist Realism, the first of its kind in Switzerland, comprising a selection of artworks representing a cross section of this style over the last one hundred years. It strives to show the canon-shaping early Soviet works dating from the 1920s and the 1930s, with their utopian, revolutionary aspirations, as well as the ideological processing and stylistic further development of this kind of art in the German Democratic Republic - founded in 1949 - in the 1950s through into the 1970s. From there we will investigate further westwards, proceeding to the Federal Republic of Germany, where artists such as Jörg Immendorf (1945–2007) painted programmatic views of society. Although these pieces had different goals they were nevertheless reactions to Socialist Realism. Also Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997), in the greater freedom enjoyed in the Federal Republic of Germany, used the stark contrast of the East and as the backdrop for his sarcastic, biting satires, which heralded the advent of postmodernism. The ideological modifications of Socialist Realism in the Federal Republic of Germany were followed in the 1970s and 1980s by the sarcastic art of the Sots Art protagonists, such as Erik Bulatov (b. 1933), Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933), as well as Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (b. 1943/1945). These artists gently ridiculed socialist visual culture and at the same time gave visual expression to the Soviet Union’s tentative political and ideological attempts at opening to the West of perestroika and glasnost. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a younger generation finally settled the score with the ideologically charged revolutionary visual vocabulary of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the latter. The painters of East Germany, ranging from Neo Rauch (b. 1960) and Norbert Bisky (b. 1970) to the scandalous large-format paintings of the Russian painter duo Vladimir Dubossarsky/Aleksander Vinogradov (b. 1964/1963), address historical change as an empty phrase in a diversity of ways. But thanks to its ideological clarity and stereotype character/to the ideological clarity of Socialist Realism and its stereotype character, it is nevertheless still a fitting mode of expression for voicing social criticism. Besides a selection of individual works representing a cross section of Socialist Realism, this exhibition—the first of its kind in Switzerland—targets creating an awareness for the correlations between sociopolitical and aesthetic revolutions—as well as discrepancies—and, not least, inquires into the revolutionary meaning of art in whatever shape.

Curator: Dr. Kathleen Bühler, curator of contemporary art

Sarah Merten, research associate, Department of Contemporary

Evants calendar
< October 2020 >
Russian Space With the participation of Sepherot Foundation (Liechtenstein)
18.05.2016 – 18.09.2016
Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test The Art Institute of Chicago
28.10.2017 – 15.01.2018