A Second Life for Socialist Realism

In 2013, curators at the Museum of Warsaw uncovered a hidden mural. Painted in 1954 by Wojciech Fangor (1922–2015), the composition shows three blacksmiths working together on a single scythe blade amid the smithy’s dark-red flames. Its depiction of collective labor was the sort of thing encouraged at the time it was commissioned, when Poland’s political and cultural life was dependent on Moscow. But the mural was covered with a thin plywood wall shortly after completion for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.¹ It had never been shown to the public.

The discovery came on the eve of a modernization project. The museum exhibited Forging the Scythes before it closed for renovations, and at the opening, Fangor put his signature on the previously unsigned wall. The artist posed for photographs in front of the painting, arms outstretched in a triumphant gesture. It was unusual for an artist in this part of the world—and for the museum—to so forcefully embrace old Socialist Realist work. For institutions in the former Eastern Europe and individual artists alike, artworks produced under Stalinism had long been a source of shame.

In former Soviet republics and satellite states, Socialist Realism is associated with the culture of the former occupier. While the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow still proudly displays monumental canvases of Stalin and Lenin by Aleksandr Gerasimov and Isaak Brodsky, museums in Bucharest, Prague, Budapest, and elsewhere tend to keep their Socialist Realist works in storage. In the former East, Socialist Realism is associated with state propaganda, with the instrumentalization of art for a political agenda. Many would say it has no moral ground: it is an accomplice in totalitarianism. Socialist Realism is further dismissed for aesthetic reasons, as an assembly-line art of copies and clichés.

Attitudes are largely similar in the former West, where Socialist Realism is almost entirely absent from museum collections and critical discourse. It continues to be seen as the antipode to modernism, as positioned by Clement Greenberg in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” But the presentation of Fangor’s forgotten mural is an example of a recent revisionist approach that introduces complexity into the stories of art and artists in the Eastern Bloc—a task that takes on political urgency as the right-wing parties that now hold power in many countries in the region promote one-dimensional nationalist narratives.

A painting depicts a joyful procession of people in pale pastel clothes holding red communist banners

Alexandru Ciucurencu: 1 May (Composition), 1958, oil on canvas, 38¾ by 51 inches.

The program of Socialist Realism was initially put forth at the first Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. In 1948, when the Soviet Union consolidated power east of Berlin, its satellite countries adopted the policy developed by Andrei Zhdanov, a high-ranking official in the Soviet Communist Party. The Zhdanov Doctrine prescribed typicality, an attempt to present essential truths, rather than individual instances, and an optimistic, populist mood. While in the Soviet Union the visual language of Socialist Realism updated the traditions of nineteenth-century Russian Realist painting with a heavy (albeit often hidden) dependence on photography for source material and compositional structure, the policy allowed for local variations in Eastern European countries, following Stalin’s idea that a necessary stage on the path to achieving a unified socialist culture is the development of local cultures “national in form and socialist in content.” Standards were enforced by a centralized art system: artists’ unions dispensed commissions, art magazines toed the party line, exhibition spaces were run by the state.

In the cultural and political thaw that followed Stalin’s death, Zhdanovism loosened, and in some places was abandoned entirely. Socialist Realist artworks disappeared from view in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary around 1956 (in Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, this happened much later). As a symbol of Soviet invasion, Socialist Realism has never been fully accepted into the history of twentieth-century Eastern European art.

A painting of humbly dressed workers assembled in a simple room lit with early spring light coming through a wide open door

Viktor Karrus and Roman Treuman: Call to Socialist Competition for the Republic’s Tractorists, 1951, oil on canvas, 72 by 108¼ inches.

The celebration of the rediscovered Fangor mural was an early sign of changing attitudes, though it was preceded by the inclusion of Socialist Realism in the permanent display at Kumu, the Art Museum of Estonia, when it opened in Tallinn in 2006.² Many citizens of this former Soviet republic were not ready to accept the occupier’s art as their own. They thought it marred a spectacular new museum building that was meant to be a point of cultural pride. Local artists called it an “embarrassing” and ”scandalously incompetent” show of ”marginal phenomena” that ”should only find their place in a museum of occupation.”³ “We live in a situation where most Eastern European art circles try to distance themselves from [the] socialist past, whereas the West tries to identify us precisely through this past,” curator Eha Komissarov said in response to the criticism. ”Maybe we could just get over our geopolitical paranoia?” Piotr Piotrowski, the renowned scholar of Eastern European art, later likened Komissarov’s curatorial approach to ”a classic form of psychoanalytical therapy, which heals by repeating or reminding the patient of the experienced trauma.”4 The exhibition started a painful conversation about the limits of national heritage when defined by ethnicity or place. The same questions continue to play out in discussions about the legacy of Communism in the former Soviet Bloc.

A decade after the debut of the Kumu display, Socialist Realism entered the arena of international contemporary art through the inclusion of Albanian Socialist Realism in Documenta 14 in 2017, in the exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. The curators exercised a strategy of caution by presenting the paintings as a collection on loan from the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana rather than as individual works. This emphasis on the collection’s unity replicated stereotypes about the collective character of Socialist Realism, as well as the habit of museums to treat non-Western art as ethnographic artifacts, objects reflecting their culture of origin rather than an individual’s creative vision.

The curators of Documenta likely intended the inclusion to augment their focus on anti-fascist and marginalized art practices. But the display was reminiscent of curatorial strategies implemented by institutions in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania in the 1990s to present Stalinist art as culturally foreign work or even as nonart. In 1994 the National Museum in Warsaw transformed what had previously been a storage repository of the artworks acquired during Stalinism, located in Kozłówka, in eastern Poland, into a Gallery of Socialist Realist Art. The objects were assigned a second-rate status as a synecdoche of the culture that produced them. They were presented as distant—not just geographically but culturally—from the National Museum’s displays in the capital. Similarly, Hungary and Lithuania created outdoor sculpture parks where monuments of socialist heroes and leaders were exiled after having been toppled from their pedestals in 1989 and ’91, respectively. These became tourist attractions with opportunities for comical photos.

 

Two girls play with statues of Soviet leaders; one sticks her finger in Stalin's ear

Statues of (left to right) Vladimir Lenin; Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the first Soviet secret police force; and Josef Stalin in Grutas Park, Druskininkai, Lithuania.

But more and more, institutions in the region are revising their positions. Historians have argued that the Communist project should be seen as a part of Western modernity; the same goes for its art.5 Socialist Realism was part of Stalin’s modernization plan for reorganizing Soviet life by focusing on industrialization, urbanization, and economic development. Philosopher Boris Groys famously argued that Socialist Realism could not have been a negation of modernism, for it directly continued the avant-garde project by realizing its ambition to radically transform life through art.6 This thesis was developed to describe Soviet culture of the 1930s, but it is arguably even more applicable in the European Socialist Republics. While in the Soviet Union the introduction of Socialist Realism in the 1930s led to the removal of Constructivists and other avant-garde artists from their academic positions, in Poland or Romania the artists who formed avant-garde groups before the war were often the same ones who joined the ranks of Socialist Realists in the 1950s.

Socialist Realism’s recent entry to the history of modern art began with the more “acceptable” artists, ones whose lack of political zeal made them palatable to post-Communist audiences. Such was the case with Fangor, who had never been an important political figure. Style probably also factored into the celebration of Forging the Scythes: though executed during the period of Socialist Realism, Fangor’s mural evokes styles of monumental realist painting common in interwar Poland, while the abstracted background and limited palette are typical of Formism, a local Cubo-Expressionist style.

A bronze statues of two men standing united. The sculpture has been damaged and the figures are missing limbs

Alina Szapocznikow: Friendship (fragment), 1953–54, painted bronze, 109½ by 55 by 45¼ inches.

Additionally, the artist’s later successes confirmed his artistic mastery outside an ethically compromised system. Fangor won awards for his Socialist Realist canvases, but then transformed himself into a modernist abstract painter—which was not unusual in Poland in the late 1950s.7 He left the country to pursue a successful international career. His Op art compositions were included in the landmark exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965. The Guggenheim Museum hosted his solo show in 1970. The reception of the Socialist Realist art of Alina Szapocznikow (1926–73) took a similar trajectory. Her Stalinist-era work was all but ignored until her bronze monument to Polish-Soviet friendship (1953–54) entered the collection of the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art in 2019. Like other Communist monuments, the sculpture was discarded by the city in 1992, and spent almost three decades in a private junkyard until it was rediscovered and auctioned for $420,000.

Szapocznikow is a fascinating case since she returned to the People’s Republic of Poland from Paris in the early 1950s specifically in order to contribute to the building of the Communist state. Her choice exemplifies a contested truth. While directives came from Moscow, the development of Socialist Realism in the satellite states would have been impossible without the agency and creative input of existing art scenes. There were many reasons why Eastern European artists willingly accepted Socialist Realism as their new visual language. State patronage and the invitation to artists to take part in shaping a new sociopolitical reality were, for many, welcome changes to the cultural infrastructure. Eastern Europe in the 1950s was different from the Soviet Union in the ’30s: many previously abstract painters and sculptors had already been experimenting with realism when the Communists took power. Polish painter Henryk Stażewski was a founding member of the avant-garde groups Blok, Praesens, and a.r. in the 1920s, and played an important role in the revival of Constructivist tendencies in the 1960s and ’70s. But he turned to neoclassical figuration after World War II, and then depicted tractor drivers and construction workers around 1950. Some artists believed that realism was the key to making culture more accessible and egalitarian. Some found that it was the only language capable of representing the catastrophe and the pain of the war. Others, regardless of formal preferences, held leftist political views and sympathized with Communists in the interwar period. Such was the case with Bertalan Pór, a founding member of the progressive group The Eight, which introduced Fauvism and Cubism to early twentieth-century Budapest. He created a monumental expressionist poster ”Proletarians of the World, Unite!” during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, and moved from Paris back to Hungary in 1948 to dedicate himself to painting portraits of Stalin and the general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party Mátyás Rákosi.

Though some artists in Bucharest, Prague, or Warsaw were resistant to Soviet influence, they respected French artists and intellectuals who supported Socialist Realism. Avant-garde poet Louis Aragon published Pour un réalisme socialiste (In Favor of a Socialist Realism) in 1935, and both Pablo Picasso and Ferdinand Léger joined the French Communist Party in the mid-1940s. Polish artists took inspiration from the 1952 blockbuster exhibition of French Communist art at the Central Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions in Warsaw, which included canvases by Léger, Picasso, and André Fougeron.8 The catalogue essays spoke of the “victory of a progressive and militant realism over illegible and self-annihilating abstraction in French postwar art.”9

A painting shows a solemn meeting between Hungarian workers and peasants, rendered in muted, earthy tones

Endre Domanovskzy: Worker- Peasant Encounter, 1955–56, crayon, tempera, and pastel on cardboard, 61¼ by 118 inches.

Artists in the Eastern Bloc dipped into various art historical sources to develop their own kinds of Socialist Realism, resulting in incredible stylistic diversity. Hungarian Endre Domanovszky created tenebrist compositions indebted to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch masters; one such painting was a monumental fresco for the entrance to the Danube Ironworks, the country’s largest iron and steel plant. Socialist Realism often applied a lively Post-Impressionist palette to express the joy and optimism of collective activities, as seen in canvases by Romanian Alexandru Ciucurencu and his many followers. Czechoslovak Edita Spannerová’s empty-eyed female figures seem to have been inspired directly by those of Amadeo Modigliani. Fangor, though correct in his choices of ideological topics, made work that had more in common formally with German Neue Sachlichkeit than with any Russian source.

A painting of colorfully dressed demonstrators waving flags stands out in a gallery with black walls

View of the exhibition “Far from Moscow: Gerard Singer and Involved Art,” 2016, showing (far left) Singer’s painting 14 February in Nice, 1950–51, at the National Museum, Szczecin, Poland.

This variety demonstrates the trouble with the tendency to define Socialist Realism in terms of iconography or style. The 2012 exhibition “Interrupted Song: The Art of Socialist Realism 1948–1956” at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava explored this problem in depth. Curator Alexandra Kusá demonstrated Slovak artists’ creativity in interpreting what Socialist Realism could be. Some portraits by Ladislav Guderna are so indebted to the early Italian Renaissance that they look almost like copies of Piero della Francesca. The black-and-white woodcuts by Alojz Klimo would look at home in an exhibition of German Expressionism. And the landscape compositions by Ester Šimerová-Martinčeková, broken up into large patches of pleasant colors, would satisfy any fan of the Nabis. Artists took similar liberties with their choice of subjects, which ranged from canonical scenes of peasants harvesting and learning to read to a somewhat baffling image of Lenin admiring a baroque painting.

Kusá was sensitive to the reactions that displaying Socialist Realism at the country’s National Gallery might cause. She included a monument to Stalin that had been removed from public space in 1989, placing it by the gallery’s entrance. By showing the statue without a pedestal, and putting rope over Stalin’s wrists and ankles, Kusá nodded both to the historical realities of Czechoslovakia and to post-Communist iconoclasm. ”Interrupted Song” also featured a reconstruction of a 1950s apartment, complete with listening devices. Though reception was mixed, Kusá successfully told the complex story of artists’ lives and work without glorifying or demonizing their choices.

A painting of a childcare facility in Czechoslovakia. It's a spacious room and the figures are narrow, loosely rendered in white and primarily colors

Edita Spannerová: In the Kindergarten, 1950, oil on canvas, 20½ by 30½ inches.

Other recent notable revisionist exhibitions of Socialist Realism include “Art for the People? Official Romanian Art 1948–1965” at the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest in 2018, curated by Monica Enache, and “Far from Moscow: Gérard Singer and Involved Art,” at the National Museum in Szczecin, Poland, in 2016. The latter was a highly original exhibition built around Singer’s monumental canvas Le 14 février à Nice (1950–51) that curator Szymon Piotr Kubiak stumbled upon in the museum’s storage facility. The piece was considered lost after it starred in the aforementioned 1952 exhibition of French art in Warsaw. The National Gallery in Warsaw is now planning a large, transnational survey titled “Cold Revolution: Central and Eastern Europe Societies in the Face of Socialist Realism, 1948–1959,” curated by Joanna Kordjak and Jérôme Bazin, slated to open this spring.

A thorough, bias-free reassessment of the art made in the former Eastern Europe under Stalinism feels all the more important today, as battles over the collective memory of the Communist period are waged in these countries. Right-wing leaders in Hungary and Poland are rewriting the Communist past in service of their political agenda. Their version of history presents five decades of socialism as a period of foreign occupation and national enslavement. They follow an extremely narrow definition of ”our” cultural heritage. Many people born in the 1970s and 1980s, who experienced Communism as children, are resisting these efforts and questioning the heroic narratives of anti-Communism that dominated their education after 1989. They recognize that a blanket denouncement of the Communist regime and the culture that it produced—including Socialist Realist art—as alien to “our” culture not only inhibits a leftist political agenda, but also opens the door to further exclusions: if communists can be un-Polish or un-
Hungarian, so can queer people, feminists, and others who do not fit a narrowly defined national identity.10 The nuanced approach of the exhibitions discussed here does not romanticize the Stalinist past, but rather unearths the complexities of that cultural moment by bringing to light the real experiences of artistic life under Soviet Communism.

 

1 Janusz Durko, who was the museum’s director in 1954, said at the mural’s 2013 presentation the museum changed plans and dedicated the gallery to a different thematic display. However, an archival note documents the unfavorable opinion of Stanisław Lorentz, then director of the National Museum in Warsaw and an influential figure at the time, which may have affected this decision.

2 Eha Komissarov discussed the art and her approach in the exhibition’s catalogue. See “The Era of Radical Changes: Estonian Art from the End of the Second World War until the Restoration of Estonia’s Independence,” in Art Lives in Kumu: The Main Building of the Art Museum of Estonia, ed. Anu Allas et al., Tallin, Eesti Kunstimuuseum, 2006, pp. 97–143.

3 The quoted critical articles were published in Sirp, an Estonian cultural newspaper. Anu Allas included translated lines from these reviews, as well as Komissarov’s response, in her talk “Towards a Polyphonic Past: First permanent exhibition of the art of the Soviet era in Kumu Art Museum (2006)” at the seminar “How to Remember, How to Forget? Post-Soviet Museum Practices around the Baltic Sea” at Södertörn University in Stockholm, Nov. 15, 2018. I thank her for sharing the slides from this presentation with me.

4 Piotr Piotrowski, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, London, Reaktion Books, 2012, p. 213.

5 See Boris Groys, ”Back from the Future,” Third Text vol. 17, no. 4, 2003, pp. 323–31; and Susan Buck-Morss, “The Post-Soviet Condition,” ed. IRWIN, East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, London, Afterall Books, 2006, pp. 494–99.

6 Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, London, Verso, 2011, pp. 35-37

7 For another example, see Magdalena Moskalewicz, “Who doesn’t like Aleksander Kobzdej? A State Artist’s Career in the People’s Republic of Poland,” in The Oxford Handbook of Communist Visual Cultures, eds. Aga Skrodzka, Xiaoning Lu, and Katarzyna Marciniak, Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 197-223..

8 For a case study of this exhibition, and more on the French influence, see Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, ”How the West Corroborated Socialist Realism in the East: Fougeron, Taslitzky, and Picasso in Warsaw,” Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, 2, 2003, pp. 303–29.

9 Description after Murawska-Muthesius, p. 319.

10 See the special issue of the journal Praktyka Teoretyczna titled Anticommunisms: Discourses of Exclusion, 1/31, 2019, pressto.amu.edu.pl.

Why museums throughout the former Eastern Bloc are rethinking the long-despised art of Soviet CommunismRead MoreArt in America, Features, Alina Szapocznikow, Eastern European art, Socialist RealismARTnews.comRead More

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