Soviet Realism – The Later Years
by Cathy Locke
Vera Mukhina, “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman,” 1937, stainless steel and chrome-nickel steel
The Art of Collectivization
By the mid-1930s the subject of grain and collectivization had become a prominent theme of Soviet Realism. To address campaign promises made to Russia’s peasants, who made up eighty-two percent of the population, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) had nationalized the landed estates of the aristocracy and the Orthodox Church. These estates were redistributed to the peasants in the form of collective farms called kolkhoz. During the first part of the regime of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization, which demanded enormous quantities of grain to feed the workers. The more the Soviet government pushed forward with industrialization the more acute the grain and food supply became. The Soviet government became engaged in the daunting task of industrializing the old country farm into a modern efficient kolkhoz. Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937) by Vera Mukhina (1889-1953) spoke to the unification of the “new” peasant class of workers. Mukhina’s sculpture was created for the USSR pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris.1 The architect of the pavilion, Boris Iofan (1891-1976), suggested the idea of a young man and woman stepping forward holding a hammer and a sickle above their heads. Mukhina modified his idea by creating a more angular design to the movement of the two characters. In all of her work Mukhina incorporated one of the four elements – fire, water, earth and air. She used the element of wind in this sculpture, which is depicted by the long scarf that drapes around both figures and appears to be blowing in the wind. This colossal sculpture stands seventy-five feet high and weighs seventy-five tons. It was created as a statement to the power of the Soviet Union’s industry. To further reinforce that statement the sculpture was created from stainless steel and chrome-nickel steel, a new material at that time.
Tatiana Yablonskaya, “Bread,” 1949, oil on canvas
A very successful piece of Soviet propaganda is Bread (1949) by Tatiana Yablonskaya (1917-2005). Her first major painting after graduating from the Kiev Institute of the Art, Bread brought her a State award as well as fame throughout Russia. This exquisite piece depicts female workers on the kolkhoz during the early years of World War II. Here we see joyous women producing ample grain to feed their entire country’s population, easily lifting one-hundred-pound bags of grain onto a steady stream of pick-up trucks. The reality of this period was that Russia experienced a severe drought in 1946 producing an epic famine that spread across all of Russia and the Ukraine. These “collective farms” were nothing more than slave labor camps. Yablonskaya doesn’t concern herself with this reality; instead we see a play of warm reds, bright blues and bold flashes of white inviting us into this happy scene. She has surrounded her central characters with bustling activity with just the right amount of detail and fading contrast. Her three foreground figures are strategically placed to create a strong diagonal line that leads our eye directly into the painting. Yablonskaya has strayed so far from reality that her painting is borderline corny. Artwork such as this, that is nothing more than an advertisement of an urban myth, became known as Sots realism, a sub-level of Soviet Realism.
Boris Yakovlev, “Soviet Preserves,” 1939, oil on canvas
Another painting building on this theme of “abundance on steroids” is Soviet Preserves (1939) by Boris Yakovlev (1890-1972). During the 1930s Russian artists were looking for a way to transform the traditions of the Old Masters into Soviet art. Both literary and artistic legacies of previous epochs were now subjected to revision. The point where fine art moves from Old Masters work to one of an early type of pop art may appear to be a fine line. “In the 1930s Sots realism was a field for experimentation and engendering several artistic phenomena . . . Sots realism involved creating “popular” mass art on a classically elite basis, and artists often strayed towards kitsch…”2 If we think of Andy Warhol’s famous painting of Campbell Soup cans as representing pop art of the 1950s and 60s, Yakovlev’s Soviet Preserves is an early form of such art labeled Sots realism.
Arkady Plastov, "Collective Farm Celebration," 1937, oil on canvas
Ironically, Arkady Plastov (1893-1972) painted Collective Farm Celebration (1937) during Russia’s years of famine. His painting depicted a world of abundance; it shows happy collective farmers around a table laden with food and drink; above them a banner reads, “Life has become better, life has become merrier.” Like the films of those years, works of fine art were expected to convince the downtrodden inhabitants of poor collective farms that life was changing for the better and that happiness was just around the corner. Plastov devoted most of his life’s work to painting peasant life from his village of Prislonikh. Unlike Yablonskaya’s Bread, Plastov paints a more humble scene of mismatched outfits worn by real country folk. “Plastov’s works did not always correspond to the people’s understanding of what the “ideal” Socialist Realist painting ought to look like. The peasants he depicted belonged to the traditional world of the Russian countryside, who were not entirely suited to the tasks of building a collective farm.”3
Arkady Plastov, "Haymaking," 1945, oil on canvas
As Plastov’s work developed he was able to bring together impressionist traditions and the genre-based art of the Wanderers. In his painting, Haymaking (1945), Plastov paints the abundant crops of the summer of 1945 with a plein air type of lighting. The artist has combined flowers and grasses that blossom during different times of the year, as if to provide the viewer with a clue that something is wrong here. The painting depicts two old men, a woman and a teenage boy. The men of this time period have all left to go to war, thus Haymaking is depicting their absence. This painting is not intended to be a joyful kolkhoz, instead these people are the salt of the earth, who carry on no matter the circumstances.
Alexander Gerasimov, "Joseph Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov in the Kremlin,” 1938, oil on canvas
Paintings of the Soviet Regime
Joseph Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov in the Kremlin (1939) by Alexander Gerasimov (1881-1963) set the canons for the style of Socialist Realism. In this painting the two figures are painted on a similar scale to the large towers of the Kremlin wall. The result turns the painting into a fantastical vision of the two leaders. Choosing a moment when the weather is clearing after a bad storm, Gerasimov explains, “I endeavored to use the picture’s air space to express a tense, disquieting spring day when a storm had already passed.”4 It is interesting to note that in Soviet paintings of this period, Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov (1881-1969) are a constant pair. The reason for this is that Voroshilov took an active role in recommending artists for key commissions and in doing so secured his image in their paintings. Gerasimov must have been very good at politics because for more than twenty years he held posts in the USSR Academy of Arts and remained an active fighter for the principles of Soviet Realism and an opponent of all deviations of the official doctrine. For an entire generation of artists and lovers of painting Gerasimov personified the totalitarian regime in art.
Alexander Gerasimov, "Hymn to October," 1942, oil on canvas
On June 22, 1941 artistic life forever changed when Russia entered into World War II after being attacked by Germany. During this time Russian propaganda art was at its height and artists painted subject matter that focused on national pride and the new heroes of war. Stalin developed what became known as a "personality cult". Artists painted pictures glorifying Stalin and it was not unusual for Stalin to be in a white suit so that he stood out from the crowd. He gained the nickname "Uncle Joe" which was an attempt to develop an image of a kind, homely man who was the “father” of all Russians. Those who wrote poems and novels had to do the same – write about Stalin in a manner which gloried him. Some artists and authors were so depressed by all this that they committed suicide rather than do what the state ordered them to do. Many others tried to leave the country. Hymn to October (1942) by Alexander Gerasimov is a good example of the paintings of Stalin during this period. The painting became an iconic image symbolizing the future victory of the Soviet Union at a time when the outcome of the war was still uncertain.
Sergey Gerasimov, “Mother of a Partisan,” 1943, oil on canvas
The theme of tragedy was very rare in Soviet Realism; images of war painted while battles were still raging at the front were expected to encourage and uplift the rest of the nation. Sergey Gerasimov (1885-1964) - no relation to Alexander Gerasimov – was one artist of this period who dared to take risks with his work. A student of the impressionist painter Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939), S. Gerasimov taught at the state art school Vkhutemas in the 1920s, where he designed posters and painted works sympathetic to Lenin’s new Communist regime. One of his most famous paintings, Mother of a Partisan (1943), was extremely popular for about three years after it was painted, because of its heroic expression of national identity. S. Gerasimov gives an extra patriotic significance to motherhood during a time when Russian birthrates and population were falling. He paints a tough peasant mother confronting a Nazi officer who is about to kill her son. S. Gerasimov recreates Mother Russia as a Soviet woman, who is a peasant with no shoes. At one point he was even asked to “pretty” her up. By 1949 S. Gerasimov was publicly criticized for the “impressionism” in this work and he felt obliged to repaint his most famous war work, hence there are two versions of this work. S. Gerasimov was labeled as a liberal despite painting the approved themes of Soviet Realism throughout Stalin’s lifetime. He lost his position as the head of the Russian Artists’ Union to Alexander Gerasimov. With the death of Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), S. Gerasimov was reinstated as the head of the Russian Artists’ Union, a position he held until his death.
Alexander Laktionov, “Letter from the Front,” 1947, oil on canvas
In Letter from the Front (1947) the artist, Alexander Laktionov (1910-1972), depicts a soldier who has brought good news to the mother and siblings of his brother-in-arms, who is not yet back from the war. Though this appears to be the type of happy painting that would have been approved by Soviet authorities, the painting faced strong criticism when first exhibited. The Committee for Artistic Affairs was appalled by the awful condition of the porch floor and the clothing worn by the mother character. The reality of the situation was that Laktionov did not have a studio and the only place where he could fit such a large canvas was the porch he has depicted in his painting that was part of his family’s communal flat. He had friends and family pose for him all summer long, the mother in the painting was his aunt. The painting became very popular among the public, eventually forcing the Central Committee to exhibit it in a prominent position at the New Tretyakov Gallery and to award it the State Stalin Prize of the first degree.
Mikhail Nesterov, “The Korin Brothers,” 1930, oil on canvas
Portraiture and Soviet Realism
There were two artists, Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) and Pavel Korin (1892-1967), who painted soulful portraits of writers, artists and philosophers. The first half of Nesterov’s career was spent painting religious paintings, but once Stalin came into power these types of paintings were banned. The second half of his career was spent painting portraits of Soviet cultural figures from his own social circle, people who shared his view on life. These were people who valued human life and were kindred spirits to him, not people who were part of the new Soviet intelligentsia. A number of Nesterov’s friends were expulsed from Russia, including the acclaimed Russian philosophers Sergei Bulgakov and Ivan Ilyin, whose portraits he had painted. A priest, Pavel Florensky, whom Nesterov also painted, was imprisoned and executed in the late 1930s. In 1938, Nesterov’s daughter Olga was arrested, along with the law professor Victor Shreter. She was released from the labor camps in 1941 after her father, then a Stalin Prize winner, and his famous friends, pulled some strings. In 1925, Nesterov himself spent several months in a Moscow prison. In his painting The Korin Brothers (1930), Nesterov paints the famous artist Pavel and his brother Alexander, who restored paintings. He has painted the brothers in their large attic studio, with a plaster frieze from the Parthenon on the wall. The brothers salvaged a number of copies of statues and artifacts from the Russian schools during a period when the avant-garde artists were throwing them into the scrap heap. Pavel, who is shown in profile, is holding an antique vase which becomes the center of the composition. Nesterov uses this focal point to describe the personality of the two brothers, one lost in deep thought while the other is looking on in a more carefree manner. Nesterov wrote about this portrait, “They are a rare breed that is dying out, and is perhaps doomed to total extinction . . . I shall never grow tired of admiring… their moral and spiritual characteristics.” 5
Pavel Korin, "Portrait of Maxim Gorky," 1932, oil on canvas
Nesterov played a key role in influencing Pavel Korin’s artistic interests, and in fact the two worked side by side for many years. Unlike most of the artists of this period, both Nesterov and Korin had the courage of their convictions to follow their own artistic voice. The famous writer Maxim Gorky (1869-1936) sought out Korin to paint his portrait. Gorky was responsible for securing the Korin brothers’ large studio and for their travels throughout Europe. Korin traveled to Gorky’s dacha in Sorrento in the spring of 1932, where he modeled for his portrait in a glass-walled veranda for ninety minutes a day. Korin paints Gorky as a towering figure at the end of his life with the Naples bay in the background. It is said that Gorky liked the portrait very much because it captured his mood and feelings of disappointment at how the Soviet government had turned out.
Mikhail Chepik, “Flowers to Stalin,” 1951, oil on canvas
The Height of Soviet Realism
The height of Soviet Realism lasted from 1946 until Stalin’s death in 1953. After Stalin’s death the tide of Soviet Realism started to go out quickly. In 1957 the first Russian Congress of Soviet artists took place in Moscow and in 1960 the Russian Union of Artists was formed. These two events influenced greater experimentation among artists and in the Russian schools. The paintings of “Uncle Joe” and the Soviet elite started to disappear from the museum walls as if they were an embarrassment and didn’t reappear until very recently. The Institute of Russian Realist Art (IRRA) opened in December 2011 displaying an entire floor of Soviet art. In 2014 the New Tretyakov Gallery started building up its Soviet Realism collection. In the last few years the curators of these museums have just begun to see the value in telling the story of this period of art once again in Russia.
1. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 150.
2. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 160.
3. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 174.
4. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 164.
5. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 155.
About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.
Cathy Locke’s artwork – www.cathylocke.com