‘Socialist Realist Painting’: Matthew Cullerne Bown

Matthew Cullerne Bown, Socialist Realist Painting. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. xvii + 506 pp. (75.00 Hardcover)

The art of soviet socialist realism like that of Fascist Germany, has been inextricably linked to to ideological (totalitarian), rather than aesthetic, considerations by scholars and critics. Both Russian and Western art historians have codified this connection to such an extent that almost any discussion of Soviet artists or their works invariably turns to the political and social implications of cultural events rather than a consideration of the art itself. In Socialist Realist Painting, Matthew Cullerne Bown attempts to reframe and to recontextualize the body of art which constitutes the Soviet experience outside of the traditional stereotype of socialist realism as the art of totalitarianism. This album is expansive in scope with 544 illustrations from a number of different sources; Bown chooses to interpret socialist realist art in its broadest context, including not only official portraiture and collective heroism but also landscapes and still-lifes. He also includes art from the 1920’s and from the post-Stalin era as an integral part of the movement. This variety of art for consideration is certainly in keeping with his underlying rationale: Soviet art is not merely a political tool but a reflection of the overall society and, as such, is the legitimate representation of the artistic experience in the Soviet Union.

Socialist Realist Painting can be seen as part of the continuing reassessment of Soviet literature and culture which began with Katerina Clark’s pioneering study of socialist realism, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) and which continued with Vladimir Paperny’s Kultura dva [Culture Two] (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985) and (despite Bown’s emphatic rejection) Boris Groys’ Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin [The Total Art of Stalinism] (Munich: C. Hanser, 1988 and in English by the Princeton University Press in 1992). It also a development in the evolutionof Bown’s own understanding of socialist realism, presenting a significant (as he himself admits) departure from his previous study Art under Stalin (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1991). By rejecting Stalinism and the stultifying strictures of the official apparatus as the focus of this study, Bown presents a panorama of artistic endeavor in a genre that has been previously characterized as stagnant and artificial. Just as the above-mentioned scholarly studies prompted a re-examination of art works which had previously been dismissed as beneath the notice of a cultured audience, the author in this book presents a broad range of art that warrants serious attention and has not, as of yet, received its due.

The book follows the chronological development of Soviet art from its pre-Revolutionary antecedents in iconography and 19th century Realism to its conclusion with the demise of state sponsored official art in 1991. In his discussion of each era, the author presents cultural, political, social, and philosophical contexts for the art under consideration, providing the reader with bases for aesthetic evaluation. The first chapter gives an overview of the connection between art and politics in the late 19th century which led in turn to the formation of socialist realism in the Soviet era. It also presents a discussion of the relationship between the Bolshevik movement, on the one hand, and futurism and other leftist movements which sprang up in the years immediately before the revolution, on the other. Beginning with 1917, Bown examines the relationship between art and public policy, providing the reader with a general history of artistic movements in Russia. As such, his book partially fills a gaping hole in Western art history: there are no reliable or comprehensive histories of socialist realist art in English.

All too often, the study of the art of the Soviet Union has beenlimited to a highly restricted (and often subjective) canon of artworks and artists that reflected, or so it was assumed, a bias against official art. Because of this rejection of the official, the picture we have of the artistic milieu of the Soviet Union is fragmented at best. In addition to a general discussion of the evolution of socialist realism, Bown touches upon specific problems within certain artistic genres, for example, the landscape, the portrait, or the nude. Unfortunately, these discussions are brief interludes in the historical narrative of the book. Bown’s interesting contrast of socialist realism under Stalin with that of Krushchev and Brezhnev provides a context for not only the official art of the 50’s and 60’s but also for the dissident movement as well.

Socialist Realist Painting is, perhaps, a misnomer for this book; the extensive history of Soviet art before the institution of socialist realism as the official art in 1932, and the loosening of strictures after the death of Stalin occupy more than two-thirds of the text. Illustrations by such artists as Yurii Annenkov, Aleksandr Denieka, Pavel Filonov, Boris Kustodiev, Kazimir Malevich, and Yurii Pimenov are, of course, vital to a description of Soviet art but do little to establish a link to the socialist realist aesthetic. For the student or the casual reader, the variety of visual material in this book fosters a general confusion as to what constitutes socialist realism, and what does not. The broadening of the definition of socialist realism leads to a certain blurring of terminology. Is socialist realism synonymous with Soviet art? Can a work be socialist realist and unofficial? Are landscapes and portraits actually socialist realist? Without a concrete definition, the reader is left with the feeling that the socialist realism is “Soviet” and vice versa. However, Bown does an excellent job of deflating the myth of the monotonous, gray uniformity of art under Stalin, providing the reader with numerous examples of works that are both official and stimulating.

Despite the generally solid analysis, Bown has a tendency toward hyperbole and overstatement. For instance, Bown states, “The Soviet futurists got their ideas from Russian revolutionaries such as Lunacharski, not vice versa. The facts do not really support the characterization of the avant-garde as the exclusive shapers of even early Soviet culture.” (xiii) Even if we grant the essential veracity of Bown’s contention that futurism was only one component in the formation of (early) Soviet culture, the complexity of the problem of the mutual influence between the avant-garde and Bolshevism, as well as the collaborative experimentation which led to the formation of the GAKhN, RAKhN, VKhUTEMAS, etc., resists such a generalization. In another curious, unsupported statement, Bown contends, “Š while acknowledging the genius of Ilya Kabakov among the nonconformist artists, we must surely conclude that Soviet Œofficial’ art outclasses the Œunofficial’ art.” (xvii) Despite Bown’s assurance to the contrary, it would seem that such a conclusion is hardly self-evident, and no concrete support for his point of view is presented in the text. These occasional lapses, while not grave, certainly tend to plant doubt in the mind of the reader as to the impartiality and rigor of the author.

Bown also presents a somewhat sketchy overview of the history of scholarship on the subject of Soviet art. By presenting only the Western reception of Soviet art, Bown implies that socialist realism and concurrent trends in the Soviet Union were unknown to attentive art historians in the United States and in Europe. Of course, the relative silence of Western art historians was more than offset by subsidized promotions of art and artists by the Soviet government as a means of propagandizing communism: touring exhibitions, translations of books and magazines, and installations at international fairs were common throughout the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. With the gradual improvement of the relations between the Soviet Union and the West during the 60’s, artistic culture in the Soviet Union also regained prominence in the West (with the added dimension of a rising interest in the Russian avant-garde). Although political considerations played a great part in the apparent dismissal of official Soviet art by the Western artistic establishment, aesthetic considerations also came into play; 20th century realist movements in general have not, in the West, enjoyed the critical approval or prominence given to experimental art. While there is no disputing the political bias of Western scholars against socialist realism, the overall environment of Western reception should be addressed in its context.

Perhaps a more serious problem with Bown’s study is the fact that the thesis of the book seems to be at odds with its format. A radical reassessment of the genre is resistant to the formal constraints of a survey. Is it possible to “prove” that socialist realism is more expansive and more significant while describing the various evolutionary forces and political pressures brought to bear on its aesthetic system? In a book as ambitious in scope as this one, there are inevitable shortcomings. It may be enough that the question is raised and not answered; as it is, the book challenges the preconceptions and misconceptions of the current state of scholarly work on the subject and points to fields of inquiry that must be investigated.

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