Socialist realism – was a creative method, specifically invented, artificially modeled and thoroughly embedded into the artistic process of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (The Soviet Union was created in 1922 as a result of the so-called Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 and subsequent prolonged civil war).
The life of every nation flows like a river, sometimes changing its course. The process of changes is natural and harmonious but sometimes it can be forced. That is how dramatically the life of Ukraine was transformed throughout the life of its people. It had been especially harsh when Ukraine was part of the USSR, as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (1922-1991). This needs to be mentioned, because discussing Ukrainian fine art of socialist realism is not possible without at least a minimum of historical understanding.
The method of socialist realism was invented at the dawn of Soviet power by the daring and violent state makers, in particular – Vladimir Lenin and Anatoliy Lunacharsky and was further developed and refined by their associates. Following the utopian idea of the equality of all people, they have been creating a state of "new type" (which, as we recall, quickly turned into a totalitarian and essentially, slaveholding state) and they wondered about what propaganda methods could have the most effect. The mass media, at that time, was not quite so mass and the people were of quite little education. The press was not too commonly spread, the radio undergoing development, the telephone and telegraph were the main means of communication.
In a similar manner as with the paintings of the Orthodox churches, where frescos were served up as magnificent and beautiful decorations, the leaders of the proletariat decided to turn to the arts, particularly to the visual arts. One of the first important steps in this direction was the "Plan of monumental propaganda"(1918) that was very sagaciously created and implemented by Lenin. According to this theme, monuments were built to celebrate revolutionaries and a number of prominent cultural figures, during the most difficult, post revolutionary and starving years. This plan, in actual fact, put into life the idea that was expressed by Tommaso Campanella, in the "City of the Sun", written in 1602, about social upbringing and the education of people by means of monumental artistic images.
Putting this plan into affect, led to the creation, not only of sculptures (monuments), but also monumental murals, easel paintings, posters, graphics and, of course, cinema.
Lenin and Lunacharskiy were sufficiently progressive and charismatic people. Educated and far-sighted, they were well aware of the movement and progress necessity and the development throughout. Art was assigned a very important role in the life of the state. At first, they even supported the avant-garde movement. But this was only allowed in the first years of Soviet power. For a short period of time Ukraine became the leader in the avant-garde movement.
Later, the requirements for the artwork depicting real life were intensified and canonized. Such requirements were; to make the painting exact and absolutely realistic and to correspond to the exact historical revolution development and also to indispensably "coordinate with Marxism-Leninism ideas", "to involve workers in the construction of socialism" and “to claim a leading role for the Communist Party". With great enthusiasm many young talented artists, inspired by the high theoretical tasks of the revolution, took up the creative implementation of these ideals. However the avant-garde movement was rejected and subsequently moved from Ukraine and Russia to Europe. (Vassiliy Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky, to name a few). Some stayed.
One such artist who stayed was a Ukrainian artist with Polish roots, Kazimir Malevich. He held important managerial and creative positions in Moscow, wrote books and produced paintings, even exhibited abroad, until he was accused of spying for Germany, and imprisoned ... and came out from there in a major depression, which, probably, provoked his illness over the next few years and later his death. After being released from prison, he had to change completely the character of his creative work: in 1932 he worked on unfulfilled painting "Social city” (1932) and then he depicted mostly realistic character portraits. In 1933 severe illness began. In 1934 Malevich participated in the exhibition "Women in socialist construction" and died in 1935.
The creative method of socialist realism took time to form and was only completed in 1930 when the Unions of Soviet artists started to become organised. The Union of Soviet artists of Ukraine was founded in 1938, after 5 years of preliminary work and established in Kharkov in 1933 which was then the capital of the Ukrainian SSR.
It must be said that the, Union of Soviet artists of Ukraine like all the other republican unions lived a very lively and active life; it had artistic enterprises, creative houses and sanatoriums, exhibition areas, publishing and printing capacities and artists' studios. It also held meetings, conferences, exhibitions, organized and financed creative works, and among other things, provided members with free workshops and organised various trips.
Such works of art as monumental sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and posters regularly played the role of information and propaganda channels at that time, in a huge and very closed, (deprived of international information) state. Censorship was omnipresent and punitive; it started raging especially in the 1930s.
The understanding that in the concept of the creative socialist realism method, the main point was not in realism (artistic realism was chosen only as a form), and was not immediately understood. The essence was to realistically depict idea, utopia and ideal future as an accomplished fact. The fact had to convince, delight and attract. People were meant to strive to it after seeing on the painting the depiction of how it could be, how it should be, or where it very closely exists. Thus, it was not about the depiction of the reality in which they lived, but about the creation of a new, different, transformed reality.
At first, in 1920-30s, artists, writers and poets mythologized and romanticized the image and life of a new worker-peasants' state. The state was a monopolist and a very demanding customer. Other legitimate customers for artists-painters, sculptors, sculptors of monuments did not exist.
However, that client (the state) was well aware of the simple and effective rule and the state followed it; in order to get a quality product you need to create the right conditions. Therefore, the art of socialist realism emerged, blossomed and lingered on as whole and complete and at the same time diverse in its heart; a phenomenon that is a little more than 50 years of existence. The period of socialist realism became a fantastic period of the arts’ blossoming in the USSR, a special kind of Renaissance in terms of uplift, development and implementation of ideas and the attitude towards the artist and his art (in strictly limited and clearly defined frameworks).
Professional artists had confidence in their being of need for their work, for their personal involvement in the criticism of history creation, and for there being a higher purpose.
At the same time in the republic everything was done to ensure that the artists’ skill level was the highest. Artistic preparation was a thorough, systematic and excellent school. It has to be said that to a certain extent rather narrow specialization contributed to this; the choice was to become painters (monumental and easel), sculptors, graphic artists (easel or book) and theater artists.
There was a great demand for the professional artist. However, with the reservation. Professional artist was in demand; he was given to carry out government orders, only if in his art works he used a creative method of socialist realism. And if the artist, being social realist, was ideologically and politically active in social life and in his work, he was given many privileges in the closed off from the world, an austere country that was heading to the mysterious communism.
The artist that was creatively active and ideologically, psychologically harmonious with main and minor postulates and courses of states’ development would become the elite of society.
Over the decades a very slim and strong system, up to a certain time could even be called an unbreakable system, had been built. A young professional artist, graduated from art school in Kiev or Lviv (Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi) by coming into the artistic life of the country, would begin to participate in the city, regional, national and all-national art exhibitions. Five of these exhibitions would give the right to enter to the Union of Artists. But first, there was the Youth Association of Union of Artists - approximately from 25 to 35 years. Union of Artists of USSR was a special honor. If the candidate was accepted to the Union of Artists of Ukraine the membership to the Union of Artists of USSR was almost automatic (with rare exceptions). Membership card would be signed by the Chairman of the Board of "big union" – someone very well-known and recognized by Soviet artists’ authority.
The Union membership guaranteed many things. For example, the opportunity to be a freelancer, meaning, to work creatively and by this, not being considered a parasite and not to go to jail. Yes, that is right, a person not working at some plant in Soviet Union was considered to be a potential prisoner.
Creative art groups’ trips, as well as individual trips for the material gathering on selected theme enriched Ukrainian artists’ life and art creativity. Creative Houses were established in the most picturesque places of the USSR. There were two in Ukraine; one in the village Sednev in Chernihiv region and the other in small town Gursuf (Big Yalta) in Crimea. Big groups of artists would go there for two months. Painters, graphic artists, poster artists and artists of applied arts would more often unite into groups by the same interest in particular aims. All the right conditions for work were provided for the artists such as workshops, shops with art materials, meals and even wellness.
Such visits to Creative Houses were often organized in order to create artworks for the followed large exhibitions, devoted to the seminal events in the country’s history; to the Great Socialist Revolution anniversaries, to Congresses of the Communist Party and the Young Communist League and after, to the Victory in the Great Patriotic War anniversaries.
On the other hand, at the time, the government, propagandistic and the professional implementation of the dominated ideas and themes have always been above all praise. Composition, rhythm, coloration were strictly monitored by arts councils. The art was mainly narrative, very humanistic and addressed to the audience with the respect and confidence of being understood, seen and read through.
There were artists that, at first, announced themselves as true Soviet patriots, and then, during the so-called "thaw” turned to the national Ukrainian traditions, folk art, and thereby, evoked ostracism and rejection. They were deprived of work, persecuted and harassed. In order to remain true to themselves they have chosen to work as art teachers in schools, in the best case to teach in high schools. More then that, many were "hiding" by illustrating children's books; fairy tales and historical literature. Sometimes such artists even worked as janitors, in order to be employed and to have a shelter; otherwise they would end up in prison.
In 1985, when the course of the USSR had changed, the method of socialist realism was sharply questioned ... But the alternative was not offered by the state. The government, which earlier nurtured and cherished creative unions, which in turn "forged" skilled workers of highly creative and very beautiful implemented humanistic ideas, changed its course and ideology and finally, resigned. New government did not understand and did not realize what value it inherited.
Another unfortunate detail: the population of the country was not psychologically accustomed to the idea that every person can have works of art and any person can have it in his private ownership. In public buildings – yes, but in his own apartment... but where in apartment? The apartments were tiny and wages similarly miserable like in the USSR times. It took years for enlightened people to come along and appreciate the arts.
Now, a quarter of a century later "socialist realism" is on a "roll" with auction houses such as Christies Sotheby's and McDougall's and a whole raft of others, actually offering socialist realism art for sale. The Chinese are extremely active buyers along with the United States of course. We also look forward to seeing a dedicated Socialist Realism Gallery in London shortly.
We anticipate that Red Art Galleries shall also form an important role in the art of Socialist Realism.