Sergei Gerasimov. Kolkhoz Holiday. 1937 Photo by E. Kogan / RIA Novosti; State Tretyakov Gallery

Cool or cold? – Pop Art vs Socialist Realism

An exhibition of art in the Berlin Gropius Bau Museum has led to two reviews in the Western media. One in the New York Times (NYT) and the other in the Forbes Magazine (FM). The exhibition is based on the theme ‘cool and cold’ and includes artworks from the cold war period both western and Soviet. We are sure that the reader has already worked out where the organisers are going with this, Western art = cool and Soviet art = cold.

The narrative of the exhibition is fairly easy to read as is that of the two reviews; that Western artforms are bold and colourful, inspiring and challenging while drab and dreary Soviet art in the officially dictated style of Socialist realism has nothing to say because the artists were not free to express themselves, at least not until the latter days of the Soviet Union when brave underground artists dared to paint in the Western styles of Pop art, abstract expressionism, etc!

We shall let the NYT review speak “The exhibition opens with an obvious juxtaposition: Andy Warhol’s iconic “Elvis Presley (Single Elvis)” from 1964, with the singer wielding a gun and dressed as a cowboy, hangs near an early 1980s portrait of Vladimir Lenin by Russian artist Dmitry Nalbandyan, which shows the Soviet leader in his library. Both are clichés, but they make viewers think about their own preconceptions.”

Three words that jump at the reader from that are; “Both are cliches”! What does this mean? Elvis was a drug addicted singer/actor, not a cowboy (the picture referred to is a still from a film he starred in that has been simplified, nothing more; call it a cliché if you will. The portrait of Lenin, however, is a realistic painting of a revolutionary genius who did sit in libraries, could half fill them with his own written works, and was the ideological leader not only of the masses of Soviet people but also of many more advanced workers around the world,  with his writings still fresh and relevant today.

Where is the cliché?

If the reader consults Wikipedia (an online dictionary which speaks of much but tells little of use) on the subject of Socialist realism you will be told that it “was usually devoid of complex artistic meaning or interpretation.” This is the starting point of all bourgeois art critics and the two reviews we are looking at do not stray from this road. Anyone in the least acquainted with Soviet posters and paintings could explain both the excellence of the artwork and the meanings involved, and the paintings whether in frames or bedecking the walls of underground stations are no less beautiful and understandable.

Another cliche that is raised ad nauseum by western art critics is the fact that artists in the USSR were basically enslaved by the communist leadership to only work within tight guidelines and again, nothing could be further from the truth. Following the revolution when workers worked extra hours, sometimes on limited rations or gave a day’s work at no pay for the state, working in poor conditions to help bring their state up to the position where it could defend itself and look after its people’s health and education, artists and writer’s co-operatives wanted to know what they could do to help promote their revolution.

In many conferences of those who worked in the general arts across the USSR the position of Socialist realism was debated and pushed as the best way to help inspire Soviet workers about what they were striving for and what they needed to do but it was also to explain to workers across the world just what the new society was about, its struggles and amazing successes. Socialist Realism is not just about painting, it is part of every novel, poem and play that was produced in that era, musicians, film makers and dance troupes understood and believed that it was how they also played their part in the revolution. There were some Soviet Avant-gardists who also took part in those collective discussions and who agreed that their ideas and art would be better ploughed into wallpaper and fabric patterns, advertising, general design and architecture. That work was also an enrichment of the Soviet system as a whole and the lives of all Soviet citizens.

But let the NYT reviewer speak again; “Aleksandr Ishin’s triptych “Sunday” shows accordion players entertaining a group of dancers in a Soviet village, while Tom Wesselmann’s 1965 “Landscape No. 4” shows a smiling couple in a sedan crossing a vast landscape. Again and again – in the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol of the United States, and Igor Popov, Sarkis Muradyan and Vladimir Mikita of the Soviet Union – the Eastern world seems dark, brooding and woody; the western, shiny, colourful and manufactured.” The assumption being made for us that Soviet society was backward, sombre and archaic, whilst that of the USA was modern, hopeful and vibrant.

If there is an element of acknowledging the classical heritage we recognise in Socialist Realist painting, we cannot argue with that; the Leninist method of carrying along the positive products of bourgeois-aristocratic culture whilst discarding all that was rotten about it allowed artists to take ownership of what we would term ‘fine’ art, developing it to meet the needs of the proletarian society.

The similarity which the NYT reviewer may see between a Soviet village scene and, for example, a Pieter Breugel painting of a Flemish village festival, goes beyond the superficial rural trappings too – As the meanings, proverbs, stories and messages contained in each would be easily discernible to their respective audiences, rather than requiring pontification from elitist art critics to be imbued with meaning and value, as we find with Western Pop Art of the period in question.

It must never be forgotten that it was the CIA not rebellious American youth who developed and promoted pop art etc as an answer to Socialist Realism, it was they who lined up the eager art critics to wax lyrical about hidden deep meanings within the paint splatters (abstract expressionism if you will) of Pollock and co. The US state promoted the idea then that these artists were somehow anti-state, and that this in turn proved the greatness of the imperialist state that allowed the expression of these things while pointing at the rich art of the Soviet Union, and decrying it as proof that the Soviet state must be ultra-authoritarian as they had no such rubbish!

The words and intent of the Forbes review contains more of the same anti-soviet, Russophobic vitriol, except they do drop in one little gem when they reveal “President Eisenhower complained to Premier Khrushchev’s deputy that much of the art in America was “unintelligible to the average eye”. Disparaging the elitism of movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Eisenhower expressed a preference for the Soviet paintings, and averred that “the [artistic] opinion of the masses would probably be the same both in the Soviet Union and in the United States.”

We invite our readers to look further into the subject of Soviet art and culture through the following materials:

Soviet Ballet – Dancing the Heritage of Humanism

Andrei Zhdanov – On the Principles underlying Soviet Literature and Art

Vijay Prashad review – On Proletarian Culture