The major theme auction ‘The socialist dream’ is featuring at Lauritz.com Hamburg from 16 to 30 May 2013, with 41 paintings from the 1960s to 1980s from the last conservative period of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev. The paintings, most of which are large in scale, originate from a Ukrainian-Italian private collection compiled over a period of 13 years from various former Soviet republics.
In 1932 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union established guidelines for the production of literature, visual art and music, locking art in the USSR into a kind of straightjacket for the next 50 years. In 1934, the state established four rules governing how art should be, and the resulting style now comes under the label ‘socialist realism’:
1. Proletarian – Relevant and easy for the workers to grasp
2. Typical – Scenes from everyday life
3. Realistic – Representative
4. Party-compliant – Supportive of the goals of the state and party
Socialist realism dominated Soviet art until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While under Stalin the rules were applied with full force, constraints loosened under Khrushchev after 1953. The period from the late 1950s until the early 1960s was also known as the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’, which meant greater freedoms in many areas of life. But this all came to an end when a conservative regime, this time under Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1981), once again dominated art and culture.
Paintings from this era illustrate familiar themes of the Communist dream. They built upon the styles of the 19th century – such as academic art, Realism and to a certain extent also Impressionism – but the subjects were treated according to party ideology. Heroic workers building a better world together and, for example in the painting by Nikolaj Grigorevich Afans’ev (1986), Lenin, dressed like an ordinary worker over his white shirt, providing reconstruction aid against the background of the Kremlin, followed enthusiastically by representatives of various working classes. Other popular themes were great achievements and national heroes of the Soviet Union. The painting ‘Gagarin and Tereshkova’ (1974) by Nikolaj Dorofeevich Gorshkov shows the two Soviet heroes Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova who became famous at the beginning of the 1960s as the first human and the first woman in space. Gagarin is checking his watch while a rocket awaits lift-off behind a panoramic window. Cheerful farm labourers, milkmaids and vineyard workers too were portrayed in an image of the Soviet Union that never really existed. Colourful, uncritical and with the occasional element from folklore, weddings and festivals also illustrated a carefree present. Sometimes, though, the artists did manage to let an undertone of irony creep in to their art.
In socialist realism, an elevated monumentality was consciously sought after through simplification of colour and outline – and is also reflected in the large scale of the paintings. As part of a mass culture, similar to the mass culture behind advertising campaigns in the West, they pursued the goal of building a better world, but without the underlying commercial motives. Living conditions of the people and the artists in the Soviet Union at the time, though, provide a sharp contrast to the colourful illusory world depicted in these paintings. And the rough and simple canvases used bear only faint witness to a reality of constant cutbacks, scarcity and deprivation.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, museums and leading galleries exiled their pieces of socialist realism art to the storerooms. The unloved past was no longer welcome in the landscape of the 1990s, and was condemned and destroyed. The Western art market had lost all interest in Soviet art in favour of the Russian avant garde with its sky-rocketing prices. Several million dollars were being paid for paintings by Malevich or Kandinsky.
Since the start of the new millennium, interest in Soviet art has been experiencing a resurgence and international exhibitions once again dedicate themselves to the theme of socialist realism, and Socialist artworks are very much back in demand at major auctions. The Russian public has also long since developed a more differentiated perspective on the art of the Soviet era, as Anatoly Koroljov, political commentator at RIA Novosti puts it:
“The Russian public have learned a lot. (…) That the idea that ‘art belongs to the people’ is not so stupid. And that the claims that Lenin and Stalin are foreign to the west as art objects are not confirmed in practice, just like the cliché that nobody needs Soviet art anymore. Russia was much too quick to bury this major style, because the only crime of this style was that it served a great utopia. Now the gravestone has developed a crack and broken apart. This is the fate of eras: when their fiascos and achievements are not evaluated hysterically, but wisely.”
Until 30 May 2013, paintings by Nikolaj Dorofeevich Gorshkov, Nikolaj Grigorevich Afans’ev, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nesterov and Olga Genadevna Titova and many others will be at auction at Lauritz.com in Hamburg.