Concerning Socialist Realism: Recent Publications on Russian Art

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Concerning Socialist Realism:

Recent Publications on Russian Art

Marek Bartelik Matthew Cullerne Bown. Socialist Realist

Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 506 pp., 184 color ills., 346 b/w. $75.

Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko, eds. Socialist Realism without Shores. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. 370 PP., b/w ills. S 59. 9 @, $ 19. 95 paper.

JoAnn Wypijewski, ed. Pointing by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art. New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1997. 205 PP., many color ills. $50.

Alla Rosenfeld, ed. Defining Russian Graphic Arts: From Diaghilev to St", 1898-1934. Exh. cat. Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, 1999. 270 PP., 74 color ills., 225 b/w. $55.

Exh. schedule: Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, March 28June 30, 1999.

When socialist realism was imposed on Russian artists and writers in the early 1930s, a special committee headed by Joseph Stalin carefully crafted its definition. It was then headlined in the Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Newspaper) on May 25, 1932, as "honesty and truthfulness of revolutionary, socialist realism." Key figures within the Stalinist cultural establishment officially endorsed the new aesthetic program during the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, where Isaac Babel delivered his famous speech, "Our Great Enemy-Trite Vulgarity." Babel was reported to say: "I think that, as [Maxim] Gorky said yesterday, Sobolev's words, 'we have everything,' should be written on our flag. The Party and the government have given us everything, depriving us only of one privilege-that of writing badly."1 Then, as if predicting his own fate, Babel declared himself a "past master of that [silent] art." He soon perished during the Stalinist purges, while socialist realism became the Soviet Union's sole official aesthetic.

Until recently, standard Western accounts of Russian art have presented socialist realism in art as a cultural coup d'etat that reversed the tide of Russian modernism by forcefully imposing on Russian artists a politically motivated, aesthetically stale, and totalitarian-minded art that went against progressive artistic currents in the West.2 As such, it was marginalized from the very first years of its institutionalization until the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late ig8os. But today, as Russia struggles to define its new and old identities, socialist realism has reemerged, this time not as a vital artistic program, but as an historic formation to be critically reevaluated. As Thomas Lahusen has observed, with the emergence of a new Russia, socialist realism has often been perceived as a Russian heritage that "truthfully represents the Soviet past,"3 with a dual stress on pravdivost (truthfulness) in political and artistic terms.

Matthew Cullerne Bown's Socialist Realist Painting traces the origins of Soviet socialist realism back to the mid-nineteenth century, focusing first on artistic, then political truthfulness.4 The author discusses nineteenth-century realism, with its premise that art should be popular, accessible, and socially obligated, as it was prescribed by such writers and critics as Vissarion Belienski and Nicolai Chernyshevski and practiced mainly by the Comradeship of Itinerant Art Exhibitions, who were better known by their later Russian name Peredvizhniki. Ilya Repin, a great master of "Russian reality" was the group's most famous member and the sole artist Stalin truly admired. Bown credits Anatoli Lunacharski and Aleksandr Bogdanov for playing crucial roles in laying the groundwork for socialist realism through their influential publications from before and after the October Revolution, viewing them as integrated "organically and seamlessly into the discourse around Soviet art" (46)_ Reexamining the influence of key political figures on the development of socialist realism, and on the demise of other styles in Russia, Bown also stresses the importance of Leon Trotsky, Georgi Plekhanov, Aleksandr Bogdanov, and Nikolai Bakhurin in helping to revive realist painting. …