Socialist realism in Minneapolis

By chance less than two weeks after visiting the Royal Academy’s exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 I visited the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. The message of the Royal Academy exhibition was that Russian art flourished between the revolution and 1932 and then died when Stalin insisted on Socialist Realism and exterminated many of the artists. The Minneapolis museum, in contrast, celebrated Socialist Realism pictures of children.


“Celebrate” is not the right word in that the exhibition does make clear that the artists had to show healthy, sporty, hardworking children being turned into good communists. But “celebrate” is the right word in that many of the pictures were good–not ground-breaking and original but good to look at, clearly influenced by Impressiinism; I’d be more than happy to have many of them on my wall. I’d been led by the Royal Academy exhibition to expect drab, lifeless pictures. But they weren’t. Many of them may have been “lies” in that they were hiding the hunger and terror of the Stalin years, but they were filled with colour and well painted and composed.


I kept looking at the dates of the pictures, and I saw only one from before 1932. Many were painted during Stalin’s rule, and the rest came from the years of Khrushchev’s “thaw” and Brezhnev’s rule. None were from after Glasnost. I read too about the artists, and many of them held positions in the artists’ unions created by the government; none were imprisoned, tortured, or shot like many of the artists in the Royal Academy exhibition. They “towed the line,” as most of us would have done, but I didn’t detect them kicking against the system, something I think I hear in Shostakovich’s music.

Although many of the children looked serious rather than smiling (and many of them reading books or studying), I saw only two pictures that might be construed as negative. One showed a typical strong and muscular but attractive woman holding a child who could possibly have been dead. But I saw that the picture was painted during the war and could have had the message that Russian mothers remained strong even if their children were killed. (Downstairs the museum had a bleak exhibition of the horrors of the Leningrad siege. The image that sticks in my head were of corpses bund up like parcels being hauled through the snow on sledges.)

The other picture was undoubtedly negative, showing an alcoholic father slumped on a table, a weeping mother, and a boy pulled between the two. It was painted in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death–and perhaps it was testing Khrushchev’s thaw, as some artists undoubtedly did.

But my main impression was that it was entirely possible to paint strong and attractive pictures under a harsh regime. Creativity did not die in 1932, rather it was tightly channeled.


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