Socialist realism: The History of Russian art in 15 paintings. PART I
After the perestroika in the mid 70s, the Soviet ways were wryly criticized, the paintings, which only recently were considered to be model, mocked and laughed at and their painters stigmatized as the “voice of the blood-thirsty regime.”
It is remarkable how artists took such eager criticism. For instance, Vladimir Gremitsky who painted the world-famous portraits of Soviet leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, “would hit the roof each time he heard the word ‘socialist,’” his son Alexander said. “So, I’m a social realist,” he would spurt out, “And Velasquez is a late feudal one, and Rembrandt is an early capitalist one, right? Nonsense! Total rubbish! Stop pinning labels. You say we painted on orders. And you think Velazquez fooled around the town with his easel and – bam! – The Pope right in his way. And he was like ‘hey, what a good model to paint. I’ll totally do without any royalties, because I’m a free artist.”
There are many ways to treat social realism. But one can’t deny that, despite its political and social context, it was a great school of art, the best realism art school of the 20th century.
“I took after Repin in his attitude to art, in his love and serious approach towards creativity as the métier for life.”
“Oh, how lavish and boring is his life! You stumble across Lenin’s portraits of all colors and sizes, big and small, hanging all around the hall, while the execution of Baku commissars haunts you in the dining room, which he uses as his studio… Brodsky is very nice, though. To live a good, prosperous life and afford buying paintings you evidently have to draw executions and craft Lenins, Lenins, Lenins… Again, a petty bourgeois who is trying to protect his right to a petty bourgeois life, hiding behind an alien psychology at all times…
I thought about that slender, graceful, young artist, whose portraits and panel pictures used to have such unmatchable music to them. His talent vanished for good, together with his wisp waist and pale complexion.”
Kornei Tschukovsky, a writer
“Brodsky’s Soviet-era works showed deep, avant-guard ideological traits. Brodsky encompassed Soviet art as a realist painter, who dedicated his entire life to revolution and whose works reflected real revolutionary events and portrayed outstanding Bolshevik and Soviet leaders.”
An extract from the artist’s biography, 1956
“I call Samokhvalov an outstanding artist because his artistic gift is of universal nature. It transcends even the existing variety of fine arts, in which he’s proven himself as a creative artist whose works include many great easel paintings, wonderful illustrations, statuettes and remarkable theatre works. Might be, this universality allowed him to create his own style as a sort of unique concept that pervaded all his works. You can immediately recognize Samokhvalov’s hand in drawings, and paintings, and sculptures, and decorative patterns, in everything he ever bestowed his creativity upon.”
Yevgeny Kibrik, a member of the academy and a Soviet People’s Artist
“I was haunted by the idea of class resistance, by the desire to portray the ever burning class struggle. The White Movement is a sort of burl on the historic fabric, a ragtag of former tsarist officers, uniform-clad profiteers, bandits and looters. What a dull contrast they were to our military commissars, communists, ideological beacons and guardians of their socialist fatherland and the working people. I perceived it as the main goal of my art to catch and highlight this contrast.”
In 1934, Mitrofan Grekov travelled to Yevpatoria, while he was still working on the last paintings of his big series dedicated to the history of the Russian Civil War.
A clear, spotless sky, a bright, azure sea, and a fresh green, spring steppe fascinated the painter. “This place is so strikingly picturesque,” Mitrofan Grekov was saying to his niece when it suddenly dawned on him. “May I be damned, it’s such a lucky finding, this picturesque landscape!” he exclaimed. Since then the painter got restless. He spent all his time in the countryside, under the vast steppe skies and scorching sun, painting Yevpatorian boys.
“Once, when Uncle Misha came back with a study,” his niece, Tatiana Grekova said, “we wanted to scold him for having so little rest. But he cut us short saying, ‘But you don’t understand! I’ve found my trumpeters here!’” Soon after returning back to Moscow, Mitrofan Grekov created his famous Trumpeters of the First Cavalry, the second after his initial attempt in Novocherkassk. But how different it was from the work he painted seven years before. “It’s only in Yevpatoria that I finally realized how to paint them,” the artist confessed years later. Tatiana Grekova said that the painting she saw among his earlier works was “wonderful, radiant as the sun and breathing with a breeze.” The painting features the head squad of the First Cavalry riding across a sunlit spring steppe. A group of regimental musicians are towering against the backdrop of a blue sky with their glittering trumpets. An embattled red flag is fluttering in the wind as a sign of happiness and victory.
As recalled by Tatiana Grekova, the artist’s niece
“None of my pictures was painted without my checking for a thousandth time, what I was going to paint; that this is the truth and only the truth, and it cannot be the other way around.”
“Father took the war hard. A just, holy anger made his blood boil. And these feelings were depicted in the painting ‘A Fascist Flew Past’. One day my father painted an autumn landscape. And this theme had touched him so much, that I saw tears in his eyes. When we returned home, my father immediately drew a sketch of the future picture. He started a painful collection of material. Village boys helped him. But try as they might, nobody could fall on the grass the way father wanted him to. Finally, a small boy stumbled somewhat awkwardly and stretched out on the dry grass. ‘Stop, stop!’, my father cried.
Seven days later, the picture was finished. Its foundation was laid down by that first autumn landscape that has so deeply moved my father...”
Nikolay Plastov, the son of the artist
“In 1942-1943 I painted the triptych Alexander Nevsky. I was worked on it during the hard years of the war, trying to depict the rebellious spirit of our people, who rose to their full gigantic height.”
The Alexander Nevsky triptych is the most famous work of the master. The image created by P. D. Korin possessed such a dramatic impact that reproductions of it graced front dugouts and front-line newspapers. A huge copy of the picture, painted by a group of soldiers storming Ancient Novgorod, was placed at the entrance to the city. A story has lived up to our days that there were many artists among the soldiers in Veliky Novgorod. They decided to make a life-size replica of the painting by P.D. Korin. They gathered canvas bags, sewed them together and painted a portrait of A. Nevsky. The work was displayed on those days, when Veliky Novgorod was liberated from the Nazis. It produced a deep impression on the departing soldiers. It seemed as though the Prince of Novgorod Alexander Nevsky himself is seeing the soldiers off to a battle with the Nazis, looking at them from above, from heaven, as their patron and protector.
“A comparison of the skill of a painter with the skill of a composer can well be applied to Gerasimov. Of all the Soviet painters he's the most musical one. His palette sounds. You cannot pass by without noticing it. It conquers your attention entirely. You peer at the canvas, and then you notice the way individual sounds and colors create musically picturesque phrases that are transformed into a harmonious, melodious composition.
As a student of Korovin and S. Ivanov, he skillfully acquired his teachers’ palette, their painting techniques and colours, while continuing to study color and light in painting.”
Lion Warsawsky, art historian and art critic