|Representational painting can be traced back centuries in Russian art. In the early 1700s, Peter the Great collected and brought to Russia paintings from his travels in Holland and Brussels. He purchased Rembrandts and countless other works. Soon his collection was so large it warranted the establishment of the first public gallery in Europe which opened in St. Petersburg and featured paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters. Czar Peter's affinity for collecting was carried beyond his reign. By the end of the 18th century, the Russian monarchy had the finest collection of representational paintings in Europe. Although the attention of Russia's aristocracy was focused on foreign artists, Russia's own artists continued to develop under a steadily increasing flow of Western influence.|
In the later half of the 19th century an in
digenous Russian Realism emerged. It was formed by a nationalist group, the Peredvizhniki, also known as the Wanderers or Itinerants. Leaders of this group can be considered ancestors of the Socialist Realists. Their goal was to take art to the people through traveling exhibitions. The Peredvizhniki painted stretches of Russian countryside for the first time and advanced genre and narrative painting among Russian artists. By creating art that was understandable and meaningful, the Peredvizhniki further popularized Realism throughout the country. Inherent in the art of the Peredvizhniki was the goal of advancing social conditions and stimulating national pride. These same goals of making art accessible to the masses and using it to communicate a Socialist message reappeared almost a century later in the formation of Socialist Realism. The influence of the Itinerants lasted from 1870 until 1980. In shaping Socialist Realism, Stalin and Lenin had only to manipulate what was already quite familiar.
| By the turn of the century a number of artists rejected the philosophy
and careful representational painting of the Peredvizhniki. Artists looked
again to the West and found inspiration in the revolutionary advancements
made by Cezanne
and in movements such as the Nabis,
and Symbolists. An era of experimentation followed as the effects of Cubism,German
Expressionism and Italian
Futurism were absorbed by Russian painters.
The years surrounding the 1917 Revolution were dominated by artistic turmoil. Numerous avant-garde groups vied for control of the cultural climate. By the 1920s, two movements dominated: Suprematism and Constructivism with Kazmir Malevich and Vladmir Tatlin at their centers. Both artists gained many followers and enjoyed immense fame. Their work is respected throughout the world and has been the subject of numerous exhibitions. The Revolution created passionate fervor among artists and from it came Russia's most exciting avant-garde developments. In addition to painting, the areas of graphic design and stage design were extremely popular and employed many artists.
In spite of the upheaval of the Revolution and Civil War there remained a strong underlying national conservatism. The Moscow-based group AKhRR, the Association of Arts of Revolutionary Russia, reflected the traditionalists response to the Revolution and Modernism. This group was the direct predecessor of Socialist Realism. Their goal was to document in a traditional Realist manner the achievements of the Red Army and to illustrate workers and peasants, the heroes of labor. They used an academic realist style in combination with loose Impressionistic style like Manet. The impressionist characteristics apparent in these paintings is the lack of acute detail, the passionate display of broad brushwork, lightened palettes, and a shift to rendering shapes and forms as naturally perceived in a glancing moment. Foreign influences were rejected by the group as they focused on creating a pure Russian art form that would devote itself to the cause of the Revolution.
In-fighting based on political and aesthetic differences and the emigration of many artists weakened the artist organizations and made their future vulnerable in the hands of the Communist government. The avant-garde climate challenged the sensibilities of xenophobic leaders. They soon recognized that a Realist style was needed to better control artistic output and to use as a powerful means of communicating the party agenda while eliciting socialist sympathy among the masses. In 1932, the Party Central Committee declared an end to factional fighting by dismantling all groups (including AKhRR) and declaring that all artists were to join in a single union. In 1934, greater attention was focused on the arts at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers at which the Secretary of the Communist party, Andrei Zhdanov, proclaimed Socialist Realsim as the approved artistic ideology. Socialist Realism was defined as "realist in form, inspired by socialist beliefs and nationalist in subject."
Because former leaders of AKhRR had already established a similar philosophy, they were appointed as the leaders of Socialist Realism. Some of these artists were once Itinerants and their leadership symbolized a continuation in Russian art of socially conscious and politically motivated art that was proletariat in nature.
Many artists found meaning in their new role and their lives were in many ways improved. The government provided union members studio space, supplies, and commissions for which artists would compete. Society held Soviet artists in high regard and their stipends surpassed those of other professions. The Russian government assumed the role of sole patron of the arts and now exerted control over artistic production. Government patronage is in no way uniquely Soviet in nature or history.
The Socialist Realism umbrella covers fifty years in one of the worlds largest countries. It was a shared vision of utopia that linked the nations artists more than any one artistic trend. Soviet artists did however follow the same progression from Realism to Impressionism to Modernism that occurred throughout the world, only with much interruption, fear and persecution. The wealth of creativity being discovered today celebrates the triumph of the artists' spirit and soul that could not be repressed. The stories told here are powerful statements about a society in transition, one that remains in transition as it struggles between recognition of its political past and its fight to join a modern democratic world.