According to Wolfgang Holz,1 Socialist Realism was the manifestation of a particular myth-making and allegorical style of art. To illustrate his view, he takes four works and analyses them for thematic content.
His first example is The Shot-Putter (1933), by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971). In his words, the work shows:
a sportswoman dressed in a white jersey, bearing the letter ‘D’, an abbreviation and symbol for the Moscow sports club Dinamo. … She also wears red shorts. In her right hand, she holds the metal ball. In the left corner of the background a zeppelin hovers almost casually in an illuminated sky.
Holz points out the alliteration of ‘devushka‘ (girl), ‘dirizhabl‘ (zeppelin), and ‘dinamo‘ into that letter D, to condense the New Socialist Person into a machine-body, ‘inside which soul and physical body bear the dynamic tempo of the organised society.’ But for all the supposed equality of women and men in Soviet times, there was an undercurrent of gender repression: even in this superior socialist creature, for a woman with a physical masculine strength, her attributes of feminity are paramount: the broad hips, thick thighs and full breasts, and soft physiognomy.
The next example is Higher and Higher (1934) by Serafima Ryangina (1891-1955). This shows a Socialist couple at work at an electric pylon. They are both in work clothes a few hundred feet above the ground, and carry metal ropes and pincers.
The man is looking intensely into the woman’s face, and she herself is staring towards some point near the top of the pylon. Both faces are brightly illuminated by the sun, and their hair is blown by the wind in order to indicate the movement of their actions as well as the pathos of their deeds. The couple’s movement upwards is encouraged pictorially by the dynamic diagonal of the electric pylon that cuts right through the image.
This is an obvious celebration of the progress in the USSR’s second five year plan. Holz interprets this as an “oscillation between the ‘being’ of present reality and the ‘will be’ of collective production targets.” The woman appears to be gazing towards the fulfilment of the plan’s ambitions and the future happiness that might stem from it. Equally, from a vantage point of the ‘couple-constellation’ at the centre of the canvas, the viewer is asked to believe that Soviet society is about to reconstruct paradise on earth, an utopia in which Adam and Eve will walk around in overalls and carry screwdrivers.
According to Joanna Pitman2, both Samokhvalov and Ryangina’s women are archetypes (gorgeous blondes, to boot!) who work tirelessly under sunny skies, bursting with health, to tame the physical or geographical wilderness. This ideal did not pass without criticism even by Soviet apparatchiks: the newspaper Izvestia decried its “chocolate-box sweetness” that made the building of socialism look like an afternoon’s outing.
Holz moves onto New Moscow (1937) by Yuri Pimenov (1903-1977):
a street scene in the centre of Moscow, near the Bolshoi Theatre and Sverdlov Square. In the foreground, a woman is steering a convertible along a boulevard-like prospect towards the House of Trade Unions (Dom Soyuzov), depicted in bright red colours. Pimenov’s perspective is that of a viewer seated in the rear of the car, watching busy street life – black limousines, pedestrians and red trolley-buses … the monumental architecture of the new Moscow.
Besides the repetition of the colour red (which we saw in the previous two paintings as well – also observe the red carnation on the left of the windscreen), there is another identical dynamic at play – that of modernity and striving towards a socialist paradise. The intent here was to portray the Soviet future as modern as New York (with its similarly represented flappers and high-society women).3 As the woman moves from classical to neo-classical to Stalinist architectures, the distance she covers signifies the distance covered by her society since the Revolution.
Holz’s last example is Collective Farm Festival of 1937, by Arkadi Plastov (1893-1972), who created this during the brutal collectivisation of farmers in Stalinist times. Given that millions died in the drive, this painting in the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) style might reek of triumphalist myth making; yet many people at that time believed in miracles that in the end became reality.
Plastov depicts cheerful peasants who are eating from tables full of food, dancing, playing the balalaika and talking. … it harmoniously unites children, youths, young men and women as well as a group of stariki or old men, seated next to the samovar.
Again we have the occurrence of the colour red – in the star and the banners, the red woman and the tomatoes. This time, the iconography is towards medieval religious painting, with the heavenly placement of Stalin and the earthly location of the peasants, and also represents a ‘quasi-feudal’ pyramidal structure in Soviet society that Stalin himself proposed in 1931 with himself at the top and happy lumpen elements beneath. And again we have a diagonal thrust in the painting, which serves to connect the “red of Soviet ideology (red star, banners) with the sensual reds of food and vibrant felinity, again mixing up political meanings with popular ones, rendering an elitist ideology attractive and familiar to the mass viewer“.
- Wolfgang Holz, ‘Allegory and iconography in Socialist Realist painting’ in M. C. Bown and Brandon Taylor (eds), Art of the Soviets: Painting, sculpture and architecture in a one-party state, 1917-1992., Manchester University Press, 1993.
- Joanna Pitman, On Blondes, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008.
- Stephen Pain, “Russian and Soviet Art: Levitan and Pimenov“, Escape into Life.