Art… Back in the U.S.S.R.

Soviet Nonconformist Art Pt. 1

After the insurrection during the October revolution of 1917 in what would become Soviet Russia, art also shifted in tone dramatically. As the Bolsheviks solidified their new form of government, so too would art move in a direction that was designed to emphasize the glory and appeal of the working class. Gone were the days of abstraction and expressionism, ushering in an era of state-sponsored “Socialist Realism.” This movement strived to highlight the depiction of Soviet youth, student culture, developing villages, industrialized cities, newly cultivated lands, and scientific achievements amongst other topics. Any pieces existing outside of this (expressionism, abstraction, etc.) were considered art designed for the previously overthrown bourgeoisie class.

Ivan Bevzenko, Young Steel Workers, 1961

This new form of proletariat-centered art would find its voice through Stalinism after his rise to power in 1932, in which he quickly instituted a policy that divided unacceptable art into four main categories: political art, religious art, erotic art and “formalistic” art, which would fall under the category of anything conceptual or abstract in nature. A great number of artists who rejected the policy were often sent to gulags to perform forced labor.

Ilya Mashkov, Girl on the Tobacco Plantations, 1930 (Example of Socialist Realism)

Socialist Realism reached its peak during the mid 20th century, at which time many nonconformist art students found themselves placed in Siberian prison-labor complexes. Among those arrested was art student Ülo Sooster, who would eventually be instrumental in dissolving the sociopolitical barriers that previously barred nonconformist artists from showing their work publicly. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the USSR would see a weakening in orthodoxies related to conformity, thus allowing for less severe punishment for artists that were considered “dissenters” of the communist regime. The Khrushchev Thaw (a period of reformation in post-Stalin Russia spanning about a decade between the 1950’s-60’s) would allow for a relaxation of censorship, repression, and political imprisonment of those who held nonconformist beliefs. In fact, communist leader Khrushchev himself contributed largely to the dissolution of Stalinist art when he attended the public Manezh exhibition which would host Ülo Sooster’s famous painting, Eye in the Egg. (The Manezh was an exhibit hosted in the Manege building in Moscow, directly adjacent to the red square which previously separated the Kremlin from the merchant sector). During this exhibit, Khrushchev famously got into a public debate about the function of art in society with sculptor Ernst Neizvestny (check out his renowned sculpture, the Mask of Sorrow, here). The highly publicized nature of this argument was enough to spur a movement surrounding nonconformist art, thus creating a burgeoning culture of free thought among artists in post-1950’s Russia which would cause certain sanctions to be repealed surrounding expression in art. Instead of being sent to gulags, artists were often denied access to join the Artist’s Union, thus repressing their potential careers as state-sponsored artists.

Ülo Sooster, Eye in the Egg, 1962 (Example of Soviet Noncomformist Art)

To be continued next week…where I will discuss the events that followed and specific groups that formed as a result of the dissolution of Soviet realism during the post-thaw period.

Learn more about Soviet art…

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