Azerbaijan International

Summer 2006 (14.2)
Pages 38-45

Lenin in Art

The History of an Illusion
The Romanticism of Art After Stalin's Era
by Anne Visser from Holland, collector of Post-Stalin art featuring Lenin

Interest in Socialist Realism art works from the Soviet Union has developed very rapidly these last several years, especially from the point of view of Western collectors and investors. It seems there's an insatiable demand for such art these days as the number of high quality paintings quickly diminishes, like snow melting in the sun. Within a few years, I suspect very few significant works will be available which is quite amazing given that prior to 2005, it was impossible to export paintings from the new Republics of the Soviet Union if the works were deemed to be more than 50 years old.

As someone who grew up in Holland, it wasn't until about a year ago that I first saw paintings in the style of Socialist Realism. Frankly speaking, I didn't like them at all. That man Lenin who was featured everywhere: I thought he was horrible and disgusting. But I was looking at the paintings only through the lens of the propaganda of the system. I was failing to pay attention to the art and artist. Perhaps, this is how those who have grown up in the former Soviet Union view them as well. But then I decided to look more closely to try to understand why I was repulsed with such strong stereotypes.

Amazingly, that's when I began to understand the beauty of these paintings. It's easy to blame the artist for being part of a repressive system, but one must search beneath the surface for the hidden passion of the painter and his creative intensity. That's the secret in finding beauty in Socialist Realism paintings. And that's when I became hypnotized with these art works. Today, my home is full of paintings of Lenin, and I continue to search for outstanding pieces to purchase.





On the one hand, these works depict how a regime sought to control their own people. On the other, we see the artist trying to make a personal creative statement. History reminds us that Lenin failed to attain his dreams, but the art works themselves reveal that at least Lenin (meaning, his painters) had some good intentions.

Stalin sought to use art for political reasons. He wanted art to educate the people to learn the new principles of communism - to show the possibility for a better reality.

What is Socialist Realism?
Initially, Socialist Realism was an artistic and literary doctrine of political censorship in the Soviet Union. Established by the Union of Soviet Writers, it became implemented as compulsory practice in 1932. Socialist Realism primarily required that artists portray a positive depiction of socialist society in conventionally realistic terms. But after Stalin's death [1953], the practice of Socialist Realism gradually became more relaxed though Soviet censorship, in general, remained comparatively strong until Glasnost of the mid-1980s.

The most famous definition of Socialist Realism is Aleksandr Gerasimov's explanation: "Socialist Realism is art that is realistic in form but Socialist in content." "It is primarily optimistic about life," Gorky explained, "and is cognisant of its didactic educational role as it portrays information through images."

But if you study these paintings carefully, you'll find contradictions everywhere when it comes to realism. In fact, I've never seen paintings with more contradictions. For example, how can you have a scene with Cosmonaut Gagarin (1934-1968), who was the first man to travel into space, meeting with Lenin (1870-1924)? Gagarin wasn't even born by the time Lenin had died. And how can Lenin be everywhere? This tells us nothing about the reality, but everything about politics.

The artist had to depict a wonderful new world, which would appear after the Revolution. Every day at art school, students would be required to paint Lenin to receive their stipends or salaries. In those early days, many artists genuinely supported the revolution. Perhaps, you and I, too, would have joined the Red Army in 1917. So that period around 1917 is always painted with passion. Even decades later, the same held true.

In the 1950s, both genres of painting existed-scenes depicting political revolution and scenes showing realistic everyday life. Grandiose - scale paintings depicting scenes of the revolution were commissioned for government buildings, while real life scenes were available to grace the walls of homes. In reality, there was little market for selling the paintings. Essentially, the regime controlled the entire process. When it came to paintings of Lenin, there seemed to be one law at work: the bigger, the better. That way they could be displayed in government buildings!

If the artist succeeded in doing what was considered an extraordinary painting of Lenin, he might be rewarded with a Lenin Medal of Honor. But the reality of Stalin's regime was isolation, loneliness, and grimness of life. Millions of people were arrested and murdered. At the end of Stalin's era, the situation was so bad that it was impossible to make paintings depicting a glorious new world. That's why paintings of the 1960s and 1970s have a different, more gentler atmosphere.

In essence Socialist Realism transformed itself into a romantic style - an escape from brutal reality. Many of the paintings began to resemble 17th century landscape paintings. Pastoral in content, they show Lenin relaxing and dreaming about a life of harmony. Everybody, including the censors, wanted to have peaceful dreams. And so that's the kind of art that was created.

By the 1970s, I'm convinced that everybody, including the censors, knew that political paintings had no connection whatsoever with reality. By then, many painters had already gone their own way and painted Lenin as a friendly father figure, rather than the great revolutionary. The early historical events of the 1917 Revolution became popular again because they where a safe bet and less complicated than the actual political situation. Here social realism painted the past, rather than the bright future.

Exaggeration is quite evident on these canvases. Lenin is often pictured as a rubber doll-either too big or too small. It seems that when people are under stress, they use humour to exaggerate things. Perhaps, it was unconscious that the artist living in a strange system, found a way to portray Lenin out of proportion or as a template, technically perfect but without soul. Even the style (realistic painting) was fixed. Towards the end of the regime, 70 years later, you see more freedom in paintings featuring the Revolution because artists began expressing their own personalities more. However, most experts complain that the quality was weaker than earlier works. It served more as a template and that's when the quality began to diminish.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Socialist Realism paintings were exported to Europe, especially to London. At that time, art dealers in Europe were able to transport hundreds of paintings in their trunks or even on the roofs of their cars. They could purchase them for as little as 100 USD each. Works that were real master-pieces in terms of their execution of art often were badly damaged during the transportation and also because they had been painted with cheap paint on cheap canvases during those early years.

The generation of Socialist Realism painters is fast disappearing. Many of them have already passed away. A few are still living and, doubtlessly, some of them have stashed away the collection of their paintings.

In London galleries, Socialist Realism paintings from among those produced in the Soviet Union are demanding the highest prices, especially, the period up until 1965 has become quite expensive. Because there is over abundance of more recent Socialist Realism paintings or individual modern artist paintings, that's why their price is more stable or, perhaps, even declining.

Today, art works that were painted - out of necessity - in the Socialist Realism style document the history of an illusion in the Soviet Union. Life really wasn't leisurely and happy and harmonious, Soviet leaders just wanted to portray it that way. But no one can deny that the illusion isn't calming and beautiful in the violent and unpredictable world that we live in today.

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