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Soviet Socialist Realism
1930s - 1970s

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Socialist Realism is a form of realist art originating in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 1930s and spreading to other Communist countries after World War II. 

Intended to glorify the proletariat, the Communist party, and the national leader, it essentially constituted a form of state propaganda.  It was forged in the USSR under Josef Stalin, and the first move towards its official establishment came in 1932 when the Central Committee decreed that all independent artistic groups be disbanded in favour of new state-controlled unions. 

In 1934 Stalin's son-in-law Andrei Zhdanov gave a speech at the All Union Congress of Soviet Writers in which he asserted Socialist Realism to be the only form of art approved by the party. Henceforth, artists would be required to provide a "historically concrete depiction of reality in its revolutionary development …combined with the task of educating workers in the spirit of communism".  Zhdanov also repeated Stalin's phrase describing the artist as an "engineer of the human soul". 

  • USSR 1979.  Alexander Michailowitsch Lupochin: "To Petrograd!".  

As there was little supporting aesthetic theory to be found in the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, the substance of Socialist Realism developed gradually from these initial, rather vague statements through the subsequent criticisms and comments of the party. Broadly it came to mean that the artist should depict real events and people in an idealized, optimistic way that provided a glimpse of the glorious future of the USSR under communism. This vision is particularly clear in a painting from the Soviet Socialist Realist period where you see Lenin moving forward. 

This vision is particularly clear in a painting by Pavel Kusnetzov, executed 1967, where you see Lenin moving forward, borne by the masses' appraisal.  His head is shown against the Red Flag, and he holds his arm out as if he were giving a speech that shows the way to freedom. The masses are shown moving right > left, against our reading direction (left > right), giving an impression of "the people" fighting for their rights, a fight that cannot be stopped. A true heroic and revolutionary painting of the leader, acclaimed by his followers. Unfortunately, due to current copyright legislation, I am unable to show you the painting by Kusnetzov, but the same heroic, historical technique was adapted by the French Romanticist painter Eugene Delacroix -- yet in a slightly different form -- on his famous painting "Liberty Leading the People".  

Instead I have found some interesting images on the Internet, showing similar paintings. The below painting of Lenin shows the dictator in a speech. He is placed at the same height of a tower, that seems pretty small compared to his stature, and on the background of clouds moving in the swift wind in the opposite direction of his self-confident face, giving an impression of "we shall overcome". This composition signals clearly that "it may be windy right now, but soon the sun will again shine brightly on us. Be patient". 

Art was to be accessible to the masses and should serve a social purpose. Concurrently with the show trials and purges of political opponents in the 1930s, artists who did not conform to the dogmas of Socialist Realism were either ousted from employment, exiled, or killed. In stark contrast with the avant-garde atmosphere of the 1920s, all "formalist", progressive art was decried as capitalist and bourgeois, and thus devoid of any relevance to the proletariat. 

Though party decrees drastically narrowed artistic freedom, there was nevertheless a variety of interpretations of Socialist Realism in terms of style and subject-matter. Popular subjects included images of workers in the fields or factories, glorifying portraits of Stalin and other state figures, historical scenes of the Revolution, and idealized depictions of domestic life. There are plenty of such examples on Soviet postage stamps -- the original paintings all belonging to the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow -- but due to current copyright legislation I am unable to show any such stamps on this page.  

Following the end of World War II, Socialist Realism acquired a vehemently nationalist element, with foreign influences being especially criticized. This led to a highly polished, academic style and an emphasis on glorious historical scenes, for example, Vladimir Serov: The Entry of Aleksandr Nevski into Pskov (1945, Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg).  

Stylistically, artists were encouraged to imitate the work of Russian painter Ilya Repin, although some produced timid imitations of Impressionism or employed a deliberately naive manner. A favored exponent of socialist realism was painter Sergei Gerasimov, who produced such exemplary images as A Collective Farm Festival (1936-1937) and Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (1938), both in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Due to current copyright legislation I am, unfortunately, unable to show you any of Gerasimov's paintings on stamps.  

The new Eastern Bloc countries also had Socialist Realism imposed on them by the USSR. However, with the death of Stalin in 1953 and the decline of his reputation under Nikita Khrushchev, Socialist Realism became less forcefully upheld, though it remained the official aesthetic. It was also eagerly taken up in Communist China, where it was the only acceptable style until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. 

In Bulgaria, particularly the painter Nenko Dimitrov Balkanski was an exponent of Socialist Realism. He was born on September 20th, 1907, in Kazanlak, Bulgaria. 

He graduated in painting under Professor N. Marinov and Professor B. Mitov from the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia 1930, and later became a member of the "Native Arts" Union and the Union of "New Artists".  

Not much is known about Balkanski's life and professional career.  He seemed to be a very modest person, who was uninterested in publicity and public acclaim, but preferred to work for the sake of art as such. 

The majority of his works are on permanent display at the National Gallery in Sofia.  

The works displayed on this page show a certain robust nature, combined with an inner refinement and openness to the world, quite unusual for a person who grew up in a fairly closed society. 

  • Bulgaria 1984.  Nenko Balkanski. Self Portrait. 

The set shown below was issued in 1984, and depict some of his works from a period of his career when he lived and worked in Paris.   

Three more Balkanski-paintings have been issued on stamps.  I do not have them, but for those of you who might be interested, here are the catalogue numbers from Michel:  1969 "A Worker Family" (Michel #1934), 1972 "A Family" (Michel #2148), and 1987 "Boy with Mouth Accordion (Michel #3602).  

Although the Danish Socialist Realism was never dictated by the government, there is no doubt that some of the Danish Socialist Realist artists were communists, and certainly approved the Soviet ideology in all its facets -- which is easy to do when one is not forced to, but has the artistic freedom of expression.  This is probably why the Socialist Realism in arts was to some degree maintained up to the 1970s by artists like Folmer Bendtsen (1907-1993, not represented on stamps) and his contemporaries.  The most blatant philatelic example I can think of in this style is the below set of stamps, issued 1976, showing glass blowers in various stages of their work, and idealizing the so-called society of workers and peasants.  

With the disintegration of the Communist Bloc in the late 1980s, Socialist Realism fell out of favour and instead began to be used ironically in some works as a means of attacking the old Communist system. 

Sources and links: 

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