In 1980, the title of a key exhibition held at the French National Museum of Modern Art–Realisms: Between Revolution and Reaction, 1919-1930--announced a program. The project manager for this show, Gérard Régnier (Jean Clair), recalled our common-sense understanding of the term Realism: “the artist’s scrupulous observation of the model being represented, whether it be a figure, a face, or a still life and even if the study in question results in a composition that is allegorical or religious in nature.” The plural emphasized, rather, diversity, and here, the curator was taking up the arguments of the pioneer in the field, Jean Laude, whose writings back then had been forecasting all the right questions for more than twenty years. As early as 1919, Laude said at the time, “a kind of discourse was being worked out and built up across Europe [as we shall see, it would be fitting to add there the United States] whose intention was to put an end to past errors–against which, moreover, it warned. In literature just as much as in music, it rehabilitated national cultural values, a taste for work well done, good craftsmanship, and tradition.”
Laude recognized the weight of the historical context that influenced works of art. And even if today we know that the much-talked-about return (or call) to order was already underway prior to the onset of the first world war, what seized hold of Western societies thereafter was a sense of melancholy if not feelings of nausea, along with fear of decline and of a renewal of violence as well as destructive impulses. In art as elsewhere, the retreat into nationalism was the symptom of an identity crisis taking place just as culture with a capital “C” was being used as the last rampart. What happened next revealed the historical ineffectiveness of such an approach. Along the way, what appeared was a series of borrowings and citations from Realist models as well as détournements thereof that in no way strayed from the “modern” path–at least from a part of it–and thus this movement extended far beyond the scope of some of its reactionary participants.
François Legrand retraces the key episodes that have occurred on the America scene since the nineteenth century, when a definition of the criteria for Americanness was worked out in the United States and when a coherent past was invented for artistic Realism so that it might rival modernism and cosmopolitanism. For his part, Jérôme Bazin studies the particular circumstances of Socialist Realism in the postwar German Democratic Republic, where people in their social capacities became the main subject for a kind of painting that was designed above all to educate the masses but that played out in ways that were less conventional than originally foreseen.
The fact that, in both cases, Realisms would be called upon to support such varying causes proves not only the model’s elasticity but its ambiguous force at the very moment one wished to make art play an eminent social role.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Seminar of January 25, 2007
A New Look at Socialist Realism
The Socialization of Artists
Communist regimes’ proclamation of a rapprochement between social cla tsses was used to justify a major intervention by the political authorities in the artistic field. The desire was for artists and workers to work in concert toward the construction of socialist society. Indeed, artists were encouraged to go into the factories and represent the world of labor. And at the same time, workers were to counsel artists and to produce in turn their own works. In East Germany, this cultural policy was given theoretical expression at the Bitterfeld Conference of 1959, where artists were exhorted to go out and meet the workers and the latter to “take up a brush.” The way the art world operated financially in the GDR ensured this policy’s success: with the art market centered around galleries having been dismantled by the early 1950s, artists lived basically from commissions given by firms (and by mass organizations) and from contracts with worker brigades who thereby became their patrons.
While the reality of these encounters between artists and workers far from corresponded to the irenic image given of them in official speeches, it remains no less the case that this political framework set artists and workers side by side and gave rise to particular practices of art production, specific exhibition sites (like firms and cultural centers), and the organization of times and places for such meetings (such as worker festivals during which works by professionals and amateurs were exhibited). The political constraints framing artistic activity in the GDR led to a certain kind of socialization of tartists and gave to the word Realism an original meaning: the socialist artist is a Realist less in terms of his style than in terms of his rootedness in social reality.
Variations on Popular Aesthetics
The objective of these encounters between artists and workers orchestrated by the authorities was to advance a popular aesthetics painters were to reproduce and imitate. Popular aesthetics was defined by two points. Painting was to reproduce, first of all, the everyday world. Workers supposedly wanted to recognize in art works their nearby environment. And the work of art was to be a reduplication of the known world. Painting also was to be characterized by its simplicity and its comprehensibleness, as against bourgeois taste, which was inclined toward abstraction and confusion. The Realist style was to be the guarantor of the readability of art works.
However, as in the Soviet Union, the function of Socialist Realism was to educate and to struggle against the “kitsch” of the masses as much as to respond to their tastes. It certainly had to be pleasing and to offer seductive images that would immediately absorb the viewer’s attention, but it also had to educate the population’s aesthetic sense. Socialist Realism produced as much as it reproduced a popular aesthetics, and it sought to respond to aesthetic dispositions while at the same time changing them.
The amateur painting of the time was highlighted as an expression of popular culture (even if it was done by painters of various social origins). This type of painting clung to a realistic representation of everyday objects and of one’s nearest and dearest. But this was so less on account of aesthetic taste than because of a concern with artistic training. In Communist societies as well as in capitalist ones, amateurs are above all apprentice painters for whom apprenticeship begins with a mastery of figurative representation and is practiced through the use of motifs.
Anchored (willingly or by force) in social reality and caught up in the play of varying social tastes, Socialist Realism was thus nourished by the social world. The subject of paintings was social being. The art critic in Communist countries tackled this key point with the help of the notion of type and typicality. This notion had been introduced at the end of the nineteenth century by Friedrich Engels, who defined Realism as “the faithful translation of typical characteristics in typical circumstances.” Grasping the typical gestures of the building worker, the peasant at work, or the working woman on the shop floor was the way to embody the ideal set by the regime. But the representation of the typical had a much larger political import: in a society marked by class struggle, it was a matter of social antagonisms; in Communist societies, it was a matter of showing the domination of the tproletarian classes. To borrow Bertolt Brecht’s words, Realism is the art form “that reveals the complex causality of social relations; it is concrete while at the same time facilitating the effort at abstraction.”
Representing the typical was nonetheless not supposed to end in an effort to allegorize people, who would thereby become symbols of workers and peasants, but was to respect the individuality of the person who is represented and of the situation being conjured up. The authorities required that characters be individualized, that paintings show the inner life of individuals and not halt at a description of their social characteristics; the East German art critic took back up the idea, developed in the nineteenth century around the work of Wilhelm Liebl and Wilhelm Trübner, that German Realism is capable of painting inner life whereas French Realism remains at the surface of bodies. Socialist Realism in the GDR is thus to be understood within the tension between the typical and the individual.
Realism and Interaction
Yet more than any precision in depicting facial features or other details, it was the interactions between protagonists and places or among protagonists themselves that allowed an individualization of figures. Set within their environment and within their relationships with their contemporaries, characters became more concrete and more real. The kind of reality Socialist Realism wished to repr toduce was not the reality of matter, objects, or bodies, but that of social relations. Its problem was not objectivity but, rather, interaction.
Thus, paintings in which workers were depicted as working in isolation were subject to condemnation. Conversely, works that set characters in interaction were very much appreciated, whence the predilection for scenes involving discussions (in firms, at political meetings), scenes involving collective labor, or even scenes involving couples (as, for example, the very popular picture by Walter Womacka, Am Strand, representing a young couple on the beach). Historical topics did not elude this requirement: situations involving revolutionary emulation were held in high esteem, as when workers encouraged one another to rise up or when a political leader (Vladimir Lenin, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Ernst Thälman, etc.) incited the crowd to revolt. The great number of portraits of Lenin presented in a variety of ways the figure of political leader who explains and harangues, and such paintings thereby raise the problem of the representation of political speech. Artists, whether professional or amateur, were able to play upon the representation of discussions among workers and of the speeches of political leaders, sometimes introducing indications of incomprehension or distances between characters and creating dislocations amidst the interactions.
Heroization Shattered from Within
The effect of such individualization of characters and situations was to avoid too great a heroization of people. One of the objectives set by the authorities was to produce a kind of art that would glorify without heroizing. Because they were represented in their activities or in interactions with other characters, political rulers, workers, and peasants had to get away from the victorious pose of heros. In reality, Socialist Realism staged people who were in the process of becoming heros, characters who were striving for heroism. Unlike Nazi Realism, which short-circuited the past, the present, and the future so as to represent an atemporal hero, a perfect expression of the race, Socialist Realism showed a hero in the process of construction. It was profoundly historical, and the optimism that was displayed included awareness of past pains. This historical dimension allowed one to introduce into the paintings of the time expressions of suffering: failures of the German Communist movement (in 1918 and under Naziism), the wounds of World War II, the privations of a society of scarcity, and fears of the Cold War. This point holds all the truer once one moves away from official art and considers the works of little known professional artists and amateurs. East German Realism was inspired then not only by the glorifying tendencies of Soviet Realism; it was also nourished by the traumatic Realism of Otto Dix and the moving Realism of Käthe Kollwitz.
The inner breach of Socialist Realism became one of the main motifs of the figurative painting of the 1970s and 1980s, that of Wolfgang Mattheuer o tr Bernhard Heisig, for example. Analyzing the painting of the 1950s and the 1960s, an East German art critic of the time, Karl Max Kober, defined the basic problem of Socialist Realism indeed as the search for a balance between heroism and sacrifice.
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Jérôme Bazin who has a teacher’s certificate in History, studied at the École Normale Supérieure of Cachan and at the Marc Bloch Center in Berlin. He has begun research on Socialist Realism in the German Democratic Republic of the 1950s and 1960s, as supervised by Sandrine Kott and Laurence Bertrand Dorléac. This project bears on the study of professional artists and amateur artists within the political and social context of Communist regimes.