Professor Sarah Wilson at the Courtauld Institute of Art has contributed an essay to the new Soviet painting catalogue for the Palazzo della Esposizioni in Rome which opens this week.
The history of the painting of Socialist Realism tells the story of an extraordinary movement in 20th century art. The Soviet state supported realist painting in a manner unequalled anywhere in the world, promoting its development by “recruiting” thousands of talented artists from all over its immense multi-ethnic empire. Socialist Realism extolled the social role of art and the superiority of content over form; it encouraged the rediscovery of the practice of traditional crafts and it dipped into both classical and modern European art, using it as a kind of reservoir of stylistic and iconographic motifs from which artists might draw inspiration. In 20th century history it represented the only complete alternative to the urgent drive to sweep away the past that was such a feature of the modernist movement.
Socialist Realisms: Soviet Painting 1920-1970 is the most complete retrospective of this movement ever organized outside Russia. The exhibition tracks the development of Socialist Realism painting from the dying throes of the Civil War to the start of the Brezhnev era, halting as the seventies begin because after that date the trends in official Soviet art started to branch off into different and inconsistent directions, which were to lead in the end to the definitive demise of the cultural domination exercised by Socialist Realism.
The exhibition, arranged in chronological order, occupies all seven galleries in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. Each gallery explores a multitude of issues, themes and formal approaches to art in each period. In highlighting the broad variety of solutions with which artists responded to the challenge of Socialist Realism, not only over time but also simultaneously within each individual time period, the exhibition sets out to overturn and thus to disprove the received wisdom that sees Socialist Realism as a monolithic art form built around a single artistic vocabulary.
Curated by Matthew Bown, Evgenija Petrova and Zalfira Tregulova
11 October 2011 – 8 January 2012