Stalin was their darling

They were the ultimate party hacks, painting propaganda for the Soviet regime. So why are the socialist realists fashionable now? By Tania Branigan

Leonid Shishkin pours two generous glasses of Chablis and waves a hand towards the highlights of his fashionable Moscow gallery. The immense landscape above his desk was commissioned by Stalin's son. The dictator's defence minister, Voroshilov, gazes out from a Brodsky portrait propped against the bookcase. High on the wall, tucked above the cabinet, is the most curious of the artworks. At first glimpse it is a simple rural scene, but look closer and half a dozen painters are at work, vying to capture a milkmaid labouring on a collective farm.

These were the artists who created one of the most derided bodies of work of all time: socialist realism. Commissioned, supported and controlled by the state, they aimed to picture "reality in its revolutionary development". Needless to say, this did not mean gulags and bread queues; rather, a rosy vision of how society would be - thanks to the Bolsheviks.

They did not have much choice. In 1934 the party decreed that socialist realism was the only Soviet artistic method. Officials dictated not only the themes for paintings (hence the endless series of industrial and agricultural workers, party marches and glorious leaders), but also the acceptable style (an obsessively literal rendering) and mood (invariably positive). Often they would order artists to alter tones, remove figures and rework expressions.

Predictably, the works fell from grace almost as abruptly as they had attained it. Within years of Stalin's death, Khrushchev denounced his cultural policies as "cruel and senseless" and curators began to remove the pictures from galleries. The movement, long a laughing stock outside the Soviet Union, was judged aesthetically and morally bankrupt within it.

Now, decades after its demise, it is creeping back into fashion. Chic decorators set off minimalist interiors with old-fashioned landscapes or Bolshevik portraits. Shishkin, a journalist-turned-dealer, says that Russians are outnumbered two to one at his auctions but spend more than all the foreigners put together.

Across town, Valentin Gorlov, who preserves and promotes the genre via his art foundation, is jubilant that compatriots are finally taking an interest. A former film-maker, he amassed the collection largely because no one else was doing so. Two thousand works are crammed into his tiny flat: paintings cover every inch of the walls and are stacked eight deep on the sofa and on shelves high above his head. The size and scope of the New Gallery's collection demonstrates not just his dedication to his task, but also how little attention others have paid it.

"At the start of the 1990s, nine out of 10 buyers were from abroad," he says. "In the last three years, more and more Russians are buying from this period.

"This was the 'black hole' of our history; the art books have very little about what came between the avant-garde and postmodernism. My own childhood was at the end of the Stalinist epoch and it's normal to want to understand your roots. Some say it was evil. Others say it was wonderful. The real story for me is that this is where we came from."

Western Europeans find it harder to cherish Modorov's Comrade Mikoian at the Astrakhan Fish Processing Plant, or the children proffering flowers in Vladimirsky's unbearably twee Roses for Stalin. But the commercial resurgence is matched by a serious critical reappraisal, with experts insisting there is more to the period than tractors, rallies and improbably orange sunsets. They point to the numerous landscapes, portraits of workers and still lifes.

"Socialist realism covers a broad spectrum and there are a lot of paintings which aren't particularly what you'd call kitsch; the landscapes, for example," says the British critic Matthew Cullerne Bown, author of Socialist Realist Painting. He agrees that some of the thematical works have little more than curiosity value, but has written extensively about the movement (and often enthusiastically, despite obvious reservations), since a visit to Moscow in the 1980s.

"There seemed to be a lot of painting there that I had never been told anything about, but which I thought was rather eloquent," Bown explains. "There are a few artists whose best work I think is wonderful; for example, Geli Korzhev. His paintings of the 60s and later combine extreme realism with an intense, painterly surface."

Nor does he believe that the state's involvement automatically counts against the genre. "The finished work might well reflect outside influence - we find either the artist gearing his picture to what he knew was required, or a committee giving explicit directions - but that doesn't of itself make it inferior. One of the interesting things about the work, particularly in Stalin's years, was its collaborative nature." In a sense, of course, this was nothing new: from Botticelli's Primavera onwards, patrons have strictly controlled the execution of commissions.

Other critics defend the movement as "the last project of the Russian avant-garde", or argue that it prefigured postmodernism in its elision of image and reality, or draw comparisons with Pop Art's ideas of art-as-product. Gorlov goes as far as to claim that the era was an artistic high point: "Even in paintings with totalitarian content, you can often see a talented hand. It was a time of a strong art education and from that point of view it was a renaissance," he says.

While many artists fled their homeland, those who conformed found a paradoxical freedom. State support liberated them from commercial constraints and allowed them to produce work in private: in particular, the impressionist-tinged work proving popular with buyers today. Much of it has never been exhibited.

"They didn't have to think about bread," says Shishkin. "They had studios, brushes, oils, canvases. From one point of view, they were forced to paint terrible portraits of Stalin. But they didn't have to do it all the time, so they were also free to do what they wanted. They had salaries; painters today would dream about that."

But the growing popularity of these works appals other art-lovers. Andrei Siniavski, who wrote as Abram Tertz, led the first charge against socialist realism in the 1950s. "It seems that the very term 'socialist realism' contains an insolublecontradiction," he wrote. "[Socialist realists] lie, they manoeuvre, and they try to combine the uncombinable . . . a high ideal with truthful representation of life . . . It is a half-classicist half-art, which is none too socialist and not at all realist."

Certainly the genre seemed to ossify over the decades as the definition of socialist realism became increasingly pedantic. Even paintings with impeccable political content were condemned for their "bourgeois" impressionist tendencies.

But the objections are not just aesthetic. From the state's point of view, if not the painters', the work was primarily propaganda. Little wonder that the regime's old opponents find it impossible to separate the genre's artistic merits from its politics.

"I don't consider that either morally or philosophically or creatively, totalitarian art can be put on the same level as modernism," says Alexander Morozov, professor of the history of Russian art at Moscow State Univer sity. He believes that these pictures must be shown in context, alongside artists such as Mikhail Sokolov and Sergei Gerasimov, whose careers were hindered or destroyed by their refusal to conform. Even then, he fears, the boldness and optimism of the state-sponsored works will overwhelm the smaller, more intimate paintings.

"The public likes 'big, beautiful' pictures - I use these household terms in quotation marks," he says. "These pictures have lots of colours and sunshine and a sense of grand scale. It attracts the eye."

As Morozov suspects, he may be fighting a losing battle. For many modern Russians, socialist realism has already been rehabilitated, the images depoliticised just as the country's history has been. Shishkin says portraits of Stalin are particularly popular with company bosses: "Of course, everybody knows he was a bad guy. But people also associate him with strong leadership - he's seen as the ultimate businessman. He's not seen as a bloody dictator, but almost a role model."

The nostalgia Russians feel today is not for Bolshevik rule. It is for their childhoods, however grim; for a sense of certainty, however deadening; and for the inherent optimism of the Communist project, promising a world where rosy-cheeked labourers face a bright Soviet dawn.

· Socialist Realist Painting is published by Yale University Press at £60.


Tania Branigan

The GuardianTramp

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