Blast from the Past

Artists around the globe are turning Socialist Realism on its head, layering the once-potent tool of propaganda with irony and nostalgia.

Che Guevara is at once celebrated and defaced in José Toirac’s Untitled, 2001–7, made with the artist’s son, Mario Jorge Toirac Marrero.


At first glance, Shi Xinning’s painting Yalta No. 2 (2006) appears to be a simple, almost photorealistic rendering of a famous photograph taken during the World War II conference, showing Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin seated in front of their retinues. The colors in the painting match the pleasingly faded hues we associate with vintage prints, lending the work an air of authenticity. But Chairman Mao is sitting between Roosevelt and Churchill. He wasn’t there, was he?

He wasn’t. Nor did he ride in the horse-drawn carriage with Britain’s Queen Mother, as he does in another painting. And he certainly didn’t sit on the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. But Shi’s precisely rendered paintings would have us believe otherwise. Employing the authoritative tone and heroic mood that are at the heart of Mao’s strictly prescribed Socialist Realist style of art, Shi rewrites history, ridding the West of its Eurocentrism and China of its isolationism.

Shi is one of many painters from Communist and formerly Communist countries who are revisiting Socialist Realism. Although the term has been used to describe a range of styles, from finely textured Beaux-Arts-style paintings to pared-down graphic figuration, the original practitioners of the genre consistently sought to glorify the Communist Party—dictators such as Stalin or Mao were always promoted as strong and intrepid leaders, and workers and peasants were portrayed as happy and healthy. Today’s artists are not reviving the style so much as deftly turning it on its head, layering the once-potent tool of propaganda with irony and nostalgia. “It’s provocative to quote a style like Socialist Realism,” says Agnieszka Morawinska, director of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. “It’s a contradiction, in a way: even if you are being ironic, you are still celebrating it.”

The ambiguities inherent in this reevaluation of official style are reflected in the uneasy approval of such art in China and Cuba, both still ruled by Communist regimes. Shi, for example, has remained in China since graduating from LuXun Academy of Fine Arts in 1990; there his works are embraced in part because they have been so widely celebrated in the Western art market. In Cuba, where avant-garde artists who challenge Fidel Castro have frequently been forced to leave the country, the use of the still-official style provides a veneer of acceptability.

Paralleling this resurgent interest in Socialist Realism, a number of artists from non-Communist countries have been exploring new modes of social realism, a distinct genre that emerged early in the last century to address social inequalities. While social realism often made heroes of the poor and downtrodden, it also sought to depict their plight realistically. By contrast, Socialist Realism is less about describing reality than about being socialist.

Socialist realism was born in the Soviet Union and traveled to Eastern Europe with the establishment of Communism after World War II. The Art Academy in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, became an important center for indoctrinating that country’s young artists in the style. In recent years the city has lent its name to the New Leipzig School, a much-touted group of painters, some of whom were educated there before German reunification. The most acclaimed of these students is Neo Rauch, who was born in Leipzig in 1960 and was trained in Socialist Realism in the early ’80s. Today he melds that style with a highly anxious surrealism, creating oddly static and ambiguous works suggestive of fouled utopias and futility. The cryptic Paranoia (2007), for instance, shows three figures in a distorted studio space; looking tense and facing in the same direction, they appear out of sync with one another and their surroundings.

Many of the group’s younger painters share Rauch’s predilection for disjointedness and nuanced, one-foot-stuck-in-the-past melancholia. Matthias Weischer paints forlorn interiors in moody colors, and David Schnell places fragments of built structures in lush landscapes. All three artists show with Eigen + Art in Berlin and Leipzig, which handles many New Leipzig School artists. Rauch also shows with David Zwirner in New York and last year had a one-man exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Socialist Realism was accorded official status throughout the Eastern Bloc, but many artists rejected it out of hand. “The Polish avant-garde defined itself in opposition to the official art of the state,” writes Zurich Kunsthalle director Beatrix Ruf in an essay on Wilhelm Sasnal, who, she points out, is among “the first generation of artists that is able to free itself from this dispensation.” The 35-year-old Sasnal is at the forefront of a group of Polish artists reengaging with figuration. He has gone so far as to make works in the exact style of Andrzej Wroblewski, one of Poland’s best Socialist Realist painters of the ’50s. Such stylistic experimentation has only furthered Sasnal’s reputation. The artist has a retrospective at the Zacheta in Warsaw through March 2, and last May he broke his own auction record when a painting of aircraft in formation sold for $396,000 at Christie’s in New York.

These days Sasnal favors a less emotional, more restrained brushstroke. Factory (2000), for example, is based on a famous propaganda photograph of women on an assembly line, but the artist omits the Marxist utopianism. Sasnal has eliminated the subjects’ pride and confidence, leaving only a dispiriting vision of unrewarding, machine-led labor.

Similarly stripping away the Socialist Realist pose of heroism, Maria Kiesner paints landscapes featuring Poland’s Socialist-Modernist buildings. Although most are now falling into disrepair, these structures offer outstanding examples of late Modernist architecture. Kiesner’s pristine presentation of these factories, community centers, train stations, and stadiums bereft of people conveys a wan nostalgia.

As far back as the ’70s, Russian artists were engaging with the French Beaux-Arts style of realism favored by Lenin and Stalin to create work critical of the state. The former duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, key proponents of the dissident Sots art movement, merged Soviet Socialist Realism with aspects of Pop art and Dada to undermine and parody official Communist art. Despite experiencing numerous arrests and legal difficulties, they achieved international fame for their efforts, moved to the West, and continued to work together until 2003, when they began to pursue separate careers.

More recently, the Moscow-based duo Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky have woven these historical legacies together with contemporary pop culture. They have developed a propaganda-like vocabulary drawing on the iconographies and narratives of Socialist Realism and Sots art as well as pulp-fiction cover art and advertising imagery.

A more subtle but equally ambiguous depiction of the entanglements of Soviet Russia and the contemporary West can be seen in Yevgeniy Fiks’s portraits of present-day members of the American Communist Party at their headquarters in New York. The paintings were shown at Moscow’s Marat Guelman Gallery last summer. The 35-year-old artist, who has lived in New York since 1994, is fascinated by the fact that while Communism has been declared dead in his native country, it perseveres among these Americans, who hold business cards and work for the Communist Party USA.

Slightly older than Fiks is Kerim Ragimov. The artist still lives in Saint Petersburg, where he graduated from the Rerikh School of Fine Arts in 1989, just before the fall of Communism. Ragimov, who paints in a photorealist style, says his work is about Russia’s destiny. Alluding to a post-glasnost saying—“The end of the world will come when the whole of Russia is flooded with foreign cars”—the artist’s “Roadoff 2” series (2002–3) carefully reworks classic 19th-century Russian landscape paintings in oversize formats, with the addition of marooned foreign cars and SUVs and rampaging bears. Western liberalism appears to have crashed into Russia’s history.

Ragimov says he wants “to create the image of victory of Russian traditionalism over the consumerist, conquistador-like expansion of Western values in their brutal forms.” Although far from universal, his nationalism explains some artists’ renewed interest in the Socialist Realist mode.

Despite their continuing one-party rule, both China and Cuba are loosening restraints on artists at the same time as they renegotiate relationships with the capitalist West. Censorship is still officially practiced in China, but the country’s leaders have begun to appreciate the commercial and political benefits of promoting avant-garde artists whose works have become popular draws at museums in Europe and the United States.

Many of today’s best-known Chinese artists were trained in a Socialist Realism based largely on the Soviet model. “We used to have to copy Russian academy paintings,” says Zhang Huan, who has a solo exhibition at the Asia Society in New York through the 20th of this month and recently joined PaceWildenstein. “The first time I saw an artwork from the West was in the mid-’80s.” By the ’90s, artists like Fang Lijun, Zeng Fanzhi, and Yue Minjun were turning that training to their own ends, expressing anger and disillusionment after the Tiananmen Square massacre and subsequent crackdowns on artists. Their work came to be characterized as Cynical Realism.

Chang Tsong-Zung, a Hong Kong–based curator who has been a key figure in promoting Chinese art around the world since the ’90s, explains, “Almost all artists in China using the human figure today are dealing in some way with Socialist Realism. It was so dominant for so long that it’s virtually impossible to make this kind of work without its influence.”

An early example of Fang’s now-signature style is Series 2: No 2 (1992), which shows four bald men: one in the foreground, apparently screaming, and three behind him with identically dull expressions, clothes, and poses. The work describes the anxiety of the individual trapped among the masses, yet it is ambiguous enough to have avoided being suppressed. A similar work from the same series set a record for the artist when it sold last fall at Sotheby’s in New York for $4.1 million.

Liu Xiaodong and Yang Shaobin work more in the mode of traditional social realism, documenting the genuine predicaments of the poor and the rapid transitions taking place in China. Since 2003 Liu has been painting scenes relating to the country’s controversial Three Gorges Dam, which will eventually displace some 1.9 million people and 650 factories to create a reservoir 412 miles long. Liu paints the affected individuals and puts real faces to the statistics. Displaced Population (2003), for example, features a panoramic view of the reservoir slowly filling behind six resigned-looking peasant laborers. Works from the ongoing series have been shown at venues including Beijing’s Chinablue Gallery and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Yang, who has turned away from the irony of Cynical Realism, recently made a series of paintings of miners facing extremely dangerous and difficult conditions. Had these been classic Socialist Realist paintings, Yang’s mines and Liu’s dam would be monumental symbols of the power of the state, and the workers would appear rosy-cheeked and contented. Instead, both artists offer visions of hardship.

Like China, Cuba has also allowed some artists to thrive despite their thinly veiled criticisms of the government, which they often advance in the form of metaphors or allegory. Although many artists in the first wave of the avant-garde were forced to leave the country in the ’80s, many who achieved renown in the ’90s were able to stay in Cuba, encouraged by the favorable terms set by the government for foreign sales. Describing the relationship between artist and government in his essay in Holly Block’s book, Art Cuba: The New Generation, curator Gerardo Mosquera writes, “Some officials even discuss with artists what is allowed in their works—almost as if it were a technical problem. This is what I call the You Know Who syndrome. This phrase is used in Cuba to criticize the Maximum Leader without mentioning his name…. In the end both know what the work refers to, but both are protected in an unusual alliance between censor and censored.”

However cynical they appear, such arrangements have allowed the emergence of many important new artists, including José Toirac, Alberto Casado, and Abel Barroso. Toirac plays with the portrait tradition. His Obsession (1996) uses the logo from Calvin Klein perfume ads but features a laughing Castro looking down at a newspaper headline that proclaims, “All police on alert! Plot to kill Castro!” In other works the artist paints graffiti celebrating Che Guevara over an image of the young revolutionary looking rather self-consciously heroic.

Barroso and Casado offer humorous commentaries on Cuban society, but typically focus more on social issues such as poverty and wealth distribution. Both artists use wood-block printing. Casado learned his method while working as a fabricator of the kind of kitsch religious objects found in many Cuban homes and tourist shops. Retroactively depicting Castro’s censure of the art world in the ’80s—showing artists being arrested, for example—Casado chronicles a troubled period while bringing new relevance to an old medium.

If Socialist Realism is inextricably linked with Soviet artistic doctrines, social realism is still most associated with Mexico, where in the ’20s the revolutionary government employed artists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros to depict the working classes and the poor. Luis Pérez-Oramas, curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, points out, however, that Rivera created something new by infusing social realism with transcultural modernism and rich symbolism. Many of today’s Mexican artists, Pérez-Oramas says, have reengaged with narrative, but in a far more conceptual way. They are much more likely to focus on the “social” than on the “realism.”

For example, Minerva Cuevas, 32, typically makes social-activist work. She has painted murals—the format favored by Mexico’s early social realists—but her depictions are far more acerbic. In one, she adds the words “pure murder” to the label for a can of Del Monte tomatoes and creates a wall-size critique of the food company’s exploitation of Central America; in Mural (2006), shown at the Sáo Paulo Biennial, she combines a crashed plane with a General Motors logo and a Terena Indian saying, “The white man is afraid of listening.”

Peruvian artist Fernando Bryce and Colombian-born Carlos Motta also target the interference of multinational corporations and foreign governments in Latin American politics. Taking inspiration from archival images, Bryce borrows subjects forgotten by official history to make pointed comments about the present, as in the drawing Guatemala 54 (2002), which refers to the CIA and United Fruit Company coup against Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Motta, who lives in New York, where he had a show at Winkelman Gallery last fall, addresses the sometimes troubled U.S.–Latin American relationship. For his “SOA: Black and White Paintings” series (2006), he applied black vinyl cutouts directly to the gallery wall, creating silhouettes depicting images of U.S. military incursions into Latin America and other historical events.

In the United States, social realism has its roots in the Great Depression, with many artists employed by the Works Progress Administration who used their work to show support for New Deal programs during the ’30s and ’40s. According to last year’s Venice Biennale curator, Robert Storr, these days the most interesting American social realism “addresses the middle and upper classes—people not normally associated with this term. Artists such as John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, and Eric Fischl make social studies of how we live now.”

Modern middle-class life has been the focus of the work of British-born artist Malcolm Morley, 76, who typically paints from photographs. Recently, however, he has put his brush to touchier subjects. In Wall Jumpers (2002), he depicts Palestinians leaping over a barrier into Israel, while in Military Object #1 (2006), a Sony television shows one of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. Similarly, South African artist Marlene Dumas, 54, uses images from the media to poignant effect: The Blindfolded (2002) shows Palestinian hostages. The way the media portrays these scenes is also at issue in these works—and is a characteristic feature of contemporary social realism.

Indeed, according to Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London, “A lot of the work that looks realistic now is much more about how information is mediated.” Many works seem to warn against trusting what you see. Whereas the original practitioners of Socialist Realism and social realism modified their subject matter while using their art to prescribe a worldview, many contemporary artists take this distortion to another level. As they reengage with these once-rejected styles and combine them with other genres, they cast doubt on the very possibility of describing reality in art. “In a way,” says Rugoff, “the whole idea of realism is called into question.”

Pernilla Holmes is a London-based writer and curator.

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