Soviet Union Bans Abstract Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Initial hopes for a true revolution in art in the new Soviet Union were dashed when the leaders of the Communist Party centralized control of artistic production and outlawed all forms of art except Socialist Realism.

Summary of Event

When, in 1934, the First Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union First Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union Soviet Writers’ Union decreed that Socialist Realism was to be the only acceptable form of artistic expression in the Soviet Union, the final nail was driven into the coffin of Soviet abstract art. The pronouncement was not unexpected, for abstract artists who had been heartened by the promises of new freedom under the Communists had already seen their early hopes dashed by a series of actions—beginning in 1922—that had made it increasingly difficult for them to survive and practice their art in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the declaration was a particularly insidious blow to men such as Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich, and Wassily Kandinsky, whose rise to prominence in the decades before the 1934 congress had signaled a true revolution in Russian art. Under their leadership, men and women in what was now the Soviet Union had become part of the larger European artistic community and were advancing the boundaries of artistic expression in a country that had had a history of imposing on its artists long before the Communists had come to power. [kw]Soviet Union Bans Abstract Art (1934) [kw]Abstract Art, Soviet Union Bans (1934) [kw]Art, Soviet Union Bans Abstract (1934) Socialist Realism Art;Socialist Realism Soviet Union;art Abstract art;Soviet ban [g]Russia;1934: Soviet Union Bans Abstract Art[08510] [c]Arts;1934: Soviet Union Bans Abstract Art[08510] [c]Government and politics;1934: Soviet Union Bans Abstract Art[08510] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1934: Soviet Union Bans Abstract Art[08510] Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Soviet art Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;Socialist Realism Tatlin, Vladimir Malevich, Kazimir Lunacharsky, Anatoly Kandinsky, Wassily Chagall, Marc

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, a group of artists who came to be known as the Wanderers Wanderers (artists’ group) rebelled against the classical style being taught in Russian academies; rejecting both classicism and the new notion of art for art’s sake, the Wanderers focused on the folk aspects of Russian life and embedded in their realist works a sense of social consciousness. At almost the same time, a different group of young Russian artists were discovering the new theories emerging in other European countries. Reacting against both the academies and the Wanderers, these artists brought various forms of abstractionism into the Russian salons and museums. This group reached its zenith in the years immediately before the 1917 revolution swept the Communists into power. Experimentation became the byword for these artists; Impressionism, cubism, Imagism, Futurism, and Russia’s own contributions to the movement—constructivism, under the leadership of Vladimir Tatlin, and Suprematism, inspired by Kazimir Malevich—gained strong footholds in artistic circles.

It was inevitable that these two major forms of artistic expression would come into conflict. There was already bad blood between champions of realist art and the abstractionists before the 1917 revolution. The Wanderers, whose popularity waned in the early years of the twentieth century, stressed the importance of content in their works. The various practitioners of abstract art, on the other hand, were interested in the technical possibilities of the various media. For example, constructivist sculptors combined various materials—steel, concrete, wrought iron, even paper—to suggest the variety of human experience that formed the impetus for artistic creation. More attention was paid to form than to substance; meaning was subordinated to the aesthetic experience. In the opinion of more conservative artists, art critics, and(most important) influential Communist leaders, such art had no social conscience.

The 1917 revolution promised to free art from its capitalist bonds. Communist leaders announced that all forms of artistic expression were to be supported under the new government. Initially, steps were taken to see that this happened. Although he was essentially conservative in his tastes in art, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin made no overt attempts to control the production of art in the new Soviet Union. On the contrary, Lenin’s close associate Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet commissar of education, appointed important abstract artists to positions of prominence: Kandinsky was named director of the Museum of Pictorial Culture in Moscow, and Malevich and noted painter Marc Chagall were given positions as professors of art.

The euphoria was short-lived, however. By 1921, Kandinsky had resigned his position and had emigrated, expressing frustration at what he saw as meddling by government officials in the handling of commissions and direction of artists’ work. Chagall and others were to follow him into self-imposed exile within a few years. By 1922, the proponents of realism had won the sympathy of various influential groups within the Communist hierarchy, especially members of the Soviet military; with their help, realism began to reclaim the position of prominence it had held in the last decades of the nineteenth century. From 1922 forward, the various organizations that had sprung up immediately after the revolution to support a multiplicity of artistic viewpoints found themselves increasingly regulated by the central government.

The death of Lenin and the ascension of Joseph Stalin as the new ruler of the Soviet state signaled the death knell for Soviet abstract art. The last vestiges of real freedom were swept away in 1928, when the government ordered that all artists’ organizations be consolidated under a single agency run from Moscow. Few artists held out any hope that this “oversight” agency would permit the freedoms that had become commonplace in the smaller, more specialized groups founded by the artists themselves. Their fears were confirmed in a mandate of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, issued on April 23, 1932. Titled the “Decree on the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organizations,” the proclamation dissolved all other organizations previously set up for supporting the arts and centralized commissions, sales, and exhibitions under the control of the party. In effect, this meant that artists already subjected to regulation in housing, studio space, and supplies would be solely dependent on the government for their livelihood.

By this time, it was apparent that the government was interested in supporting only those artists whose work could be readily understood by the masses—in effect, realist art with a strong socialist message. Socialist Realism, the new, official art form—named by Stalin himself—was decreed by the Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1934. The decree effectively banned all forms of abstractionism in the arts. Painters, sculptors, writers, and architects found that they would have to conform to the dictates of party censors or suffer serious consequences for their transgressions.

Significance

The ramifications of the 1934 decree were both immediate and long-lasting. During the next several decades, an elaborate apparatus was constructed to control the production of Soviet art, and bureaucrats whose primary interest lay in promoting party ideals sat in judgment of artists’ creations. As historian Joel Carmichael has observed, the “indispensable component” of the new artistic program “had to be an absolutely unswerving obedience to the Party”; the result was a “totalitarian homogenizing of culture.” The demands that all forms of art have a strong propagandistic quality that could be easily understood by the masses and by party censors led to uniformity in production. Painting, sculpture, literature, and even architecture became forums for celebrating the worker and the Soviet hero. More often than not, this meant a glorification of the revolutionary leaders, specifically Stalin during his reign and Lenin after Stalin died and was denounced by Nikita S. Khrushchev. Khrushchev, Nikita S.

Artists were forced to conform or suffer the consequences. Several of the most prominent abstractionists had already emigrated before Stalin imposed the monolithic principles of Socialist Realism on the entire creative community. Those who stayed behind either returned to producing works according to the Communist plan or found themselves without supplies for either working or living. Experimentation ceased, and the principles of realism expounded by the Wanderers more than half a century earlier were eagerly embraced by party officials and reluctantly adopted by those who wished to earn their livelihood as painters, sculptors, or artists in any other medium.

At the same time, contact with the West was discouraged, ostensibly to prohibit decadent influences from cheapening Soviet art. Museum collections were purged of offensive works, and books about abstract art were banned from libraries and art academies. Aspiring artists in the Soviet Union were taught that the function of their work was to serve as a means of conveying a socialist message, and that its ideological content was the primary—in some cases the sole—criterion for judging excellence. With no models to guide them in any direction other than that charted by Socialist Realism, the burgeoning artists of the decades between 1930 and 1970 either passively accepted their role as soldiers in the war against capitalism or groped along blindly to fashion works that challenged the bounds of realism or that ignored the demands of the dominant ideology. Striking out in any direction except that charted by the party, however, often proved dangerous. Artists who did so had their works confiscated and destroyed, and they were usually blacklisted by government officials who controlled the assignment of commissions; such commissions represented the only guaranteed source of income for Soviet artists, whose works could not be sent abroad without party approval.

Making matters even worse was the fact that there were no published guidelines for what constituted acceptable art. Only after a work was completed could the artist gain a review by party officials, who would then pass judgment on the work’s adherence to Socialist Realist principles. What could be considered ideologically sound by one group of bureaucrats might be dismissed as wrongheaded and corrupt by another. As the years passed, artists became more and more conservative in their productions. Any strains of genuine creativity that may have existed in the young men and women who followed in the footsteps of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Tatlin during the reigns of Stalin and his successors were effectively stifled, as art became a tool of the party in its battle to liberate the masses from bourgeois domination. Socialist Realism Art;Socialist Realism Soviet Union;art Abstract art;Soviet ban

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bendavid-Val, Leah. Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930’s in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. New York: Edition Stemmle, 1999. Comparison of Soviet Socialist Realist photography of the 1930’s and American photography during the Great Depression. Published in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs held at the Corcoran Gallery in 1999. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. Thoughtful and thoroughly researched examination of the roots of Russian culture, its development under the various czars, and its demise under the Communists. Explains how Socialist Realism is linked to earlier forms of Soviet artistic and architectural styles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Socialist Realist Painting. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Lenghty treatise on Soviet Socialist Realism from 1917 through 1991. Many illustrations, some in color, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carmichael, Joel. A Cultural History of Russia. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968. Examines the culture of Russia from the founding of the nation to the twentieth century. Provides insight into the ways all forms of artistic expression suffered under the control of the Communists, who insisted that art serve the aims of the revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, Charlotte. Swans of Other Worlds: Kazimir Malevich and the Origins of Abstraction in Russia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1976. Analysis of the rise of abstract art in Russia and the initial reaction of Soviet revolutionaries to nonrepresentational works. Outlines the principles on which such art was based. A useful summary of the movement against which Stalin reacted in demanding a return to realism in all the arts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, C. Vaughn. Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973. Outlines the principles on which Socialist Realism was founded. Describes the ways art in the Soviet Union was intended to serve both the people and the party. Traces the origins of the movement to Leninist ideology. Contains useful appendixes by Lenin and the Communist Central Committee on reforms in the arts necessary to make them compatible with socialist aims.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Medvedev, Roy A. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. Study of Communism under the brutal reign of Stalin by a prominent Soviet historian; shows how Stalin’s oppressive policies stifled all forms of creativity. Includes a lengthy chapter on the impact of these policies on the arts and sciences; notes how artists were driven to become puppets of the Communist hierarchy or suffer economic and physical hardships.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salisbury, Harrison E., ed. The Soviet Union: The Fifty Years. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. Collection of essays reviewing the impact of Communist policies on the Soviet Union. Includes a chapter on the arts, focusing on the deadening influence of official policies that stifled creativity and drove artists into exile or underground.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valkenier, Elizabeth. Russian Realist Art: The State and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Studies the influence of the realist tradition in nineteenth century Russia and in the Soviet Union during the twentieth century. Explores the rise of the Wanderers, whose folk style formed the basis of Socialist Realism. Examines the reaction of the abstract schools of art to the Wanderers, the abstractionists’ ascendancy during the early decades of the twentieth century, and their demise under Communist oppression.

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