Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Polish Socialist Realism

Socialist Realism, an art ideology enforced by the Soviet state as the official standard for art, literature etc., was defined in 1934 at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet writers. It was based on the principle that the arts should glorify political and social ideals of communism. (Slogan on painting above says: ‘Our young hearts are beating for our nation'.)

It covered all areas of the arts including music, all the visual arts, writing.

Introduced after the Soviets ‘liberated’ Poland after WW II, lasting up until the late 1950s, socialist realism, in practice, was mostly a patronizing celebration of all things ugly and pompous.

Whereas art directly after the Bolshevik revolution was avant gardist, challenging, modernist, socialist realism was made to be 'simple' - in the same way that the word 'accessible' means to today's liberal - so even ‘simple workers’ could understand its meaning.

In popular music this led to songs being produced with lyrics about happy tractors and steel mills. I imagine the lyrics went something like:

We love concrete, we love steel,
We love working in the fields,
Hey ho, hey, ho!

We love working down the mine,
We love working all the time!
Hey, ho, hey ho!

We love building roads of tar
For General Secretary’s big car
Hey ho, hey ho!

Socialist realist architects were the biggest criminals. You can avoid a rotten painting by not going to a gallery; you can avoid crap music by covering your ears, but architectural monstrosities cannot be so easily ignored.

Here is a selection of some of the wonderful stuff you can still see in Warsaw today.

Palace of Culture and Science: This is the Stalinist legacy by which everything else should be measured. It was a gift from Stalin. The Poles didn’t want it, but you don’t refuse a present from Uncle Joe. Not unless you actually appreciate the outdoor life in a gulag, that is.

Around its base, and on the outside of various other buildings (the Stalinist plac konstytucji having so many of these figures you could fill up a Communist Party Congress with them) are homoerotic, in the same way as when George Orwell in Road to Wigan Pier describes miners taking a shower after a hard days grind at the coal face. These figures are meant to represent the strength of the proletariat but they just end up looking a bit camp.


michael farris said...

One of my biggest character flaws is an absolute love or propaganda (even when I rationally know the system that produced it is evil).

I love socialist realist art* and I love the palace of culture.

*in its place, if that were all that was available I'd crawl up the side of the palce of culture I love so much and jump off

beatroot said...

Yeah, I love it too. But I think that we foreigners see it different. For us it is retro chic...

sonia said...

I hate Communism, but I have a soft spot for socialist realism. True, a lot of it is pure kitch, but there are also some genuine masterpieces, like this portrait...

Frank Partisan said...

Trotsky was always a vigorous opponent of socialist realism. He denounced the idea of proletarian art.

See: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1924/lit_revo/index.htm

beatroot said...

The Place of Culture is very controversial here. What to do with it? Many want to knock it down, cleanse Warsaw of Stalinism like they want to cleanse public life with a new ‘decommunization’ law.

But others want the palace to stay. And that’s because, even if these works are pretty awful in many ways (the arrogance of them!) what came after socialist realism WAS EVEN WORSE!

I am gonna do two other posts about architecture – one about ‘what happened next (sixties concrete horror) and what is happening now – which still leaves a lot to be desired.

Becca said...

I love those MDM statues - retro chic indeed, but their campness just makes me want to laugh out loud with delight

BEING HAD said...

I go with Michael Ferris: I like it. And of course we have a lot of it is Minsk for sure. In Pinsk, you can't throw a rock without hitting a war memorial, but only a couple of them are the great, blocky, emotional "strength of man" types. I used to think that these pieces were designed with intentional flaws in them as well so as to show the humanity of the artist i.e., that he wasn't better than the next guy.

sonia said...

The greatest masterwork of socialist realism I ever saw was the Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd. The largest statue is truly impressive.

beatroot said...

Mamayev Kurgan is the greatest statue. No dount.

Greatest Monument Never Built award goes to the Palace of Soviets - 150 metres high with Lenin on the top like a christmas fairy.


moris said...

From wich artist and when was the picture with the three young people made?
Thanks for an answer