ARTMargins Online Blog

The Politicized Portrait in the Unofficial Culture of the former Soviet Union Part 1

In this text I focus on the (mis)uses of official portraiture in the unofficial or underground culture in the former Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. Usually working under dangerous and unstable conditions, some artists produced highly original artworks that self-consciously invoked the cult of political leaders at the time, revealing the inherent artificiality and enduring influence of their portraits on the collective imaginary. Photography played a key role in artists' representation, manipulation and re-staging. Before engaging in an analysis of their process through selected case studies, a discussion of Socialist Realist portraiture and its importance in Soviet history is required, for the aforementioned unofficial artists consistently challenged this tradition, while at the same time critically echoing it in their works.

From the beginning of the 1930s and up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Socialist Realism was the officially recognized creative strategy for all Soviet artists. According to the official characterization, Socialist Realist art had to be realistic in form and Socialist in content, a highly fluid definition that defined the livelihood of all Soviet artists for more than half a decade. Up to the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the officially sanctioned artistic methods and styles narrowed increasingly.

34 morning_of_our_motherland_shurpin_1952_oilcanvas1

Fyodor Shurpin, The Dawn of our Morhterland, oil on canvas, 1946-1948

One of the most important and popular Socialist Realist works of the Stalin era is "The Dawn of Our Motherland," (1948), realized by Russian artist Fyodor Shurpin, who received the "Stalin Prize," the highest honor to be bestowed upon an artist in the Soviet Union for this work. (1) Shurpin captured the monumental figure of Stalin bathed in the golden light of dawn, towering over an open field which is both fertile, well organized and marked by industrialization. In this large-scale portrait, which is also a landscape, Shurpin both intuited the self-aggrandizing role the dictator envisioned for himself and enhanced that representation, by connecting the subjectivity of the leader to the prosperity of the country, and even visually conferring him the role of master over the natural world, serenely gazing outside of the picture plane, into the future. Stalin's features are serene, yet resolute, as his dawns his trademark white military tunic, a mark of his unquestionable authority. At the time that it was produced, Shurpin's portrait was praised both for its keeping with the magnificence and grandeur of the dictator (in line with his cult of personality) but also for projecting a vision of a peaceful and glorious future of the Soviet Union under his command (the industrialized landscape, marked by order and prosperity.) Very few deviations from this version of reality were permitted in the art of the time, and those that challenged the order of things were severely punished through detention, hard labor and even death.

After 1953, when Stalin's despotism was denounced within the Communist Party, the general atmosphere in arts and culture also became more inclusive, allowing other approaches to Socialist Realism, though these never crystallized into a coherent aesthetic. This was the so-called "Thaw" or "De-Stalinization" period. As philosopher Boris Groys observed, although Socialist Realism never amounted to a rigorously defined style during this time, it also never became inclusive enough to accept challenges from other artistic styles.(2)

Also during the Thaw, unofficial artist communities began to emerge across the Soviet Union. These were to some degree tolerated by the authorities, though these artists never received official recognition as artists in their own right. This meant that they did not have the right to have a studio, to exhibit works or be published in catalogues. Through unofficial networks, artists managed to by-pass strict censorship laws and reach audiences, although these underground exhibitions happened under conditions of secrecy and even duress.

This brings me to two important concepts to keep in mind when discussing official and unofficial portraiture in the Soviet Union: audiences and reception. Socialist Realist portraiture was never primarily intended to become part of a classical art circuit: that is for museums, galleries, collectors or connoisseurs – or to be reproduced in the pages of survey books and catalogues. There was no art market in the contemporary sense of the term within which these works could circulate. Instead, this type of portraiture was created for the consumption of the Soviet State, which used it to appeal to the masses, in order to educate, inspire and ultimately control. It was part of a very ambitious project which sought to subsume all public space under a single aesthetic.

Socialist Realist Portraiture was not meant for the individual beholder to contemplate in a pristine environment, but for mass distribution and reproduction. Indeed, successful portraits made by Soviet artists were widely replicated in posters, magazines, books; they were displayed at official parades and rallies, and in virtually every public institution; they were also hung in people's homes. Within this scenario, political figures' portraits appeared in compositions with only the slightest variation to officially sanctioned models, as if they were produced by the same hands, over and over again. Mythical, monumental, timeless, portraits of state leaders, politicians and the proponents of Marxism–Leninism including the iconic image of Karl Marx himself, occupied public space in an aggressive, totalizing way. What is important to observe then is that these portraits were always meant for wide and heterogeneous audience and in dialogue with a collective that it claimed to represent and guide towards a glorious future.

In the series "Red,"(1968-1975) and "Sots Art" (1975-1986) Ukrainian-born artist Boris Mikhailov, who worked in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) and Moscow as a self-taught photographer, captured the presence of Socialist Realist portraiture in virtually every aspect of Soviet Life. Through the so-called "stagnation" of the 1970s and early 1980s, his camera witnessed these developments as they unfolded as a series of spectacles, re-affirming the mythological figures of the political elite in the Communist Party, past and present. Mikhailov's works from this time were not merely documentary - but highly suggestive of the absurdity and contradictions of official parades, solemn marches and the cult of leaders. Working within the tradition of conceptual art, prevalent in unofficial Moscow art circles, Mikhailov used special tint and dies to color negatives, queering monotonous photographs of ever-day life in an ireverential manner. Painting over the features of Socialist Realist portraits in public locals, and over those of the Communist elites that carried them in a deferential way, Mikhailov unsettled the artifice behind the public spectacle framed by these works of art, ridiculing their fixed utopian dimensions.


Boris Mikhailov, From the Sots Art Series, gelatin silver print hand-colored with aniline dyes, 1981


Boris Mikhailov, from the series “Sots Art,” gelatin silver print hand-colored with aniline dyes, 1975-1986, Norton Dodge Collection

Today, Mikhailov's works, together with others that defined themselves largely against the aesthetic of Socialist Realism have almost passed onto the realm of legend. They have been taken from their original context, and are currently part of international collections like the Norton Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union housed at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, NJ. Neither the artistic struggles nor the conditions of censorship under which the portraits discussed here were created exist anymore; instead these so-called non-conformist art works are re-framed in a contemporary art circuit whose audiences for the most part far removed both from the reality of Soviet existence and the history of this region.

My goal is to re-construct part of the context and some of the connotations these unconventional portraits had at the time of they were produced, looking at a selection of material from the 1970s through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Namely, I will focus on portraits by unofficial artists, in which they directly engage with prescribed, iconic representations of political figures from the Soviet Union's long history – troubling far-reaching myths that held this visual culture together for more than half a century. Ironic, provocative, humorous, while at times nostalgic for a vanished epoch, these works are commentaries not only on the Soviet visual culture which I have outlined before, but more generally, on the ways portraits can be deployed to summon the authority and legitimacy of the state, subsuming the collective through metonymic processes of identification.


End Notes

(1) Mark Bassin, The Morning of our Motherland: Fyodor Shurpin's Portrait of Stalin, in Valerie Ann Kivelson, Joan Neuberger, eds., Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pg. 214-217.

(2) See Groys’ discussion of Socialist Art under Stalin’s regime in, “The Stalinist Art of Living,” in Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, (London Verso Books, 2011 ), pg. 33-56. 

Corina L. Apostol
Author: Corina L. ApostolWebsite: Country: Romania
Corina Apostol (B.A., Duke University, M.A. Rutgers University) is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at Rutgers University - New Brunswick, with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia. She holds a Dodge Fellowship, working as a curatorial assistant for the Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Museum. She is the co-founder of Art Leaks, an organization which fights for artists rights in the workforce, and co-editor of the ArtLeaks Gazette. Corina contributes to The Long April. Texts About Art, IDEA Arts+Society and Arta.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button