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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Expanding Socialist Realism

confrontations28 August 2022

By Magdalena Moskalewicz

In this seminar with three invited guests: Juliette Millbach, Aliya de Tiesenhausen, and Kate Cowcher, we discussed the global implications of Soviet imperialism in the field of art, including Moscow-centered pedagogical models and iconography as well as the international circulation of Soviet-specific imagery across the Global South.

 Juliette Millbach presented on the career of the official soviet painter Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), whose works glorified the collectivization of the countryside embodying the authorized, party-line conception of Soviet rural life.

Aliya de Tiesenhausen problematized the Soviet-era depictions of Kazakhstan that contributed to the stereotype of Central Asia as a vast and mostly uninhabited land, with easily available natural resources (Kazakhstan was the 4th global producer of cotton). Interestingly, as de Tiesenhausen pointed out, while imperial powers typically shy away from openly representing their extraction of resources from their colonies, the Soviet Union’s activities in Central Asia were the subject of art—as in the case of the 1931 painting “Cotton Harvest” by the Tashkent-born and Kyiv-educated painter Alexander Volkov.


Alexander Volkov, Cotton Harvest (1931)

Kate Cowcher discussed the careers of Eshetu Tiruneh and Tadesse Mesfin, two Ethiopian artists who in the 1970s travelled to Moscow to receive Soviet-style art training as a part of a friendship agreement between the two countries. While the artists’ previous work engaged with the imagery of the 1973 famine, conveyed in a realistic and powerful way, the two painters now returned as masters of polished academic style. Cowcher argued compellingly that they became products of late Brezhnev-era art education that had little to do with their earlier revolutionary zeal.

Most fascinatingly, we learned that the legacy of the Soviet-style socialist realism in Ethiopia and Kazakhstan has had a lasting effect on both countries’ art scenes, as evidenced in their contemporary art—that either engages critically with Soviet histories and symbols (Kazakhstan) or continues the extremely detailed and polished painterly style (Ethiopia).