Global socialist realisms

  • Global socialist realisms

Given that the hard or soft influence of the Soviet Union stretched over a vast part of the globe in the post-war period, we plan to investigate how the ideas of socialist realist and socialist art were adapted or localized in diverse geographical locations.

What were the determinants for individual adaptations? How did the adopted political perspective come into contact with cultural identities and local artistic traditions? What meanings were assigned to socialist art in the geo-historically changing political circumstances?

Mirela Tanta
Commissioned Modernism

When analysing Romanian artistic production between 1965 and 1989, scholars tend to split the artworks into two camps: those objects mimicking the canon of Soviet socialist realism and those artifacts subversive enough to state-commissioned demands to succeed in producing emancipatory objects resembling Western modernism. Viewed within this model, any artwork created during those decades of dictatorship appears either as recycled socialist realism or as a timid imitation of Western modernism. Either way, these two decades of Romanian art production become a peripheral production site oriented toward a centre: Moscow, or Western Europe and North America.

My research complicates this commonplace division and proposes case studies of artists working within the state canon but not necessarily against modernist aesthetics. These misfit artworks were produced during Nicolae Ceauşescu’s revival of pre-1965 Soviet socialist realism. This drastic revival (July Theses 1971) materialized in absurd, subversive examples of commissioned ideology which ironically, instead of restricting the artists, as the dictatorial apparatus seems to have intended, created space for experimentation.

To effectively contextualize these artworks, I believe it is also important to consider the present art scene in Romania by looking at how contemporary artists have appropriated the iconography of the communist regime. How have contemporary Romanian artists shaped the once imposed, now archived, heritage of socialist realist artifacts?

Kate Cowcher
Revolution, Realism and Truth in Ethiopian Art of the 1970s and 80s

Images were central to the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, in which Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and a Marxist-Leninist military regime came to power. Though it was years in the making, the final straw was the revelation of a rural famine which the Emperor was accused of concealing. Photographs, paintings and film were all used to visually indict him for neglect. The revolution significantly impacted artmaking in Ethiopia. Certainly, it ushered in demands for new graphic propaganda, but it also presaged an uncompromising schism between abstract and realist representation, with the latter associated with ‘truth’ and the former with obscured or veiled modes. Culturally, Ethiopia had long prided itself on circuitous, multi-layered communication; the revolution called for new approaches or what Mohammed Girma characterizes as ‘demystification’. In the visual arts, this ensured that realism became the dominant mode.

Appraising the particular cultural politics of Ethiopia in 1974 is key to understanding the ascendancy of realism after the Emperor’s fall. It may be tempting to suggest that Ethiopia’s decisive introduction of ‘socialist realism’ as a style in the late 1970s was a Soviet imposition, given the latter’s arrival as sponsor from 1977 onwards. However, to suggest that the Ethiopia’s realist art was derivative or the result of foreign diktat is to ignore the complexities of the representational crisis that followed 1974, and the particular draw of laborious, figurative representation. Ethiopia’s ‘socialist realism’ was, also, not a rigid formula; artists found room within its bounds to create work that did not overtly support the increasingly brutal military regime’s version of socialist revolution. It was a contradictory aesthetic, which ultimately prompted questions about whether realism was the ‘truthful’, transparent mode it purported to be. This paper explores the complexities of realist representation in the wake of Ethiopia’s revolution and the difficult years that followed.

Anthony Yung
Socialist Realism in China during the 1950s and the early 1960s

In China, Socialist Realism as an artistic style came from the Soviet Union during the mid-1950s, mainly through two events: the nationwide promotion and officialization of the pedagogical model of Pavel Chistyakov in 1955, and the special training class with Konstantin Maksimov at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1955–1957. At about the same time, Socialist Realism as an idea originating from the Soviet Union also became a topic of debate in the field of literary theories, as the relationship between China and the Soviet Union worsened following the programmes of de-Stalinization. The debate concerned whether or not Socialist Realism was a valid artistic doctrine in the changing political circumstances, and how Chinese art and literary workers could make use of it in the critique of the revisionism of the Soviet Union. In the late 1950s, although the Chinese art world became more cautious of the influence of the Soviet Union, the basic principle of realism and the Chistyakov pedagogical model remained unchallenged. On the basis of that, some Chinese artists looked for other sources of influence, leading to a certain diversity in art in the early 1960s. Romanian artist Eugen Popa was invited to teach a class at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou in 1960–1962. Although the class was officially initiated and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, there were mixed reactions to it. Some teachers and students who had a strong faith in the Soviet Union version of Socialist Realism were concerned about the modernist and other “unorthodox” artistic vocabularies that Popa advocated; others were greatly inspired by Popa about a different possibility of Socialist art, especially in terms of expressing individuality and connecting to national artistic traditions. The Popa class and other progressive artists in the early 1960s contributed to broadening the understanding of Socialist Realism to become an idea that allows multiple representations.

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Zheng Shengtian

Zheng Shengtian is an artist, scholar and curator based in Vancouver, Canada. He is the Managing Editor of "Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art", the Adjunct Director of the Institute of Asian Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, a Research Fellow at Simon Fraser University and a Trustee of Asia Art Archive in America. In the 1980s he taught at China Academy of Art in Hangzhou as Professor and Department Chair. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota and at San Diego State University. Since immigrated to Canada in 1990 he was the Chairman of Chinese Canadian Artists Federation in Vancouver, the Secretary of Annie Wong Art Foundation and co-founder of the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Centre A). As an independent curator, he has curated or co-curated numerous exhibitions including Jiangnan - Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art Exhibitions (Vancouver),Shanghai Modern (Munich), the 2004 Shanghai Biennale, Art and China’s Revolution (New York), Landmark (Beijing) and recently, Winds from Fusang toured to USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the Diego Rivera Mural Museum in Mexico City. He was the senior curator for Asia of Vancouver Biennale and won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his curatorial work. He is a frequent contributor to periodicals and catalogues and four volumes of his writing on art and culture were published by China Academy of Art Press in 2013. His artwork has been showing in China, USA, Canada and Russia. Zheng received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2013.

Mirela Tanta

is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Millikin University. Dr Tanta completed her PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a focus in Modern and Contemporary Art, Socialist Realism, and Gender Studies. Prior to Millikin, she taught at Loyola University, Columbia College Chicago, and North Central College. She has received awards and fellowships from UI-Chicago (Institute for the Humanities Dissertation Fellowship, Dean’s Scholar Award), the Mellon Foundation (CLIR) (Mellon Fellowships for Dissertation Research in Original Sources) and the New York ArtsLink Program (International Writing Program at the University of Iowa). Mirela Tanta is currently preparing for her trip to Romania as a Fulbright Scholar for academic year 2021–22. 

Kate Cowcher

is Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews. She completed her PhD at Stanford University in 2017 and was previously Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Maryland's Center for Art and Knowledge at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Her research interests broadly encompass modernist art on the African continent, African art historiography, the impact of the Cold War and Jet Age on African artistic practices. She is currently writing her first book, entitled „Beyond the Feudal Fog: Art and Revolution in Ethiopia”.

Anthony Yung

is senior researcher at Asia Art Archive. His research focuses on the history of contemporary art in Chinese-speaking regions. He was a winner of the Fourth Yishu Awards for Critical Writing on Contemporary Chinese Art (2014) and co-curator of A Hundred Years of Shame: Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations (2015, Para Site Art Space, Hong Kong). Yung is also a cofounder of Observation Society, an independent art space in Guangzhou.

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