Towards socialist art:
Modernism, socialist realism and soc-modernism

  • Towards socialist art:

Demands for humanism, evoking difficult social conditions and new socio-political orders, revived in the post-war world.

From Latin America, through democratic France, to Central and Eastern Europe, where communism had just being introduced, the question of the place of engaged art was raised. Therefore, we ask: How were artists able to combine modern form with ideological content? How did socialist (and socialist realist) art respond to the postulates of post-war humanism?


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Éric de Chassey

Director of the l'Institut national d'histoire de l'art (INHA) in Paris (since 2016), between 2009-2015 he was the head of French Academy in Rome - Villa Medici. He is also Professor of Contemporary Art History at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon. Since the beginning, his scientific activities have focused on a cultural area - the US- and a theme- abstract art. But he has also worked on Matisse, photography, the history of transnational artistic relationships, the notions of tradition and resistance in reception, as well as the relationships between art and society, from the beginning of the XXth century to the present. His research has been publicised through books, symposia and exhibitions. He has published books and essays on XXth and XXIst century art, among them La violence décorative: Matisse et les Etats-Unis (1998), La peinture efficace, Une histoire de l'abstraction aux États-Unis, 1910-1960 (2001), Pascal Pinaud, Transpainting (2003), Eugène Leroy, Autoportrait (2004), Platitudes, Une histoire de la photographie plate (2006), Olivier Debré, monographie (2007), Marcia Hafif, Italian Paintings 1961-1969 (2010), Philippe Gronon (2010) and Pour l'Histoire de l'Art (2011).

Jérôme Bazin

Associate professor at Paris-Est Créteil University. He works on art and architecture in socialist countries in the perspective of the social history of art. He has published books and articles in this area, for instance the books Réalisme et égalité (2015) about East Germany and Art beyond borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe (1945-1989) (2016).


Joanna Kordjak

Art historian and curator at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. Her main research area is 20th-century Polish art, with a focus on the post-war period. She is the author or co-author of numerous exhibitions, such as The Map: Artistic Migrations and the Cold War (2013), Cosmos Calling! Art and Science in the Long 1960s (2014), Just After the War (2015) and The Future Will Be Different: Visions and Practices of Social Modernization (2018), and editor of the accompanying publications.


Chương-Đài Võ

Researcher at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, where she supervises the digital acquisition of archives on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. A former Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, she will undertake a research residency with Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris in 2021. Her talk for this panel is part of a larger project on modernisms in Vietnam, 1900–1975: situating the construction of the modern in syncretic practices and the development of multiple styles in North Vietnam and South Vietnam. This project looks at art schools, periodicals, and exhibitions as primary sites of art-history making.


Tatiana Flores

Professor of Art History and Latino and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and Director of Visual and Performing Arts at Rutgers’ Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities. She is the author of the award-winning volume Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: From Estridentismo to ¡30-30! (Yale University Press, 2013) and curator of the critically acclaimed exhibition Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago (Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA, 2017). She is currently President of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (ASAP).

Jérôme Bazin and Joanna Kordjak
Post-war humanism and the peasant issue

In post-war Central and Eastern Europe, the humanist perspective was challenged not only by the framework of socialist dictatorships, but also by the main social feature of this area: peasants still represented the majority of the population. The peasantry were regarded as a poor and uneducated part of society, which was expected to shrink during the industrialization, urbanization and “modernization” of these societies. The humanist empathy for the needy clashed with a general distaste for the “idiocy of rural life,” shared by many politicians and intellectuals.

Images of peasants are interesting to consider in this regard. We will present two cases. First, the unfinished film by Joanna Kozicka Along the Banks of the Vistula (1954)—this unedited visual material offers intriguing images of peasants. Second, a linocut from Mexico representing Mexican peasants, acquired by the National Gallery in Sofia—images from a brother country like Mexico provide an opportunity to look at the peasant issue from a different perspective.

Despite the differences, both images have two points in common: the iconography of the suffering peasants and the uncertain relationship to time—we do not know if they represent the past or the present situation. More generally, both are interesting to discuss, because we do not know exactly how they approached the peasant issue.

Chương-Đài Võ
From the academy to revolution

This talk will chart the development of Hanoi modernism through from the 1920s to the 1950s, from the French colonial era to the post-1945 revolutionary period. L’École des Beaux-arts de l’Indochine (EBAI) opened in 1924 on the ideals of mission civilisatrice and Neo-classicism. The school became a meeting of the French academic model with pre-colonial aesthetic traditions seen in pagodas, communal houses, scroll paintings and woodblock printing—leading to Vietnamese forms of realism. The school closed during World War II, and reassembled as Trường Cao Đẳng Mỹ Thuật [School of Fine Arts] in the far northern jungles with EBAI alumni as faculty and Tô Ngọc Vân as director. During these turbulent years, Vietnamese artists, writers and intellectuals debated the definition of modernism and socialist realism in discussions about material and form, and through their production of works that sifted the state’s prescription of socially engaged art.

Tatiana Flores

Afro-Muralism: Against Black Erasure in Modern Mexican Figurative Painting

In 1810, at the launch of Mexico’s independence movement, ten percent of the country’s population was Afro-descendant, including two of war’s most celebrated generals, José María Morelos and Vicente Guerrero. By the end of the nineteenth century, Afro-Mexicans had become invisible in the national imaginary. The treatise The Cosmic Race, published in 1925 by Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos, was the most famous among a slew of texts that imagined Mexican nationality as predicated on racial mixing (mestizaje) between Indigenous and European. In Vasconcelos’ version, the mixing of these two groups would create a superior race. Blacks did not factor in.

The Mexican State embraced mestizaje as the key to a unified nation, following the social divisions that culminated in the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Certain muralists, however, chief among them Fernando Leal and, to a lesser extent, Fermín Revueltas, engaged in a critical dialogue with nationalism as envisioned by the state, which flattened Indigenous diversity and erased Afro-Mexicans. Their murals, which were among the first that launched the mural movement, embraced an oppositional view towards state-sanctioned nationalism. Revueltas daringly imaged the Virgin of Guadalupe as Black, while Leal challenged the myth of racial harmony fostered by mestizaje.

Anti-Blackness is prevalent throughout Latin America, manifesting at minimum as Black erasure. In subsequent murals, Leal foregrounded Afro-descendant characters in hemispheric histories, such as in his mural cycle on the life of South American independence hero Simón Bolívar” (1930-33) and in the destroyed mural Neptune Enchained (1936). He also painted Black angels in his mural cycle on the Virgin of Guadalupe (1945-50). The anti-racist position Leal adopted was notable for its time and place and unique in its consistency over the course of his career. This paper will unpack the artist’s depiction of Black characters against the prevailing atmosphere of anti-Blackness in Mexico and across the Americas during his lifetime.

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