Social Realism By Moore, Catriona; Pei, Eldon; Vladimirsky, Irena; Scott, Phoebe; Moore, Catriona; Pei, Eldon; Vladimirsky, Irena; Scott, Phoebe

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO25-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 23 July 2024, from


Australian Social Realism

Through the economic depression and World War Two, progressive artists were closely aligned with the international anti-Fascist cause. Social realist artists such as Noel Counihan (1913-86), Vic and Ailsa O’Connor (1918–2010; 1921–80), Jacqueline Hick (1919-2004), Nan Hortin (1916-71) and Roy Dalgarno (1910–2001) drew upon realist and expressionist tendencies in European and US modernism to depict universalized expressions of human suffering and hope. They felt this influence most directly through the expressionist canvases of European émigrés like Josl Bergner (b. 1920), Danila Vassilieff (1897–1958) and Sali Herman (1898–1993). Many artists in the Social Realist group were active in the left-leaning Melbourne Contemporary Art Society, where they engaged in heated debates on the social role of modern art. The Social Realists saw themselves as creative witnesses to current events, employing accessible, figurative, and often narrative forms to depict the Australian character, the nature of work, poverty and labour relations, freedom of speech, anti-Semitism, and wartime experiences. Expressive realism was the most economical and creative way to connect directly with audience emotions in order to persuade people to change their minds and to take action.

Through rendering “typical” characters and everyday scenes, Social Realist artists could express and recuperate the fragmented and alienated nature of life under capitalism. They created new and challenging perspectives by painting from the point of view of workers and other marginal groups such as women, migrants, and aborigines. The challenge was to depict recognizable social scenarios and social types that were also richly individualized, as in Hick’s Late Shift Workers (1945). In similar vein, Counihan’s abstracted memory of a family at an unemployed workers’ demonstration during the depression, At the Start of the March, 1932 (1942), connects two dark periods in history (the Depression and WWII) through the unifying figure of a stoic Australian family which pulls together in troubled times. Like many Social Realist figures, they are simultaneously an individual family group and yet represent a collective Australian spirit and generalizable humanist values.

For further bibliographical details of individual artists, see also The Dictionary of Australian Artists Online, at www.daao.org.au

Socialist Realism in China

Socialist Realism was the primary aesthetic doctrine promoted during the 1950s by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Ministry of Culture and the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Adopted from Soviet theory, the principles of Socialist Realism in the PRC closely corresponded to those proclaimed under the same banner in the USSR and Eastern Europe. As elsewhere, the scope of Socialist Realism extended well beyond its origins in literature and painting. It represented an overarching discourse relating cultural production to Marxism-Leninism, particularly in the way the latter was instantiated in the Soviet Union under Stalin. That said, the PRC’s assimilation of Socialist Realism was distinguished by the way Chinese cultural officials and artists confronted two essential, yet contradictory, aspects of the doctrine: its commitment to socialist construction and Internationalism, and its appeal to a concept of “national form.”

Introduced in China as early as 1933 by literary theorist Zhou Yang (周扬) (1908–89), Socialist Realism gained prominence in the People’s Republic after Zhou, in his new capacity as vice-minister of culture, endorsed it in a series of official statements made between 1951 and 1953. The term was even inserted subsequently into new editions of Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” replacing Mao’s original invocation of “proletarian realism.” As with contemporaneous initiatives in industry, agriculture, and science, promotion of Socialist Realism coincided with the party-state’s call to assimilate the experience of more technologically advanced socialist countries—particularly the Soviet Union—in order to hasten the PRC’s development and accelerate its timeline for overtaking and surpassing the achievements of capitalist nations.

One of the clearest instances of this emerged in the medium of oil painting. In 1952, PRC art academies began actively to promote Soviet art, art theory, and art pedagogy as models for Chinese practitioners. From 1953 to 1962, such efforts expanded to entail sending Chinese artists to study at the Repin Art Academy in Leningrad and hosting Soviet and East European artists as instructors in the PRC. The first and most influential of these was Soviet oil painter Konstantin M. Maksimov (1913–93), who taught a class of more than twenty students in Beijing from 1955 to 1957. Soviet-trained Chinese artists became prominent in the PRC cultural establishment. On completing their studies, many occupied important administrative and teaching posts throughout the country and they participated actively in the state-sponsored history painting campaigns of 1958, 1961, and 1964. Chief among these artists was Luo Gongliu (罗工柳) (1916–2004), who spent three years in Leningrad, 1955 to 1958. Following his return to Beijing, Luo headed a prestigious oil painting studio at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and taught a second specialized course in Soviet-style painting from 1961 to 1963.

As a result of such efforts, an eclectic combination of nineteenth-century European painting and drawing traditions, processed through the filter of Russian taste and modified according to the needs of Socialist state power, became a vital part of the basic training for oil painters in the PRC. Simultaneously, however, the putative universality of Socialist Realism as a doctrine for Marxist-Leninist art stood in growing tension with an equally strong ideological demand for forms of cultural production more coterminous with the nation’s own heritage. This demand, articulated in calls for art that displayed “national characteristics” and appeared “national in form,” had in fact been central to Mao Zedong’s own political and aesthetic views and to Soviet Socialist Realism as originally conceived in the 1930s. Additionally, increasing estrangement between Chinese and Soviet leaders, beginning with the latter’s denouncement of Stalinism in 1956, contributed a pressing geopolitical dimension to the perceived need for promoting endogenous art practices.

The volatile development of ink painting during the 1950s staged this conflicted aspect of Socialist Realism in an exemplary way. After the establishment of the People’s Republic, the powerful cadres placed in charge of reforming China’s art academies viewed traditional Chinese painting as a moribund remnant of the old social order. It and its practitioners were programmatically marginalized as pedagogy structured around oil painting assumed priority. Cultural authorities enjoined ink painters to transform their practice by turning to contemporary subjects, creating imagery that extolled the progressiveness of socialist society and adopting techniques of composition, perspective, modelling, and foreshortening derived from European art. Soviet-style drawing instruction became part of the mandatory curriculum for ink painting students, and recalcitrant artists, often older practitioners, found themselves subject to criticism, ostracism, and dismissal.

During the time of the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956), however, appreciation for Chinese ink painting as a valuable national tradition resurfaced, with vocal support from high-ranking officials, including Zhou Yang, Premier Zhou Enlai, and Mao Zedong himself. Following the initial phase of the subsequent Anti-Rightist Movement (1957–59), Party authorities again rehabilitated ink painting, this time with even firmer institutional sponsorship. Notably, they re-christened the medium guohua (国画), or national painting, and examples of reformed approaches to its practice achieved parity with respect to oil painting in the official history painting campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

While the centrality of Socialist Realism eroded in the more inclusive climate of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, PRC cultural authorities, unlike their counterparts in the Soviet Union, did not finally repudiate the doctrine. Zhou Yang’s synoptic 1960 report to the Third National Conference of Chinese Literary and Art Workers included a forceful defense of Socialist Realism, even while simultaneously reaffirming a shift—already underway since 1958—towards the alternative formulation “integrating revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.” The rhetorical eclipse of Socialist Realism during the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) crucially highlights the fact that the doctrine, with its Soviet-inspired emphasis on developmentalism, represented only one aspect of Maoist ideological practice. Subsequent PRC aesthetic discourse would increasingly emphasize other theoretical concepts, particularly Mao’s notion of class struggle. Nevertheless, while the period of its explicit promulgation was brief, pedagogical methods and iconography promoted in the name of Socialist Realism would have an enduring impact on PRC art throughout the Mao era and beyond.

Socialist Realism in Russia

Socialist Realism was a term used to characterise the state of art and literature in the USSR during the 1930s-1950s. Socialist Realism was defined as a fundamental method of socialist art, literature and criticism that demanded from artists a “truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development” (Kenez 157). Truthfulness and a historical reality of socialist life as reflected in art was intended to help in educating of Soviet citizens in the spirit of the revolutionary socialist-Marxist ideology.

The official definition of Socialist Realism was accepted by the First Congress of the Soviet Writers in 1934. First steps towards the new socialist art were undertaken during the 1920s with the establishment of the Association of Revolutionary painters and VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art-Technical Workshop). New Art associations required that their members show everyday life of ordinary citizens of the new social order: workers, peasants, Red Army men, party and Soviet leaders and Bolshevik revolution heroes.

Since 1934, Socialist Realism was defined as the only form of art creation and became the official guideline for art and literature and the sole criteria by which the validity of any literary or art creation was appreciated. From then on, art and literature were regarded solely as instruments of Communist propaganda. They were intended to reflect, or to describe, the brighter sides of life under Communism. Socialist Realism was accepted as the only officially accepted form and non-socialist realist art and literary works were rejected by Communists as the expression of bourgeois decadence.

Socialist Realism was based on three main principles. First was a national character that was intended to make art understandable to ordinary citizens, such as workers and peasants. The second was to connect art images to proper ideological content. Artists were expected to show the peaceful everyday life of Soviet citizens, heroic deeds of workers, peasants, and soldiers involved in the construction of a new and improved society for humanity. The third principle was the principle of actuality. Artists were required to be objective in their descriptions of everyday reality in its historical development, following the requirements of a materialistic understanding of history and class struggle of working people for a better life. According to Marxist postulates, changes of existence determine changes in consciousness and the vision of existing reality.

Realism was defined as the basic method of socialist art. Socialist realism was expected to use the heritage of world realistic art, connect art works with everyday reality and make art a mirror of socialist transformation of society. Every artist was required to demonstrate an understanding of socialist reconstruction processes in their dialectical development and interaction. The main emphasize was placed on positive heroes, true builders of a better society and Communist paradise on earth.

The Communist Party and the Soviet State limited art to narrow frames of strictly defined rules and restrictions and implemented administrative sanctions against unwilling tendencies in art, literature and architecture. Distinguished artists were encouraged by creative commissions provided by the All Union Houses of Art Work at the outskirts of Moscow or on the shores of the Black Sea. Party and Soviet authorities took responsibility for organization of art exhibitions and provided necessary living conditions for the Soviet artists. Freedom of art creativity was confined to technical methods of painting and choice of the color palette. Party and Soviet organizations became the main customers of Socialist Realism paintings and sculptures. Works of Socialist Realism were mandatory in every public place, party and administrative building, school, kindergarten and hospital.

Isaac Brodsky (1883-1939), a student of Ilya Repin should be mentioned among outstanding representatives of Socialist Realism. He was known for his gallery of portrayals of Soviet and party leaders, mostly Vladimir Lenin and paintings dedicated to the events of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) was famous for his universal art craft. He was known for his paintings, watercolors, graphics, illustrations, sculptures and teaching. His favorite subject was Soviet youth. Alexander Deineka (1899-1969) was a painter, graphic designer and sculptot. His paintings depict scenes of sports and labor events. His set of mosaics became the decoration of Maykovskaya Metro Station in Moscow which was opened in 1938. Pavel Korin (1892-1967) was born to the family of an icon-painter, was a student of Mikhail Nesterov and Konstantin Korovin and was known for his monumental paintings (Alexander Nevsky) and restoration work. Dmitry Nalbandyan (1906-1993) was given the nickname of “the first paint brush” of the Communist leadership, mostly for his portraits of Josef Stalin and his close surroundings.

Socialist Realism became a fundamental art principle in the countries of Eastern Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland) and Far East (China, Vietnam, North Korea). Socialist Realism became a substitute for existing reality. In the place of true reality the artists offered a myth of an imaginable reality as envisioned by the Communist dream.

Socialist Realism in Visual Art, Vietnam

Socialist Realism was the dominant style in the visual arts of North Vietnam, from 1945 to the early 1980s. The style was widely promoted following the 1945 revolution through the writing of Truong Chinh (1907–88), a senior Vietnamese Communist Party member and leading theoretician. Socialist Realism in Vietnamese visual art is characterized by its easily decipherable, realist style, optimistic tone, and generally limited range of subject matter: portraits of Ho Chi Minh, scenes of industrial and rural work, soldiers, and historical events associated with Vietnam’s revolutionary development. While Socialist Realism in Vietnam was influenced by art from other socialist states, the style was also adapted to local aesthetics, especially the artistic foundations of the École des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine (1925–45), and influences from popular painting and printmaking. Socialist Realism in Vietnam retained several elements of colonial-period art, such as the techniques of silk and lacquer painting, and the influence of Impressionistic oil painting. Decades of war in Vietnam also affected the development of Socialist Realism, as many artists had to work primarily on producing ephemeral propaganda materials. Socialist Realism retained its primacy in North Vietnamese art until the 1980s.

Although interest in Socialist Realism in Vietnam predates the revolution, the style had no substantial influence on the visual arts until after 1945. During the First Indochina War (1946–54), the Vietnamese Communist Party’s ideological position on culture was set by the Party theorist and political leader Truong Chinh, through writings like the Theses on Culture (1943) and Marxism and Vietnamese Culture (1948). Influenced by Mao Zedong, Truong Chinh argued that Vietnamese art should be targeted at workers, peasants, and soldiers and should promote the development of a socialist society. He specified Socialist Realism as the preferred style in the arts and vigorously rejected Modernist formal experimentation. However, not all artists received the Party’s framework uncritically: for example, the painter To Ngoc Van (1906–54) published some articles arguing for greater artistic freedom in the late 1940s.

During the war, many artists joined the Viet Minh resistance movement against France and moved into the mountainous areas of northern Vietnam. The works they produced there can be considered the first phase of Socialist Realism in Vietnamese art. However, due to the extreme material shortages caused by the war, most artists were unable to produce major artworks during this period. Instead, they sketched the activities of farmers and soldiers and made prints promoting various political campaigns. Stylistic and technical developments in the arts were minimal, although a studio for revolutionary lacquer painting was briefly established by To Ngoc Van and Nguyen Thu Nghiem (b. 1919).

Once peace was restored in 1954, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) began to establish new cultural institutions. The use of Socialist Realist style was strongly tied to the state-based system of art production and display. From 1957, visual artists were organised into an Artist’s Association (Hoi My Thuat). Without a private art market, artists made their living through a stipend paid through the Association. The Association was also the main channel for the organisation of art exhibitions, thus exercised a strong influence over artistic production. The post-war period also brought more contact between artists from Vietnam and other Socialist countries. Vietnamese artists were sent overseas to study or exhibit their work in the Socialist countries, and in the early 1960s, teachers from the Soviet Union came to teach at the University of Fine Arts, Hanoi. However, despite this increase in international contacts, there was also a deliberate emphasis on retaining national character in the visual arts.

Improved material conditions after 1954 meant that artists were now able to develop large-scale works of Socialist Realism. Some artists conducted further research into lacquer, creating large lacquer paintings on themes such as wartime victories, Vietnamese history, and idealized images of workers and farmers. A significant example is the large 1957 painting Xo Viet Nghe Tinh (Nghe Tinh Soviets), representing an anti-colonial movement of the 1920s, which was collaboratively painted in lacquer by six prominent Vietnamese artists, from a sketch by Nguyen Duc Nung (1909–83). Certain artists—such as Nguyen Sang and Nguyen Tu Nghiem—managed to combine their personal, modernist-inflected styles with the requirements of Socialist Realism, although the results were sometimes criticized. By contrast, an example of a critically acclaimed work from the period is the gouache painting Gap Go (Meeting), by Mai Van Hien, which was appreciated for its positive tone, simple style, bright color, and message of cooperation between soldiers and civilians. Painting on silk continued to be practiced, using the techniques developed at the EBAI but capturing the lives of workers, farmers, and soldiers, for instance in the works of Nguyen Thu (b. 1930) and Vu Giang Huong (1930–2011). Large-scale public monumental sculpture also appeared after 1954, and the sculptors Nguyen Hai (1933–2012), Diep Minh Chau (1919–2002), and Le Cong Thanh (b. 1932) were especially well known for their work on sculptures with revolutionary subject matter.

As the activity of the Second Indochina war increased in the mid-1960s, artists were less able to devote themselves fully to art, as many had to serve as soldiers or factory workers. The government began to devote most of its cultural resources to the production of propaganda materials. Poster production began on a larger scale in the late 1960s, with studios set up in the area around Hanoi. The aesthetics of Vietnamese propaganda posters had several different influences and sources: the painterly sensibility of the EBAI, the influence of local folk printing aesthetics, and a bolder, high-contrast, graphic style which was associated with the younger generation of artists who had returned from study in other socialist countries.

Following the end of the Second Indochina War and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, Socialist Realism became the official style for the whole of Vietnam. Many large-scale works were made in this period, commemorating the war in a heroic and Realist mode. Artworks were also developed on the themes of economic development and industrialization, shifting the emphasis from the rural and agricultural themes of previous decades. From the early 1980s, however, artists increasingly began to contest the rigidity and primacy of Socialist Realist style, even within institutional contexts. This anticipated the official shift in government policy from 1986 through the policies of Doi Moi (Renovation). In the years following Doi Moi, most artists moved away from Socialist Realism towards wide-ranging experimentation with different styles and practices. The principal area in which Socialist Realist aesthetics persist in Vietnam is in the public posters and promotional materials for government social campaigns. Socialist Realist poster art from the wartime period also has a popular second life as souvenirs for the tourist market.

Further Reading

  • Andrews, J.F. (1994) Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Bown, M. (1991) Art under Stalin, New York: Holems & Meier Publishers.

  • Bown, M. and Lanfranconi, M. (2012) Socialist Realism: Great Soviet Painting 1920–1970, Milano: Sira.

  • Chinh, T. (1977) 'Marxism and Vietnamese Culture: Report delivered at the Second National Cultural Conference, July 1948', in Truong Chinh, Selected Writings, Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, pp. 217–296.

  • Clark, J. (1991) 'Realism in Revolutionary Chinese Painting', Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, 22/23(1): 1–30.

  • Clark, K. (2011) Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Gorky, M. and Radek, K. (1977) Soviet Writers' Congress, 1934: The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

  • Grays, B. and Rougle, C. (2011) The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, New York: Verso.

  • Haese, R. (1981) Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Melbourne: Allen Lane.

  • Hayward Gallery (1988) Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s, London: Hayward Gallery.

  • James, C. and Vanghan, J. (1973) Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory, London: St. Martin's Press.

  • Kenez, P. (1992) Ciname and Soviet Society, 1917–1953, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Laing, E.J. (1988) The Winking Owl: Art in the People’s Republic of China, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Merewether, C. (1984) Art & Social Commitment: An End to the City of Dreams 1931–194, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

  • Ninh, K.N.B. (2002) A World Transformed: the Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945–1965, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

  • O’Connor, A. (1982) “Why Realism?” Unfinished Work: Articles and Notes on Women and the Politics of Art, Melbourne: Greenhouse Publications.

  • Paperno, I. and Grossman, J.D. (1994) Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Prokhanov, G. (1995) Art under Socialist Realism: Soviet Painting 1930–1950, New York: Craftsman House.

  • Taylor, N.A. (2001) 'Framing the National Spirit: Viewing and Reviewing Painting under the Revolution', in Tai, H.-T.H. (ed.) The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Taylor, N.A. (2009) Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese, Singapore: Art NUS Press.

  • Terz, A. (1982) The Trial Begins and On Socialist Realism, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Trung, P. and Huong, B.N. (2005) Modern Vietnamese Art [My Thuat Viet Nam Hien Dai ], Hanoi: Fine Arts Publishing House.

  • Yang, L. (1996) 'Socialist Realism” versus “Revolutionary Realism plus Revolutionary Romanticism', in Chung, H. (ed.) In the Party Spirit: Socialist Realism and Literary Practice in the Soviet Union, East Germany and China, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 88–105.

  • Zhang, X. (1997) 'The Power of Rewriting: Postrevolutionary Discourse on Chinese Socialist Realism', in Lahusen, T. and Dobrenko, E. (eds) Socialist Realism without Shores, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 282–309.

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Moore, Catriona et al. Social Realism. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/social-realism.

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