Socialist realism: The History of Russian art in 15 paintings


Execution of the Twenty-Six Baku Commissars by Isaak Brodsky, 1925
Execution of the Twenty-Six Baku Commissars by Isaak Brodsky, 1925


Over a span of several decades social realism dominated and was in fact the only legitimate artistic style in the Soviet Union. Artists were to mirror reality as it was, “in its historic and revolutionary development” and in conformity with the “task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.”

After the perestroika in the mid 70s, the Soviet ways were wryly criticized, the paintings, which only recently were considered to be model, mocked and laughed at and their painters stigmatized as the “voice of the blood-thirsty regime.”

It is remarkable how artists took such eager criticism. For instance, Vladimir Gremitsky who painted the world-famous portraits of Soviet leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, “would hit the roof each time he heard the word ‘socialist,’” his son Alexander said. “So, I’m a social realist,” he would spurt out, “And Velasquez is a late feudal one, and Rembrandt is an early capitalist one, right? Nonsense! Total rubbish! Stop pinning labels. You say we painted on orders. And you think Velazquez fooled around the town with his easel and – bam! – The Pope right in his way. And he was like ‘hey, what a good model to paint. I’ll totally do without any royalties, because I’m a free artist.”

There are many ways to treat social realism. But one can’t deny that, despite its political and social context, it was a great school of art, the best realism art school of the 20th century.


“I took after Repin in his attitude to art, in his love and serious approach towards creativity as the métier for life.”

Isaak Brodsky

“Oh, how lavish and boring is his life! You stumble across Lenin’s portraits of all colors and sizes, big and small, hanging all around the hall, while the execution of Baku commissars haunts you in the dining room, which he uses as his studio… Brodsky is very nice, though. To live a good, prosperous life and afford buying paintings you evidently have to draw executions and craft Lenins, Lenins, Lenins… Again, a petty bourgeois who is trying to protect his right to a petty bourgeois life, hiding behind an alien psychology at all times…
I thought about that slender, graceful, young artist, whose portraits and panel pictures used to have such unmatchable music to them. His talent vanished for good, together with his wisp waist and pale complexion.”

Kornei Tschukovsky, a writer

“Brodsky’s Soviet-era works showed deep, avant-guard ideological traits. Brodsky encompassed Soviet art as a realist painter, who dedicated his entire life to revolution and whose works reflected real revolutionary events and portrayed outstanding Bolshevik and Soviet leaders.”
An extract from the artist’s biography, 1956


“I call Samokhvalov an outstanding artist because his artistic gift is of universal nature. It transcends even the existing variety of fine arts, in which he’s proven himself as a creative artist whose works include many great easel paintings, wonderful illustrations, statuettes and remarkable theatre works. Might be, this universality allowed him to create his own style as a sort of unique concept that pervaded all his works. You can immediately recognize Samokhvalov’s hand in drawings, and paintings, and sculptures, and decorative patterns, in everything he ever bestowed his creativity upon.”

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