Sots Art, Kitsch and Memory

In a previous post, I have talked about the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov. During the Cold War, he was one the leading figures belonging to Moscow Conceptualism. While the Soviet Union imposed Socialist Realism as its official visual language, underground groups of independent artists produced works of art for the sake of their personal expression, conscious that these would have never received public commendations. Kabakov and his fellow artists did not regard themselves as dissidents. Their works did not oppose the Communist regime in a confrontational way but rather by ignoring and excluding its symbols from their creations. On the other hand, from the late ’60s the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid developed a new form of opposition art which exploited the Communist visual culture to shake the ideological scaffolding of Soviet society. They created what later became known as Sots Art.

Day of Constitution – Isaak Brodsky – 1930
Brodsky was one of the forefathers of Socialist-Realist Art

Sots Art is derived from sotsrealizm. Socialist Realism had a didactic function. It expressed the values devised by the elites of the Communist Party and fostered them through an easily identifiable visual language. Utopia was the central feature of Socialist-Realist artworks, which were supposed to depict “objectively” the prosperity of the Soviet countries. In fact, they often idealised the life under the Communist regime and spread an image of happiness and abundance which was rather aspirational than true. Socialist Realism also glorified the Communist leaders, portraying them in a quasi-divine fashion in order to foster the cult of their personas as well as the ideals they represented.

Stalin in Front of The Mirror – Komar and Melamid – 1982

Komar and Melamid employed quotation extensively, in order to show the repetitiveness of Socialist-Realist art as well as its shallow ideology. Moreover, they played with irony as a way to engage intellectually with viewers and gain their attention. As they declared in Painting by Numbers, they conceived art as “entertainment that poses questions” and used humour to attack the “seriousness” of propagandistic art. For example in Stalin in Front of The Mirror, the Communist leader is portrayed kneeling and praying as if before an icon. However, he is actually facing a mirror who reflects his face, which becomes also the object of his worship. In this way, the duo mocks the idolatry of Stalin’s persona in the rigidly atheist Soviet world. Moreover, as Valerie Hillings points out, both the use of chiaroscuro and the mirror suggest a connection with George de la Tour’s Repentant Magdalene. If true, the artists may be drawing a smeary comparison between the saint’s past as a prostitute and Stalin’s dubious origins.

Stalin and the Muses – Komar and Melamid – 1982

Komar and Melamid’s works emphasised the figure of Stalin in order to preserve the memory of Soviet visual culture during his regime when his effigy could be commonly found in almost every public and private space. Following the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 and Nikita Khrushchev’s secret denouncement of Stalinism, the image of the defunct leader was gradually withdrawn from the official visual culture in an attempt to hide Stalin’s bloody legacy. Komar and Melamid’s art was a response to the State’s attempt to rewrite history and the public perception of a nefarious character of Soviet history. In the same way, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the duo fostered a campaign to save the Soviet monuments which were being dismantled throughout the former countries of the block. They aimed at preserving the visual culture of the past as a way of maintaining historical memory.

The Yalta Conference – Komar and Melamid – 1982

Komar and Melamid’s oeuvre shows complex and ambitious intents. Their works are pastiches of visual traditions, varying from Socialist Realism to academic art, from Christian iconography to classical imagery. The result evokes a deep sense of kitsch and castrates the ideological power of the Soviet symbols, which are reduced to shallow fetishes. Interestingly, their efforts found the opposition of the Moscow Conceptualists, who saw the use of Communist iconography as an indirect intromission of the State in the “pure” realm of unofficial art. Nonetheless, the artistic duo always kept a direct and powerful confrontational attitude, understanding the role of visual culture as a medium of the Soviet ideology. Indeed, the relevance of their works goes beyond the contingent vicissitudes of the Cold War and invites one to reflect on the power of images to change or even distort our understanding of history, tradition, and identity.

Credits:

Featured image

Day of Constitution

Stalin in Front of The Mirror

Stalin and the Muses

The Yalta Conference

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge student of art history. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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