Socialist Realism remains among the least-known movements in 20th-century art. Conceived in opposition to western formalism and experimentation, it was the only serious European alternative to modernism, and will inevitably be reassessed as 21st-century scholarship recasts modern art.
Given the strength of Russian collecting power, it will surely permeate the global market too. Sotheby’s exhibition, one of very few shows of Soviet art ever to have been staged in the UK, is therefore a marker.
The works, from Moscow’s Institute of Russian Realist Art, focus on a favourite revolutionary theme: sport. Alexander Deyneka, a leading exponent of the movement, said the appeal of sport was that it was democratic, popular, positive, optimistic, lyrical, heroic and able to accommodate “shades of feeling”.
Deyneka’s work, if not his name, is familiar to visitors thanks to his magnificent mosaics for the Moscow Metro. In this show, his sketch “Sportswoman Tying A Ribbon” – a study for his celebrated “Bather” at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery – embodies the determined, active “Soviet Madonna” ideal of the 1930s-50s. Youth, health and unity remain ideals symbolised by sport throughout the Soviet era – though the emphasis shifts from struggle and competitive glory to leisure, as in Vladimir Kutilin’s “Waverunner”. The show also attempts to consider artists on the dissenting edge such as Olga Vaulina, who blurred traditional depictions of strength and beauty (the weakling man versus powerful woman in “In the Sports Hall”, for example) and employed avant-garde techniques of bright colour planes, as in “Wrestling”.
In truth, Socialist Realism drew on modern art in more ways than was acknowledged at the time. Here, for instance, Sergey Luchishkin’s “Parade at the Dynamo Stadium” revisits futurism’s portrayal of movement. Meanwhile, in his portrayal of a twilit village game, “Volleyball”, Viktor Popkov recalls the tilting planes and unstable perspectives of Chagall’s early depictions of Vitebsk – indeed Popkov, though named an artist of the “severe style”, considered himself a portrayer of “the spiritual, the intangible”.
Until January 14, sothebys.com