Staline and the origin of painting

Staline and the origin of painting

Αn article by Rachel Baumgartner, a master student in History specialized in contemporary art in Sorbonne Université IV.

What is the link between the origin of painting and Stalin? Stop wondering, let me explain to you. Stalin invented the painting. Well to be more precise he invented Socialisme realism, or kind of...

Komar and Melamid are two Russian artists born in the 40’s. They initiate the movement Sots Art, also called SocArt, which is the Russian counterpart of the American Pop Art. They work in particular with the Soviet propaganda imagery.

This Soviet Pop Art, with a political twist, critics mass culture, the use of icons but also proposes a strong critic of the Russian political leaders’ like Stalin. Many Russian artists were excluded from exhibitions and had to hide in private flats to exhibits.

Komar and Melamid and the origin od Socialist Realism

A young woman made use of the young and sleepy man she loved, who would soon be departing for another country, by setting a candle behind his face and projecting his profile onto a wall that she had outlined with lines. From the city of Corinth, she was the daughter of the potter Butades of Sicyone. Using this profile as inspiration, the father created a clay relief, dried it, and burned it using his pottery. In actuality, the genesis of sculpture and plastic depiction should be found in this myth!

Komar and Melamid, The Origin of Socialist Realismfrom the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982-1983, Oil on canvas, 185.5 x 122 cm, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Instead of the handsome young man, Komar and Melamid represented Stalin, the good-looking political soviet leader. In the background, there is an oil lamp burning. The flame here refers to the lantern used by the young girl in the myth. Moreover, we see her wrapped in her bright blue toga delicately outlining Stalin’s profile. Her long hair and her gown twirl energetically in the air. Her elegant and graceful allure contrasts sharply with the solemn and imposing posture of the Soviet leader. To this end, the depiction of our Stalin is less a portrait of the actual man than a representation of Stalin as a work of art: he looks like a commemorative sculpture frozen on his pedestal.

Photo by James Strachan. One of the few remaining standing statues of Stalin in public, Gori, his birthplace, Central Georgia, Central Asia.

In order to dramatize and humorously critique Stalin’s role in the revision of art history, the authors of this work combined a neoclassical formal language1 with the iconographic techniques of the Russian Socialist Realism2. Both of these techniques give the subject matter an alleged seriousness and elevation.

Staline: God the artist?

According to Russian historian Boris Groys, Stalin adopted the persona of God the artist and oversaw the restoration of the totalitarian or totalizing aesthetic in Soviet society. This included a program to supervise the production of Soviet classic3. Can we consider rulers like Stalin to be artists? He governs a plastic, material world. His goal is to perform the plasticity of society by overcoming all sorts of resistance to the material. Because a man’s idea is malleable, like clay for a potter, leaders may mold it and create anything out of it. Stalin would then have to mold society to fit his needs.

Komar and Melamid engage the viewer in a critical examination of the strategic interventions by governments and other power elites in the construction of the national narratives of history and art history using a range of mediums and a sarcastic sense of humor.

Komar sums up the essence of their art practice: «I like this notion: art as entertainment that poses questions»4 .

Glimpse into my week-end!

Here you have the Knafeh but the Palestinean way :)).

This Saturday night = Palestinean night, so with my lovely friends, we went to Ardi Concept Store in the 18th arr. of Paris to enjoy (and for me to discover) palestinean food. We order Idreh – Hebron’s speciality: spicy rice prepared with lots of garlic, chickpeas and meat, traditionally cooked in an earthenware jar in the oven -and Msakhan– a chicken on a bed of onions caramelized with olive oil and sumac. My senses were triggered, I travel directly from Paris to Palestine. The fluffy rice was like a cloud covered in a divine mix of spices! The caramelized onions contrasted tastefully with the chicken! The hot Knafeh was so delightful that even me (I really don’t like cheese) eat the Knafeh:)).

It’s not just a simple restaurant, but a concept store so you can shop some palestinean specialities like mugs or dattes. You can also admire a wall full of pictures of important Palestinean people like Mahmoud Darwish. So here you have a poem (maybe another form of political art, no?) from him to end this newsletter.

Put it on record.
    I am an Arab.
You stole my forefathers’ vineyards
    And land I used to till,
    I and all my children,
    And you left us and all my grandchildren
    Nothing but these rocks.
    Will your government be taking them too
    As is being said?
    Put it on record at the top of page one:
    I don’t hate people,
    I trespass on no one’s property.
And yet, if I were to become hungry
    I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.
    Beware, beware of my hunger
    And of my anger!

Mahmoud Darwish, Identity Card, 1964.



Ps: Feel free to leave a comment!

  1. Themes inspired by Greek and Roman antiquity, with with form and line taking precedence over color, and the absence of depth giving the whole a bas-relief appearance, representation of the beautiful ideal: a perfect body and a courageous and virtuous spirit.
  2. Representation of the reality, collectivism, imposed forms and subject.
  3. Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant- Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  4. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, ed. JoAnn Wypijewski, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997, p. 17.

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