Azerbaijan International

Volume 15.1
Pages 52-59

Soviet Art
Socialist Realism
Art Prices Skyrocket: Women at Work and at Home

by Anne Visser, Dutch Art Collector
See Soviet Art samples: Women at Work

For decades, women of the former Soviet countries, including Azerbaijan, were depicted in the rich and broad spectrum of works of Socialist Realism art of the Soviet Union. This was especially true from the 1920s to the 1960s. After World War II, there seems to have been a revival in depicting women as the working class heroes in industry, agriculture, as well as in the home. Perhaps this was the outgrowth and natural consequence of the enormous burden that women took upon themselves during the war when so many of their men were fighting at the front.

Today, these portrayals, painted within the political framework of Socialist Realism, usher us back into an era when women, so vigorous and healthy, were involved in the welfare of family and community. No doubt, it's a sentimental journey.

For me, as an art collector living in the Netherlands, these paintings reveal the true essence of Socialist Realist paintings. I'm convinced that the classical definition of Socialist Realist paintings really should be rethought. Socialist Realism art generally requires that the style be "realistic" and the content be "socialist". This is exactly what politicians had in mind when they imposed such strictures upon art.

However, a different creature emerged. The truth is that these paintings are highly romanticized. At the same time, the content is frequently set in a traditional agricultural or industrial setting. Sometimes the backdrop is a small village. However, the intended sense of freedom and heroism, despite its superficiality, must be viewed as the spiritual strength of these hard-working women. One might equate these paintings with a "soap opera", reflecting life during that period.

These Socialist Realism paintings tell a fascinating story of a period which has almost vanished. Though these canvases cannot be said to honestly reflect the truth of daily existence; yet somehow, they offer us a glimpse of the reality of life as it was lived under very oppressive conditions.

It seems to me that one of the underlying themes of Socialist Realism art was power and industriousness. Women are shown to be both physical and mental powerhouses.

Consider, for instance, the Azerbaijan painter Alakbar Rezaguliyev (1903-1973) who successfully depicts women in roles of traditional family work, as well as involved with labor that was carried on outside the home. Both scenes are there. He even depicts women, without any assistance from men, doing heavy work down on the piers near the sea or in cotton fields. His women always appear to be in a healthy state of mind, beaming with joy. See pages 70-71.

Art Auctions
At recent exhibitions in major cities such as Moscow, Bilbao (Spain), Berlin and London, paintings of women done in the style of Socialist Realism have become enormously popular. These canvases are commanding extraordinary high prices - far beyond the imagination of the artists who painted them a few years back. These paintings are taking the art world by storm. Some are fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars. A few have even exceeded bringing in one million dollars.

How is it that Socialist Realism works have become so popular? Can it be that time has brushed away the thick layer of political dust, influenced by the icy relations between the Soviet Union and the West during the "Cold War"? Is that why these paintings are being perceived and analyzed so differently? Has the political agenda that once motivated the creation of these works finally been set aside so that they can finally be cherished for their artistic value alone?

Or could another factor be that art lovers all over the world are somehow hungry and nostalgic for a gentler, kinder, more humane society when life was more predictable and sure. Are art collectors now in search of a world that is somehow romanticized and idealized in these works?

Art connoisseurs these days are chasing after paintings of women as representative icons of Socialist Realistic art. The best paintings from the avant-garde period (1917-1924), which were so popular just a few years earlier, have been bought up. So now, paintings of women have become the hot commodity.

Prices Skyrocket
The sales of paintings of Soviet women of the Socialist Realism genre are skyrocketing at auctions in London and Moscow. Well-to-do Russians are buying back the heritage, which they experienced only a few decades earlier. Out of every five paintings sold in London, four are being bought by Russian oligarchs, who are especially interested in the rare paintings of women prior to World War II. No doubt, soon these paintings will disappear, and the focus will turn to works featuring women created after the war.

In November 2006, at the annual Russian art auctions in New York and London, paintings of women exceeded all expectations, commanding even higher prices than had been predicted. There were so many record sales. For example, Alexander E. Yakovlev's work, "Three Women in a Theater Box" (1918) [See photo, top corner on page 69], sold for a phenomenal USD 1,969,922. A private Russian buyer bought it.

Russian art sales at these auctions have already broken 24 records. For example, a small canvas (15 x 19 inches) of a woman entitled "Pastorale Russe" (1922) by Konstantin Andreevich Somov, which depicts a "sleeping beauty" went for USD 5,184,615. The pre-sale quote estimated that it might bring USD 1 million.

Abram Efimovich Arkhipov's impressionist work, "At the Market", also sold for about USD 1 million - more than double the presale estimate.

Early Collectors
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union (late 1991), foreign art dealers were already in hot pursuit of high quality paintings from artists in the avant-garde period (1917-1924) and from some of the better examples from later periods. Americans had already begun to invest in the Socialist Realism portrayal of women.

For example, the wealthy American Raymond Jones is said to have purchased more than 10,000 such paintings during the 1980s! He especially sought after paintings featuring women that had been created between 1920 to 1970. Examples from this enormous collection are now on exhibit at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, USA. See

Then there was Matthew Cullerne Bown, an independent British scholar, who with the painstaking deliberation and accuracy of a monk, compiled an index of more than 12,000 Soviet painters. This compilation-published as "The Dictionary of 20th Century Russian and Soviet Painters from 1900 to the 1980s" - has since become the standard handbook of Socialist Realism art. It includes photos of many of the paintings in the Raymond Jones Collection.
Without a doubt, Bown's handbook should be updated to reflect the buying frenzy that is taking place. Many of the painters listed there deserve far more than a one-line reference that was originally noted.

Women's Role
The history of Soviet Union (1920-1991) is full of many examples of cruel and brutal events. Under the Tsar and later during the Communist regime, people living under these regimes suffered the devastating blows of war, deportation, deprivation and malnutrition and an unreliable judicial system. Throughout the countryside, men and women, working as peasants, were barely able to eke out a living for themselves.

Despite such difficult circumstances, women always managed to play a key role in the survival of their families and, thus, in the survival of the community. A wise old Dutch woman once told me: "Everybody has his or her own problems. What matters is the way you cope with them." Women often had no choice and, indeed, often were left to their own ingenuity to solve daily problems the best way they could.

Today, these works executed in the style of Socialist Realism are in high demand by the Russian Museum. Recently, the museum personnel in former Soviet countries are dusting off works that were once kept in storage. They're beginning to organize exhibitions to honor even ordinary artists of that period. A vivid example was the recent show: "Times of Change, Official Art 1960­1985" at the Russian State Museum.

One must keep in mind that every work that was painted during the Soviet period was not necessarily commissioned. Governmental works probably comprised not more than 10 percent of the canvases that exist today. Soviet artists, typical of many artists throughout the world, painted prodigiously and frequently focused on everyday life just as they experienced it.

Artists always were painting for themselves as well. These personal, private collections, too, contain many works that feature women and their families. And as might be expected, paintings created for personal appreciation and consumption were often of superior quality when compared to those which had been commissioned.

Actually, some of the least interesting works are those that were ordered by government. They can often still be found in the museums of the former Soviet countries. The more fascinating works have been sold outside the borders of these countries. Only now are they beginning to trickle back into the homes of the nouveau riche, primarily in Russia. In several paintings the women are shown performing many tasks - "multi-tasking" to use a contemporary term. Socialist Realism artists painted the hidden strength of these women and used bright passionate colors to emphasize their works. Obviously, the colors did not always reflect the reality of mundane life.

Artists who had to paint within this structure easily found ways to depict women as traditional role models; for example, woman as Bride, Home Teacher, Peasant Worker, Factory Worker, Nurse, Hostess and War Hero. Women also were shown caring for exhausted, weary-worn soldiers or offering flowers to sportsmen or cosmonauts. So the traditional role of women is quite evident in these paintings, especially in terms of the ideal mother figure in the home-homemaker and housekeeper.

One also finds paintings where women are portrayed as a symbol for the entire nation. Or where she is shown presenting much sought - after freedom to the youth and the community at large. The idea of rearing children also became a metaphor for developing the wealth and resources within the socialist state. These days, thousands of paintings of women can be found within the framework of Socialist Realism. In addition, Soviet artists, unlike their Western counterparts, did not shy away from painting older women.

Country girls dressed in traditional costumes and wearing "babushkas" (scarves) are very common. They symbolize the agricultural reality. It was primarily women who worked as collective farmers, milkmaids or caretakers of the land. Men were the ones who operated the machinery. The women are often depicted bathed in beautiful clear sunlight with a backdrop of scenic nature, delivering 120 percent of their labor quota. You can almost hear their labor folk songs.

Women workers always appeared to be happy and optimistic. If they are confronted with storms or other natural disasters, the women were always shown trying to tame these brutal forces. The challenge for these women was to juggle all of her various roles at the same time, not unlike what is required of modern women today with their demanding schedules.

Crown Jewels
Personally, I'm convinced that these canvases featuring women are the crown jewels of Socialist Realist paintings. The focus on women reveals that, contrary to life in Western Europe, Soviet women not only worked the land, but they carried a heavy workload in factories as well. Women were the oil that lubricated the Soviet machine. You can feel the dust and sweat on their skin. You can be sure that their lives were not exactly the epitome of a dream world for emancipation.

Every time when I gaze at these breathtaking paintings, I realize that I am biased about them. I sense the contradictions that are innate within these works. On the surface, one feels the beginnings of emancipation and women's liberation. But those ideas stem from politics.

If one considers the role of men in these paintings, we never see him being emancipated by washing the dishes or doing household work, while working outside the home to earn a decent standard of living. In real life, men and women provide a balance and do work closely together in most cases. But in Socialist Realist paintings, the man is often depicted as a smoking and drinking husband.

Women were, and still are, the backbone of the family and society. Artists understand this innately to be true. Acknowledgement of the tremendous role that women play in society did not originate from politicians who dictated the framework of art in terms of Socialist Realism. Appreciation of the inspiration of women came from the painters themselves.

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