Art Prices Skyrocket: Women at Work and at Home
by Anne Visser, Dutch
See Soviet Art samples: Women at
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
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
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.
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
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
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 TMORA.com.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
to Index AI 15.1
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