The international conference The ‘state artist’ in Romania and Eastern Europe


Copyright: Alexandru Antik. Imagine reprodusă din volumul Sebestyén György Szekely, Alexandru Antik, Inventar Alexandru Antik (București, Vellant, 2016) în care referința fotografiei este: ”Artist cu legitimație, anii 1980, fotograf neidentificat.”

The international conference “The ‘state artist’ in Romania and Eastern Europe” (5 November 2016, Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest).

The establishment of communist regimes in Eastern Europe signified for the visual arts, the consolidation of the “state artist”. Artworks were commissioned by the state, which offered extensive rewards to artists, who were also forced to comply with the political and ideological rigors of the new regime. The presentations included in this conference program try to explore the different transformations that the artists underwent in order to comply with the extensive role assumed by the communist state in the artistic field with a specific focus on the visual arts, and the Union of Visual Artists (Uniunea Artiștilor Plastici, UAP). The conference aims to discuss the state artist in the context of communist regimes from multiple points of views.

The topics discussed are: How was the new artist shaped by the communist regimes? Were artists able to integrate Socialist Realism as a mandatory style? If not, which were the limits of this mandatory style or the national specificities? Which were the types of resistance to the model of the state artist? How did Socialist Realism translate in different visual practices? What role did the Union of Visual Artists of Romania play? How does it compare to other unions in the East? What are the transformations of the unions of artists after 1990? The presentations will situate the Romanian case in a regional perspective, and provide a comparative overview of the situation in South-Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the presentations deal with other artistic expressions besides the visual arts, such as theater, cinema, literature or architecture.

This conference is part of the research project “From the ‘state artist’ to the artist dependent on the state: the case of the Union of Visual Artists (1950-2010) – the Bucharest branch” (PN-II-RU-TE-2014-4-0243, Contract 206/2015, director Caterina Preda), financed by UEFISCDI and based at the Center for the Study of Equal Opportunity Policies (CPES), Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest.


 8.30-9.00 Introduction by the organizing team

9.00 – 11.00 SESSION 1 The Union of Visual Artists (UAP) in Romania 1, chair: Caterina Preda

  • Caterina Preda (Lecturer, PhD, Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest), The state artist in Romania and Eastern Europe: a theoretical overview
  • Dan Drăghia (Lecturer, PhD, Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest), ”Comrade Artist!” Prestige and profit in the labor organization of the Romanian visual arts during communism
  • Dumitru Lăcătușu, (PhD researcher CPES, University of Bucharest), The visual artists and the Securitate. Between collaboration and disavowal
  • Alina Popescu (PhD, researcher Cerefrea, CPES, University of Bucharest), Unions of artists in Communist Romania: An institutional comparison of the Filmmakers’ Association and of the Visual Artists’ Union (UAP)
  • Cristina Stoenescu (MA, researcher CPES, University of Bucharest), The reform of the Union of Visual Artists of Romania (UAP) after 1990: the case of Atelier 35

11.00 – 11.30 Coffee break

11.30-13.30 SESSION 2 The Union of Visual Artists (UAP) in Romania 2, chair Caterina Preda

  • Alice Mocănescu (PhD, Independent Researcher), The July Theses as a Game Changer: The reception of the July Theses within the Romanian Artists’ Union
  • Mirela Tanța (PhD, College of Fine Arts, Millikin University), The Commissioned Image of Nicolae Ceausescu: From Socialist Realism to Neo-Socialist Realism
  • Alexandra Preda (MA, CEU Budapest), Discursive Oppositions and Documentary Practices in the Archives of the Union of Visuals Artists during the 1980s
  • Claudiu Oancea (PhD, NEC fellow), Claiming Art for Themselves: State Artists versus Amateur Artists in Art Exhibitions within the Song of Romania Festival (1976-1989)

11.30 – 13.30 SESSION 3: The Union of Visual Artists (UAP) in Romania 3, chair Alina Popescu

  • Magda Predescu (curator, Museum of Contemporary Art of Romania), The Role of the UAP in the formation of the state artist
  • Monica Enache (curator, National Museum of Art of Romania), Mechanisms of coercion and control over the artistic act: the relationship between the UAP, the Plastic Fund, and artists (1948-1965)
  • Maria Orosan Telea, (PhD, University of Timișoara). The portrait of a state artist: Awards and distinctions received by the sculptor Ion Irimescu during communism
  • Andreea Lazea (PhD, Lecturer, Faculty of Art and Design, West University of Timișoara/ CEREFREA), Public art in Socialist Romania: resistance strategies

13.30-14.30 Lunch break

14.30-16.30 SESSION 4: Other artists’ unions: literature & theater, chair Alina Popescu

  • Lucia Dragomir (Lecturer, Faculty of Foreign Languages and literatures, University of Bucharest), The state writer. A case study of the Union of writers, a transnational institution in communist times
  • Miruna Runcan (Professor, PhD, Theater Department, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj), The coronation of ‘the accompanying comrade’. Sică Alexandrescu – A case study
  • Mihai Lukacs (Independent Researcher), From theatrical entrepreneurs to soul engineers: the emergence of the socialist state artists
  • Răduț Bîlbîie (Assistant Professor, MEN), The education of future visual artists in the first years of popular power (1948-1955) A comparison with the young writers at the School of literature and literary critique Mihai Eminescu

14.30-16.30 SESSION 5: State artists in South-Eastern Europe chair, Cristina Stoenescu

  • Ina Belcheva (PhD candidate Université Paris 1), State commissions and artistic limits in 1950s Bulgaria: the case of Lyubomir Dalchev
  • Irina Cărăbaș (PhD, Lecturer Department of Art Theory, University of Art of Bucharest), Bilateral Agreements in the Balkans: the Socialist Artistic Identity before UAP and the International Exchanges
  • Agata Rogos (PhD candidate, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań), ‘Busts in our heads’, images of Enver Hoxha in Communist Albania
  • Vladana Putnik (research associate, Art History Department, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade), From Socialist Realism to Socialist Aestheticism: The Question of the State Architect in Yugoslavia (1945-1990)

16.30-17.00 Coffee break

17.00-19.00 SESSION 6: State artists in the Soviet Union, chair Dan Drăghia

  • Cécile Vaissié (Professor, University of Rennes), The Soviet Union of Cinema: Reflection, Moving Force and Victim of Perestroika (1986-1991)
  • Vera Otdelnova (PhD candidate at the State Institute for Art Studies in Moscow), The Moscow art ‘Youth exhibitions’ in the 1960s and 1970s. Prudent progress against omnipotent censorship.
  • Muromtseva Olga (Assistant Professor, Department of the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Design and Applied Arts), Unofficial artists and the Soviet system: the ways of co-existing.
  • Michael Brodski (Associate Lecturer at the Institute for Film, Theatre and Empirical Cultural Studies at the University of Mainz), The Soviet State Artists Alexander Ptushko and Alexander Rou and their Ambivalent Construction of Fairy Tale Films


Session 1 The Union of Visual Artists (UAP) in Romania 1  

Caterina Preda, Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest

The state artist in Romania and Eastern Europe: a theoretical overview

After 1948, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe supported by the Soviet Union introduced a new mandatory artistic style, that of Socialist Realism, and accompanied this ideological position with an institutional apparatus able to support it. The state acquired a monopoly on artistic life through a quick process of nationalization of all means of creation and diffusion of artistic works, as well as through the reform of the education system and the establishment of unique state controlled institutions. Artists were organized in mandatory party state dominated unions of creation for each artistic expression: visual arts (arte plastice), literature, music, architecture, cinema, and theater. In this panorama, Miklos Haraszti discussed the case of the “state artist”, which was “an organized professional”. As workers, artists were a “thoroughly organized and rationally subdivided group of state employees”, to which the state guaranteed a public, and through regulation offered them protection.[1] State artists were at the center of the transformation of the artistic panoramas and benefitted of the new norms and of the public orders organized together with the party, and state institutions. At the same time, not all artists followed the official precepts, and asked for artistic autonomy. The role of Socialist Realism, and of the creative unions in the transformation of the artistic spheres, and of the relations between the new institutions of the communist regimes remains an understudied topic. Therefore, this presentation presents an overview of theoretical issues related to the case of the visual “state artists” stemming from the extensive archival research of the Union of Visual Artists in Romania (UAP).

Dan Drăghia, Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest

“Comrade Artist!” Prestige and profit in the labor organization of the Romanian visual arts during communism

In December 1950, the Union of Visual Arts in Romania (UAP) was established to replace the old Syndicate of Fine Arts, which had dissolved two months earlier. Labor struggle had no place in the new Romania, at least not in the same sense like in capitalism, and especially among the artists, who were regarded as key contributors to the new socialist society. From elitist, art was on the way of becoming popular, and artists were called to act as intermediaries between the regime and the people. Suddenly, the artist acquired a status of almost necessity, comparable to that of a doctor or a teacher: everybody wanted to have a piece of art in his or her home, and production facilities had to present their achievements in an artistic way. The title of ”comrade artist” called for an increased respect in everyday life, raising the prestige of the profession. Despite this formal importance granted to art and the artists, a look at the archival documents of the UAP, especially from the 1950s, shows us a surprisingly difficult situation of the artists and of the branch as a whole, with lots of individual and collective requests. The general impression within the profession was that the new status was not valued enough. This paper will argue for the role played by the UAP in Romania during communism as a form of soft syndicalism. Backed by the major role attributed to them inside the communist society, becoming an artist was transformed in a desired profession because of the significant benefits for the Union and its members.

Dumitru Lăcătușu, CPES, University of Bucharest

The visual artists and the Securitate. Between collaboration and disavowal

The opening of the archives of the former Securitate has allowed for the research of the relation of the Creative Unions with the secret police. The Union of Writers and its members have been at the center of several studies, and publications, while the Union of Visual Artists (UAP) has not enjoyed the same attention. In this subfield, research is at the beginning, although a number of articles have been published on the topic. Stemming from the investigation of the files created by the main repressive institution of the communist regime in Romania, this presentation will analyze the institutional and personal relations between the UAP and the Securitate, as well as the way in which this interaction has influenced artistic expression and the professional career of artists. The main purpose of this examination is to showcase the different reasons for which visual artists and the UAP were subject to the influence of the Securitate, of the measures taken by the secret police to survey artists, as well as the reactions of those under surveillance to the interference of the Securitate in their activity. Therefore, the main questions we address are the following. How did artists manage their relations with the Securitate? Which role had these relations for their professional evolution? Which were the main objectives pursued by the Securitate in the case of the UAP and of the visual artists and how where they achieved? How are visual arts and the artists represented in the files of the Securitate? To understand the relation of the UAP and the Securitate, the presentation advances, on one side an analysis of the files of surveillance opened for artists, and on the other side, the strategies of recruitment of visual artists as well for the annihilation of potential dangers identified by the Securitate in the artistic milieu, but also so as to rally artists to the process of creating according to the ideology of the time. The presentation will recall also how artists chose to resist the pressures of the Securitate, and discuss the purposes artists had when interacting with the secret police’ agents.

Alina Popescu, Cerefrea, CPES, University of Bucharest

Unions of artists in Communist Romania: An institutional comparison of the Filmmakers’ Association and of the Visual Artists’ Union (UAP)

The Filmmakers’ Association and the Union of Visual Artists were two of several “creative unions” that organized the cultural and professional life in Communist Romania. In a context where free association was not tolerated, these institutions had a crucial role in defending artists’ rights and in defining their status. To date, the available studies on these organizations have only partially documented the way in which they functioned, with much emphasis placed on their dependency towards the Communist Party or on their Eastern transplantation according to a preeminent Soviet model, thus creating a monolithic image of their existence. Although the political aspect cannot be diminished, the majority of these studies seem to ignore a pivotal element of these organizations: namely, their professional purpose. In this paper, we would like to propose an organizational history of these two institutions, in an attempt to understand to what extent they managed to represent a project of professional autonomy. For this purpose, we will first examine in more detail the conditions of their foundation, especially the discrepancy between their statutes, on the one hand, and the time they acquired official recognition, on the other hand. The Union of Visual Artists was established in 1950, based on a Syndicate for Fine Arts, which had already existed since 1921, while the Filmmakers’ Association was created in 1963, although filmmakers had been expressing the need for a representative structure since the end of the 1950s. Further, we will analyze the internal and geographical structure of each of these institutions and the changes each went through over several decades until the fall of the Communist regime. Finally, we will scrutinize the professionalization initiatives that were meant for the members, and how useful they were judged to be by them. How did the different contexts of the establishment of each of these institutions influence membership life? How did the artists succeed in having a “Union”, while the filmmakers did not manage to get legal representation? Did the waves of political freezes and thaws have the same effect on both institutions? What were the particularities of the institutional design in each case and to what social, political, economic and aesthetic purposes did they respond? Did these institutions succeed in representing the interests of their members and becoming a force that counterbalanced the political power? These are some of the questions that we will try to answer in this paper, based on archival documents and other secondary sources. A comparison between two similar institutions will allow us to reconstitute key moments of their existence, which would otherwise remain ambiguous through monographic research, especially given that the archives of the Filmmakers’ Association are particularly poor compared to those of the Union of Visual Artists. The parallel between the two organizations, and the focus on them as institutions will help us to challenge the monolithic view of how they functioned and to understand how important they were for the visual propaganda of the regime.

Cristina Stoenescu, CPES, University of Bucharest

The reform of the Union of Visual Artists of Romania (UAP) after 1990: the case of Atelier 35

The development of the contemporary Romanian art-scene has depended greatly on the slow unfolding of the Union of Visual Artists in Romania (UAPR) after the fall of the communist regime. What once was a clear monopoly over the means of production and artistic recognitions was suddenly to give in to the slow emergence of a free art market with the occurrence of auction houses and a more consistent primary market. The predictability once ensured by norms and regulations had to make room to cultural policies that have also been slow to surface and inconsistent in defining a long-term cultural strategy, as evident with changes of leadership in post 1989 government-appointed offices. I plan to explore the tension created between UAP and the artists during the political and economic transition, with a unique case study, namely Atelier 35. Constituted as a pre-entry department where young artists could exhibit and work prior to their acceptance in the Union of Visual Artists in the 70’s, Atelier 35 enclaves were said to offer more extensive creative liberties to its artists during the repressive regime. After the 1989 Revolution, Atelier 35 had continued to function as a space provided to young artists but with a few significant differences. By studying the continuities and the dis-continuities in Atelier 35’s activity from a period spanning form the 80s to the 2010, I aim to better define the transformation of the “state artist” within UAP’s presumable syndicate character. Understanding the way that UAPR attempted to re-define the “state artist” and consequently itself, is a possible first step in understanding the effect that UAPR still continues to exert in the nowadays-Romanian cultural landscape.

SESSION 2 The Union of Visual Artists (UAP) in Romania 2

Alice Mocănescu, Independent Researcher

The July Theses as a Game Changer: The reception of the July Theses within the Romanian Artists’ Union

The July Theses, launched in the summer of 1971, were a real game changer in the cultural policy of Ceauşescu’s Romania. They deeply altered the course of the ideological and artistic activity in communist Romania and touched upon every discipline and intellectual category. This paper will assess the impact that the July Theses had within the Romanian Artists’ Union (RAU). It will focus less on individual reactions, while it will attempt to explore the response of the Romanian Artists’ Union as a corpus of professionals faced with a major and intrusive invasion of ideological disturbance. It will endeavour to investigate to what extent did the July Theses alter the general artistic discourse as well as the works of art produced afterwards by the Romanian artists. The paper will have three main sections. The first one will attempt to offer an overview of what the July Theses stated. It will focus mainly on those aspects of the Theses that had a direct impact on the artistic activity in Romania from that point on, such as the insistence on national topics in the artistic creation, the status of the socialist artist, the leading role of the Romanian Communist Party in all domains of political, educational and artistic activity, the transformation of the Unions into ‘guardians’ of the Party policy, and so on. The second part will endeavour to evaluate the impact of the July Theses’ launching within the Romanian Artists’ Union. This evaluation will be made mainly on the basis of archival material, namely the minutes of the RAU meetings that took place immediately after the event. It will focus in depth on the response of the Union’s leadership to the Theses, on the reorganization of the exhibitions’ agenda according to the new requirements, on the Union’s plan for a more robust ideological and educational activity within the Union and within the artistic community in general, on the ‘re-positioning’ of the Union’s members according to their readiness to conform with the new ideological and cultural policy, etc. In the final section, I shall attempt to draw some conclusions regarding the importance of the above-mentioned Theses for the artistic and ideological production during the period of mature ‘Ceauşescuism’, to see to what extent the July Theses were a real game changer for the artistic activity of the period and how they re-modeled the work and the relationships within the Romanian Artists’ Union.

Mirela Tanța, College of Fine Arts, Millikin University

The Commissioned Image of Nicolae Ceausescu: From Socialist Realism to Neo-Socialist Realism

When analyzing Romanian artistic production between 1945-1989, scholars tend to split the artworks into two camps: those suffering under the Soviet Socialist Realism imposition and those subversive enough to state-commissioned demands to succeed in producing emancipatory objects resembling Western Modernism. Viewed within this dyadic model, any artwork created during those decades of dictatorship appears either as badly done Socialist Realism—relative to Chinese and Russian sophistication—or as a timid imitation of Western Modernism. Either way, such stereotypical receptions preemptively discount too much of Romanian art production as poorly conceived and amateurishly executed. My research-based analysis questions the placement of Romania’s state-commissioned art in the periphery of this or the other imperialistic center: Moscow to the East or Western Europe and North America to the West. My research complicates this commonplace division between subservient and rebellious Socialist Realist art by proposing that artists, such as the following, were working within the state canon, but not necessarily against Modernist aesthetics: Ion Grigorescu, Dan Hatmanu, Ieronim Boca, Vladimir Șetran, and Ion Bițan. Such examples of state-commissioned art illustrate other possible iterations of Modernist aesthetics that refuse to act merely as backdrop to more subversive Modernist practices. The Romanian moment of Socialist Realism requires us to consider a simultaneous double consciousness: first, we must attend to the particularities of its restricted aesthetic; second, we must become aware of the possibilities not available for artists, but imagined or known about, that existed outside the boundaries of those restrictions. To meet this complex sociopolitical moment, my research focuses on circumstantial details through the analysis of primary sources and points to a broader theoretical framework. Rather than narrowly labeling the art commissioned by the state and created by the artists as autonomous of or beholden to the state, I focus on the aesthetic, social, iconographical, and stylistic choices these artists made when faced with the implementation of Soviet Socialist Realism in Romania. I look at how individual artists and artists’ collectives painted the canonical political portrait. After 1965—nearly 10 years after the Soviet Union had ceased to impose Socialist Realism—Ceausescu revived Socialist Realist tropes in the visual arts. However, I argue that this rappel a l’ordre taking place in Romanian artistic production during the 1970s and throughout the 1980s was not a return to the Soviet Socialist Realism, not even to the local version of it as practiced in Romania between 1948-1960s. It was, rather, a dizzying palimpsest of unstable messages exposing, from within as it were, the impossibility of transposing Socialist Reality into art as Ceausescu had dreamed of and articulated throughout his many long and wooden speeches on art. Ceausescu’s return to Socialist Realism—after a decade-long reprieve—was a return to an ideal of what Socialist Realism ought to be. Neo-Socialist Realism is an improvisation on an ideology. Precisely this honesty in painting—what artists were told to paint—exposed the procedural mechanics of the ideology from inside as: paternalistic, protochronistic, Neo-Stalinist, and dynastic communism. This is the moment I am most interested in because it shows the spectacular failure of Socialist Realism to make politics and art one.

Alexandra Preda, CEU Budapest

Discursive Oppositions and Documentary Practices in the Archives of the Union of Visuals Artists during the 1980s

The present paper attempts to analyze various instances of discursive opposition as they appear in the archives of the Union of Visual Artists during the 1980s[2]. By presenting these cases, the purpose is not to show the “oppositional” attitude of UAP’s members or staff or to create a mythology of “resistance” around them, but rather to investigate how the category of “cultural opposition” was constructed, perceived or employed at the level of the archives by those who could play a role in shaping this notion in the 1980s. In stating this, I acknowledge the limitations of the notion of “cultural opposition”, which is by no means a term used in the archives themselves, but a retroactive construction used to describe and qualify socialist ‘realities’ from a post-socialist perspective. In this sense, “cultural opposition” becomes a starting point for investigation and research in the archives, rather than an organizing principle of analysis to be taken literally. Looking into the archives of the Union of Visual Artists as a repository of distinctive discourses may provide a unique historical perspective into phenomena perceived to be oppositional or subversive in the 1980s, before being permeated with the binary oppositions of the Cold War that are oftentimes retroactively superimposed upon socialism. In investigating this theoretical issue by means of archival sources, I attempt to set up a working framework for dealing with archives of artistic institutions, which hold a somewhat distinct position as compared to other more overtly politicized sources. In that they are (semi)private archives, they have escaped systematic research and even formal ordering. The question of the degree to which the archives are (or are not) ideologized will also be tackled with in the following paper. Also, rather than inquiring into issues of cultural politics, I will attempt to investigate how artists positioned themselves in relation to the political establishment, the means of institutionalization they employed and the strategies they used in an attempt to establish themselves on the cultural scene. In this sense, I will try to formulate the relation between the artistic and the political camp as an interaction with rather than as an opposition to the political establishment, similar to Ioana Macrea-Toma’s macro-sociological analysis of Romanian literary institutions under communism. In looking at the relation between institutionally-embedded actors and artists who were outside the confines of politically and financially relevant establishments, I opt for a different approach than looking at the relationship between artists as a cohesive, atomized group and political power. Although relevant for charting the strategies employed by the state in an attempt to enforce its cultural policy, such an approach offers a one-sided methodological framework that says little about the diversity of positions and attitudes among artists. I argue for a more differentiated approach, by regarding artists not as a group in opposition to “political power”, but rather as individual agents driven by specific (personal) goals and having distinct professional positions and aspirations on the artistic scene.

Claudiu Oancea, New Europe College, Bucharest

Claiming Art for Themselves: State Artists versus Amateur Artists in Art Exhibitions within the Song of Romania Festival (1976-1989)

The proposed paper aims at investigating the relation between professional state artists and amateur artists within political festivals in socialist Romania, with a particular focus on visual exhibitions of the most important festival organized by the regime, that of Song of Romania (1976-1989). Whereas the state commissioned works of art to professional artists, who, in return, received an extensive array of financial compensations and symbolic rewards, it also paid special attention to the formation of the amateur artist. On the one hand, amateur artists belonged to fields of activity not related to professional arts: workers, peasants, and pupils. On the other hand, however, the state envisaged that social and professional categories not belonging to any artistic branches and not defined professionally by artistic activities had the potential to reach the same status as that of professional artists through their works of art, as long as they were offered the necessary space of artistic activity, time to create, and proper guidance. This policy was translated in the formation of artistic brigades in factories, agricultural cooperatives, and houses of culture. The activity of such brigades was supposed to take place in recurrent festivals and performances, dealing with all kind of artistic activities, from theatre plays, to singing competitions and art exhibitions. Such festivals existed since the early 1950s and developed throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, with increasing budgets allocated to their development. It was the National Festival of National Culture Song of Romania that would take things to a whole different level in terms of organization, in an attempt to emphasize the primary role played by amateur artists in the formation of the new socialist man, as well as to blur the boundaries between state and amateur artists. Consequently, professional state artists often portrayed this particular view on amateur artists as seeking to undermine the former’s status and role. In most cases – and in the context of various economic crises – this was expressed in the allocation of increased budgets to amateur artists’ activities to the detriment of those organized by professional artists. Notwithstanding this aspect, the policies adopted by the state in this respect actually reconfirmed the special status of state artists, as the latter were needed in order to guide and teach amateur artists. This ambivalent situation in defining state artists through their relation to amateur artists was mirrored in the editing of art exhibition albums, as part of the Song of Romania Festival. Despite the official claim of singularizing amateur works of art, the selection made for such albums indicated a much more nuanced approach, with state artists’ works of art intermingled with amateur ones. In analyzing such albums, this paper will address the topic of how state artists were defined by the regime through their relation to amateur artists. Furthermore, the paper will construe the ideological platform and the actual cultural practices through which state and amateur artists interacted in the realm of socialist culture.

SESSION 3: The Union of Visual Artists (UAP) in Romania 3

Magda Predescu, National Museum of Contemporary Art of Romania

The role of the Fine Artists Union in the formation of the state artist

The Fine Artists’ Union (UAP) was established in the second year of planned economy to coordinate the national artistic creation in the first Five-Year Plan. The UAP is the institution that participated in the rationalization of the field of art in the postwar period, and occupies an important place in the archives of communism. This organization was created to control the production, distribution and consumption of art. To achieve these objectives, the main task of the Fine Artists Union was the management of a new identity, that of the “state artist”, a variant of the “new man”, a professional whose skills were acquired through ideological training. In order to raise the ideological level of its members, the Union authorized several disciplinary mechanisms, some of them identical to those functioning in the USSR (ideological training committees, criticism, and self-criticism), others specific to the satellite countries (the presence of Soviet advisers in the ideological activity). At the same time, the structure has created professional opportunities, with the result of a significant increase in the artistic production ideologically controlled. Artists acquired ideological instruments enabling them to react promptly to the signals transmitted by the political power. Despite some difficulties, such as the obvious contradictions with the interwar period (the status of propaganda tool for the artwork, the mission assumed by the cultural producer), punishments and rewards shaped behaviors, transforming Socialist Realism in a reality. Controlling all the means of production, and distribution of cultural products, the communist state transformed creators in a new social class, operating in a symbiotic manner with the political power.

Monica Enache, National Museum of Art of Romania

Mechanisms of coercion and control over the artistic act: the relationship between the UAP, the Plastic Fund, and artists (1948-1965)

Among the key organisms for propaganda – the Plastic Artists` Union, and its executive division for matters of finance and production – The Plastic Fund, are the most important institutions, for their role of interface between the regime and the artist. Their objectives were the popularization and the introduction of the new Socialist Realism aesthetics, as well as the control of artistic creation, operated by an unbeatable system of granting rewards. Artists became employees of the state, and their access to various funding, loans and creation aids, state commissions, the permission to participate in the numerous exhibitions staged on various criteria, the access to workshops and houses of creation etc., were actually as many means of control and conditioning the artistic production, as well as efficient ways to impose the unique language in art: an ideologized one, in the spirit of Socialist Realism. What role could the individual option play in this process? Which were the methods for “bringing the deviationists on the right path” and what was their efficacy? We will try to figure out the mechanisms which the management of PAU/PF used, on its way to promoting “fine art which contribute through its content of ideas and by high artistic value to our people’s struggle to build socialism, peace and social progress in the world”.  The period examined here – 1948-1965 – known as Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej`s regime, represents the time of the structural transformations of the state, when the plan for the accelerated Sovietization of Romania was put into practice and, therefore, constitutes a significant cut-off for the study of the politic/art dynamics.

Maria Orosan Telea, University of Timișoara

Awards and distinctions received by the sculptor Ion Irimescu during communism

Focusing on the case of the sculptor Ion Irimescu, this study analyzes the reward system used by the former Communist Regime in Romania in the cultural field. The effort to legitimize an abusive regime involved the development of a legal framework capable of bringing the cultural, and artistic life under state control. Using various rewards such as prizes, honorary titles, and high-ranking positions, the Communist Party intended to control the intellectuals, and the artists. Ion Irimescu was one of the most important Romanian sculptors during the communist period. Starting early in his career many of his sculptures were commissioned by the state, thus his work totals an impressive number of public art pieces and official portraits, including the portraits of Elena and Nicolae Ceaușescu. The large number of awards received between 1954 and 1985 confirm his approval of the communist ideology. Therefore, he was gevin numerous decorations, prizes and state medals such as: The State Prize of RPR (Premiul de Stat al RPR), Honored Master of Arts (Maestru Emerit al Artei), People’s Artist (Artist al Poporului), The “RPR Star” Order (Ordinul Steaua RPR), The Work Order (Ordinul Muncii), The Cultural Merit Order (Meritul Cultural), first prize of Cântarea României National Festival (Festivalul Național “Cântarea României”). Some of those above mentioned imply substantial pecuniary values, others being just honorary titles. The presentation analyses the characteristics of each one of this awards and the professional and social implication of the communist rewarding system.

Andreea Lazea, University of Timișoara

Public art in Socialist Romania: resistance strategies

What is specific to art in the public space is that it belongs simultaneously to the fields of visual arts, to the social and political fields. Thus, in national contexts under authoritarian regimes, public art contributes decisively to the propagation and support of the dominant ideology, and to the dissemination of messages that the state wants to transmit to the large public. After a short overview of the public art realized in Communist Romania, I will present the strategies used, individually or even at the level of the organization by Romanian artists to create and populate the public space with public art objects that did not respect the official thematic and aesthetics of the time. Thus, we will shed light on the attempts by the visual arts to obtain a relative and limited autonomy form the political regime. By applying the distinction by Manuel Castells between the “legitimizing identity”, the “resistance identity”, and the “project identity”, to the building of the professional identity of artists, I will investigate, using the methods of cultural anthropology (interviews, analysis of documents, and observation), the situations that can be framed in the process of constituting a “resistance identity”, and a “project identity”.

SESSION 4: Other artists’ unions: literature & theater

Lucia Dragomir, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Bucharest

The state’s writer. A case study of the Union of writers, a transnational institution in communist times

The Writers’ Union is an institution which reproduced the Soviet model in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe under communist rule. As it was the unique organization for the writers, it represents a particularly suitable observation point to analyze the relations between writers and the power, as well as the special status of the writer – “state artist” (Haraszti 1983) – in popular democracies. As soon as these institutions were established, the literature was obliged “to help the state” in “educating the people” – political exhortations which engendered the new functions of the writer in the popular democracies. Thus, compared to other societies, literature in the East block was transformed in an ideological and political “weapon” with educational and propagandistic functions. Why a writer would be part of the Writers’ Union? Above all, because outside of the institution there was no officially recognized literary practice. The monopoly that the Union had in the national literary spaces was ensured by its strong apparatus for distribution and literary consecration. The Union provided its members with a wide range of symbolic recognition as well as granting them considerable material benefits, particularly through the “Literary Funds”. Thus, the writers’ status in the people’s democracies was significantly improved. To the point they seemed to lose contact with the reality of everyday life, with, ironically, the precious help of the communist state. The latter’s declared purpose was to create and encourage writers able to pay attention to the life of the “working people” and to describe it in their works. In fact, what is required of writers is a description of an idyllic reality in propaganda purposes. Today one may wonder to what extent the Writers’ Unions have responded to the political demands. Was this investment of the communist state in “stimulating literary creation” really profitable? If it determined the writers to present the embellished reality that we can see in the socialist realist creations, it seems that the answer to this question might be yes, but what is the ratio between the investment and the quantity and the quality of the works and to what extent their reception at that time was it the one expected?

Miruna Runcan Theater Department, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj

The coronation of ‘the accompanying comrade’. Sică Alexandrescu – A case study

Were “People’s Artists” famous artists, plain “nomenclature” representatives in the artistic milieu or just “accompanying comrades”? What were the characteristics of the mechanism producing these “people’s artists” in the first years after the concept had been imported from the USSR? What are, in this context, the specificities of the Romanian theatre environment? Who are the people selected to become „distinguished artists”, “State Prize Laureate”, “Honour Masters of Art” or “People’s Artists” – and what justifies this hierarchy? Clearly, some of the members of the first generation of “living statues” were truly artists who had earned certain fame even before the Second World War. Others, however, had not – or they had earned an entirely different kind of status and fame, even though they were already entering their final years. What kind of negotiations and conventions explain the choice of these people for such honours? We can only obtain partial answers to all these questions, because the private fates and even the (critical) history of theatre in the communist era seem to have lacked almost completely any appeal for study: for the 26 years since the paradigm change, the Romanian theatre sphere has avoided, with (guilty) stubbornness, to confront both its history and the necessary recalibrations of worth. We shall, nonetheless, try to uncover at least a part of the mechanism for selecting/producing “state” artists, by means of a case study focussing on possibly the most illustrative character for the stated theme: stage director Sică Alexandrescu.

Mihai Lukacs, Independent Researcher

From theatrical entrepreneurs to soul engineers: the emergence of the socialist state artists

The disappearance of the Dramatic Societies and the emergence of many State Theatres in a short period of time, after 1948 led to a radical change of the status of the actors, who lost their authority, which was taken over by the director, the iconic socialist artist. Theatre adapted to the new socialist system, to the purpose of social modernization, and to the replacement of the old with the new. The primacy of stage direction became a socialist goal in itself, while the repertoires changed, staging developed, and the theatre became a popular art form, as well as a form of mass education in the socialist spirit. The transition from the star system to the ensemble theatre with a realistic approach, and under the direction of one person, the director-of-ideas, did not take place smoothly, but there were a series of aesthetic conflicts, directing, or acting approaches which were considered inappropriate to the general artistic program, and numerous attempts to bring the theatre to “its healthy track of realistic tradition” (Aurel Leon). This presentation deals with the understanding of these theatrical transformations in the writings of the actors from the 1950s and 1960s, and especially with the cases of Maria Filotti and Ștefan Ciobotărașu, but also Toma Caragiu and other representatives of the 1960s-1970s. Maria Filotti, a famous actress and owner of the Sărindar Theatre (later called Maria Filotti Theatre), wrote in her memoirs about the change between what she was calling the ”theatrical entrepreneurs” (especially the great actors, owners or shareholders of private theatres), and the ”soul engineers”, after the social and institutional changes, which occurred in the period 1947-1948. Revolt was expressed through various protests, resignations, retirements, or the difficult adaptation of senior actors was perceived as a form of suffering, required to produce major changes and as a contradiction, which was beneficial in adapting to the “new state of things”. The new theatre saw a new generation of theatre makers, playwrights, set designers, a new type of actor, but also a new Stanislavskian school of work on stage, of “capturing the authentic life”, of total transformation of the artistic purpose and new creative conditions. Unprecedentedly, art became an essential element in the process of social transformation, and the artistic production was transformed radically in the process.

Răduț Bîlbîie, General Directorate for High Education, Ministry of National Education

Preparing future arts artists in the early years of the Popular Power (1948-1955). A comparison with the preparation of young writers of the School of Literature and Literary Criticism Mihai Eminescu 

Writers, in the bourgeois regime, never had a proper school or any other training form; most of those who wrote until 1945 had an eclectic education, varying from literature graduates to doctors, lawyers, engineers, officers. Those who graduated from a language and Literature Faculty were educated as teachers for Romanian Language and literature. In the arts field, the Academies of fine arts, with higher education status, formed in general teachers for the secondary and high school, a few being those who used their talent in workshops. Most of the inter-war artists and even those in the first decade after 1947 are university graduates. The change of the regime in Romania as part of the Soviet orbit did not just mean the changing of the power relations at the political level, but also the profound transformations in all areas of social life. Culture and education were politicized and turned into annex instruments of the official propaganda for indoctrination and training of generations far from the old life style, the old values, far from the former moral and cultural landmarks. Starting with 1948, art students were formed in four new institutes (Iași, Cluj, Bucharest, Timișoara), at the Faculties of Fine Arts. Young writers and literary critics, who came from workers’ background were educated at the School of Literature and Literary Criticism “Mihai Eminescu”, founded in 1950, having as model  a state higher education institution of the Soviet Union. The study reviews the differences and similarities between the two forms of education, the political interference, from designing study programs to students’ selection and purge of undesirable teachers.

 SESSION 5: State artists in South-Eastern Europe  

Ina Belcheva, Université Paris 1

State commissions and artistic limits in 1950s Bulgaria: the case of Lyubomir Dalchev

As one of the most prominent figures on the Bulgarian art scene, Lyubomir Dalchev was naturally solicited by the State before and after 1944 to participate in its the biggest commissions. After the 9th September 1944, he was one of the first to join the Union of Bulgarian Artists on the 19th September 1944. He participated actively in the ephemeral sculptural decoration of the capital of Sofia for the Labor Day in 1945, he created the first monument of Georgi Dimitrov. In 1949, he became part of the art collective working on the Monument of the Soviet Army (MAS) in Sofia, one of the most important commissions of the 1950s, and created the composition October 1917.

Two committees – the ‘small’ and the ‘big’ jury – were formed, in order to guide the artists in their work and to make sure they follow the ‘right artistic method’, that of the Socialist Realism. The stenographical protocols, other archival documents and the final monumental work that can still be seen at the center of Sofia give us important information on the possible and impossible refusal of participation, on the dimensions of choice, on the understanding and the implementation of the socialist realistic aesthetics, on the defense of one’s own artistic signature and the limits of the compromise. Critiqued for being passive and only applying the Socialist Realist aesthetics in theory and not in practice, continually questioning the judgment of the professional and ideological juries, Dalchev’s October remains until today the best critically acclaimed composition on the MAS in Sofia. After making a compromise during the construction of the ensemble, he continued to work in a more liberal system (after 1956) and to receive the new state commissions. He is one of the artists behind the Monument of the Soviet Army in Plovdiv, the Brotherly Mound in the same city, but also of many other sculptures in the public space, such as Samuil’s Warriors from 1974 in Sofia. Soon after inaugurating this monument, Lyubomir Dalchev immigrates to the United States, never to come back. After 1989 he published a few articles denouncing the repression on artists during the socialism and more or less appealing to destroy the Monument of the Soviet Army that he took as a symbol of the system. A system he seemed relatively well integrated to. So we could ask ourselves, was Lyubomir Dalchev well adapted to the changing aesthetics of the years of socialism and to what extend could we call him a state artist?

Irina Cărăbaș, Department of Art Theory, National University of Art of Bucharest Bilateral Agreements in the Balkans: the Socialist Artistic Identity before UAP and the International Exchanges

Although the establishment of the Union of Fine Artists (Uniunea artiștilor plastici – UAP) in 1950 is regarded as the grounding event of the relationship between the artist and the new socialist state in Romania, efforts have been made to establish it very early in the aftermath of the Second World War. The centralization, the collectivization and the close surveillance of the artists and their works alike – which enabled the very functioning of the UAP – had been gradually implemented by the Syndicate of Fine Arts, the heritage of which was further absorbed by the UAP. Socialist Realism loomed within this context, not as much as an artistic style but rather through the re-signification of some artistic practices from the interwar period. At the same time, Socialist Realism was grounded on emerging institutional mechanisms, which required new rituals and new artistic hierarchies. Tracing back the history of the Union of the Fine Arts, mostly forgotten, enables one to thoroughly understand the connections between earlier structures and shifts performed by the new regime. The first part of my paper proposes an outline of these connections. The second part will deal with a particular side of the new artistic life before the establishment of the UAP, namely the contact with institutions and artists from other socialist countries. After the war, a new regional identity is being configured through collaboration agreements, not only between the USSR and each of the Eastern Block countries – usually turned into the import of institutional strategies and decisions – but, at the same time, through less hierarchical relationships between the newly installed communist regimes. These relationships were also entailing cultural conventions which stipulated common events, exhibitions or documentation travels. As for the artistic area, the cultural exchanges between socialist countries were implying both the Syndicate of Fine Arts and the Ministry of Arts, revealing various decisional layers ruling the artistic life. I will focus mainly on the first cooperation convention, in 1945, between the Romanian Syndicate and the Union of Bulgarian Artists, which triggered several types of artistic exchanges that will stay constant throughout the entire socialist period. This context reshaped artist profiles, either facing a long career in the socialist artistic institutions, or destined to remain marginal, or even to vanish. Such international relationships are revealing for the local negotiations concerning the relationship between artists, and state, but also for the political prospects in the Balkans. At the same time, they show that the new identity of the socialist artist was constructed in a broader framework, outgrowing the inland demarcations.

Agata Rogos, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań

‘Busts in our heads’, images of Enver Hoxha in Communist Albania

This presentation deals with the cult portraits of Enver Hoxha as inspired by the portraits of Stalin with mainly two images showing the leaders as teachers, or builders of a new world. The latter iconographic model was particularly frequently used in Albania’s discourse and iconography, which underscored the myth of a New Albania. Taking as examples the cases of Joseph Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, Enver Hoxha in Albania, and Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, the leader cults became a demonstration of national independence that frequently led, as might be observed in the Albanian case, to isolation. Enver Hoxha was promoted as the communist leader who remained rigorous towards Marxist principles, and thus he was set apart from all other communist leaders in Europe and in the world. After 1968 his image was broadly explored by state artists such as Ksenofon Dilo, Vilson Kilica, Bukurosh Sejdini, and Zef Shoshi. There were five composition models that were used in a figurative art to present Hoxha: (1) the apprentice revolutionary and Lenin’s pupil; (2) the defender of the state; (3) the prophet, apostle and teacher; (4) the builder of the new world; (5) the inspirer of his people. In the Albanian cult paintings, two groups of representations stand out: group compositions and portraits, whereas the latter ones are more rigorous in form and had been following attentively the social realism model. Group compositions presenting Enver Hoxha are visibly more contextualized in Albanian tradition and are completing national-socialism vision that dominated the Albanian discourse after 1968.

Vladana Putnik, Art History Department, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade

From Socialist Realism to Socialist Aestheticism: The Question of the State Architect in Yugoslavia (1945-1990)

The end of the Second World War in Yugoslavia brought the Communist Party to power. In accordance with the new political regime, the position of architects was also severely affected. The private architectural bureaus that existed in the interwar period were closed, and the newly formed ‘state bureaus’ became the only option for work. During the first post-war period, the strong political relationship with the USSR implied the import of their visual identity of Socialist Realism. After Yugoslavia’s break up with the USSR in 1948 the situation in architecture began to change as well. The influence of International style and the concept of socialist society brought a new term to this architecture: Socialist aestheticism. Some architects managed to become distinguished individual authors and artists for the state’s main political projects. The 1970s and 1980s brought post-modern architecture in Yugoslavia and the design became more personalized and individual. Through the analysis of the work of three architects: Mihalo Jankovic, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Mihajlo Mitrovic we will try to determine whether the position of the state architect was influenced by the political changes over the period 1945-1990. Even though a significant number of art historians and architects wrote about architecture of the socialist period in Yugoslavia, the question of state architects so far has not been the subject of a more detailed research.

 SESSION 6: State artists in the Soviet Union

Cécile Vaissié, University of Rennes

The Soviet Union of Cinema: Reflection, Moving Force and Victim of Perestroika (1986-1991)

In this paper I argue the Soviet Union of Cinema was one of the key actors of the Perestroika and I analyze the role this union played, as well as the problems it dealt with. These issues reveal the difficulties of the previous period as well as the political, economic, creative, but also identity and memorial stakes, that cinema people tried to solve under Gorbachev. Theoretically, this union had the same functions as the Union of Writers: to facilitate the control of the Party on creators, while rewarding and promoting those who were loyal. However, it was different, if only because it was established not during the terrible 1930s, but in 1965, when the Thaw was still under way. Yet, what marked the beginning of Perestroika in the USRR is the Fifth Congress of the Union of Cinema, which was held between the 13th and 15th of May 1986. In fact, to the general surprise, the leading elites were contested, dismissed and replaced with others, while very severe critiques were expressed on the current practices in cinema. But the shock was no less important within the Soviet intelligentsia. This Congress dealt with at least 3 problems: the necessary change of the leaders, the relation between the creative generations and the functioning of the censorship. In the months that followed, other questions were added: the economic model on which cinema was based (production and distribution), the possible cooperation with the West, the relation to the Stalinist past, the new thematic. But, if the Union of Cinema became one of the actors of the avant-garde of the intellectual turbulence that marked the perestroika, a certain creative disarray was quickly remarked and the cineaste Andrei Smirnov underlined it in a plenum of May 1989[3]. In fact, Soviet cinema sank in a crisis caused in part by the previous system, and by the changes provoked by the perestroika. Numerous full-length feature films were filmed only to whitewash dirty money; auteur films became rare, cinema halls were left in ruins and the new system of financial autonomy of studios did not function really well. Yet, these difficulties explain the emergence of a feeling nostalgia film people had for the system of production that existed before 1986 and which established their adherence to the model advanced by Nikita Mikhalkov at the end of the 1990s. In all likelihood, it is paramount to understand what was discussed and attempted during the perestroika, in order to do an assessment of the Brezhnev Stagnation in cinema and to better comprehend the stakes of the post-Soviet period.

Vera Otdelnova, State Institute for Art Studies in Moscow

The Moscow art ‘Youth exhibitions’ in the 1960s and 1970s. Prudent progress against omnipotent censorship

The concept of “state artist” concerning soviet art appeared in works of western and soviet emigrant art critiques at the end of the 1960s, when a certain number of artists declared their unwillingness to integrate into the communist state art institutions and began to cooperate with foreign art collectors. This term was mostly used for the representation of ‘free art’ in contrast to all the production made intramural of the Union of Artists under the pressure of censorship. The contraposition of ‘official’ and ‘non-official’ art, as well as using the concept of ‘state art’ became popular in post soviet Russia, where this term had deteriorative slant. Now, thanks to an imposing time distance of the contemporary researcher, and events of the middle of the XXth century, art historians can discover that most of the so-called ‘state-artists’ did not just realize official ideology in art, but cooperated with state institutions mostly for material purposes. Earning in a couple of months enough money, they could make whatever they wanted during the rest of the year. The serious problem appeared only if artists attempted to represent such ‘free works’ to a viewer. A strong censorship and huge bureaucracy that blossomed during Brezhnev era embarrassed organization of exhibitions and repressed even harmless initiatives. The situation was intensified by inner problems and intrigues of the Union of Art. Nevertheless, there were many artists who attempted to reform the institution, to improve its exhibition politics and to work inside the given social order. They didn’t declare any opposition to official art theory but didn’t accept it either. The 1960s and 1970s were marked by battles of artists with bureaucracy, and involved overcoming censorship. This presentation focuses on these artists, and on their activity that concerned first of all the Exhibitions of young artists. However, the tradition of such ‘youth exhibitions’ was provoked by the cultural situation of the “thaw”, when all the canons of Socialist realism were reviewed, and young artists with the support of the Moscow Union of Artists initiated several courageous exhibitions. Such exhibitions rehabilitated artists who had suffered during Stalin’s repressions, and represented the connection between them, and young artists of the end of the 1950s. At the beginning of the 1960s, when the tendencies of the “thaw” ran out, such exhibitions became complicated. I analyze four exhibitions of young artists prepared by the Moscow Union of Artists in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1974, and focus on the organization of the exhibitions from the planning to their opening. Particular attention is paid to the dialogue between censors, local authorities of the union, and individual artists, and to their confrontation. Using archival documents, newspaper articles, and interviews with participants to the events, I will show the role of the government, of the leaders of the Union of Artists, and of individual artists in the formation of the exhibition, and then conclude on how artists expressed themselves, while inside of the strict system.

 Muromtseva Olga, Department of the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Design and Applied Arts

Unofficial artists and the Soviet system: the ways of co-existing.

The phenomenon of the “non-official” Soviet art, or the art of “the sixties”, artists working “underground” in the Soviet Union in the 1960s-70s, is a reasonably well-studied topic. Such aspects as the influence of the first Russian avant-garde, its social and historical significance, the study of the works of individual artists and artistic groups are covered by both Russian and Western researchers. However, despite the traditional reduction of all the artists who worked “outside the system” to a single direction, called “non-conformism”, “second avant-garde”, “other art”, or “non-official art”, it is important, to review and to highlight the different positions of “non-official” artists of the sixties, and to show the whole range of methods of their resistance to the Soviet regime, and/or coexistence with the regime. Did some of them really wanted to rebel against the political authorities, or most of the “non-official” artists tried to escape an open conflict and to work quietly by their own? Such famous artists as the sculptor E. Neizvestnyi and the painter V. Weisberg were members of the Moscow section of the Artists Union. V. Weisberg, D. Birger, N. Andronov and other representatives of a “left wing” of the Artists Union formed the “Group of Eight”, the first creative group after 1932, and tried to legitimize their creative and exhibition activities. The abstractionist painter Ely Belyutin formed his own school, and for a rather long period, managed to be the part of the system, but the famous Manege exhibition of 1962 put an end to the artists’ attempts of integration into the system. Twelve years later, the “Bulldozer Exhibition” of 1974 was the crucial point of the non-official art resistance to the regime, and at the same time led to the beginning of a new dialogue with the political authorities. Other non-official artists led a life of a hermit, and they created their works for themselves and for the closest circle of friends and relatives, and didn’t seek publicity or scandal. For artists like M.Shwarzman, D.Plavinsky their art was a mission and they presented themselves as some kind of prophets. Many artists led a double life like the children books’ illustrators Ilya Kabakov, Oleg Vassiliev and Eric Bulatov, who are now worldwide known contemporary artists. Some artists chose an ironic mode of treating reality, as the Sots art and Moscow conceptualism movements show. The response of the non-official artists to the pressure of the Soviet system differs greatly, as differ their mode of representing their art, the themes they choose, the techniques they use.

 Michael Brodski, the Institute for Film, Theatre and Empirical Cultural Studies at the University of Mainz

The Soviet State Artists Alexander Ptushko and Alexander Rou and their Ambivalent Construction of Fairy Tale Films

The aim of this paper is to portray two Soviet state artists, the film directors Alexander Ptushko and Alexander Rou, who may both be regarded as pioneers of the fairy tale film in Stalinist cinema, after the fairy tale had been ideologically resurrected by Maxim Gorky and Samuil Marshak in the course of the institutionalization of the formal canon of socialist realism during the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934. This paper thus wants to illustrate the complex and ambivalent nature of both the directors’ aim as state artists to adopt and make fruitful the structure of the fairy tale in the context of socialist realism, thereby conforming to the Stalinist slogan “We were born to make fairy tales come true” as well as finding a way to latently resist this dogma. On the one hand, it can be proclaimed that the “world of Soviet reality subsumes the fairy-tale plot, making it a vessel for its ideology“ (Balina 2005). This manifests itself prominently, for example, in the opulent style of Ptushko’s fairy tale films through bright colors and special effects, thereby implying a direct allusion to the Stalinist reality as the “classical Soviet visual landscape of the extraordinary miraculous times” (Prokhorov 2010). On the other hand, the films of both directors seem to find ways to simultaneously subvert the proclaimed ideological implications. Although Mark Lipovetsky identifies a rich tradition in the subversive potential in Soviet fairytales of regime ideology (see Lipovetsky 2005, 2010), he interestingly excludes both Ptushko as well as Rou from this consideration. On the contrary, this paper attempts to rethink their role by examining specific filmic modes which are employed in order to create spaces for the spectator outside of ideological purpose and instead recurring to the state of innocent childhood and play behavior. Thus, the films of Ptushko create modes of nonsense, and in a Bakhtinian sense carnivalistic play (see Winnicott 2005; Wuss 2009), as, for instance, the interaction between the boy protagonist and the tiny clay figures in the socialistic Swift-adaptation The New Gulliver (1935) or the chaotic and playfully directed fight against the eponymous monster in the folktale-based The Sword and the Dragon (1956). Alexander Rou instead creates several mythological trickster figures, particularly the antagonistic villains played by his recurring actor Georgiy Millyar such as the witch Baba Yaga, for example in Vasilisa the Beautiful (1939), or the presumable tyrant in Kashchey the Deathless (1944). By means of typically trickster-like playful behavior (see Hynes 1993), these figures transcend the ideologically strict manichaeistic binary model between good and evil. Finally it shall be considered, how such staging strategies likewise subvert socialist realism by recurring to non-ideological innocent childhood memories of the adult spectator (see Tatar 2009; Warner 2014) by means sof the stated playfulness and nonsense behavior.

[1] Miklos Haraszti, The velvet prison: Artists under state socialism (London: I.B Tauris Co, Ltd, 1988), 129, 43, 46.

[2] The current paper is partly informed by the archival research I conducted for my M.A. thesis Young Romanian Artists of the 1980s: Between Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Ideological Options, defended in 2014 at the History Department of Central European University Budapest.

[3] “Svoboda tvorcestva. A dal’se ?” Sovetskaja Kul’tura, 23 mai 1989, p.3-4.

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