“Social Realism in Art: Of the Left and the Right”

While reviewing a book on Käthe Kollwitz’s art – which features prominently images of labourers, the poor and the socially deprived, with a view to eliciting sympathy with the plight of the urban poor in the era of industrialism – I was struck once again by the multivalent political character of Social Realism. Social Realism needs to be distinguished from Socialist Realism. Social Realism is the use of naturalism to depict the life of the poor, working class and social outcasts, specifically with the intention of effecting social, legal and cultural change in favour of the depicted subjects. Socialist Realism is the political conformity of artists to the cause of advancing and consolidating the policy and ideals of Socialism and Communism, usually within the structures of states pursing such political goals. So Kollwitz, Jules Bastien-Lepage and Marie Bashkirtseff are Social Realists; Vera Mukhina and Isaak Brodsky are Socialist Realists. 

To complicate matters, Kollwitz may not have been a Socialist Realist but she was definitely a Socialist. Her close family members were members of the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), expressed support for it and she made posters for SPD causes. She accepted commissions from the SPD and the pro-Communist Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung newspaper. She was twice a signatory to a petition for left-wing parties to unite against the Nazi Party in 1932 and 1933. One essential feature of Socialist Realism is idealisation; Kollwitz did not idealise her subjects, though she did simplify and turn living subjects into types. Her art (even the political posters) criticises inequity rather than celebrates the success of Socialist action and organisation.   

A curious fact about Kollwitz’s Socialist iconography and messages is that they are equally amenable to the politically left and right…”

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Whistler, Ruskin, Tonalism and the Falling Rocket

“In November 1878 one of the defining events of Modernism and aesthetics took place. A libel case was brought to court in London. The plaintiff was the flamboyant and notorious London-based American painter-printmaker and the defendant (who did not appear to testify) was a famous art critic.

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the leading painter of the Aesthetic Movement. He was witty and erudite and made a point of provoking audiences with his statements on taste. He is (understandably) often assessed in relation to Wilde, whom he knew. There was a degree of competition between the pair. The young Wilde attended events Whistler spoke at and it was commonly thought that many of Wilde’s beliefs on aesthetics and art came from Whistler. Famously, Whistler and Wilde were at a gathering together and Whistler uttered a witticism. Wilde exclaimed, “I wish I had said that,” to which, Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.” Wilde addressed the painter as “Butterfly”, a symbol of ornate beauty and delicacy. Later, the pair became estranged, their egos rather than their outlooks conflicting. Not least, Whistler was a skilled writer, well known for his elegantly barbed letters to the press. Wilde may have felt, as a mere writer and no more, that the multi-talented Whistler was intimidatingly skilled and sophisticated….”

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