Behind the Iron Curtain part 22 – Visual Arts

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

I have mentioned comedy in particular, but today I would like to talk a bit about visual arts – painting and sculpting.

The regime did recognize that art is an important communicating medium, and there was great use of art for propaganda. The statues to Lenin and Stalin were everywhere, although statues of Stalin were again all removed at my time of life with the regime pretending it never happened.

But putting that aside, was there another art, of the non-propaganda kind? Was there art the artists created themselves? There was, to a degree.

What was considered an acceptable art by the regime was somewhat constrained. In fact, the regime had one thing in common with fascists – a great dislike of abstract art. so the artists were encouraged to pursue a style of “socialist realism” which constrained the expression to depictions of real objects as realistically and precisely as given medium allows. So any artist who wanted to get paid for their work – that is, who wanted to get commissions from the state – had to at least do some of their work in this style. And as a consequence most of the art presented to people was in this style.

This fact does to this day warp the perceptions of many people here, me included. I used to be passably good at drawing and sculpting, but I have always struggled with achieving the nearly photograph-like precision we were told is a sign of a good artist. I think it might be a contributing factor to me never developing my own style and being so lousy at making abstractions and simplifications of human and animal forms. And to this day a lot of abstract art simply does not speak to me, because I was only exposed to most it fairly late in my life. What saved me somewhat was early exposure to cave art from Altamira, which has taught me that not everything has to be pin-point precise for a picture to be pretty and recognizable.

Perhaps art appreciation is in this regard like language – it is best and easiest taught as a child, the later you come to it, the more difficult it becomes.

But do not think that the constraints prevented artists from making great art – they did not. There were great pieces of art produced, some of the war memorials for example are very expressive and convey their meaning pretty well. But in retrospect I think that one of the worst things a regime can do to its populace is to try to regulate artist’s expressions, because that inevitably leads to blinkered and short-sighted populace.


  1. Jazzlet says

    I find some abstract art makes me feel comfortable, some makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t go any further than that. I had a school friend who ended up producing abstract art which I enjoy, I’ve no idea what if anything, it means, I just liked the colours and shapes she tended to use. I’ve no idea what her work is like these days, I do have a few cards that she created when we were still in touch which I enjoy enough to have had framed. Ignorant as it may be, I have no other way of reacting to abstract art than how it makes me feel. I can appreciate the strenth of feeling a piece that makes me uncomfortable evokes, but I wouldn’t want a piece like that around to view every day.

  2. voyager says

    Interesting. I’m curious, Charly. Do you think you don’t like abstract art because you weren’t taught how to appreciate it? What about other forms of art like Impressionism or surrealism?

  3. says

    @voyager, I like surrealism, impressionism not so much. Basically I need some semblance of a recognizeable shape in order to be able to recognize the art as art.

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