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

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

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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