Socialist realism was an official style of the Soviet art from the mid-1930s right until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It emerged as a result of the state's efforts to intensify and codify its control over the arts giving itself a task to transform the country's inhabitants into Soviet citizens — «ideological remoulding and education of the working class in the spirit of socialism». As a result, socialist realist artworks needed to follow the posed task to portray the radiant communist future rather than the actual, often grim, conditions of the Soviet life.
Socialist realism has often been dismissed as a communist kitsch, particularly in the West, mere political propaganda monolithic in form and lacking in artistic essence. While this criticism is undoubtedly justified in some cases, the Western art-experts overlook the value of the works of this genre as a whole, trying to present it as only a degrading one. Nevertheless, opposing these views, the events like, for example, the exhibition of twenty-five paintings from the collection of The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis are happening, which show that this statement is clearly not true of all socialist realism artworks. As it may be seen from this show, socialist realism encompasses an impressive range of themes, genres, techniques, and practices. It has also been changing over time in response to the historical events and circumstances such as World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and the Khrushchev Thaw, which took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s and witnessed a relative relief of censorship towards the arts field.
Numerous artists have worked not only for the state in official roles, but also unofficially, creating works for themselves, their families and friends. No less accomplished than the art they have produced for the government commissions, the body of private works made after the World War II reflects the plurality of formal styles—including impressionism and expressionism — as well as depicts both politically neutral and personal subject matters. When you look at this genre more as a historical phenomenon, rather than as an imposed artistic technique, it can attest to the fact that artists in the Soviet Union inventively negotiated the boundaries of socialist realism and challenged the idea that all Soviet paintings reflect a rigid, codified approach. Indeed, the art of socialist realism underlines the point that many artists produced works of subtle beauty that managed to question socialist realism's utopian message while expressing a unique creative vision at the same time.
By the 1960s, socialist realism had reached a dead end, eaten by the horrifying realities of repressions and war. Some artists who came of age during the Khrushchev Thaw became the pioneers of a new kind of realism. Known as the «severe style» this genre allowed humanism to pierce official art's utopian armour. While the state never allowed it to bloom fully, the «severe style» produced a unique approach that adapted modernistic formalist method to a realm of regulated culture.
The seventies gave rise to a new type of consciousness of the Soviet person. A disappointment in the Soviet ideals and a tendency to prefer an individual good over collective one penetrated all spheres of life. It was a failure of the state ideology. Fifty years of selective work in order to create an ideal Soviet citizen dissolved due to inability of the state to provide conditions for a citizen's life. The material basis of life was reclaimed from the state's sphere of influence and built anew with great sacrifices. At that moment, being far from industrialisation and war, people generally had enough of the material background to feel the need for self-realisation. They lacked involvement in the great historical events, like ones which have led and pacified the previous generation. The ruling elite did not manage (or did not want) to set new tasks. The socialist order never came into being, remaining a mirage in the official rhetoric. At that time exactly an undefined «strive for oddity» emerged in the minds of the Soviet people.
Culture, even being an important part of the party propaganda machine, was at the avant-garde of this «quiet protest». Vigilant ideological control kept back «sedition» and «formalism» as long as it could manage, but often its efforts proved not enough. Fine art was gradually rejecting the method of socialist realism and more and more often turned to experiments with form, content, and colour.
The art of the 1970s focused on the inner world of a human, searching for his or her identity. It was a contemplative research, not a militant confrontation. Instead of being anti-Soviet, this art sought for a new type of human consciousness — free, self-sufficient, standing out from the dull majority. This generation created new aesthetics, putting the sensory experience of images forward.
The Ukrainian contemporary art arose during the perestroika period, after the Chernobyl disaster and in the context of the Soviet empire collapse. Looking towards the worldwide art processes, the painters resolutely rejected the hackneyed Soviet-realistic canon and turned to a postmodern ironical game with traditional paintings. In the 1990s artists turned themselves to their surroundings — so unbelievable and absurd — in attempt to reconsider them with help of the new media tools, such as photography and media art. A pictorial thinking, an inclination to define reality as an art phenomenon, a certain social escapism — all had a great influence on the contemporary art of the 1990s.
The independence of the countries that have succeeded the Soviet Union in the 1990s has created the basic conditions for the institutionalisation of their civil societies. Ukraine has joined these newly independent states with little reliance on its civil institutions. The tendencies within the Ukrainian art of that time reflect the implications that the failure of the civil society institutionalisation had for this particular domain. Ukrainian contemporary art presented at the major international art museums and at the art festivals of this artistic field is a post-Soviet phenomenon that occupies the junction between the Ukrainian art, international institutions and civil society. As a field of artistic activity Ukrainian contemporary art strives to differentiate itself from the Ukrainian art that has originated in the environment largely formed during the pre-independent Soviet period. The authority struggles within the field of Ukrainian contemporary art also involve the Ukrainian institutions situated on the outside of it. At the same time, both institutional and personal agencies within the very field of Ukrainian contemporary art are affected by the lack of institutionalised civil society in Ukraine. According to the theory of Pierre Bourdieu, the field of Ukrainian contemporary art lacks autonomy. This desirable autonomy would allow it to exercise control over the resources of artistic authority. How all of this finds its articulation in the personal narratives of the major Ukrainian contemporary art figures and in the conflicts that happen in the field of Ukrainian contemporary art is precisely the topic of research of the Liudmyla Bereznyts'ka Collection.