Socialist Era Art – Echoes and Remnants

Art in Politics and Politics in Art

Socialist-Realism clock in Olomouc
Socialist-Realism clock in Olomouc

Politics, whatever the regime, is quite possibly the ultimate expression of theory and practice missing each other cleanly in the process of trying to connect.

However disparate political ideologies find themselves; they all use, and often abuse, art. The Socialist regime which held power over the former Czechoslovakia and other countries of central and eastern Europe for around six decades is no exception to this; indeed, the regime created an entire movement of art so distinctive and inextricably linked to itself that nobody could mistake it for anything else, Socialist-Realism.

While many examples of this genre of art have long since been removed or destroyed since the fall of Socialism in Europe, some examples of it do still remain in place. Quite a lot of what does remain is integral to the structures of buildings and so cannot be removed easily without damaging the surrounding areas. While you may find examples of it in many places in the Czech Republic, I’ll touch on just a few examples here.

Olomouc

Detail of clock on Olomouc town square
Detail of clock on Olomouc town square

The North Moravian city of Olomouc is a former royal city and is the country’s second largest urban conservation area after Prague. it is also home to two very well preserved examples of Socialist-Realism art; an astronomical clock in the town centre and a mural at the main train station.

The astronomical clock, integral to the facade of the town hall, has existed for around 600 years; the clock has been through many renovations in its long history and , until the Second World War, was a typical astronomical clock with allegorical and biblical figures parading out as the bells tolled. The current appearance of the structure dates to the early 1950s. The allegorical figures were replaced with athletes, engineers, scientists and other everyday people of the sort that Socialism claimed to celebrate.

While it is tempting to hold the fallen Socialist regime in contempt for having made such a sweeping change to the face of the clock, the truth is they probably would have left it alone if the retreating German army hadn’t taken the opportunity to use the clock for target practice late in the war.

With a structure to repair and a new regime in place, the opportunity was simply taken to re-model the clock yet once more. While little positive can be said of Socialism, Olomouc did get a truly unique tourist attraction as a result. There is not, to my knowledge, anywhere else in the world where you can see such a clock fashioned in Socialist-Realism style.

Mural of celebrating peasants in the Olomouc train station
Mural of celebrating peasants in the Olomouc train station

If you arrive to Olomouc by train, you will not be able to miss seeing the large sgrafitto style mural of peasants happily celebrating and dancing about. Agriculture as much as industry was featured prominently in Socialist-Realism.

Brno

A piece featuring a furnace surrounded by smelter tools on a Brno building facade.
A piece featuring a furnace surrounded by smelter tools on a Brno building facade.

A stroll through the South Moravian capital’s centre will bring you in contact with several examples of remaining Socialist era art.

At the Moravian Square end of Rašinova street, you can find a building with a selection of carved stones in its facade depicting various aspects of mining and its connected trades.

A fixture of Moravian Square is a statue of a Soviet soldier on a high plinth “Liberating” the city at the end of World War Two. Standing high above the square’s main tram junction with one hand raised in greeting and the other holding a flag, he’s impossible to miss seeing.

It’s Just Art Now

Soviet soldier statue above Brno's Moravian Square.
Soviet soldier statue above Brno’s Moravian Square.

Speaking strictly from the standpoint of someone with a background in the visual arts, I am happy to see some examples of the Socialist-Realism art movement remain in place. Politics aside, it is every bit as valid an art movement as any other and certainly has its place in the historical picture of the country and society.

In a historical context, it is easy to condemn the 20th century tyranny of Socialism while forgetting that the preserved castles of previous centuries were so very often the seats of tyrants themselves. The great and sprawling chateaus of other eras stand as testament not only to the tremendous wealth and privilege of their former owners, but also of rigid social class stratification that most people in developed nations today would find unthinkable.

I have met many people who would happily do away with any remaining vestige that served as a reminder of Socialism, including examples of this genre of art. To this I would simply say that if one cannot appreciate the art form, perhaps it would be easier to appreciate the irony of the fact that it shared many stylistic traits with two other politically influenced art movements which originated in the same time period but from quite different regimes: American Socio-Realism and the Romantic realism influenced works produced in Hitler’s Third Reich.

Another example of the genre in Brno's Královo Pole district.
Another example of the genre in Brno’s Královo Pole district.

If you wish to learn more about the origin and development of Socialist-realism as an art movement, this website offers a quite good write up on the subject:

http://artinrussia.org/socialist-realism/

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