Totalitarian regimes often use art as means of propaganda, putting strict limits on it’s creators and their phantasy. But such an approach can easily backfire and find it’s opponents in underground art. This is exactly what happened in the 1970’s, when painters came up with an idea to use pop culture motifs against the oppressive ideology of the state.
During Soviet Union times the government imposed an official artistic style on the creative community – Socialist realism. It was notable for it’s depiction of an idealised soviet society and it’s people and tried to convey how perfect it is. In the early 1970’s another style have been established as an opposition to this particular aesthetic doctrine of the government. It was called Sots Art, also known as Soviet Pop Art, and it is considered to be one of the most original and influential soviet art movements since the avant-garde of 1920’s. A fine example is the Coca Cola banner made by A. Kosolapov that you can see above.
At the heart of the Sots Art lies the deconstruction of a myth created by authorities. It takes recognisable propaganda images, archetypes, political leaders and slogans and puts it in a playful, even absurd context. Many see it as a parody or a mockery of soviet regime, that is created through juxtaposition of it’s symbols with the popular culture and grotesque.
The inventors of the term were two Moscow conceptualists, V. Komar and A. Melamid. The name itself instantly refers us to both socialist realism and pop-art. We know that first was an official artistic doctrine of soviet government, and the second was always concentrating on the subjects of excessive consumerism and overproduction. Сonsequently, Sots Art deals with the problem of exuberance of ideology. Basically what artists did is bring together aspects of social realism and pop-art to create fun, sometimes even provocative images. The lively, vivd eclectic language of the movement is very diverse. Artists use various techniques, endless quotations, bright and bold visual characteristics of propagandist art. All of it is served to the viewer in a rather comic context, which is trying to liberate one from ideological stereotypes.
Ironically, the idea of Sots Art came to Komar and Melamid in 1972, when they were working on the design of a pioneer summer camp, commissioned by the government.
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In their works tragedy and farce often mix. One of their most famous pieces, “Birth of socialist realism”, puts together soviet politics, greek mythology and aspects of classic royal portraits. It shows Stalin seated on a bench with columns and red draperies on the background. Right next to him hovers a muse and whispers in his ear. The whole scene looks quite ridiculous, none would expect to see such contrasting elements in one canvas. The fact that everything is painted with perfect technique and craftsmanship confuses you even more. You start contemplating wether it’s really a joke or not.
The elements that artists use come from different places and epochs, they all blend together, emphasising and uncovering subtle similarities between seemingly unrelated cultural phenomenas. One of the best examples is “Laika”, a pack of famous cigarettes redrawn in cubism style. Another great work, “Lenin hailing a taxi in New York”, presents a revolutionary in the same pose he was usually depicted in in official art. Only here he doesn’t address the crowd with his speeches but tries to catch a cab. A cherry on top are the McDonalds sign and Chrysler Building in the background.
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Komar and Melamid were not the only famous artists of Soviet Pop Art. Others who shared their views and creative aesthetic were A. Kosolapov, L. Sokolov, B. Orlov, etc. Works of D. Prigov and E. Bulatov also considered to be a vital contribution to the development of the movement.
Sots Art became known on a worldwide scale in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, owing to the emigrant artists, various publications and foreign exhibitions. Most of all, the influence was felt in China, a country with similar political climate at that time.
The works of Soviet Pop artists liberated the minds of their contemporaries by bringing irony, parody and popular culture into the matters of ideology and politics. However absurd their works may be, such non-mainstream art played a big role in dissolution of the soviet myth for the people of that time.