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Social realism

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term used to refer to the work of painters, printmakers, photographers and film makers who draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who are critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions. In general it should not be confused with Socialist realism, the official art form of the USSR, which was institutionalized by Joseph Stalin in 1934, and later by allied Communist parties worldwide. Social realism, in contrast, represents a democratic tradition of independent socially motivated artists, usually of left-wing or liberal persuasion. Their preoccupation with the conditions of the lower classes was a result of the democratic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, so social realism in its fullest sense should be seen as an international phenomenon, despite the term’s frequent association with American painting. While the artistic style of social realism varies from nation to nation, it almost always utilizes a form of descriptive or critical realism (e.g. the work in 19th-century Russia of the Wanderers).

Social realism’s origins are traceable to European Realism, including the art of Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. In 19th-century England the Industrial Revolution aroused a concern in many artists for the urban poor. Throughout the 1870s the work of such British artists as Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl (e.g. Seat in a Railway Station—Third Class, wood engraving, 1872) and William Small (e.g. Queue in Paris, wood engraving, 1871) were widely reproduced in The Graphic, influencing van Gogh’s early paintings. Similar concerns were addressed in 20th-century Britain by the Artists international association, Mass observation and the Kitchen sink school. In photography social realism also draws on the documentary traditions of the late 19th century, as in the work of Jacob A. Riis and Maksim Dmitriyev; it reached a culmination in the worker–photographer movements in Europe and the work by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and others for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project in the USA in 1935–43.

In the USA during the first decades of the 20th century, Ashcan school painting, including George Luk’s Breaker Boy (1921; Minneapolis, MN, Walker A. Cent.) and John Sloan’s Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street (1928; New York, Whitney), depicted the unattractive reality of city and working life. The Ashcan school influenced the art of the Depression era, for example Thomas Hart Benton’s mural City Activity with Subway (1930; Williamstown, MA, Williams Coll. Mus. A.). The scale and commitment of these works were inspired by the example of the muralists active in Mexico after the Revolution of 1910. Their murals, which were largely propagandizing, emphasized a revolutionary spirit and a pride in the traditions of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Diego Rivera’s History of Mexico from the Conquest to the Future (1929–30, 1935; Mexico City, Pal. N.), José Clemente Orozco’s Catharsis (1933; Mexico City, Pal. B.A.) and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s The Strike (fresco, 1957; Mexico City, Mus. N. Hist.) are characteristic of the movement. Their example also encouraged social realism in other Latin American countries, from Ecuador (e.g. Oswaldo Guayasamín, The Strike, 1940; Quito, Mus. Fund. Guayasamín) to Brazil (e.g. Cândido Portinari, Coffee, 1935; Rio de Janeiro, Mus. N. B.A.).

In Europe, the symbolic style used by such socially critical artists as František Kupka at the beginning of the 20th century gave way to Expressionism, particularly in Germany. There Käthe Kollwitz, for instance, expressed concern for victimized women, as in Raped Woman (etching, 1907; Hannover, Sprengel Mus.). More caustic social criticism was characteristic of Neue sachlichkeit of the Weimar Republic era, as portrayed in George Grosz’s Teutonic Day (1921; Hamburg, Ksthalle) or the work of Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. A related realism was also evident in the Netherlands in the work of Charley Toorop (e.g. the Friends’ Meal, 1932–3; Rotterdam, Mus. Boymans–van Beuningen), Pyke Koch and others. Even in France the rural images of Maurice de Vlaminck and Roger De la Fresnaye, and the more critical works in the 1930s of Jean Fautrier and Francis Gruber, pursue social realist objectives. With the political polarization of the period the distinction from Socialist Realism became increasingly blurred, as exemplified by the position in Italy of Renato Guttuso. After World War II social criticism was absorbed by Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe, while in the USA and Western Europe it became overshadowed by the dominance of abstract art movements, though it continued to be important in cinema.

James G. Todd jr
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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