African Americans in Soviet Socialist Realism: The Case of Aleksandr Deineka

Christina Hilleboe Kiaer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Aleksandr Deineka's paintings of African Americans made during his visit to the United States in 1935 have never been studied in detail, and certainly not as part of the broader history of representations of African Americans in early Soviet visual culture. Analyzing examples of Soviet anti-racist imagery from the later 1920s through 1936, the essay establishes a context for understanding Deineka's works as self-conscious interventions into a visual rhetoric of anti-racism that had a particular set of stakes in 1935, as Socialist Realism was being elaborated across media. It examines closely the extensive critical response to Deineka's African-American works when they were exhibited in Moscow in late 1935, because this response reveals the contradictions within the Soviet desire for an aesthetic of anti-racism: some critics praised Deineka's works for being appropriately anti-racist, while others detected an incorrect exoticism and essentialism. The essay argues that these contradictions emerge from the way that Deineka's images of the Harlem cabaret bear evidence of his aesthetic exploration of the new pictorial conventions of pan-Africanism in the Harlem Renaissance, even while staying within his brief as a Soviet visual artist reporting critically on the life of American Negroes. The essay concludes by placing Deineka's paintings in relation to more widely known and distributed Socialist Realist images of African-Americans in the film Circus (Tsirk, 1936) and the published photographs accompanying Il'f and Petrov's articles in Ogonek from their American road trip (1936), in order to argue that as objects of fine art that were subject to less intrusive censorship than films or published writings, Deineka's paintings demonstrate more immediately both the conflicted and productive ways in which the imperative to see anti-racism helped to shape the Socialist Realist aesthetic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)402-433
Number of pages32
JournalRussian Review
Volume75
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory

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