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Durham University

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Publication details for Professor Susan E. Reid

Reid, Susan E. (2017). "Still Life and the Vanity of Socialist Realism: Robert Fal'k's Potatoes, 1955". The Russian Review 76(3): 408-437.

Author(s) from Durham


Still life occupied a position in the Socialist Realist canon so marginal that it could barely be called Socialist Realism at all. Although some artists attempted, in the Stalin era, to prove the genre's credentials at least as a component of Socialist Realist visual culture, a number of its genre characteristics rendered it ill‐suited and even antithetical to the mandatory tasks of “depicting reality in its revolutionary development” and demonstrating the role of the party‐state and its leaders in achieving the radiant future. The paper focuses on the work of Robert Fal'k (1886–1958), an artist multiply marginalized in the Soviet art establishment–both as a person and through his work in the lowly, liminal genre of still life–yet nevertheless central to the story of Soviet art. It examines, from different perspectives, the quiet challenge his work seemed to present both to the vainglory of Soviet power and the chiliasm of Socialist Realism. In his Potatoes (1955) the genre characteristics of still life which placed it in the basement of Soviet public culture are so hypertrophied as to become a kind of unspoken worm's eye critique of Socialist Realism and the faith in state‐led progress that it represented. It argues that, in the context of destalinization, when the modernist assertion of autonomy of art and artist presented a perceived challenge to party control over the arts, Fal'k's work alluded to the absence of the state and its powerlessness when faced with the ultimate projects of existence and of painting. Turning the tables on the Soviet state authorities that had marginalized it, his still life marginalized the state as irrelevant to art and life.