Marxist Aesthetics and the Socialist Realism of Geli Korzhev

Vitaly Pershin

With Geli Korzhev’s demise, the socialist realism tradition has suffered a severe loss. Yet, an even greater blow was suffered by the critics of both socialist realism and real communism when, at the beginning of the new millennium, prompted by his ageing, the humble artist allowed himself some publicity that made a stunning impression on the broad public. Now, various communist web sites upload his long-forgotten masterpieces such as such as “The Communists”, while the general public is astonished at many of his later works which may not portray the communist proletarian struggle, but remain firmly within the socialist realism framework – no matter how deeply Marxist, but inherently early-socialist.

Geli Korzhev has been an increasingly inconvenient target for attacks by the bourgeois and post-modernist left-wing critics of real communism’s art. As a representative of Soviet art, he emerged at a time when the socialist realism tradition had just peaked. He appeared to have grabbed, in principle, all of the influence of the great masterpieces of Marxist aesthetics of the 1950s, and carried this influence all the way into the 3rd millennium – an achievement of which not many people can boast. Thus, in the 1990s and 2000s he was not a “dead lion” of post-war Soviet aesthetics like writers Fadeev or Polevoy, but a living and active part of it. According to his own repeated confessions, he “painted only what he felt like painting”, but what a creative person “feels” is deeply related to the creative environment that once generated him. And that is the post-war Soviet culture – an “alternative civilization” that continues to attract people’s minds across the world.

His realism was truthful to the extreme, close to photographic, and in some aspects more than that. Yet, at the same time he had nothing to do with that “close-to-photographic” academism of the late Soviet era that lost much of the spiritual content and paved the way for “objectless art” in the same way as classical bourgeois academism had done a century before. His social focus was extremely strong and at times overtly political, yet it had nothing to do with the “order from authorities” that ruled much of the politicized Soviet art during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev era: his patriotism, whether it had any Christian or communal flavour in it, was real; just as his orientedness at labour, no matter how he understood it, was clear and sincere. Unlike most of his “political colleagues”, he remained loyal to his ideas until the end of his life; though, of course, with the collapse of the Marxist aesthetics environment that once made him, his realism underwent some transformations away from it and back into the “eternity” theme that once prompted his just-after-the-war paintings. Thus, the perception of real communism’s art as a “state service with no featured value” is broken apart outright by Korzhev’s heritage.

At the same time, his “severe style” approach stands apart from the social realist mainstream that portrayed the achievements of socialist construction and later became a target for “carpet bombings” by the usual “democratic” media. Those were the schools within the social realist tradition that went a little further than “what is real” in order to provide some positive example – “exemplary realism” portraying heroism and achievements that the bourgeois culture machine has diligently tried to diminish, sometimes calling it “utopian”, and even trying to equate it with Nazi art. No, Geli Korzhev dedicated his art to the opposite, to the “severe side” of both the revolutionary struggle and early socialist construction. To a bourgeois intellectual with his one-sided idealist logic, it may even look as if Korzhev is portraying “ulcers of real communism”. Of course, this has nothing to do with Marxist aesthetics or the real materialist approach, especially with regard to real communism of the XX century (as a product of a successful proletarian revolution in a country where the proletariat had not yet become a major economic force with patriarchal labour dominating the production of food). Thus, Korzhev’s inconvenience to the post-modernist bourgeois critics (especially the “liberal democratic”, Trotskyist or any other “anti­authoritarian” version of the post-modernist left that has grabbed the minds of young intellectuals in most of the industrial and even agricultural nations) is obvious.

Korzhev’s extreme truthfulness provides a powerful alternative to the mainstream of today’s bourgeois art with its abstractly refined, faked and concealing approach. In fact, he is indeed more than photographic: the important details that he gathers, conceive the spiritual atmosphere of time and place to the extent of a somewhat shocking emotional time-shift. What a difference from the idealist art that lacks time and leaves you in a virtual limbo environment of abstract unnaturalness, hiding behind “cosmic”, “technological” and “future” themes (as though anti-realist aesthetics of abstract torn-out one-sidedness has anything to do with Space or any other future technology)! At the same time, it is impossible to accuse Korzhev of sensual anti-abstractionism: every stroke of his brush is conscious and conceptualized; it is not just an image by some academically refined reflection tool. Yet, such truthful and sensible painting of the truthful and natural Soviet environment would not in itself be much different from the contemporary bourgeois realist schools that expose, in the eyes of the pragmatic bourgeois intellectual, the ugliness of the decay of the capitalist formation behind its gloss.

So, what makes his extreme realism socialist?

Firstly, it is the close social focus which is something extremely opposite to both the consumptive entertainment (that is supposed to be “directed at the masses”), and the “narrow art” directed at a narrow layer of bourgeois intellectuals and composed of “signs” playing their own abstract game apart from objective social reality. The social focus of realism, much more than left-wing abstractionism, has been a target of violent bourgeois attacks. Let alone the “Utopian theme” which is everything that projects or proposes beyond class society (even in a deliberately anti-utopian, scientific manner). Let alone the proletarian vanguardism (which is always “the same as Nazi”) or the overtly politicized art which is always “obtrusive” and venal to the interests of the political leadership, whilst the most refined and advanced art is always “above the struggle”. But the very social focus is considered a bad taste: the “great artist” of these days is supposed to be a “unique creative intellectual” who must brush the various “refined cockroaches” from his individual imagination, and wait for a response from another “individuality” that “understands” and recognizes this “unique feature” (which, at a closer look, turns out to be not unique but rather widespread, largely physiological, and easily modelled). Yet the Hegelian, and not the post-modernist, uniqueness lies in appropriating and conceiving cultural treasures that are universal and increasingly social. Geli Korzhev leads us into the world of such treasures; at the same time, he is indeed doing it so humbly and unobtrusively: as a guide1 for the interested party in the world of values, and not some “mentor” for the ones who are “socially lost” and “need correction”.

It is also not a secret that Korzhev often raises the aesthetical dilemma of The Beautiful and The Disgusting in the context of LABOUR. It would be quite “normal”, from the point of view of the bourgeois mainstream, if he expressed his extreme realism and the “severe style” in the same way as is done by some “surrealist” or other bourgeois or petty-bourgeois school of painting. If it was that way, his out-crying truthfulness would, of course, be in contrast with the obtrusive polishedness and artificiality of forms of the contemporary mainstream – in contrast, but not in contradiction. But the labour theme, which is expressed in Aesopian language and therefore passes through the common anti-communist patterns is, in my opinion, something that brings it a completely different quality, making it dangerous for the bourgeoisie.

Korzhev’s labour is chiefly the physical labour of the productive sphere, but the productive intellectual labour can be drawn easily into his approach. It is mostly petty, primitive labour which also includes, for example, the “labour” of a soldier defending his own land, as represented by his various war paintings. Some predominant necessity, inevitability, frustration can be felt in this approach to labour. At the same time, this debilitating, crippling labour is something that enables the beauty – The Beautiful – in the seemingly Disgusting. And, this is essentially not about the features of the “aristocratic” labour dictated by the needs of formal aesthetics, but the necessary, or (as Lenin put it with regard to the free labour under communism) “damn hard work”, when the fatal need imposes its own vision of what is beautiful or not. The hidden reservation that everything connected with necessary labour (including the war labour with all of its disgusting things) – labour muscles, labour suntan, etc. – is unconditionally beautiful, is without any doubt present in Korzhev’s treatment of the category of The Disgusting. Here is one of the examples where Geli Korzhev stresses the leading nature of Necessity in the “Freedom-Necessity” dilemma – an idea rather unappealing to most of today’s left-wing intellectuals – just like his stress on DUTY which is another important issue in Marxist aesthetics.

The question of duty arises with regard to the treatment of the aesthetic categories of the Heroic, the Sublime and the Deposed. It again can be seen clearly in his war paintings, e.g. in his work “The Deserter” (1980). The Duty that is standing in front of every human being, and is not a whim or fault of some government or party official. Because of the way Geli Korzhev expresses its form, it may look like a communal rather than communistic duty, but the content is essentially the same for both of them. For the contemporary liberal (and, in essence, the conservative as well) left-winger this out-crying communal Duty can be something alien; but for a conscious proletarian, it is something that should be drawn clearly into the mind, no matter how one-sided or obtrusive this puffing-out of the Necessity at the expense of Freedom may be.

At the same time, I state that Korzhev’s treatment of the aesthetic category of The Tragic is not consistently Marxist, as it is not consistently materialistic from the Marxist aesthetics point of view. Marxist aesthetics, as is known, discriminates between the Tragedy of the obsolete social classes and the Tragedy of social classes that are going to replace them. While the first tragedy is pure frustration, lack of hope, pessimism and bewilderment, the second one is either not a tragedy at all (for an individual) or contains SELF-IRONY at the inability to solve an urgent historical task due to the lack of real resources.2 Korzhev fails to include this important reservation, and falls instead into some kind of Christian-moralistic subjectivism or the late-Soviet pessimism of the kind: “Eh, Morozova. What have we been fighting for?” with regard to the historical task formulated by the October revolution, with regard to the Russian question, etc. In my opinion, this inability stems from the fact that Korzhev’s socialist realism as a whole is not so much Marxist as it is inherently early-socialist with Marxist and non- Marxist aesthetics hiding in contradiction with each other.

In fact, it looks like his proletarian communist of the 1950s is not so much a firmly conscious proletarian but yesterday’s muzhik (manly harsh countryman), proletarianized patriarchal producer whose consciousness, at first praised by Lenin’s promise of “paradise on Earth”, then undergoes a transformation into sceptical, cynical, and eventually Christian (or “sad”, according to Hegelian language) consciousness. The perception of the world from the point of view of early socialism (bewildered and lost in dismay) is most clearly reflected in Korzhev’s picture “Rise up Ivan”.

Inconsistent materialism, which is most clearly reflected in Korzhev’s treatment of the aesthetical category of The Tragic, can also be found in his approach to the concepts of labour, duty, and other important issues, connected with the “Freedom-Necessity” dilemma. In fact, hard labour stands here as something fatal, something that leads inevitably to the question: “What have we been suffering for, and what is the value of this constant struggle for survival, this constant sacrifice?” But similarly to the ironic reservation to Tragedy as a whole, the Tragedy of Labour has its own reservation, and that is: it is a real Tragedy as long as it contains a part of Comedy in it. Remember Nekrasov’s “Barrel of Vodka I give to the workers” (Nekrasov N.A., “The Railroad”). The sins of class society (whether it is capitalism or early socialism) are the opposite side of its hardships, and for as long as workers and proletarians take the “pleasant things” of this class society for granted, they cannot get rid of its hardships; until the hardships and joys of it vanish altogether in classless society – and this will eventually happen, whether we want it or not.


1 “The One Raising the Banner” by G.O., RD, April, 2013, pp.186-190.

2 Dmitry Gutov. Marxist-Leninist Aesthetics in the Post-Communist Era. Mikhail Lifshitz.

Editorial Note: A number of the paintings of Geli Korzhev are on You Tube:

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