Soviet war painting gallery

 Image 008 Sovietpictures063
"The Knocked Down Ace," by Alexander Deineka

Here's a gallery of astounding Soviet WWII-era paintings.

Alllie says:

These are amazing paintings. I can't think of anything in the west in the same time period that is as moving, as emotionally evocative, except Norman Rockwell. It surprises me that more people don't like them.

There's a book called The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders. Part of it deals with the CIA's efforts to destroy social realism, to make acceptable only art devoid of political or emotional content. I thought they had just succeeded in keeping it out of corporate media, out of the museums, but that they couldn't change how people reacted to it. But it may be that they won and that most of us can't react to such art anymore.

These pictures, to me, represent where art should have gone after the impressionists and the post-impressionists, that they are the heirs to Gauguin and Cezanne and of Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters", to Goya's "The Third of May, 1808, or The Executions on Principe Pio Hill." Instead, what do we have today? Sometimes art is pretty. Sometimes it is clever, but it is usually without any deeper significance, without any emotional or political content.

I find that very sad.

Soviet WWII-era paintings


  1. Canada has had some fantastic War Artists. I would point to the paintings of Edwin Holgate, Alex Colville, Charles Comfort, Lawren Harris, and Thomas Wood. Each were influenced by Canada’s Group Of Seven, and to see these styles and techniques filtered through the work of these painters is very visceral and evocative of the moments they captured. Highly recommended.

  2. I tried to share this on Facebook and it instead shared the Cory Doctorow thing four stories down. Same for attempts to share any of the surrounding stories as well.

    Looks like the Facebook button is buggy.

  3. Nice stuff.

    If you’re interested in WWII art from that American side, you might try the book “The Two Thousand Yard Stare: Tom Lea’s World War II”, which has a fine collection of WWII artwork.

  4. Fantastic works. I think my favorite is called “Letter from the front” by V. Laktionov. I love the light and the uplifting feel of it. The other one that struck me was called “Coming Home”. Thanks for posting this!

  5. Just a thought, but were cameras more common amongst the British and Americans? Could this account for the Soviets doing so many paintings? Maybe photography obsoleted the need for paintings to some degree?

  6. 60 years later it is still hard to image the life these people lived. Growing up in the cold war I was astounded by how little weight is given to the experiences of soviets during wwII.

    Thank you it was very moving to see these

  7. Looking at this painting, what strikes me is how the artist is making darn sure that we know this guy didn’t live through this- “Maybe viewers might think that he’s only unconscious, and he could survive the fall? Hmm…I know, I’ll have him fall head-first into some steel girders! Yes, *then* they’ll know what I’m trying to say!”

  8. These paintings aren’t as technically accomplished as those of Rockwell and the other great American magazine illustrators, and are not as focussed, emotionally, or as subtle, ideologically. They are working the same territory though, aesthetically and narratively, and should be more appreciated.

  9. I guess there is great misunderstanding or better said a complete lack of knowledge about Russian art in the 1930s and 1940s.

    The so called “Socialist Realism” is the only art movement which was left over after Stalin destroyed the whole Russian Avant-Garde movement. After the revolution in 1917 the leading Russian Avant-Garde artists like El Lissitzky, Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko did fantastic art work while dreaming of a new, socialist society.

    But in the 1930s Stalin destroyed the Avant-Garde movement completely. The artists had the choice either to do “Socialist Realistic” art or to be killed!!! So in the 1940s the only art left over was propaganda art for the dictatorial Stalin regime. We’ll find the same in other dictatorships around the world, in Germany under the Nazis or in North Korea today.

    Therefore you’ll have to be careful to compare American of the 1940s with Russian art of the same time. Of course the US had Norma Rockwell, who did this kind of “emtional” art who appealed to the masses, but US artists could choose what to do, while for the Russian artists it was a question of live or death…

    1. I can’t believe these artists weren’t painting from the heart. On the other hand a lot of the posters from this era are clearly propaganda, on both sides, but these paintings, yeah, they are what you described as “emotional” art that appealed to the masses. Maybe that is why they appeal to me.

      Here are some Soviet World War II Propaganda Posters: Most are pure propaganda but some are Avant-Garde.

      If you really want to see the dark side here are some Nazi Collaboration Posters 1939-1945:

      I think the Soviet propaganda posters are better art and better done than the Nazi posters. Hitler didn’t leave much room for creativity, just for perversity.

  10. These are awesome, thanks for sharing!

    On a side note, the masterful Soviet propaganda art was in fact heavily influenced by American WWI [propaganda] art.

    And while we’re talking Golden Age of Illustrators, yes Rockwell was good, but how about the incredible Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham or N.C. Wyeth!

  11. One of the most tragic things I have ever seen was a WWII propaganda movie about the incredible heroism and sacrifice of our Russian allies.
    All true, but I saw it in the middle of the “Cold War”.

  12. Some of these are some of the best paintings about war there are – the style isn’t always photo-realistic, or designed for magazines, but it’s powerful and haunting all the same. If you’ll notice, the love of birch trees and the significance of the vast forests of Russia is often part of the setting in some of them that we, as foreigners, might miss – the “Missed in Action” is as great as any comparable war painting from the West, IMHO, and the birches are a subtle counterpoint to show the ordinariness of every relationship in war. It’s surprisingly personal, too, something the Soviets, especially post-war, were wary of showing – they preferred the Motherland style of war paintings in general. Watch “The Cranes are Flying”, possibly the greatest Soviet war film, and certainly one the greatest films, period, anywhere, for a notion of what their cameras and actors could do.

  13. These are some of the most visceral, powerful paintings I have ever seen. Thank you for linking to them here.

    What I don’t understand though is why an artist like Norman Rockwell would be mentioned in the same breath. I see a lot of sentimentality in his work, but I don’t think I’ve even glimpsed any real emotion. Can someone point me to a relevant Rockwell image or two and help me to understand what I’m missing?

    (Some of Tom Lea’s stuff though — yeah. They’re lurid, but they’re real.)

      1. Thanks. That would make sense. I did a search on ‘anti tank grenade bundle’ and found a picture of a couple of German ones at the top of this thread here . So it must work something like a limpet mine/shaped charge device then. Or something like the ‘sticky’ sock bomb that Tom Hanks uses in Saving Private Ryan.

        1. I think it’s something more along the lines of the German-style Geballte Ladung, basically an improvised bomb where several grenades are wired around another that is used as the single detonator.

          In terms of art it’s difficult to reconcile western European modernism with Soviet realism intellectually, and short of plowing through a comparative reading of Clement Greenberg versus Andrey Zhdanov it should suffice to say that the intent of the artists was obviously meaningful and it either touches you, or it doesn’t.

          Personally, I find it refreshing to see war art from a Soviet perspective, as it’s so infrequently discussed in the west. The political legacy of Stalinism aside, it’s no small stretch to say that if it weren’t for the incredible sacrifices of the Soviet people, WW2 might very well have turned out in favour of Germany. Lest we forget.

  14. “Who the hell is “Allie”, and why doesn’t she take an art history class. The ignorance of that quote is offensive.”

    You misspelled my name. There are 3 l’s. Alllie.

  15. Some are quite painterly. If the titles are accurate translations, these are clearly propagandist efforts meant to inspire or celebrate a specific war effort. This is not to demean their artistic merit, which is considerable. They possess great humanity – not surprising given the subject matter. But their mission is akin to heroic paintings of cars to promote the auto industry. Nobler, but similarly manipulative.

  16. My gd y mdrtrs… grw p.

    Alllie. This is the type of work that Gauguin, Cezanne and Van Gogh were working AWAY from.

  17. What you “like” is being made … it just isn’t important work. Great artists grow from an art movement. Your bickering seems uninformed and your taste is not relevant when your knowledge is so obviously lacking in the basic aspects of art history. Try looking at Maye Stevens work if your needs are figurative, she is a powerful painter. The series she did of her mother in a nursing home could hardly be thought of as unemotional or unpolitical. Her intimate portraits of the elderly and decaying should satisfy your need for over acting. But maybe the CIA has taken all those works from your local library. Robert Colscott and Alice Neal have intense social and political commentary in their paintings and the images are so memorable. Post WWII painters were keyed into growth and social change, the idea of painting realistically for “realism”-sake seemed insipid and trite. Painters know the power is in their brush and the viscosity of the medium not in a hackneyed and tired view-point that has been well played out.

  18. ” …. I can’t think of anything in the west in the same time period that is as moving, as emotionally evocative ….”

    I can.

    It is called Guernica, which is so superior artistically, aesthetically and politically to all these paintings that is not even funny trying to compare them.

    So this Allllllie person may want to try to expand on the point above, as it is it sounds like hawgash…

  19. “Your bickering seems uninformed and your taste is not relevant when your knowledge is so obviously lacking in the basic aspects of art history.”

    Maybe you are right. Maybe it is only art history that matters, not if the art pulls you in and makes you feel something. I guess my sensibility is too rock and roll. I keep on thinking of what Lester Bangs said: “The main reason we listen to music in the first place is to hear passion expressed.” I judge the visual arts by the same standard – what does a piece of art show me of what other people feel, what does it make me feel.

    These paintings made me think I understood what some Soviets felt during WWII, what they experienced, what they suffered. And I found them beautiful. I’m glad I found them.

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