State Art or Sites of Resistance: Socialist Realism in Romania: 1945-1989
Tanta, Mirela R.
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During the Revolution of December 1989, the dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena were ousted from power and executed by firing squad. Fifteen years later, the “Ceausescu Palace” (1983), for which twenty percent of Bucharest had been torn down during construction, opened as the first National Museum of Contemporary Art and the first democratic Parliament. My dissertation problematizes this allegedly smooth transformation of an authoritarian symbol to a metaphor of freedom. Is such a transformation at all possible; in what ways and to what extent does re-using a building re-use its ideology? This research takes the overlapping functional programs (palace, “house of the people,” house for art, house for legislation) of the building as its point of departure. It focuses on the collection of Socialist Realist paintings located in the Museum and explores the implementation of Soviet Socialist Realism in Romania. In the five chapters that make up the dissertation, I explore artistic agency during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and examine Socialist Realist paintings as tactics used by artists simultaneously to survive in and to alter the system. My project challenges established arguments in art history claiming that artists working under oppressive regimes lack individual agency. Instead, I argue that Socialist Realist paintings served the state as didactic art but also countervailed state power by serving as surreptitious coded sites of resistance. The interdisciplinary debate that most informs this dissertation comes from Postcolonial Studies, Critical Theory, Political Science, and Women’s Studies. Because of this overlap, the Socialist Realist painting per se acts as an intersection between discourses about art and power, culture and politics, space and memory. Therefore, I argue, the painting is not just the product of the general totalitarian art canon, but also a collection of particular aesthetical choices. Historian Boris Groys considers interest in Socialist Realism to have been dominated by a single question: “Are we dealing with art here?” My dissertation argues that indeed we are dealing with art here precisely by examining its here-ness in the newly born democratic Romania. The Romanian moment of Socialist Realism requires us to consider a simultaneous double-consciousness: first, we must attend to the particularities of its restricted aesthetic; second, we must become aware of the possibilities not available for artists, but imagined or known about, that existed outside the boundaries of those restrictions. To meet this complex moment, my research, both, focuses on circumstantial details and points to a broader theoretical framework. Rather than narrowly labeling the art commissioned by the regime and the artists, I focus on the aesthetic, social, iconographical, and stylistic choices these artists made when faced with the implementation of Soviet Socialist Realism in Romania. I look at how they painted the canonical political portrait.