The evocation of social realism in my work is what I am trying to make sense of right now. Because my paintings contain large figures, in action, and I am aiming for a sense of physicality, social realism and Soviet propaganda come up often in conversation. In part this puzzles me because I see propaganda as just one minor use of this kind of figuration. I see it partly as a consequence of socialist realism being the most recent clearly definable movement of figurative painting, making it a default reference point. My influences in terms of the human figure come more from Renaissance fresco and the figurative painting of Glasgow than they do from Soviet art, which I have seen quite little of. I’ve long been in awe of Mexican Muralism, however, and a few years ago I saw several exhibitions of the work of Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski in Warsaw which deeply affected me. Wróblewski’s work went in and out of the socialist realist paradigm (along with political freedoms) during his lifetime, and he employed its language to memorialise the suffering of Polish people under both German and Soviet rule. This subversion of the tools of propaganda, and expansion of the aesthetic, makes sense to me.

Socialist realist painting is in some ways like the paintings made 500 or so years ago in Florence, when painters worked within the restrictions of the church or a patron or both, yet found ways to express truths existing outside of those frameworks. In North Korea, this paradigm persists to the present day, with state-sanctioned art being made at the Mansudae Art Studio by artists who are surely finding small ways to subvert the rules placed upon them.

Social realism is tied to cinema for me. I worked for a year as a widening participation tutor for Glasgow University, teaching a course on social realism in film. I worked my way through films by Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold and Stephen Frears, and taught students about kitchen sink drama. This aspect of British film history is deeply ingrained in my mind, so when I think of social realism it’s associated more with protest and truth-telling, memorialising the histories of ordinary people, than with propaganda or political ideology.

Andrzej Wróblewski

The Execution of Hostages
Oil on canvas