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Red flags flying: Elements of socialist realism in Australian art

Martinac, Krunoslav (2002) Red flags flying: Elements of socialist realism in Australian art. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis examines the emergence and development of Socialist Realism in Australia. Among twentieth century cultural narratives a significant position is occupied by the theme of realism in the visual arts as related to the social and particularly to the political or ideological context. The issue of reality transformed into a visual representation of social relations plays an especially important role in Eastern European artistic practices, dominated by the Soviet model of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism is a worldwide artistic and cultural phenomenon that arose under the influences of the social changes in Russia at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

This already defined aesthetic influenced thereafter the other European communist and non-communist countries, the United States of America and Australia. Historical approaches to the problem of Socialist Realist doctrine have established a number of cliches which should be thoroughly challenged by new interpretations, questioning the fixed definition of historical avant-gardes as supposedly positive and progressive while traditional realistic practices are seen as regressive and totalitarian.

This thesis provides an insight into the artistic practice of Australian painters Noel Counihan. Yosl Bergner and Victor O’Connor, whose work embodies most of the contradictions and conflicts of the early Australian modernist scene. Modem art in Australia reflected the social and cultural situation in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s which shaped the emergence of Modernism in general in Australia. Australian artists in the Contemporary Art Society (1938) drew on European ideas in their attempts to develop a modem artistic practice that was both international and at the same time recognisably Australian. Important amongst these were a number of Socialist Realist artists whose artistic activity was strongly concerned about contemporary social issues, nationalism, national identity, economic depression and war, and the future of Australian society.

This study grows out of some recent interdisciplinary initiatives in language theory and new directions in the study of visual art. The analytical model of systemic-functional semiotics of art, as developed in the work of Michael Halliday and Michael O’Toole is applied to an interpretation of a selection of key works by Australian Socialist Realists. Through a close semiotic analysis internal visual facts and the historical and social context of their work are integrated into a complex structure of signs and their meanings in an endeavour to interpret the appearance and development of the doctrine as a significant practice in Australia in the period of the 1930s and 1940s.

This thesis is written in the conviction that visual representations are realisations of the social semiotic out of which they have grown, but at the same time they are a contribution to that social semiotic, participating in changing the context. My analysis of the Socialist Realist method which attempts to locate the picture within a rational system of perceptual codes suggests that works of art can be a starting point from which most of the aesthetic and social-political concerns of the period can be deduced.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): O'Toole, Michael
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