Visual Cultures of Socialism - A Comparative Approach

Visual Cultures of Socialism - A Comparative Approach

University of Hamburg, Department of History
Vom - Bis
18.03.2015 - 20.03.2015
Niklas Cohrs, Osteuropäische Geschichte, Universität Hamburg

How do we know what socialism looked like?

Memories of communism and the phenomenon of Ostalgia are often linked to everyday objects and images which are perceived as socialist and, because they are charged with emotions, construct affiliations that transcend the collapse of the socialist regimes. At the same time, it is becoming clear that socialism is gradually being historicized as the temporal distance to the Soviet experiment increases. The future memory of socialism will be substantially influenced by the range of images and artefacts of public (museums, monuments) and private (souvenirs, photographs, memorabilia) processes of remembering.

While this canonization process at one stage removed constitutes part of contemporary cultures of memory, historians are researching the visual cultures of socialist societies. Socialist visual cultures generated social and cultural codes that went far beyond the political iconographies. They defined central places for the negotiation of political and social relationships. The visual and pictorial conventions of the Soviet Union after 1945 are, alongside their transfer, the topic of the conference. How were the specific features of socialism constructed visually, and how were these markers diffused, transformed and negotiated in socialist countries?

The conference focuses on socialism as a central pathetic formula of the 20th century. How was socialism visually defined and represented? How was it made recognizable? We seek to gain insights into the relationships between the control and production of images, the consumption of images and mass culture, the interaction between ‘high’ and ‘low’, in addition to the management of cultural and ethnic diversity in the socialist societies of the 20th century and the visual cultures tied to ruling practices.

After 1945, visual cultures changed in the wake of reconstruction, the cold war, the thaw, stagnation and the period of transformation. Having been modeled after an ideal Stalinist Soviet Union in the postwar years, the socialist “brother countries” were soon forced to readapt to new slogans. Such changes (similar to the transition from avant-gardes and constructivism to socialist realism) led to ruptures on the one hand, but also – for example, in architecture and urban planning – to the coexistence of different concepts, to the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous. During periods of transition, the planning and implementation of new and old concepts existed side by side. Changes were not implemented at the same time and in the same way in different realms or in different socialist countries. Thus, disruptions remained visible and became part of the socialist city and everyday environments. Another ongoing confrontation with alternative projects and images appeared in the context of the cold war. The quest for better materials and technologies that should be effective even at the micro level of everyday life informed the socialist propaganda until the very end.

We invite contributions focusing on the pictures and objects of everyday life and mass culture of late socialism. Possible topics are:

- Processes of canonization and institutions (visual arts, photography): official use of pictures (photo agencies, editorial, exhibitions), semi-official use (photo-clubs), private use; educational institutions. How was the canonization of certain motifs and visual codes realized? Did the meanings attributed to canonical motifs and symbols change, especially in the hitherto poorly investigated 70s and 80s?

- Iconic fields (work, heroes, technology, etc.)

- Visual aesthetics of materials (architecture, design, folklore, fashion): how was the quest for progress epitomized in material culture visualized?

- Processes of exclusion, taboos and forbidden images

- Picturing socialist emotions

- Grey zones of increased non-conformist opportunities (folklore/ folk art, artist groups, satire, caricature etc.)

- Counter-images (anti-heroes, parodies, etc.): use of pictures in everyday life, production of images ‘from below’ and counter-productions, imaginations of the non-socialist Other, omissions.

- Channels and media of transfer: how did the exchange in national and transnational contexts work, for example in the case of co-productions in the film industry?

- Cultures of memory (museums, historic preservation, nostalgia)

The topics and issues should be approached in cross-regional and comparative perspectives: under the banner of transfer, submissions focusing on the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries will be as welcome as those concerning China and North Korea. Countries such as East Germany and Yugoslavia, with their permeable borders should be addressed as hubs of East-West transfer, with a focus on the processing and passing on of images to other socialist countries.

Submission of papers for pre-circulation: 31 December 2014 (15 pages including updated abstract)

A publication of the results is planned.

The conference language is English.

Please submit a short abstract of no more than one page for a half-hour presentation and a brief CV containing keywords outlining research interests to the email address provided below:

Concept and organization: Nathalie Keigel MA, Alexandra Koehring MA, Prof Dr Monica Rüthers, University of Hamburg

Accommodation during the conference will be covered by the organizers; reimbursement of travel expenses is negotiable.



Monica Rüthers

Universität Hamburg
Von-Melle-Park 6
+49 40 42838-4829