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Socialist Realism In Laos

Socialist Realism In Laos

Final Frontier for Socialist Realism


By Andrew Forbes

Languid, land-locked Laos, "last frontier" of the cold war, innocent victim of meddlesome neighbours and predatory super-powers, is an unlikely setting for the imperial twilight of an essentially European art form. And yet, here by the banks of the mighty Mekong and there by the stone-age burial urns of the Plain of Jars, long after its demise in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the school of art known as 'Socialist Realism' is on its last Laotian legs.

Laos was the final country to join the 'socialist camp'. Soviet communism was established in Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, whilst Mao's East Wind had prevailed in China by 1949. By contrast, when the Lao People's Democratic Republic was set up in 1975, riding on the coat-tails of the neighbouring Vietnamese revolution, socialism in Europe and the Soviet Union was already in a state of terminal decline.

Over the next 15 years, a period leading to the break-up of the Soviet Empire and the abandonment of Marxist economics in neighbouring China and Vietnam, Laos became the object of political competition between Vietnam and its Soviet allies on one hand, and the People's Republic of China on the other. During this difficult period most ordinary Lao people gazed wistfully across the Mekong at neighbouring Thailand, whilst keeping there heads down and trying hard not to alienate any of their fraternal socialist allies.

Despite the gravity of the Sino-Soviet split, in at least one forum – the fine arts – there was no serious disagreement. Standards first set in the 1930s by Stalin were generally accepted across the socialist world, from Hanoi to Havana, and from Pyongyang to Phnom Penh. Those standards comprise the art form known as Socialist Realism, and from 1975 until very recently, the government of the Lao PDR adhered closely to the style. Today, however, the artistic world of Laos is in flux, and Socialist Realism in this Southeast Asian nation in its swan song.

The heroic style of painting first promoted by Stalin is rooted in the artistic traditions of late 19th century Russia. During the 1870s a group of Russian painters known as the Peredvizhniki, or 'Wanderers', deliberately rejected the classicism of the Russian Academy in favour of a new type of art that would 'serve the common man'. Over the next 40 years, their influence on Russian art forms was to be seminal.

Following the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, revolutionary art tended to be radical, emphasising idealised notions such as the withering away of the state and the law. Following the death of Lenin, however, in his bid to 'build socialism in one country', Stalin ordered a shift away from such fanciful doctrines towards a more traditional and conservative model.

The party's new line was promulgated in 1934. Under the culture of Stalinism, the acceptable face of art was to be traditional in form, aimed at the masses, laudatory of the party and generally optimistic. By 1939, as a result of these directives, Soviet cultural life was cast in a constricting mould which would eventually help to bring about the collapse of communism – restrictive in form, conservative in substance, and revolutionary only in name.

Meanwhile, in the dust-yellow hills of distant Yan'an, the Chinese Communists were developing policies on literature and art designed to promote their cause in the bitter two-way struggle against the Japanese and the Kuomintang. The resultant party line was spelled out in May, 1942, with the publication of Mao Tse-tung's "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Art and Literature". Mao's opinion was that revolutionary art was intended specifically for 'the people' – that is, workers, peasants, and soldiers. Above all, he stressed that literature and art should eulogise "the proletariat, the Communist Party and Socialism". In sum, Mao wholeheartedly endorsed the artistic standards of Stalinism. As a consequence, when the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, Socialist Realism's rigid and restrictive style became the artistic straitjacket for a vast region stretching from the Adriatic to the South China Sea, dominating the cultural life of almost half of mankind.

With Socialist Realism established as the sole legitimate art form in both the Soviet Union and China, it followed naturally that the genre was introduced first to North Vietnam after the French withdrawal of 1954, and then throughout the remainder of that country following the communist victory in 1975. The Laotian communists, or Pathet Lao – always strongly influenced by their Vietnamese 'elder brothers' – had long applied Social Realist standards in their north-eastern base area provinces of Huaphan and Phongsali. Following the establishment of the Lao PDR in December, 1975, the familiar, highly-formalised style was extended to the rest of the country as a matter of course – as usual, brooking no rivalry.

In easy-going, unindustrialised, Buddhist Laos the results of this policy seemed particularly incongruous. Images of heroic peasants shooting down marauding US planes with AK47 assault rifles alternated with images of massively-muscled Laotian shock-workers building steel mills. Other unlikely images included, for example, Lao hill tribes demonstrating their unshakeable solidarity with Cuban forces in Angola.

In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, following the devastatingly swift collapse of communist power, Socialist Realism was abandoned almost overnight as people everywhere celebrated their new-found cultural freedom. In cautious Laos, change has been rather more gradual. Today militant images celebrating the anti-imperialist struggle have all but disappeared – except on the walls of the 'Museum of the Lao Revolutionary Army' which is, in any case, generally closed to visitors. By contrast, hoardings celebrating the more pacific side of communist aspirations – mass inoculation campaigns, the construction of heavy industry and the ever-popular "bumper harvest" – still exist. Many such images are already beginning to fade, however, and in a sure sign of the times they are no longer retouched, even when fraternal Vietnamese comrades visit the Lao capital. Seemingly, Socialist Realism in Laos isn't so much dying as simply fading away.

Elsewhere in the former Soviet Empire and its satellite states provision has happily been made for the preservation of serious examples of Socialist Realist art, as well as for some of the more ridiculous and extreme specimens of the genre. In Hungary and the Czech Republic these latter examples of totalitarian kitsch are now displayed with fine irony in galleries for 'Heroes of Socialist Statuary'.

In tropical Laos, however, hand-painted hoardings are unlikely to survive the elements for any length of time – and anyway those concrete walls are wanted by Coke and Pepsi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi. What, then, is the likely future of Socialist Realism in Laos? The short answer must be none, though devotees of the school should always be able to visit the Soviet-sculpted King Sisavangvong statue at the junction of Vientiane's Sam Sen Thai and Setthatirath Roads – an intriguing monument to royalty clearly influenced by Socialist Realist standards!

More interestingly – though this may prove to be a short-lived development – at least some Lao artists seem to be experimenting with something that might tentatively be styled "Neo-Buddhist Realism". One model for this may well be the Monument to the Revolution on Vientiane's Phon Kheng Road, which resembles nothing more closely than a traditional Lao that (Buddhist stupa) surmounted by a five-pointed golden star. Currently the most expressive example of this strange new school may be found on Vientiane's central Lan Xang Boulevard, directly opposite the Presidential Palace. In this triple mural, which features traditional Buddhist scenes of people making merit and ramwong dancing, Socialist Realism has surely reached its furthest, final frontier!

Comment from an Expert

Dr Ken Kampe is an American from California who has spent over twenty years in mainland Southeast Asia. He has been involved in development work for various government and non-government agencies in Laos, including the UNDP, over the last seven years. He speaks Thai and Lao, and says – tongue in cheek – that his work involves 'building people, not condos... building people in our own image'. He knows Laos well, having travelled throughout the country from Bokeo and Udomsai in the north, through the old royal capital of Luang Prabang and the present-day capital of Vientiane, to the southern city of Savannakhet.

"In recent years", says Dr Kampe, "I have seen a gradual, but marked decline in the use of Socialist Realism in Laos. Militant, anti-imperialist paintings – of which I never saw many – have quite disappeared, and today's hoardings tend to emphasise peaceful development issues. Stress is being placed on unity and cooperation between different ethnic groups, as well as on newer, more democratic concepts such as elections".

According to Dr Kampe, the Lao authorities are well aware of the way the wind is blowing. "Ask any of the Lao government people directly, and they will tell you they are very concerned and becoming more so. Thai television and radio broadcasts beamed directly across the Mekong are the staple media diet of most Lao. Thai music cassettes and magazines dominate the markets, and the unrestricted free market values of capitalist Thailand are making serious inroads into Lao society". Faced with this reality, the Lao authorities are taking a gradualist approach in which everything authentically Lao – be it from a traditional past or from a more recent socialist background – is used in a positive way to offset the rising tide of Thai influence.

Is it possible that, in this one-sided struggle, the relics of Socialist Realism can be used as a bulwark? "Perhaps, but only for a while. The Lao government knows that it is in a difficult position. They know that, though their territory is quite large, the population is small and the economy weak. The Lao are deliberately adopting a cautious approach, not jumping into a market economy feet first, but trying to develop the positive aspects of both the socialist and capitalist systems. In this way, perhaps, Socialist Realist art may still have some role to play as a counter-balance to the increasingly pervasive influence of Thailand". Dr Kampe's final thoughts on the matter: "I am quite proud of the Lao government for their cautious and considered approach in changing over from a socialist system. They deserve to succeed. Whether they can in fact do so, only time will tell".

Comments from ordinary Laos

Tuk and Paa – Two young ladies of Vientiane sitting beneath the Pratuchai monument: Like most ordinary Lao people, the two girls are cautious about discussing politics in a state which remains rather paternalistic. They weren't at all concerned when asked their opinion of Socialist Realism, however. 'Its boring... we don't really think about it'. When pressed Paa adds 'of course the hoardings show things how they should be, and we hope it's true.... but really we would like to see more foreign goods in the shops, and have more money to spend at the markets'. And given more money, what would they like to buy? [Giggles] 'Levi 501s' says Paa. 'Some French perfume' adds Tuk. And Thai cassette tapes are really fantastic. Aren't they worried that Thai influence is becoming all pervasive? 'We're proud to be Lao, of course – but we do want things to be less serious and more fun.

Sunee – a soft-drink vendor near the new-style "Buddhist Realism" hoardings on Lan Xang Boulevard, describes the paintings as ngam illi, very beautiful. "They are very peaceful' like Laos in times gone by" she says, adding that she hopes they will encourage people to think about religion.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Pictures by David Henley, Joe Cummings & Pictures From History – © CPA Media