contemporary art / history of art

Artwork of the month / December 2021

Pickle Factory
Tamara Stoffers

Oil on canvas
80 cm x 100 cm

The painting “Pickle Factory” by Tamara Stoffers shows three women in a blue tiled room, surrounded by machines. All are wearing red kerchiefs on the head. In the foreground, one woman with a white apron is looking directly to the observer; a second one in a blue dress is depicted from the side and the third woman is visible, half covered by the first one, from her back. She is standing in front of a conveyor belt, on which green cans are placed. According to the title, the scene is in a pickle factory.

As preparation for the painting, Tamara visited a pickle factory in Amsterdam and took photos from a manual production line. To “translate” the contemporary image into a seemingly accurate Soviet painting of Socialist Realism from the 1960s, she researched historic photographs. From here, she adapted the characteristic blue tiles and the women’s clothing, as she mentioned on her Instagram-account.

In order to verify, if “Pickle Factory” would have been accepted as an oeuvre of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union or if it only seems to fit the style, here a short historic review* about it. In the last decades of the 19th century, an artist group called Peredvizhniki developed a kind of Russian realism. They depicted the urban life and the traditions of the people, often with critical tones, but not only. One of the most renowned artists of this movement was Ilya Repin. His painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga” (1870-73) underlines the hard existence of these people and was later often quoted as example.

After the Russian Revolution and in particular with the October Revolution and the establishment of the Bolshevik party in 1917, realism in art came increasingly into focus. The Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR) was founded in 1922. Their aim was to reflect the ideas of socialism in their artworks. To illustrate the history of the Soviet Union, their oeuvres glorified the victorious Red Army. Important to the system was the working population. In consequence, they became preferred subject, in particular labourers. Hereby, the working life was depicted as a reality as it should be.

In the 1920s and 30s the influence of the AKhRR grew and the certain plurality of styles disappeared in favour of naturalistic presentations. Subsequently, the Communist Party controlled art. After the decease of Lenin and Stalin coming into power, the new leader enforced conformity. Now the artists had to illustrate the reality in its revolutionary development. In doing so, they depicted single persons stylized as heroes to give an ideal picture of the worker. Moreover, the representation of a cooperating collective was important. In 1934, Socialist Realism became state doctrine. By then, art had to illustrate the relationships between people and their environment positively. Particularly in working scenes, the human being should be fused with its activity to contrast the alienation of work and people in the capitalist system. Nikita Khrushchev allowed in the 1950s and 60s a modest amount of freedom in art.

Nevertheless, assembly lines were rarely subject in official art of the USSR, even though they existed. This kind of labour is far from the socialist ideal of collective work. Consequently, other situations of labour or scenes close to it were determined as more representative. Hence, the difficulty of Tamara’s painting “Pickle Factory”. Based on photos of a work situation in a current profit orientated factory, including a conveyor belt, the women are fixed at their special workspace. They are averted to each other, they turn the back to their colleagues. The only unifying elements are the red kerchiefs, an allusion to the Soviet Union. In particular, they hint to Vera Mukhina and Ljubow Popova who designed in the early 1920s clothing concepts, often including red kerchiefs. Moreover, this headwear is a stylistic mean to connect the persons. Beyond that, there is nothing, which hints to a cooperating collective. It is almost impossible to identify what the women are doing in particular. This underlines the state of alienation of this kind of labour. The two workers in the background show no individual features, nor a certain attention for the one in the foreground. They seem to be accessories rather than supporters.

Conversely, the woman in the foreground is looking with a stoic sight to the observer. She seems to rest in herself. This is underlined by the reversed minimal contrapposto. Thus, she has little in common with the glorified acting heroes of work from the Soviet Union, if not perhaps the open-minded eyes. Nevertheless, she does not give the impression to have a vision of a magnificent future, despite the directed lightning, which illuminates the right half of her face. She only looks to the outside of the image space. Her features are individual and not an idealised model, though.

While the style and the accessories remind Socialist Realism, Tamara is more in the tradition of the beginnings of Russian realism. Even though the exploitation of the workers is not so evident as in Repin’s “Barge Haulers on the Volga” the alienation is – as described – evident. According to the ideals of Socialist Realism, a balanced relationship between workers and means of production cannot develop on the base of an assembly line-like production process. In this sense, “Pickle Factory” is more a critic of the working conditions than an idealisation. Is it a reference to the Peredvizhniki in their critical approach?

* Special thanks to Claudia Jansen, whose personal advices and her researches on the image of the worker in the art of the GDR are the base for the short historic review.


Tamara Stoffers

Born in 1996 in Zwolle, Netherlands, Tamara Stoffers studied fine art at the Academy Minerva in Groningen, Netherlands. Additionally, she frequented courses at the Klassieke Academie. Since her graduation in 2017, she participated in several group exhibitions in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but also abroad in Brussels (Belgium), London (England) and Stockholm (Sweden). Her first solo exhibition “The New Past” was at The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow in 2019.

The exhibition consisted of collages composed of photos found in old books about the Soviet Union. The oeuvres are grouped in series named after the publishing year of the initial book. One of them is our artwork of the month April 2019 “Voronezh”. Tamara’s creative process is strictly analogue in its basis. She literally cuts the single elements out of their context and composes them to a new oeuvre. Only afterwards, she scans the completed collage to print it in different sizes and limited editions.

Even though born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tamara is fascinated by this disappeared culture, with its typical visual language. At the age of 18, she started to collect objects connected to the era of the USSR. Later, in 2015/16, she visited the exhibition “Soviet Design 1950 – 1980” in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Here she saw furniture, textiles, domestic appliances and utensils, toys, posters and extensive archive material. Inspired by the atmosphere and shapes of the objects, she started to incorporate it into her artistic practice. Examples are the above-mentioned collages, where she playfully creates new, often surrealistic situations. In doing so, she approaches a for her incomprehensible past, which becomes more accessible to her by this process. Other rapprochements are sculptural cachepots in form of a Lenin bust. Recently, she approached social realism also in painting. Her “Pickle Factory”, which she announced as a seemingly accurate Soviet painting of Socialist Realism from the 1960s is our artwork of the month in December 2021.

However, Tamara’s artistic work is not limited to her personal reappraisal of the Soviet Union. Besides collage and sculpture, she paints also and often combines different techniques. Her still-lifes are naturalistic with traditional compositions. Nevertheless, they have satirical elements and refer partly to our present. Sometimes there is embroidery added to highlight parts of the painting. Moreover, she works on an exceptional portrait series, where she does not show the traditional bust. On hand-shaped concave canvasses, she depicts one breast. In consequence, the portrait person cannot be recognized by everyone, but only by themselves, an intimate partner and the artist.

Tamara lives and works in Deventer, Netherlands.