This meeting will confront a cross-section of socialist leader portraits, a genre deemed by Igor Golomstock to constitute the most privileged of themes in the topography of totalitarian art. More than classifying the similarities and divergences that present across different iterations of leader portraits, our chief aim will be to track how the circulation and appropriation of such images have, at different junctures, unsettled their perceived rigidity. Seen from this angle, one and the same portrait might be shown to operate simultaneously as a brutally oppressive signifier in one context, and as a marker of international solidarity and anti-imperialist commitments in another. Moreover, we will consider leader portraits in an expansive sense, unpacking, for example, the sometimes curious portrayals of a figure like Lenin in a recently translated 1924 memoir-style sketch by Anatoly Lunacharsky recollecting the Soviet leader’s encounters with and musings on various art forms.
A presentation by Douglas Gabriel will explore the diverse employment of Kim Il Sung portraits in the Black Panther newspaper in the 1960s. A text by Eldridge Cleaver reflecting on a visit to Pyongyang serves as a supplement to the presentation, and as another instance of a textual leader portrait, this time in the form of a missive intended to be reprinted across multiple platforms and circulated internationally. A second presentation by Yi Gu will examine official portraits of Mao and their scholarly evaluation.