1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Arts – Tirana

'Mother' - Mumtas Dhrami - 1971

‘Mother’ – Mumtas Dhrami – 1971

The article below was first published in New Albania, No 6, 1971. It discusses the general idea of art in a socialist society, how the Albanians saw ‘Socialist Realism’ with mention of a handful of works (out of 180) that were displayed at the National Exhibition of Figurative Arts in Tirana in the autumn of 1971.

Emphasis, so far, in the pages on this blog related to Albanian art, has been placed on the Albanian lapidars – public monuments. There have been a few reasons for this: they are often large and out in the open, and therefore accessible to all at all times; some of them all under threat of decay from either neglect and/or vandalism – a number of important ones have already been destroyed by reactionary forces within Albanian society; they embody a uniquely Albanian approach to such monuments: and, even if in the public domain are often ignored – strangely people walk past works of art everyday (and not just in Albania) without taking notice of what they are passing or the significance they might have in the country’s history.

But ‘Socialist Realism’ in Albania was not restricted to the public sculptures and a great deal of material in all forms was produced from after Liberation in November 1944 until the capitalist supported reaction was able to re-take the land of the people for the benefit of exploiters and oppressors in 1990. However, these numerous works of art, that used to be part of the people’s heritage, are now under the control of the enemies of such political statements in oil paint and water-colours (as well as stone, bronze and wood). Many museums and art galleries have been closed and (no doubt) many works of art destroyed by the ignorant reactionaries or stolen by the opportunistic and avaricious. An obvious example is the looted museum in the town of Bajam Curri, in the north of the country.

However, there are still a few museums that still display examples of Socialist realist Art. Apart from the National Art Gallery in the centre of Tirana (which always has a permanent exhibition of art from the revolutionary, socialist period) a visitor to the country could investigate the modern art gallery close to the Bashkia (Town Hall) in Durres; the museum and art gallery in the centre of Fier; and the small gallery in the town of Peshkopia.

(Unfortunately I’ve never seen the statue of ‘Mother’ by Mumtaz Dhrami, that heads this post. He was, and still is, one of the most renown Albanian sculptors and such a piece of work demonstrates a very Albanian approach to sculpture, chunky and solid. I hope it still survives intact (but fear not). At the same time I have no knowledge either way. Other creations of Dhrami are: the magnificent Arch of DrashoviceEducation Monument in Gjirokastra; Mother Albania at the National Martyrs’ Cemetery; the (now virtually destroyed) Monument to the Artillery in Sauk; the large monument to Heroic Peza, at the junction to the town on the Tirana-Durres road; and the War Memorial in Peza town itself.)

Living colours

by Andon Kuqali

The feelings, emotions and thoughts of the working man, the master of the country, the new man of socialist Albania is the content of this year’s National Exhibition of Figurative Arts. The paintings, sculptures, drawings, and designs exhibited, aim at expressing this content through an art characterized by the truth, the reality of life.

Since the 1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Arts was to be opened before the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the founding of our Party and on the eve of its 6th Congress, the artists chose themes for their works from the history of the Party and the Albanian people during these 30 years, as well as from our revolutionary traditions, themes from the struggle and work to build our new socialist society. As a matter of fact, today even the most modest landscape or still life embodies this new content, because it exists in the very life of present-day Albania.

What strikes the eye in this Exhibition is that the paintings, sculptures and drawings have more light, more vigorous colours, more varied expressions of artistic individuality than those of the previous national exhibitions. This is important because national exhibitions in Albania are a sort of summing up of the best creative activity of our artists during two or three years, thus they show the course of development of our art at a given stage.

But those colours and variegation of form remain within a realist imagery. Turning away from superficial, manifestative compositions, our artists have tried to enter deep into the life of the people to portray it more truthfully, with greater conviction and artistry. The figures of workers and peasants, of partisans or of outstanding people are true to life, simple and this in no way hinders them from being full of virtue, human and heroic at the same time. Even the industrial landscape is presented in its intimate aspect as an integral part of the life of the working man with the richness of original forms and characteristic realistic colours.

The dawn of November 1941 - Sali Shijaku - 1971

The dawn of November 1941 – Sali Shijaku – 1971

[The house where the Albanian Communist Party (later to become the Party of Labour of Albania) was founded in 1941 is the one with a tree to the right of the stair to the first floor. It became a Museum of the Party after Liberation – it might be in private hands now (it definitely isn’t readily accessible.) The letters VFLP written in black on the white wall on the side of the building in the foreground (as well as along a wall at the very top of the painting) stands for ‘Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!’ (‘Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!’), the revolutionary slogan of the Communist Partisans. I don’t know where this painting might be at the moment. I hope it’s in the storeroom of the National Art Gallery. What goes against its public display are the four letters VPLP – modern-day fascists don’t like that!]

Alongside the tableaux in grand proportions which portray notable events from the history of the Party and Albania, or outstanding figures of communists and revolutionaries, the landscape ‘The Dawn of November 1941’ by the gifted painter Sali Shijaku is no less significant and profound. In reality, this is a composition in small proportions in which the great idea that the Party emerged from the bosom of the common people is expressed. It depicts a poor quarter of Tirana as it was, in the midst of which stands the house where the Communist Party of Albania was founded: an ordinary house like the others, except that from the two windows of the ground floor flows a cheerful light which spreads far and wide driving away the gloomy night of the occupation and reaction.

Albanian Dancers - Abdurrahim Buza - 1971

Albanian Dancers – Abdurrahim Buza – 1971

[I don’t know where the original of this painting by Abdurrahim Buza might be at the moment.]

Dancing is the motif of a number of works of this exhibition. ‘The celebration of liberation’ by N. Lukaci, is a composition in sculpture developed with rounded figures, powerful like the beats of a drum and representing a typical folk dance. ‘Albanian Dances’, by the veteran and very original painter, Abdurrahim Buza, is the tableau of a circular dance in which the lively silhouettes of men and women from all the districts of the countryside with all their warmth and colour move freely, expressing the happy unity of all our people.

Planting Trees - Edi Hila - 1971

Planting Trees – Edi Hila – 1971

[This could well still be on display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana.]

A soft breeze stirs the fragrance of the fresh-dug soil, where girls and boys are planting trees under a blue sky. This is the tableau ‘Planting Trees’ by the young painter Edi Hila, inspired by the actions of the youth, a song of spring for the younger generation of Albania who are growing up happy with a fine feeling for work, a fresh tableau with a dream-like quality, from the vitality of our reality.

The dynamism of the daily life of the workers, their enthusiasm at work in the factory, before the smelting furnace, their chance encounters in the streets, the clash of opinions in which the new man is tempered, are expressed in the strong lines in the series of drawings under the title ‘Comrades’ by Pandi Mele.

Comrades - Pandi Mele - 1971

Comrades – Pandi Mele – 1971

Like saplings in the bush, the children frolic and romp in Spiro Kristo’s delicately portrayed tableau ‘Springtime’.

The Children - Spiro Kristo - 1966

The Children – Spiro Kristo – 1966

[Unfortunately I haven’t been able to come a copy of the painting ‘Springtime’ to add here. Until I come across an image I’ll include an earlier painting by Kristo, the charming ‘The Children’. This is on (normally) permanent display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana. In 2016 I took some friends to the gallery and one of them was (literally) shocked to see such a depiction of children on the walls of a national gallery. I didn’t understand his reaction then (or even to this day). he is of an age to have played with guns (and probably destroying the indigenous population of north America on many occasions and children are killing children in school killings in the USA on an almost weekly basis. This painting encourages an idea of national defence, of preparedness against external threat and invasion, and not of aggression which dominates the armed forces of imperialist countries – just consider the wars of aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and the consequences for the population of those countries.]

In his monumental decorative tableau ‘Our land’, painter Zef Shoshi elevates the figure of the peasant woman, the untiring, hard-working cooperative member, who has won her own rights as a person with tender feelings and priceless virtues, the woman brought up amidst the collective work, in the years of the Party, as the people say. The drafting is connected and dynamic and is permeated by the colour tones of the wheat the soil, and the timber.

The manual lathe operator - Zef Shoshi - 1969

The manual lathe operator – Zef Shoshi – 1969

[‘Our land’ is another painting I have yet to see, either in actuality or in a photograph. However, this picture of a female skilled worker seems to capture the idea that Shoshi would have represented (confident, aware of her part in the construction of Socialism and a more than equal participant in the new society – a crucial and important aspect of Socialist Realist Art) in his entry for the 1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Art in Tirana.]

These are a few remarks about the 180 works exhibited.

Each painter and sculptor is represented here with works which reflect the world as he imagines it, that aspect of life, past or present closest to his heart, the essence of which he tries to communicate his emotions and thoughts to the viewers as directly and clearly as possible, through the emotions and thoughts of the artist who belongs to the people, an active participant in our socialist society in its revolutionary development. This is the source of the variety of methods of expression of each artist, the special individual features of each and, at the same time, of their common stand towards life. These are the features of socialist realism in Albania, an art, which serves the people and socialism, which aims at being an integral part of the spiritual life of the working class and of all the working people.

[Another painting which was part of the exhibition was one by the painter Lec Shkreli entitled ‘The Communists’. It depicts those Communists who were arrested by the regime of the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog just before the invasion of the country by the Italians in April 1939. The person in the foreground wearing glasses is Qemal Stafa – one of the founding members of the Albanian Communist Party.]

The Communists - Lec Shkreli

The Communists – Lec Shkreli

Realism made a come back in Edinburgh – Autumn 2017

The Moon Goes Round the Earth - Keith Henderson

The Moon Goes Round the Earth – Keith Henderson

Having some knowledge of Socialist Realist Art from the erstwhile Socialist countries it was a pleasure to be able to visit the exhibition in Edinburgh, in the autumn of 2017, on British Realist Painting of the 1920s and 1930s to see what was shared – and what wasn’t. After all the style fell out of favour here and became a victim of the Cold War – collateral damage in the propaganda war against Communism.

In the main, these examples of British Realism compared to Socialist Realism are as different as chalk and cheese. In Socialist Realism context is everything, the period in which a picture is painted, the reason for its creation, who or what is depicted and the audience at which the image is aimed are all important .

With the British paintings what is most obvious from the start is the difference in the subjects. British Realism was fine art in its most literal sense. Some of the painters used single sable hair brushes in their work. Some of these paintings took years to complete. There’s no doubting the skill and draughtsmanship of such creations but they were, in many ways, products of their time and the social relations that existed in the decades between the two world wars.

With few exceptions the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ prevailed. They were vanity products of a privileged minority, who had private incomes, who came from ‘old’ wealth. Even those from working class backgrounds rarely reflected their heritage in the subjects and themes they chose to paint.

Many of the male painters had direct experience of the First World War – although a few were pacifists or conscientious objectors and one, Maxwell Armfield, even went to the US to avoid conscription. Their rank during the conflict indicated their class background but most bullets and gas don’t respect class and many returned from the war scarred physically or mentally. Instead of reacting against the carnage most chose to retreat into an idealised past, or a beautiful present, rather than use their art to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated in the future.

This is especially obvious in an idealised view of the countryside, harking back to a time of innocence, before mechanisation, which had, as a corollary, produced the weapons of the early 20th century which had turned once fertile farmland in France into a murderous quagmire. Their countryside is idyllic, the sun always shines and all is good with the world with happy workers bringing in the harvest or tourists enjoying the countryside in their spare time. In their pastoral images there is no reference to the almost feudal working and living conditions under which most agricultural workers existed. As a result they created paintings which included horse drawn rakes and workers harvesting with scythes – backbreaking and low productivity labour.

British Realism included no drama, narrative, or anecdote. It doesn’t really tell a story. It’s more like a photo of a specific time, location or individual but it’s a photo that doesn’t have a back story. It’s an image frozen in time but without any indication of a past or a future.

But ‘Realism’ doesn’t mean real.

By the Hills - Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills – Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills (Brockhurst),

Woman Reclining - Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining – Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining,

A Game of Patience - Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience – Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience (both by Frampton) and

Pauline Waiting - Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting – Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting (Gunn) are images of incredibly beautiful women, perfect in every way. But no one’s that perfect. All of them oil on canvas, the style which results in a ‘brushless, flawless finish’ is used to produce an impossibly flawless image.

The paintings look the same as they do in the catalogue – like large, blown up (and retouched, or, perhaps I should say Photoshopped) photographs. The only difference with the originals is that when close up you can actually see the small hairs on these women’s faces and arms. Their perfection is what gives them away as paintings – such technologies in retouching weren’t available at the time. The artists aimed for, and achieved, perfection before the ravages of time would take that away forever. Standing in front of these portraits you know Oliver Cromwell, with his ‘warts and all’, would not have been a welcomed sitter in these technicians’ studios.

Some artists during this heyday of British Realism also played around with materials, reverting to tempera (using egg yolks, the norm before the invention of oil based paints) which produces a much softer, watercolour effect. What had, half a millennium ago, restricted artists in their desires to depict the world around them was reinvented to depict contemporary society – the medium not as restrictive as once thought. They rejected oil for the previously rejected egg.

British Realism came closest to Soviet Socialist Realism with the works of Branson

Selling the 'Daily Worker' outside Projectile Engineering Works - Clive Branson

Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works – Clive Branson

(Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works) and Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop - Clifford Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop – Clifford Rowe

(The Fried Fish Shop). This is not surprising. Both were Communists and used their art to comment on the capitalist society that had just come out of the worst economic crisis (to that time) and was rushing headlong into the worst and most destructive conflict so far known to mankind. In depicting ordinary working people, even in the mundane act of eating fish and chips, they were referencing those who could take society along another, more prosperous and peaceful road.

There was also a similarity to the Soviet example in the works of Matania

Blackpool - Fortunino Matania

Blackpool – Fortunino Matania

(whose Blackpool was used as a poster advertising the seaside town) and that of Taylor

Restaurant Car - Leonard Taylor

Restaurant Car – Leonard Taylor

(whose Restaurant Car was used to advertise luxury rail travel). In this way they paralleled the work of Soviet artists who were producing public information posters in all fields of Soviet life at exactly the same time.

Flawed but illuminating, museums and art galleries should hunt out further treasures of British Realism and present them to the public. Let the people decide what is ‘art’ and not leave it to the Turner Prize jury.

The National Galleries of Scotland produced a wonderfully illustrated book to accompany the exhibition, True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s, by Patrick Elliot and Sacha Llewellyn. Apart from the reproductions of the paintings that were in the exhibition the text puts the Movement into its context.

‘The Currency of Communism’ and the role of money under Socialism

Albania 3 Lek - 1964

Albania 3 Lek – 1964

The British Museum is currently hosting a small exhibition under the title ‘The Currency of Communism’ – which is running until the 18th March 2018. It’s hardly a huge exhibition, barely more than a half a dozen (small) display cabinets in a room where you can swing a cat – but only just.

In such a tiny space you’re not going to get a lot but what is there is quite interesting in the sense that many of the notes are from countries where the construction of Socialist is no longer in vigour. But it does give the visitor a chance to see some of the images that have been used on coins and notes in the last hundred years – since the Great October Revolution in Russia in November 2017.

Although I haven’t mentioned coinage or notes in my discussions about Socialist Realist Art they are another area where the different socialist societies sought to present the values of collectivity and to promote labour as something to celebrate and honour.

As it mentions in this exhibition the images on the notes were part of the propaganda battle that all socialist societies have to wage against the insidiousness of the capitalist past in a particular country and the capitalist present in a hostile world.

But when the word ‘propaganda’ is used in most circumstances in Britain it’s always in a negative context. THEY, i.e., the enemy, use propaganda WE, the good guys in all this (although the country is constantly invading other countries and killing people in their millions) don’t stoop to such perfidy.

For some reason in Britain it is not accepted that having the head of a Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on all British coins and notes has nothing to do with the promotion of a monarchy. That having the face of a bloated, drunken, racist and class warrior for his class – the aristocracy – doesn’t also promote the values that he believed in to his core and carried out with total disregard to the harm he might cause to ordinary people both in this country and abroad. The values of the monarchy and Churchill are those of the perpetuation and promotion of a society of oppression and exploitation.

But then, as they don’t get challenged by enough people they can get away with their lies. That’s OK, they fight for their class the problem is that too few of us fight for our class. And, what’s worse in some respects, don’t even know their own history to be able to challenge the idea that the aristocracy are parasites on the body politic and their destruction is necessary for our freedom.

Back to the currency.

There were a few things of interest in the handful (literally) of notes and coins on display.

One was the innovative manner in the manner in which all kinds of materials were used as a stop-gap when the old currency became useless after a revolution. You can’t allow the old currency to remain in circulation as the old rich will be able to remain rich. One example following the February Revolution in Russia was of a small sheet of postage stamps over printed with the declaration of the abdication of the Tsar. Other examples were simple printed pieces of paper that gained their value from the trust that people placed in them or the over stamping of coins with a hammer and sickle – which soon became the symbol of Soviet Communism and an integral part of the coat of arms of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

When financial stability had been achieved the new states started to produce notes as are recognised throughout the world. Now they used the skill of proletarian artists and engravers to reproduce the story of the building of Socialism as was seen in art galleries throughout the socialist world as well as in that most extensive of all Socialist Realist Art galleries – the Metro systems, primarily Moscow but also Leningrad and other major cities, in the Soviet Union.

But what grated with this exhibition was the ignorance of the curator/s and their total lack of understanding of what Communism is all about. Obviously they haven’t read any Mao Tse-tung as they write (giving the impression of authority – after all it’s the British Museum) about something they know absolutely nothing.

Not only do they not know anything about the ideology of Marxism-Leninism (the overriding theory that has been behind all the socialist revolutions of the last hundred years and will be the ideology of those revolutions to happen in the future) they know nothing of history.

The curators state: ‘Communism proposes that money has no role in a utopian society. To date though, no communist state has successfully removed money from its economy.’ Here they create a false premise just so that they can then attack it and add to the propaganda battle of capitalism against those who aim to construct a better society free from oppression and exploitation.

The existence of a Communist Party as the ruling party in any particular country doesn’t mean that the country has achieved the ultimate aim of the establishment of Communism.

No Marxist-Leninist of the 20th century ever argued that Communism had been established in any country. Socialism had been established, the first and necessary stage of Communism, but that would exist for an indeterminate time until the conditions for the establishment of Communism arose. And they were unlikely to arise when so much of the world was still under the yoke of capitalism and imperialism.

In the limited ‘explanation’ given in the text in this small room there was constant reference to the fact that many things that are paid for by money in capitalist societies (such as health, education, housing, leisure, transport and social services) are included as part of a worker’s social wage. However, this does not mean that ALL that people need in their daily existence in a Socialist society is there for people to take without some sort of cash transaction taking place.

It is true that the vestiges of the old order, that are demonstrated by the existence of money, means there are opportunities for the unscrupulous and corrupt to take advantage of that ‘weakness’ in Socialism and attempt to use that weakness for their personal benefit. Realising that the taking of State power was only the first act along the road to Communism and that all could be sabotaged by such rotten elements Stalin declared: ‘The Party becomes strong by purging itself of opportunist elements.’ For it was in the ruling party that such opportunists saw their best chance of success.

No Socialist society has existed for more than 46 years (in Albania) so even the best of Communists is more than likely to be tainted by the venom that has been bred into people’s attitudes over the millennia of various systems of exploitation and class differentiation. The construction of Socialism, aiming for Communism, is both a struggle to create the material level to satisfy the needs of the whole of the population but it is also a struggle of ideas to temper their desires to a level that the is sustainable for the whole of society.

Save for the Future

Save for the Future

‘Consumerism’ that developed, principally after 1945, in the capitalist countries was a serious problem for the war damaged Socialist countries. An increasing number of ordinary working people were seen as being able to surround themselves by ‘luxuries’, a term used in the past for items that are now considered the norm. But this consumerism is, and has always been, fed by debt. It started out with Hire Purchase and is reaching its nadir at the moment with credit card debt where people are buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have and, in many cases, won’t ever have.

Perhaps the people in socialist societies were asked for too much of a sacrifice, working for the future without getting something over and above the necessities today. This idea is represented in the exhibition by the reproductions of posters which encouraged workers and collective peasants to save rather spend all they earned on goods for the present. This is one of the many aspects of the first period of Socialist construction that will need to be considered during the start of the second.

The opposite is the case in capitalist countries where all the State and capitalist propaganda is geared to encourage workers to live only for the now, only for consumerism. How else is it possible to explain the inane concept of ‘retail therapy’? All the debt is being pushed into the future, for later generations to deal with – which will almost certainly lead to a military conflict – as has been the solution so many times in the past.

Because money under capitalism leads to regular economic crisis. It creates the conditions for the innumerable ‘bubbles’ that have plagued capitalism from the start and which are growing in various aspects of present day society. Even staunch supporters of the capitalist system talk of ‘when’, not ‘if’, the crisis will occur when referring to the future.

Capitalism concerns itself only for gratification now and to maintain its control of society does all that it can to instil such a narrow-minded, short-term attitude in their populations. This can be seen in the manner that the system has cut a swathe through cultures, nature and the lives of countless millions of working people. They are prepared to destroy the world if it means they can accumulate more and more wealth, more ‘money’.

This is why all past Socialist societies have argued for the gradual diminution of the importance of money and its eventual abolition – but only when the conditions are right.

In the village of Nanjiecun, in central China, a small community of a few thousand have been able to reduce the amount of cash transactions but not all. But it’s a small, isolated community, an oasis in a vast ocean of capitalism, in China itself as well as the rest of the world. In such a situation it will never be anything more than an aberration, however admirable the effort might be.

Under conditions of Socialism the slogan is: from each according to his ability; to each according to his work. Money will cease to exist when the slogan, under conditions of Communism, is: from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs. (‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Karl Marx, 1875.)

When that time arrives ‘intellectuals’ will work for the betterment of society in general and won’t be the self-important, self-congratulatory, self-aggrandising bunch of self-serving sycophants they are now. Is it a surprise they had a hard time in the past in those countries where the construction of Socialism was taking place?

This is probably the smallest exhibition the British Museum has ever presented but brings up some of the biggest questions.