Socialist Realist Paintings and Sculptures on display at the National Art Gallery, Tirana

Skender Kamberi - The Bread Strike 1942 - 1971

Skender Kamberi – The Bread Strike 1942 – 1971

Socialist Realist Paintings and Sculptures on display at the National Art Gallery, Tirana

This post will consist of images of the paintings (and a few sculptures) from the Socialist period of Albania’s past. The first floor of the National Art Gallery is almost now solely (with one notable exception, which I’ll come to later) devoted to the period before 1990 when things fell apart.

Some of the paintings have been on display for many years and, in a sense, have become the core of the exhibition. There must be many more in storage but as politics gets into everything there may be some which are not even allowed to be on public display for specific reasons. There are a couple that show images of Enver Hoxha but there must be many more – in fact I’ve seen reproductions which are in the national collection but which never see the light of day. I hope, and don’t think, they have been destroyed.

Other political and economic reasons might prevent certain works from being seen. One subject which comes to mind are those paintings which celebrated the developments of the Collective and State Farms. In the selection below the co-operatives are mentioned but only when they are showing people, There are no images of mass industrialisation of the countryside – with tractors and combine harvesters – as those would, perhaps, make the viewer wonder why such images cannot be seen in the countryside of the 21st century as land ownership has gone back to that of the feudal period with virtual strip farming.

The images that are presented are all those that are on display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana at the moment. They are presented here in an effort to encourage anyone who visits Tirana to make an effort to go to the art gallery. It is a unique collection and one that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Unfortunately you don’t have to push and shove to get a good view of the works.

As to the structure of the presentation they are presented in the alphabetical order of the artists’ first name – only because that’s how Windows organises files in folders. This is followed by the title of the work in English. Sometimes the title seems inappropriate but that is probably down to a poor translation from the Albanian. I have given the title as printed on the card beside each exhibit. Next comes the year in which the work was painted. Two were not dated and have ‘nd’ in place of a year.

There are advantages of placing works by the same artist together. The individual style becomes more obvious and if the work cover a long period of time it’s possible to see a development of that style.

The dates are also important as with some of the early works it’s not really possible to describe the works as ‘Socialist Realist’ – the artists’ training and development taking place under a completely different social system. Comparing the dates with events that were taking place both nationally and internationally can also help in the understanding of the various elements in many of the pictures.

I would hope (at some time in the not too distant future) to look at some of these works in a more forensic manner. As it is with time constraints I will only make a few comments on some of the works if I think such snippets helpful in understanding the whys and wherefores of the image and also how such images fitted into the society that the Party of Labour and its leader, Enver Hoxha, were hoping to achieve.

Hey, I might get it wrong but if I do I would appreciate being put along the true path of enlightenment.

Abdulla Cangonji - The fishermen - 1965

Abdulla Cangonji – The fishermen – 1965

Abdurrahmin Buza - The refugees - 1957

Abdurrahmin Buza – The refugees – 1957

Buza was one of those painters who established his reputation before Liberation but did develop his work to deal with events and circumstances in the young Albanian Socialist State.

Abdurrahmin Buza - Voluntary work at the 'Stalin' textile factory - 1948

Abdurrahmin Buza – Voluntary work at the ‘Stalin’ textile factory – 1948

The factory, which was established in the town of Kombinat, to the west of Tirana along the ‘old road’ to Durres, is now (and has long been) an abandoned ruin. The statue of Stalin that dominates the scene is the one that is now at the back of the National Art Gallery.

Alush Shima - Portrait of a worker - 1971

Alush Shima – Portrait of a worker – 1971

You’d have to look hard to find a miner in Albania today. Even so there’s an interesting bas relief in the ex-mining village of Krrabe, on the way to Elbasan from Tirana.

Andon Lakuriqi - Testing - 1969

Andon Lakuriqi – Testing – 1969

Heavy industry was crucial for a self-sufficient Socialist society. This created problems as resources were not able to be directed to the production of consumer goods that people craved – especially when these were becoming ever more plentiful in the capitalist countries – whatever the consequences for the general well-being of the population. That is why images of heavy industry were so common in paintings of the period. This matter became even more extreme when first the Soviet Union and then the People’s Republic of China pulled the economic plug due to ideological reasons i.e., the fight against Modern Revisionism.

Arben Basha - I will write - 1971

Arben Basha – I will write – 1971

Aristotel Papa - From constructions - 1969

Aristotel Papa – From constructions – 1969

Bajram Mata - Portrait of a volunteer - 1969

Bajram Mata – Portrait of a volunteer – 1969

It will become noticeable the number of women – especially the young – who are depicted as playing a full role in the construction of Socialism. And not just as the manual labour but in positions of responsibility, reflecting how (between 1944 and 1990) Albania was succeeding to turn the world upside-down when it came to women’s liberation. Why women reverted to the ‘traditional’ role – which is the case when you look around 21st century Albania – is a question I’ve not been able to answer.

Bajram Mata - The Co-operative work - 1972

Bajram Mata – The Co-operative work – 1972

Some of the work on the Collective and State Farms would have been done by hand but the areas covered in some of these enterprises would have been impossible to have farmed without serious mechanisation. Albania wasn’t totally self-sufficient in the production of such items as tractors and combine-harvesters but it was aiming to be so.

Bajram Mata - The dance of Dibra - nd

Bajram Mata – The dance of Dibra – nd

Throughout the period of Socialist Construction a great deal of effort was put into maintaining traditional folk culture. What was represented in the paintings was not something of the past but of the present where tradition and the the goals of the future were working in tandem.

Bajram Mata - The volunteers 1969

Bajram Mata – The volunteers 1969

Bardhyl Dule - The construction woman -1971

Bardhyl Dule – The construction woman -1971

Women started to take on skilled manual jobs.

Bardhyl Dule - The Partisan courier - 1973

Bardhyl Dule – The Partisan courier – 1973

A similar theme is explored in the sculpture ‘On the road to war’ which can be found in Tirana Park. In the sculpture a peasant woman is giving water to a thirsty Partisan. This is by the sculptor Hector Dule. I don’t know for certain but I assume there’s a familial relationship and one piece of art nurtured the other.

Bardhyl Dule - The weeding of the olive trees - 1973

Bardhyl Dule – The weeding of the olive trees – 1973

I like the little joke in this painting where whilst all the others are working there’s a man in the bottom right hand corner, who is leaning against a tree reading a newspaper.

Clirim Ceka - July 30, 1978 - 1978-9

Clirim Ceka – July 30, 1978 – 1978-9

I don’t know the significance of the date in the title of this painting.

Dhimeter Mborja - freinds of the factory - 1969

Dhimeter Mborja – freinds of the factory – 1969

One of the principles established with the construction of Socialism was that the workers would live and work in the same place. This is not always possible but when we are talking about Collective and State Farms as well as major industrial complexes this makes sense. Apart from anything else this reduces the working day as people have less of a commute. This is not something ‘invented’ by Communism, it existed in the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and hence you had the creation of ‘mill towns’ and ‘mining towns’. For the capitalists this was a method of control – with the mine/mill owners also being the landlords of any housing. This, the capitalists hoped, would be a barrier to industrial action. Under Socialism it was a way of bringing people closer together with the creation of a true community where amenities could be shared. This also happened in the capitalist situation with the development of mutual societies and clubs. But not everyone in a community would be necessarily working at the enterprise. They would be servicing the population in other ways, such as education, health and culturally. Hence the idea of those people visiting a works to understand exactly what went on behind the factory walls.

(To be continued)

A new look, and a new resident, to the National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’, Tirana

The new group

A new look, and a new resident, to the National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’, Tirana

The ‘Sculpture Park’ behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana, has a new resident. Well, not so much a new resident but one who has been there for a few years but it is only recently that the authorities at the Art Gallery have decided to, literally, take off the wraps and reveal his presence to the world. The new resident is none other than Enver Hoxha, up to his death in 1985, First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania, Chairman of the Democratic Front of Albania and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

A vandalised Enver Hoxha

A vandalised Enver Hoxha

However, the years since the neo-Fascist Counter-Revolution of 1990 have not been kind to the large sandstone bust of Comrade Enver. The fascist thugs who attacked this particular statue were not particularly efficient and all they succeeded in achieving is a somewhat radical nose job, with some scarring around the eyes and mouth. Unfortunately (to date) I have no idea of the provenance of this statue – not from where it originally was placed nor who the sculptor might have been.

Enver Hoxha - the nose always get attacked

Enver Hoxha – the nose always get attacked

The last time I was able to visit the ‘Sculpture Park’ was in the autumn of 2016 and at that time the bust was covered in a heavy, white tarpaulin. Local people I knew said that it was rumoured to be that of Enver Hoxha but as an outsider there was no way I was able to confirm or deny this.

Why the statue was even brought to this location in the first place is a bit of a mystery. If the thugs who attacked it (presumably in the early days of the counter-revolution, now almost 30 years ago) were not able to destroy it then such vandalism is well within the bounds of a modern state – which marches further and further, at each passing day, away from anything which Comrade Enver and the Party he led hoped for the people of their country. I think it’s quite amazing that it even exists at all. This is especially so in the present cultural environment where lapidars are being destroyed if they stand in the way of ‘modernisation’.

Independence comes at a price and eventually enough of the population of the country didn’t want to pay that price. Because the road was long, tortuous and hard they handed their country, their collective wealth and their fate into the hands of those who were quite happy to sell all of that to the highest bidder.

Having long been a thorn in the side of capitalism, especially the likes of Britain in Europe (who in the immediate post-WWII years considered Albania as tantamount to a British colony) those who were prepared to tear the country apart, regardless of the consequences for the people of the county, were not slow in coming forward.

Albanian Symbol and Leader

Albanian Symbol and Leader

Reactionary forces, both within the country and those who had been in effective exile since 1944, were promoted and through a series of social, political and economic manoeuvres, shenanigans and disasters virtually all those gains of Socialism were swept away. Industry and agriculture were effectively wiped out and even the savings of ordinary Albanians were stolen by mafia criminals through the likes of pyramid and ponzi schemes.

Enver would have be furious at the way the people were robbed of all they had achieved in 40 long, hard years of the construction of Socialism so perhaps it was best he had died before it all fell apart. As such the destruction of the country would not have happened if Enver had still been alive. What happened in Albania after the death of such a clear thinking leader is that which unites him to the two other great Marxist-Leninist thinkers and leaders with whom he now shares the not really salubrious location of the back entrance of the National Art Gallery.

The people of the nascent Soviet Union were fortunate that with the premature death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 1924 ( precipitated by an attempted assassin’s bullet in 1918) there was another strong willed, determined and fearless champion of the working class (and peasantry) waiting to take the country into an uncertain and dangerous future. That leader was Joseph Vassarionovich Stalin.

The 'Albanian' Uncle Joe and Comrade Enver

The ‘Albanian’ Uncle Joe and Comrade Enver

Now those three leaders are united in art in a way they never were in real life. And it is sad to say that although Enver has gone through the wars it is Vladimir Ilyich who has suffered the most since being removed from his plinth just a few metres from where he is now. With Lenin the reason for his shortage of limbs is more due to greed than political antagonism, which is the reason for Enver’s lack of nose. Many of the monuments throughout Albania have had those parts that are easy to saw off removed for the simple reason of being weighed in as scrap metal. On the other side of the coin it is Uncle Joe who has survived the best.

The 'Russian' Stalin

The ‘Russian’ Stalin

Both the black, distinctively Russian, Stalin, presented to the people of Albania by the Soviet Union just after the death of the great leader in 1953, and the equally distinctive Albanian Stalin (that almost certainly used to stand on a plinth outside the textile factory that bore his name in the town of Kombinat, to the west of Tirana along the ‘old’ road to Durres) are in an almost perfect condition. (This is also the town in which Comrade Enver is now buried after his removal from the National Martyrs’ Cemetery.)

Of the group Enver is also the only statue that is made of stone. This is a slight move away from the traditional lapidars throughout Albania and perhaps was a move that took place after Enver’s death in 1985. The overwhelming number of Albanian public statues are of bronze.

It is true that many of the early manifestations of the early lapidars were originally made of plaster but that was more to do with cost than anything else and many, like the Five Heroes of Vig, were replaced with bronze versions when the resources became available. A number of the really large lapidars, such as the Arch at Drashovich and the Berzhite monument were made of concrete. Carved stone is a rarity when it comes to such public sculpture.

As well as the addition of a new visitor the whole area now looks a lot less neglected than it did a few years ago. Considering it is the National Gallery, and therefore a supposed show case for the country, the back of the building looked more like what you would expect from a building due for demolition.

Firing from the mountains

Firing from the mountains

But the cleaning up of this area might also have something to do with the growing ‘regeneration’ of the central Tirana area. The central market is nothing like you would normally see in a Balkan country and has the sterile feeling of some of the markets in London – as well as higher prices and consequently fewer people.

The tragically neglected Dajt Hotel – which, by all accounts, was a masterpiece of Socialist Realist decoration which was just left to rot – is now under renovation. This means the general area is being cleaned up and that has spread over to the ‘Sculpture Park’.

Another change is that there’s no security guard always around to prevent the casual visitor from getting up close to these statues. It was one of my games in the past to get behind the guard without him realising – and then feigning ignorance when he eventually caught sight of me.

There’s also advantage of these statues being in their new location. You can actually get up really close and touch them, fell the texture of the metal, and now the stone, of the art works. You can see them from all sides and also appreciate how big these statues are. They were all originally designed to be standing atop a tall plinth. If the actual statues in that location were not much bigger than life size they would have seemed out of proportion. (Refer to debates about the proportions of the ‘David’ of Michaelangelo in Florence.) In the ‘Sculpture Park’ you truly look up to these giants of Communism.

Also, on this visit, I was able to see that the ‘Russian’ Stalin actually has been ‘signed’. This ‘discovery’ was not too pleasant. On many of the posts I have made in the recent past about Albanian lapidars I have made a point of stating that I like the idea the works of Socialist Realist sculpture weren’t signed. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that this started to change, as in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnje and the bas relief in Bajram Curri. I will have to look in to the way public statues were presented in the Soviet Union to see how this different approach developed – when I get the time.

The signature on the 'Russian' Stalin

The signature on the ‘Russian’ Stalin

But before leaving the ‘Sculpture Park’ I should not omit to make mention of the wonderful Liri Gero – the courageous Communist Partisan murdered by the German Fascists whilst she was still in her teens.

Liri Gero on her own

Liri Gero on her own

The Communist Heroine Liri Gero

The Communist Heroine Liri Gero

She still stands in the location she has held for a number of years – facing the group on the other side of the courtyard, alone, yet with a dignity and steadfastness that truly represents the young People’s Heroine. A young woman prepared to take up arms for her own liberation and for that of her country. Instead of being a ‘role model’ (the current ‘in’ term that’s used for shallow so-called ‘celebrities’) to young Albanian women I would doubt if many of them in their teens now would even know who she was. As a consequence their lives are likely to be as shallow as those of the celebrities they so admire.

If there were enough reasons to visit this ‘Sculpture Park’ in the past, the presence of Enver (the only public statue of him I’ve seen in the country) is yet another.

 

Political Vandalism and ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic in Tirana

'The Albanians' Mosiac at the National Historical Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ Mosiac at the National Historical Museum, Tirana

Political Vandalism and ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic in Tirana

The wonderful and impressive ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, which has looked down on Skenderbeu Square, in the centre of Tirana, from above the entrance of the National Historical Museum since 1982, is starting to show it’s age. Less it’s age, in fact, but really the signs of intentional neglect which is tantamount to an act of political vandalism.

The last time it was really ‘cared for’ was when one of the original artists involved in the construction of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) used his skills and ‘expertise’ to attempt to depoliticise the work of Socialist Realist Art. At that time (which I still can’t say exactly when) the large, gold rimmed, five pointed red star which used to exist behind the head of the principal female character, at the centre of the mosaic, was removed. Also taken out was the smaller, gold-outlined star that sat above the heads of the double-headed eagle, the only difference between the flag of the present, capitalist state of Albania and the flag of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania.

Also removed – for me inexplicably – was the book that the male, to her right, clutches closely to his chest with his right arm. Although it would have been impossible to have seen so from street level, this would probably have been one of the books of Enver Hoxha, leader of the government and the Albanian Party of Labour from the first days after liberation to his death in 1985. (Another mosaic, this time in Bestrove, has an image of a child carrying a book of Enver Hoxha‘s works closely to her chest.)

Nebiu did a ‘good job’ – it’s very difficult to realise the original from what exists now, apart from a few areas where the colours don’t exactly match, and those unaware of the original will notice nothing. For his efforts he got his thirty pieces of silver. And people wonder why intellectuals were sent to the camps in Siberia.

The mosaic was also covered for some time at the end of 2012, just before the centenary of national liberation from the Ottoman Empire. But if any remedial work was carried out then it was very slip shod and almost immediately the mosaic showed increasing signs of decay.

One of the most obviouslt damaged areas

One of the most obviouslt damaged areas

And that decay continues. At an ever increasing pace.

Places were the ceramic tiles have fallen away have been obvious to the naked eye for some time and the iron framework upon which the whole structure rests has also started to poke its rusty face through the imagery. However, the majority of the decay wasn’t really encroaching on the actual figures in the picture. That’s different now as damage can be seen to the figures and their dress, especially in the lower third of the art work.

The iron framework shows through

The iron framework shows through

And that’s not a surprise. It receives no shade whatsoever from the blazing summer sun and for many of the summer months at the heat of the day the tiles would almost certainly be too hot to touch. Come the winter months temperatures below zero would be normal, especially at night, when ice crystals would form behind the tiles and force them away from the framework to which they are attached.

This alternating between extremes of temperature would have existed in the eight years of the mosaic’s existence before the fall of the socialist system in 1990 but efforts would have been made to keep matters of dis-repair under control. Also it would have been relatively new in the 80s and assuming care had been taken in its construction then it would have been able to withstand such variations in climate.

Cracks in Socialism and Albania marching forward

Cracks in Socialism and Albania marching forward

Although in the last couple of years a huge amount of money has been spent on renovating the immediate area – and it must be admitted that (at least at present) the new look, pedestrianised and car free Skenderbeu Square is a joy to walk through. But not a lek has been spent on the mosaic.

Damage appearing the length of the monument

Damage appearing the length of the monument

This must be intentional. The cowardly aim of the politicians, of whatever hue, to let the mosaic fall down – so as to avoid the accusation of artistic and cultural vandalism. If a sizeable chunk of stone was to fall and kill a foreign tourist as s/he was entering or leaving the museum all the better. Blame could then be apportioned on those who came up with the project in the first place – both the actual artists involved and the system of Socialism itself.

Unless there’s a radical change in attitude – which is highly unlikely – I doubt whether tourists to Albania will be able to enjoy and appreciate this unique example of Socialist Realist art on a visit to Tirana for many more years into the future.