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

Albanian traditional musical instruments

Albanian traditional musical instruments

Albanian traditional musical instruments

(The article below, written by R Sokoli, first appeared in issue No 5, 1971 of the magazine New Albania. It is reproduced here (slightly edited) to aid a greater understanding of some of the works of art that were produced during the Socialist period (1944-1990) of Albania’s past. Although folklore hasn’t been totally abandoned in the present-day capitalist Albania traditional dress and culture don’t hold the same important role in Albanian society as in the past.)

Musical instruments of our People

From the past our people have inherited various musical instruments which are of interest for their craftsmanship, their originality, the way they are used and the tones they express. The knowledge and study of these instruments are of special significance to our national art and culture for, through them, we delve deeper into the quality of our folk music and the peculiarities of the musical talent of our people. Now and then we hear the tones emitted by these instruments in every village or town quarter. Without them no social entertainment takes place.

Taking them in the order of the four main scientifically established genres, we have in the first place those of the idiophonic genre like (1) the two pebbles hit together in order to lure the swarm of bees which have abandoned their original hive, (2) ‘rrakataket’ which children make out of corn blades cut lengthwise, (3) ‘rrekezat’ made of twigs plaited together in a spherical shape with round pieces of wood or pebbles inside used to entertain small children when the device is shaken, (4) ‘gergerat’ made of a tapered wooden axis ending with an elastic square which bounces making a noise when turned around (5) the metallic tray which is used in northern and north-eastern parts of Albania to accompany songs and dances, (6) three dish spoons which are used to keep time, (7) ‘çaparet’ in the form of metallic discs tied to the fingers of dancers used in Central Albania to keep time by jingling them when dancing, (8) bells or gongs of various shapes, sizes and names used for ritual, practical or aesthetic purposes, (9) ‘trokeza’ or ‘çanga’ made of a board or metallic plate hanging down on a rope and used as a means of signalling, (10) ‘cungrana’ of the Albanian settlers in Italy pierced by a metallic rod in the form of a horseshoe which vibrates and emits sound when touched by the fingers.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - drum

Albanian traditional musical instruments – drum

From the membraphonic genre we have: (a) the tambourine, a shallow drum with loose metallic discs at the sides, (b) the drum or tympanic membrane, consisting of a hollow cylinder with a skin head stretched over each end, (c) the ‘kadum’ or ‘tullumbas’ in the shape of a half-cylindrical cup with a skin stretched over its ends, (d) ‘tarabuku’ in the shape of a jar with a skin stretched over its head. All four of the above instruments serve to stress the rhythm.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - tambourine

Albanian traditional musical instruments – tambourine

Of the aerophonic genre we have, first of all, some made from plants like the ‘picanga’, which children make out of grass blades, corn stalks, of apricot seeds (‘frysa’) or of the bark of young twigs (‘gezhoja’ or ‘bilbil’). These plant based instruments such as ‘lugefyllka’,’shtambushka’, ‘tuza’ and ‘kallami me leter’ are temporary entertainments producing some tune or other. But real tunes of good musical taste our popular masters can extract from the leaf of certain trees – blowing at its edge. A ‘pre-musical’ instrument of the aerophonic genre, so to speak, is the ‘bobla’ which is made of the horn of cattle or of the shell of a sea-snail. It is used in the southwestern part of Albania by farmers, shepherds, guardians of vineyards, millers, fishermen and others as a signalling device. Whereas the Albanian settlers in Calabria (Italy) use the ‘vronja’, made of a dried pumpkin, as a means of sounding an alarm. This category includes also the ‘kapza’ or ‘buria’ which children make in spring from the bark of trees in long strips which they wind into the shape of a funnel.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - flute

Albanian traditional musical instruments – flute

The most popular and the dearest aerophonic instrument of our peasants is the ‘fyelli’ (the flute) which is made in shapes, sizes and names different for each district. The key of this instrument depends on the number of holes and is blown either inclined at the lips or fixed on the tooth.

In various shapes, sizes and names appear also the ‘pipza’ which are usually made at harvest time from various stalks.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - pipza

Albanian traditional musical instruments – pipza

‘Surleja’ or ‘zunaia’ is another aerophonic instrument with a wooden cylindro-conical neck, some holes on the surface and a double tip at the end.

In Laberia we have the ‘bicule’ or ‘cylediare’ made of two tapered nozzles carved on a wooden block, one of the nozzles has only three holes while the other has four on the top and one hole on the opposite side.

In southeastern Albania we have the ‘gajda’ which is made of a sheepskin with two vents (‘pipka’ and ‘buçalla’) one (the shorter) for the melody and the other (the longer) for the refrain.

The genre of string instruments begins also with some children’s musical entertainments as, for instance, ‘lodergramthi’, ‘tingerringe’ ‘ugari’ and others.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - strings

Albanian traditional musical instruments – strings

The most widespread string instruments are the ‘çiftelia’, a stringed ‘bakllamaja’ (3 strings), ‘sharkija’ (4, 6, 8, strings) ‘sazeja’ (10 strings) ‘çyri’ and ‘jongari’ which have been almost abandoned now. This category of instruments possess some common characteristics in shapes, use, etc. but at the same time they are distinct from one another.

In addition to the above from this genre we have the ‘udi’ with four pairs of strings and in the shape of a pear cut lengthwise. Related to this instrument are the ‘bozuku’ (with from 6 to 8 strings) and ‘kalushun’ (with from 2 to 3 strings) which the Albanian settlers in Italy use.

Finally, from this genre we have the ‘lahute’ (with one string) used in Northern Albania and ‘laurina’ (with 3 strings) used in the Mati District.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - flute and tambourine

Albanian traditional musical instruments – flute and tambourine

In addition to these musical instruments made by our peasants, our folklore has been enriched by certain instruments manufactured abroad like the violin, clarinet, accordion which are being broadly used by our instrumentalists.

In short, these are the musical instruments used by our people.

Some of them are used only in certain districts while others are in use all over the country. Some of them are native and of old origin while others have been introduced under various historical circumstances but as years roll on have been adapted to the taste and musical peculiarity of our people.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - group

Albanian traditional musical instruments – group

Of the above instruments some are used solo while others are used in groups. The way they are grouped depends more or less on the occasion, districts and availability for their use. As a rule, our people prefer groups of few instruments. Many melodies have been created, preserved and developed by these instruments.

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.