The Mother – a Socialist short story

The Mother - Fatmir Haxhiu

The Mother – Fatmir Haxhiu

The Mother – a Socialist short story

In various posts on this site I have been concentrating on providing descriptions and analyses of some of the many Lapidars in Albania. That is ongoing and there are still more to post in the future. At some time I also want to have a look at Albanian paintings from the Socialist period (1944-1990). Some of these have been introduced as they cross over with the sculptures on the monuments. There is still an opportunity to see some of these paintings in various locations throughout the country – principally the National Art Gallery in Tirana but also in the City Art Gallery in Durres, the Historical Museum in Fier and the Museum in Peshkopia.

But it wasn’t just in the plastic arts that Socialist Realism had a role to play in the construction of Socialism. Putting the role of the working class and peasantry in the forefront of all that happened in society, in the post, present and future, was also a task of writers of short stories and novels. For those interested in this aspect of Albania’s road to Socialism the various foreign language publications (especially the large format, monthly colour magazine, New Albania) provided translations from the Albanian language in English, Russian, French, Chinese and Arabic. The story below appeared in New Albania, 1971, No 6.

This particular story dealt with a fictional incident in the National War of Liberation against the Fascist invaders – assisted by local collaborators who were always a threat to true patriots.

Note on translation. Translations into English were good during the time these magazines were being produced – but not perfect. I have made a few minor, obvious grammatical changes to the original but have not sought to correct all errors due to the fear of losing the meaning that the author was wanting to convey to the reader.

THE MOTHER

Skender Drini

There was a man walking, or rather dragging himself slowly, along the bank of the river, weary and hungry. The pain from the wound in his left shoulder made it agony to breathe. He stopped, bracing himself against a tree or a big rock and drew breath very slowly and carefully as the pain stabbed at him. With great effort he pulled himself together.

Great dry flakes of snow that stuck wherever they touched were falling so thickly that they blotted out the world. Earth and sky were blended into a white gloom. He mustn’t stop. There was no road, no tracks but this didn’t trouble him. In his ears was the roar of the Black Drini. When the sound came clear he carried on; when it died away a little he angled more to the left and went ahead again. The Drini, swollen with the past week’s rain, tore madly down its course. Where it narrowed at the bends the waters hurled themselves upon the rocks and obstacles in their way with a sound like the fury of a distant hurricane.

The man lifted his head and listened.

“Good, I’m on the right track”, he whispered. He pushed on. River and man proceeded side by side, the one loud in its arrogant strength, the other wounded and nearly all in. Despite that they carried on side by side. If it had not been for the Drini who knows where Sulo Arifi, courier of the Dibra partisan unit, might have been lost. He had been travelling all night with the river for his guide and companion. He came from Cermenika where he had picked up some letters from headquarters. He was returning to his unit but did not find it where it had been at Ostreni. Instead he found a letter in the secret communications place. ‘Follow us down the Drini. We shall meet in Dibra. As fast as you can.’ “Trimi”. “Trimi” was the Commissar.

Sula Arifi had never done this trip before but that was not important. He would follow the tracks of his comrades down the course of the Drini. He could rely on the Drini. He would get there, come what may, he would get there.

He started early from Ostreni. Although the sky was dark and threatening neither snow nor rain had begun to fall.

Sula climbed the spur, leaving Cerrieci and Gorice on his right. He passed Zalli of Bulqiza and Majtari and daybreak found him near Devolan. So far the trip was going well. He tried to slip undetected past people and houses because there were enemy bands prowling about but he couldn’t get away without being observed. Shots rang out. Bajraktar’s men took a delight in blazing away at any stranger. If he happened to be a partisan, then so much the better.

Sula Arifi exchanged three short bursts with the two who were firing at him from behind a bank and then slipped away. But he hadn’t gone five hundred paces when a fearful pain caught him in the shoulder. A glance showed his jacket stained with blood. ‘Oh, the devil’, he thought. ‘Those dogs of Bajraktar have managed to get their teeth into me. What rotten luck!’ Painfully he managed to struggle out of his jacket and tried to stem the flow of blood by tying strips from his shirt around the wound. It was deep and bleeding heavily. Sula tested his arm, moving it backwards and forwards. ‘Thank goodness – at least it hasn’t touched the bone’, he comforted himself. ‘But I suppose that bit of metal’s still in me. I must get there and the comrades will pull it out.’

He made to move off, but he was no longer the man he had been the evening before. His makeshift bandage slipped and the bleeding continued. He was obliged to stop and tighten the strip of rag. On he went.

‘Oh! it’s a long way, this Dibra!’

Near Cetushi a fine drizzle began and quickly turned to snow. And what snow! Flakes as big as your hand. The whole world was blotted out. Within an hour six inches, a foot of snow had fallen. Sula struggled forward, lifting his feet high as he plodded along. Unable to see a thing, he strained his ears for the sound of the river. ‘I’m all right’, he whispered, ‘I’m on the right track. Bless you, Black Drini!’ And he hurried his steps as if to keep pace with the river as it rushed northwards. Behind the partisan the snow immediately covered his footprints and the spots of blood.

Sula Arifi came to a halt. His legs would no longer obey him. His whole chest was a fire of agony from his wound, as if his ribs had been riddled with bullets. It was snowing as hard as ever. He couldn’t see ten paces ahead and neither could he hear the Drini. It had fallen silent. ‘Either I’ve lost my way or the river’s wider here and not making much noise’, thought the partisan.

Unexpectedly, a sweet lethargy began to steal over him, spreading over his limbs and warming them, making him drowsy. Hundreds of figures, some new, some familiar, danced before his eyes. He seemed to be back in the old bakery where he had worked so many years as an apprentice. The baker, with his great hairy arms like a bear, quenched the burning paddles from the oven in a tub of water. On the broad counter, trays full of pies, roast meat and pastries, were lined up side by side. Further over, on the shelves, buns fresh from the oven and shining with egg-yolk were steaming. He took one and sank his teeth in it, but he couldn’t get it down his throat. The baker hit him hard in the belly with the butt end of the paddle.

Sula Arifi pulled himself together, scared. It was a near thing. One moment more and he would have been asleep. In the snow, that would have been the end. He took a handful of snow and rubbed his face with it. At first it felt cold, then the sting turned into a scalding heat which flushed his cheeks. Sula Arifi took a proper hold on himself. At that moment he remembered the words of the letter: ‘As fast as you can, comrade’, he whispered mechanically. But his legs would not function. His limbs seemed frozen and numb. The partisan lifted his head. Through that snowy stillness, that fearful stillness, a muffled roar was becoming gradually louder, heading towards the north. ‘Ah! there it is again. Bless you, Black Drini!’ Sula Arifi took one step forward, two steps, then he was on his way again, as though drawn along by the roar of the river.

About midday the snowstorm began to peter out. The flakes thinned out, then they stopped altogether. On his right Sula Arifi could see a village, on his left, the river. He turned from the village, moving towards the river. What would he have given, at that moment, for a crust of bread! It was painful to think that there, five hundred paces away, there was a fire, bread, and people who might gladly give it.But this village ahead – was it Brezhdani? Or Kishavici? March, Sula Arifi, as quickly as you can! But his legs would scarcely move, while the Drini roared furiously on its way. Now, with its banks covered with snow, it seemed like a narrow stream snaking along. ‘This must be Kishavici! But what is the name of this stream?’ He could go no further. He stood, breathing heavily. He was not sleepy now. His limbs were laden, while his feet seemed like two strange, lifeless lumps. He no longer felt his wound. The blood had clotted round the bandage in a heavy crust.

A tall stone house where perhaps he might rest loomed before him in the gathering darkness. The courier stood looking at it, isolated, rising from the snow-covered plain. The other houses were a fair way off, scattered over the ridges and valleys and indistinct now in the deepening twilight. He turned his eyes again to the plain. What was going on behind those cold walls, behind those narrow, loophole windows? There seemed something ominous about the way the angles of the stone stood out in the gloom, clean-cut as with a knife.

Sula Arifi wavered, paused, then moved towards it. It was a partisan base. It was an open fire where wet clothes could be dried and exhausted limbs stretched out. It was a piece of corn bread gladly given, a pleasant corner where one could dream of the morrow.

He approached the house, and pushed open the big door. The wooden stair creaked under his feet, the steps slippery with slushy snow.

‘There’s someone here then’, thought Sula, clinging to the banister. The sight of the open door gave him strength to struggle up the last few steps, but he froze rigid on the threshold. In the room beyond the door lay a dead man. An old woman sat with bowed head beside him. Her face was buried in her hands and partly obscured by her black shawl. Two other women sat in silence, a little to one side.

The old woman looked up. Sula Arifi shrank back against the door. ‘Oh women’, called the old woman, ‘stand up and welcome the guest.’

Sula mumbled with embarrassment, ‘I … I … ‘

‘Oh you women’, repeated the old woman in a deeper tone, ‘stand up and welcome the guest’.

‘No’, said Sula firmly, ‘I am going’.

‘You’ll not cross the threshold alive, my boy!’

She stood up and strode towards him.

Sula took off his cap and approached the body.

‘Your son, Mother?’

‘My son.’

‘When did this happen?’

‘Today. Halil Alija. *But relax, boy, don’t get excited!’

Her glance fell on his chest. ‘But you’ve been shot!’ she said. ‘Oh, damn their eyes, you’ve been shot, too.’ Quickly, women, we must get those clothes off him.’

But the women had disappeared. ‘They’ve gone, the fools,’ she whispered. ‘They were afraid. But I’ll dress this wound without them.’

‘No, no!’

‘There, there, dear boy. My son wouldn’t like his mother to leave you in this state.’

The old woman, with a glance at her son, rose to her feet. The flames from the fire at her back cast a long shadow right across the room. As she moved towards him with her great stride, she seemed to Sula Arifi like a mighty oak with a massive trunk and broad-spreading branches. He tried to remember her eyes when he had first seen her through the doorway. They were cold in the beginning, almost lifeless, but the life blazed up in them immediately she noticed the partisan.

‘Ah, what a brave old woman you are, mother, a brave old woman indeed,’ whispered Sula Arifi.

The old woman came back carrying a roll of cloth prepared precisely for bandages. A shudder passed over the partisan when he saw it. In that roll of bandage, the whole blood-stained history of the banks of the Drini was expressed. There wouldn’t be a house without such bandages, nor a woman who didn’t know how to weave them. The bride brought them in her dowry. The blood feuds ran on from century to century.

Reluctantly the partisan lay down. He felt ashamed at being treated. Ashamed and embarrassed in the presence of the dead. But what a woman this was! A slight groan escaped his lips. Immediately the old woman lifted her hands from the wound.

‘Did I hurt you, son? Did I hurt my dear Abaz?’

Sula Arifi looked at the dead man. A lock of blonde hair had fallen across his forehead. The look of death had not yet touched his face. The old woman was confused. The living partisan seemed like her dead partisan son.

She turned his head towards her and wiped his tears. It was too much. Her hand was roughened and cold, but Sula Arifi seized it and pressed it on his face.

‘There, there, dear boy, mother’s here!’ She rose and filled a cup with coffee.

‘Drink it, son. Now I shall get you some food’

‘What courage,’ murmured Sula Arifi to himself. ‘Even at such a time she thinks about food for me.’

‘My son did not leave me on my own this night, you came, my boy.’ The cup quivered in the partisan’s hand. He no longer felt his wounds. Didn’t this old woman show how to bear pain?

Sula put down the empty cup. A rifle shot rang out from nearby. The partisan reached for his gun.

‘Hand over the partisan, old woman, if you don’t want to follow your son to the grave!’

The voice came clearly from just outside the wall. Sula rose to his knees. The pressure of the old woman’s hand on his shoulder prevented him from standing up. From outside the threats were repeated. The house was surrounded. Sula stood against the wall.

‘I’m going out,’ he said.

‘Do you intend to give yourself up, boy?’ The old woman was looking fierce. ‘I’ll never surrender while there’s breath in my body, mother, I want to go out to face them.’

‘No, not while I live. One I gave them, another never!’

‘They will burn the house down.’

‘One I gave them, another never,’ whispered the woman again. ‘Let the house go up in flames!’

In her agony of indecision she began to pace backwards and forwards across the big room. What to do? How to save Sula Arifi? Until then she had been so brave, faced with her dead son. Now, before her living son she seemed lost.

Sula peered out a loophole. They were shooting from outside. Bullets whistled and smashed against the stone walls. It was pitch dark out there.

The old woman threw a pitcher of water on the fire. Darkness enclosed the room. Who knows how much suffering this woman has seen, how many times she has quickly doused the fire when the rifles started at night. Outside they were keeping up a furious fire. Sula fired the odd shot in reply. There seemed to be no end to the volleys. Tiles flew from the roof and smashed to the ground. Dogs were barking from somewhere near.

Sula turned to see what the old woman was doing. To his astonishment, she was coming towards him, with a gun in her hands.

‘Slip out through the little door at the back. I’ll hold them off, they won’t suspect anything.’

‘Oh mother, mother,’ whispered the partisan, ‘I’m not leaving. You go,’ he said to the old woman.

‘I’m carrying letters from headquarters. They must be delivered to the unit at all costs. You know the way. You go, mother.’

‘I have a brave son here,’ she said.

‘Now go! One son I gave another never!’

‘But I am wounded. I’ll not get there.’

‘The letters must be delivered at all costs. I am wounded.’ His words became almost delirious, beseeching. He could not leave her on her own and go.

‘Away you go! A wounded man can make it, a live man can make it, but not a dead one. I want you to live. Abaz would have listened to me. Now please go!’

And he went. He valued his life that night no more than a hair of his head, but there are bigger things, more important things than that.

As he went, for a long time he could hear a shot with a particular sound distinguishable amongst the others, the sound of a carbine. It continued all through the evening until nearly midnight. Then it was silent. Sula Arifi went on towards Dibra.

*Halil Alia was a collaborator with the fascists and one of chiefs of the traitor forces that fought against the National Liberation Movement.

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.