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

National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’ – Tirana

Uncle Joe - Art Gallery 'Sculpture Park'

Uncle Joe – Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’

Each time I’ve been to Tirana I’ve made it a point to visit the impromptu ‘sculpture park’ that has been created behind the National Art Gallery, just down from the main Skanderbreu Square in the centre of Tirana.

The Art Gallery itself has only a very few actual sculptures on display inside the building, the emphasis being on paintings, especially those from the period from 1945 to 1990, where the dominant style was that of Socialist Realism.

But the area behind the gallery was constructed not for the display of works of art but as a service access to the building. And as the gallery is a public building this area shows the lack of care and investment in maintenance that is the general fate of public spaces in the whole of Albania, not just the capital of Tirana.

The statues that are now there would have previously held pride of place in some public square in different parts of Tirana but there is no indication of their provenance. Some have been damaged, either by accident or design, the statue of the great Marxist and first Soviet leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (the work of Kristina Hoshi, the original of which was created in 1954 in cement) in bronze, missing his right arm from the elbow. This once stood proud close to its present position, in the park across the road.

Many of the statues of individuals from the socialist era take on the pose of some famous meeting and the stance that Lenin takes in this statue can be seen on a number of photos from his relatively short time as leader of the first socialist state (his life no doubt being cut short as a consequence of an assassin’s attempt in 1918 which failed in its aim but which meant that a fragment of the bullet could not be removed from Lenin’s brain).

VI Lenin in Tirana - 1970

VI Lenin in Tirana – 1970

When it comes to the great Marxist leaders they are always (at least here in Albania) depicted with their right arm making some sort of gesture or greeting whilst slightly behind their bodies, in their left hand, they hold a roll of paper as if they are about to make an important proclamation.

Although this damage is unfortunate at least it allows an insight to the form of construction of these statues. They are not made of solid bronze, as many would think, but of a hollow bronze that’s only about a couple of centimetres thick. This relatively cheap construction technique explains why so many statues were erected in virtually every town in the country (it also explains why it was so easy to topple these statues in the counter-revolution).

Although few in number this small group provides quite a deep insight into the thinking of the Party of Labour of Albania during the 45 years it was the dominant political force within the country and attempting to construct a socialist society.

Uncle Joe - in happier times in Tirana

Uncle Joe – in happier times in Tirana

Socialist Albania gave women a role in society and assigned them an importance that has never been surpassed, either in the Soviet Union which proceeded the victory of Socialism in Albania or any other country that has attempted to construct socialism since. This is not the role of women in the higher echelons of society, the breaking of the so-called ‘glass ceiling’, the breaking of which only benefits a minuscule percentage of women in any society yet which gets most coverage in the capitalist media.

In Albania it was the women from the working class and peasantry whose lives were changed beyond recognition. In a patriarchal society where women were oppressed by virtual feudal social and economic conditions, as well as by the stultifying traditions of the church (of various trends) by the taking up of the gun during the war for national liberation against the Italian and German Fascist invaders they stated unequivocally that they would no longer ‘live in the old way’.

In many of the extent monuments to the struggles of the past a woman takes a central position and virtually always with a weapon in hand. Albanian women weren’t prepared to have ‘freedom’ given to them, they would fight for it themselves, freedom that would have real meaning. The clearest example of this idea can be seen in the huge mosaic on the façade of the National Historical Museum in Skanderbreu Square in the centre of Tirana.

The young woman depicted in the dirty shambles of the rear of the Art Gallery (in bronze) is of Liri Gero and exudes confidence in her own ability, looks the viewer straight in the eye (not looking down as ‘traditional’ society would have her do), has a gun strapped to her back and clutches a small bunch of flowers in her left hand. Communists fight for bread but for roses too!

Female Liberation Fighter clutching flowers

Female Liberation Fighter clutching flowers

The smallest of the collection depicts a male fighter (also in bronze) from one of the ethnic groups from the mountains of Albania demonstrating that the fight for freedom is not restricted to the ‘sophisticated’ city dwellers or a self-selected intellectual elite but should involve everyone from all sectors and strata of society.

Liberation Fighter

Liberation Fighter

Another of the statues is a physical representation of one of the fundamentals of Albanian Socialist society, the Pickaxe and Rifle (Hector Dule, 1966, Bronze). Here we have a male holding a rifle, the butt resting on the ground, in his left hand whilst in his right he holds high a pickaxe. These two items are the equivalent of the Soviet Hammer and Sickle. Whereas in the Soviet Union the symbol represented the unity of the industrial worker and the peasant the Albanian Pickaxe and Rifle declares that the successful construction of a Socialist society depends upon physical labour protected by the determination of the population to defend any gains by force of arms.

Pick Axe and Rifle

Pick Axe and Rifle

The fact that far too many Albanians forgot this necessity during the counter-revolution of the early 1990s (and then seemed to lose all common sense in the chaotic years that followed, basically throwing out the baby with the bath water) doesn’t detract from the validity of this revolutionary concept.

JV Stalin - Skenderberg Square, Tirana

JV Stalin – Skenderberg Square, Tirana

Finally we have the statues of JV Stalin and VI Lenin, the great Marxist Russian leaders so admired by the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha. I’ve already mentioned the damaged statue of Lenin. This statue, along with one of Uncle Joe, was covered by a tarpaulin just prior to the 100th anniversary of Albanian ‘independence’ in November 2012 – true independence for Albania (if only for 46 years) was achieved on November 29th, 1944. They have now been released from their dark penance but they have been joined by another new comrade who is, presently, covered with a white tarpaulin. I have been told that this is a damaged bust of Enver Hoxha.

The hidden stranger

The hidden stranger

I was pleasantly surprised on my visit in October 2014 to find that there had been a new arrival to the small, select group. This was another, but somewhat larger, statue of Stalin. The ‘new’ arrival is in a less formal stance, without cap and is depicted as if greeting the viewer with his right arm stretched out. This is made out of bronze and, as yet, I’ve not been able to discover from where it has come. It’s exactly the same as a statue that was placed in the oil and industrial town of Qender Stalin (now renamed Korcova, not that far from Berat) but the there statue was made from concrete, and unlikely to have survived the chaos of the 1990s.

The original design was by Odhise Pashkali (whose other works number the statue of Skanderbreu on the horse in the square to which he gives his name in the centre of Tirana, as well as another of the national (long time in the past) hero in the National Museum, this time not providing a burden to a poor animal but standing on his own two feet).

Perhaps one down side of a new Joe arriving is that the female fighter has been moved to make way for the Man of Steel and is now facing the other statues, with her back to the Art Gallery. Is this yet another example of the return of a patriarchal society or is it, the reverse, that the female fighter is going to give a lesson to the men?

If I will ever be able to find out more details of these statues, i.e., who was the sculptor, where they originally stood, how they survived the counter-revolution and why they ended up in the shadows of the National Art Gallery remains to be seen.

One slight difficulty that has arisen since my last visit a couple of years ago is the presence of a ‘security’ guard who has to be circumvented in order to get a close view of the statues. Why he is so conscientious in this I don’t understand. If the authorities don’t want anyone to see them why place them out in the open? However, he can only be in one place at a time and when he is watching the world go by at the southern end of the gallery grounds, just creep towards the north.