Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

Facade - National Historical Museum - Tirana
Facade – National Historical Museum – Tirana

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Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

For the second time in less than a decade the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana is obscured by scaffolding and sheeting. As on the previous occasion (in 2012) the reason is, supposedly, for the renovation of the ‘The Albanians’, the huge mosaic that celebrates and commemorates the struggle for independence through the ages, the victory over Fascism and the construction of Socialism.

Under normal circumstances such work would be a cause for celebration. The mosaic is a wonderful example of Socialist Realist Art and captures the spirit of the nation at the time it was created in 1982. However, this Albania in 2021 and nothing is that simple.

The present work in progress also asks a number of questions. If, indeed, there was work done in 2012 to repair the damage caused by time and the weather why was it so badly done that it has to be done again nine years later? Was the ‘restoration’ of 2012 nothing more than an excuse to cover up the revolutionary work of art at the time the country was ‘celebrating’ the hundredth anniversary of Independence from Ottoman rule? Events would have taken place in Skenderbeu Square and for the present capitalist rulers of Albania the image of the mosaic as a backdrop to the sham celebrations would have been an ‘inconvenience’.

What was certainly the case was that chunks of the mosaic seemed to be dropping off at an alarming rate and the more pieces that fell the weaker the the rest of the structure would become. Structural damage was obvious as soon as the scaffolding was removed short after November 2012, adding credence to the ‘conspiracy theory’. This situation was pointed out in a post on this site two years ago in September 2019.

As with many of the monuments that were identified in the Albanian Lapidar Survey (many of which have already been described on this blog) ‘The Albanians’ has suffered from both conscious neglect as well as episodes of political and cultural vandalism.


The Albanians Mosaic - National History Museum, Tirana

The Albanians Mosaic – National History Museum, Tirana

and up to 2020

'The Albanians' - Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

At the beginning of this century one of the five original creators of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) was paid to destroy his own creation. So much for the integrity of the artist. During that act of destruction Nebiu changed three significant aspects of the original design. He removed; the large, gold outlined five pointed star that was behind the head of the central female figure; the small golden star that was situated between the heads of the doubled-headed eagle (that being the official flag of the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania); and the book from the right hand of the central male figure, replacing it with what looks like a sack (the book would have represented both education and the written works of Enver Hoxha). In the process Nebiu created the most amazingly shaped flag.

So the question I’m posing here is ‘What sort of restoration will be carried out this time?’ The chances of the original imagery and intention being re-created is only marginally more likely than that of an ice cream surviving very long in Hell.

But there are further possibilities of ‘re-writing’ history. The War of National Liberation against the invading fascists, first Italian then the German Nazis, was led by and principally carried out by Albanian Communists. This fact is indicated by the images of the red star on the headgear of the figures on the right of the mosaic. As has happened on a number of lapidars these red stars could be made to ‘disappear’ and therefore ‘deny’ the Communists the victory.

There’s obviously a change going on in the official approach to the Socialist Period in Albania. The present (September 2021) ‘Archive’ exhibition of Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures in the National Art Gallery, the covering up of those paintings that have, for years, formed the permanent exhibition in the gallery and the closure of all the rooms and galleries devoted to the National Liberation War in the National Historical Museum itself all seem to indicate that the involvement of the Communists in the war is going to be completely obliterated.

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The ‘Archive’ Exhibition at the Tirana Art Gallery

The singing partisan
The singing partisan

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The ‘Archive’ Exhibition at the Tirana Art Gallery

At present (September 2021) the ‘exhibition’ at the National Art Gallery in Tirana seems to be virtually everything that has been in storage over the last 30 years. But calling it an exhibition is a bit of a misnomer. The word exhibition gives the impression that a bit of thought and consideration had been put into the mounting and display of a collection of art. That is supposed to be the art of a curator – although that has been neglected in this case.

What is, in theory, a good idea – and something welcomed by anyone with an interest in the art of the Socialist Period in Albania – just turns out to be a mess. Virtually all available wall space has been used to mount the pictures and the sculptures take up virtually all available space on the floors.

But its all placed without any context, without any information, without any chronology, without any order or logic.

Paintings of pre-revolutionary times are displayed next to some of the last paintings produced under socialism. The works of particular artists can be found anywhere on the two floors which the exhibition occupies. It’s so chaotic that you are never able to understand any development in the ideas of socialist realism in what was Albania’s Cultural Revolution – which started at about the same time as the more famous one in China (the mid-60s) but which lasted longer, going into the 1980s.

This is the situation with the paintings but this is mirrored with the sculptures. Many are ‘displayed’ on the same storage racks that would have been used in the building’s basement, many more are just placed on the floor. This means you can’t appreciate any one sculpture in itself as it is so close to another, either to its side or behind. A number of the sculptures have an original label attached so you get discover the name of the artist and work title but little more. The fact that so many of them have even those labels missing gives the impression that even the gallery itself probably doesn’t know for certain the artist, date or subject matter.

And you can’t appreciate a sculpture if the only way to get a decent view is to lie on the floor (if that was indeed possible without knocking over its neighbour).

To add to the ad hoc feel of the exhibition a number of the paintings are lacking a proper frame and are just as they would have been after the artist had completed the task.

One important matter is clear from the taking of these works of art from storage is that no one employed by the art gallery really cares at all about this part of the country’s heritage. As with the lapidars throughout Albania many of the sculptures show signs of damage, presumably due more to lack of care rather than deliberate cultural and political vandalism but the results are the same.

The pictures in the gallery/slide-show below are in an as chaotic order as the exhibition itself. Some are not as I would have liked as the lighting was so harsh in places that to avoid the reflection the photo had to be taken from an angle. Also the pictures that were mounted high up on the walls have obviously been taken from below and hence a certain amount of distortion. And the general ‘crush’ of the exhibits prevents any true appreciation from a distance.

One of the reasons for making such an extensive record of this exhibition is I fear that these objects are very unlikely to be ever displayed again – certainly as a whole representation of Socialist Realist Art. My greatest fear is that some of the more seriously damaged sculptures will move from the exhibition space to the nearest skip to end up in landfill. The State won’t pay for the time and effort that would be needed to return them to something akin to their original state and as such will just take up valuable space. The same could be the fate of the damaged paintings.

These fears are reinforced by decisions which now seem to being made in some other aspects of the depiction of the country’s Socialist past. Not only are those examples of socialist art that have for many years formed part of the permanent exhibition in the sme gallery now covered – for some inexplicable reason – but also the rooms devoted to the anti-fascist struggle in the National Historical Museum are presently closed to the public.

Perhaps the answer will be partly given when The Albanians (the name given to the huge mosaic on the facade of the Historial Museum) which is currently undergoing ‘restoration’ is unveiled. The word ‘restoration’ implies repairing and returning to an original state. However, the mosaic had much of its political significance removed by one of the original five artists (Agim Nebiu) sometime at the beginning of this century – still haven’t been able to find out exactly when – who was willing, for his equivalent of ‘thirty pieces of silver’, to remove the stars from the flags carried by the central characters. A few red stars remained after this act of political and artistic vandalism but whether they will survive the present ‘restoration’ is another matter.

As well as the examples of socialist realist art there were a considerable number of paintings that represent the past struggles of Albanians for independence. Such imagery played a role during the Socialist period as the country was constantly under threat of invasion (or intervention) from either neighbouring Yugoslavia or any of the imperialist nations who couldn’t reconcile themselves to the fact that this small, yet strategically situated, Balkan country had chosen a future not under the control of capitalism.

But even during the 1970s and 1980s this glorification of a 15th century aristocrat was a little over the top. Banging the nationalist drum whilst attempting to construct socialism will always have its dangers as that nationalism can distract from the principal task in hand. And this very nationalism, that was used to reinforce the idea of independence under socialism, is what the present capitalist leaders of the country rely on to give them some sort of historical credibility – as they certainly have no interest in independence, fighting each other in deciding to which imperialist force to sell the country.

What to look out for

  • a bust of Chairman Mao Tse-tung
  • busts of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin – most of these would have previously been displayed in the Lenin and Stalin Museum (the building now used as a government office, next to the big, new mosque in the centre of Tirana, just behind the Art Gallery itself)
  • at least four busts of Comrade Enver Hoxha, all in ‘good’ condition and without having been vandalised (as is the example in the ‘Sculpture Park’ at the back of the building, on the right hand side)
  • maquettes of a number of sculptures that were later made into much larger structures which can still be seen in various parts of the country such as the ‘Thirsty Partisan’ (ALS10) and Pickaxe and Rifle – one of the sculptures in the ‘Sculpture Park’
  • those images show the lives of working people, using their efforts to create a different type of society to the one devoted to capitalist profit – the art that makes Socialist Realism so radically different (and advanced) than all the art that has gone before
  • the many images, in both the paintings and in the sculptures, where women are presented as being armed and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in the achievement of victory against the Fascist invaders or in the construction of Socialism
  • and generally the preponderance of ordinary working people in all the images rather than the ‘celebrities’ and the ‘rich and famous’ which dominate in capitalist society.

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The Party of Labour of Albania against Russian, Yugoslav and Chinese Revisionism

Enver at 81 Communist Parties Meeting 1961

Enver at 81 Communist Parties Meeting 1961

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The Party of Labour of Albania against Russian, Yugoslav and Chinese Revisionism

A collection of articles taken from Albanian magazines and periodicals from the 1970s and 1980s.

The theory of ‘Limited Sovereignty’ – A flagrant expression of the imperialist policy of the Soviet Revisionists, Agim Popa, professor, specialist in the field of Marxist philosophy, from Albania Today, 1972, No. 3, 8 pages.

Soviet working class – deprived of the means of production, Veniamin Toçi and Kiço Kapetani, economists, from Albania Today, 1973, No. 4, 7 pages.

Revisionist economic integration and its contradictions, Kiço Kapetani and Veniamin Toçi, journalists, specialists in economic affairs, from Albania Today, 1974, No. 3, 8 pages.

The National Question and Revisionism, Bujar Hoxha, professor, titular of the chair of historic materialism at the State University of Tirana, from Albania Today, 1974, No. 4, 10 pages.

The Kremlin neo-colonialists oppress and plunder the peoples, article from ‘Zeri I Populitt’, from Albania Today, 1975, No. 1, 4 pages.

The Soviet economy – a completely and definitely capitalist economy, Aristotel Pano, economist, lecturer at the Tirana University, from Albania Today, 1975, No. 4, 8 pages.

The Revisionist Parties – typically bourgeois, counter-revolutionary parties, Fiqret Shehu, Member of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania, Director of the ‘V. I. Lenin’ Party School. Co-paper read at the scientific sessions on Class Struggle in the Party, organized by the Institute of Marxist-Leninist Studies at the CC of the PLA, from Albania Today, 1977, No. 5, 15 pages.

‘Eurocommunism’ or Undisguised Revisionism, from Zëri i Popullit, organ of the CC of the PLA, dated December 4, 1977, from Albania Today, 1978, No. 1, 9 pages.

Revisionist ‘theories’ of restored capitalism, Hekuran Mara – Professor, member of the Academy of Sciences of the PSR of Albania, from Albania Today, 1978, No. 3, 10 pages.

The organizational degeneration of the Revisionist Parties and its consequences, Petro Ciruna and Pandi Tase, Pedagogues at the ‘V.I. Lenin’ Party School, from Albania Today, 1978, No. 3, 4 pages.

The capitalist character of the relations of production in the Soviet Union, Aristotel Pano and Kiço Kapetani, economists, from Albania Today, 1978, No. 5, 10 pages.

Broadening and deepening of the struggle against all the currents of Modern Revisionism – an historical necessity, Fiqret Shehu – Member of the CC of the PLA and Directress of the ‘V. I. Lenin’ High Party School, from Albania Today, 1978, No. 6, 18 pages.

Soviet Revisionism – The most complete theory of Modern Revisionism, Omer Hashorva – Chief of the Department of Philosophy at the ‘V. I. Lenin’ High Party School, from Albania Today, 1979, No. 3, 3 pages.

The processes of capitalist development of the Chinese economy, Tomor Cerova, Docent, Professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Tirana, from Albania Today, 1980, No. 2, 12 pages.

COMECON – an instrument of Soviet Social-imperialism for the exploitation and domination of the member countries, Gene Xhuvani and Lulezim Hana, ND (but after 1980), 4 pages.

The capitalist degeneration of the collective farms in the Soviet Union today, Nexhmedin Luari, Senior Scientific Worker, ND (but after 1980), 3 pages.

Complete integration of the Soviet economy into the world capitalist economy, Fatos Nano, from Soviet Revisionism and the struggle of the PLA to unmask it, 8 Nëntori Publishing House, Tirana, 1981, 4 pages.

Some characteristics of state monopoly capitalism in the Soviet Union, Priamo Bollano, Senior Scientific Worker, from Soviet Revisionism and the struggle of the PLA to unmask it, 8 Nëntori Publishing House, Tirana, 1981, 4 pages.

The mechanism of the Soviet economic machine, Hekuran Mara, from Soviet Revisionism and the struggle of the PLA to unmask it, 8 Nëntori Publishing House, Tirana, 1981, 3 pages.

The present socio-economic order in the Soviet Union – a capitalist order, Omer Hashorva, Candidate of Sciences, from Soviet Revisionism and the struggle of the PLA to unmask it, 8 Nëntori Publishing House, Tirana, 1981, 9 pages.

On the mechanism of the extraction and appropriation of Surplus Value in the Soviet Society, Fatos Nano, Candidate of Economic Sciences, taken from No. 3 of the Albanian edition of the magazine Socio-Political Studies, ND (but after 1981), 13 pages.

The Marxist-Leninist theoretical thinking of the PLA and Comrade Enver Hoxha on the Socialist Development and Transformation of Agriculture, Nexhmedin Dumani and Zydi Pepa, economists, from Albania Today, 1984, No. 5, 15 pages.

Some manifestations of national oppression in the Soviet Union today, Natasha Iliriani, Lecturer, from Socio-Political Studies, No. 4, 1987, 15 pages.

The Titoite Revisionists’ anti-Marxist views on the nation – an expression of their idealist reactionary world outlook, Xhafer Dobrushi, Candidate of Sciences, Socio-Political Studies No. 4, 1987, 14 pages.

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