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.

Then

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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To the Seventh Assault Brigade – Sqepur

Seventh Assault Brigade - Sqepur

Seventh Assault Brigade – Sqepur

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To the Seventh Assault Brigade – Sqepur

Time hasn’t been too kind to the lapidar to the Seventh Assault Brigade which is situated beside the main road between Fier and Berat in an place called Sqepur. It’s at the top of a hill and is relatively exposed to the elements and this has taken it’s toll on the plaster work. There seem to have been attempts to paint, ‘renovate’, the images over the years but as this has not been done professionally this has made the images and some of the text more indistinct, filling in spaces and taking away the finer detail.

The lapidar consists of a tall monolith in the shape of the end of a rifle barrel with a flag attached and a panel at 90 degrees to this monolith showing scenes of battle.

The idea of using a rifle as the monolith is not unique, it has been used in Mushqeta and Priske, for example, but this one is slightly different in that attached to it is a stylised representation of a flag, here painted red. Due to the records being destroyed in the 1990s and those pictures of lapidars that were published in couple of books being principally in black and white there is some question if most of the lapidars were originally in colour. For good or ill many have been painted subsequently, probably even during the Socialist period so in that way distorting the aim and intention of the artist and sculptor.

The idea of attaching a flag to a rifle is again something that can be seen on other lapidars, but normally when the rifle is being used as a temporary pole and the flag being waved by a Partisan. This is the case with the female Partisan in the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery.

The image of the wooden butt of the gun is seen here as it flares out from the vertical at the very bottom left hand corner of the monument, below the panel with the images of fighting.

Joining the rifle and the flag pole, just above the horizontal panel are two wide, concrete bands. On the upper the words

Forcat partizane të ish-qarkut të Beratit are attached in relief,

this translates as

Partisan forces of the former district of Berat

The town of Berat being located only about 15 kilometres to the south-east.

On the lower band, in exactly the same font and manner the words;

Forcat partizane të Brigadës VII Sulmuese appear

this translates as

Partisan Forces of the VII Assault Brigade

The National Liberation Army was made up of a number of such Brigades, guerrilla groups originally but developing into more formal structures as the war progressed, more and more fighters joined and the power of the Fascist invaders was broken. These Brigades were made up from people, men and women, who lived in the area although as the war developed they would sometimes move to other parts of the country to satisfy the military needs at any time.

The spacing of these letters looks a little strange, especially the lower slogan, but it’s not really possible to make out if anything else would be there to necessitate such spacing.

On the left hand side of the lower panel we have images from a battle. On the extreme left is a Partisan, in full uniform, firing a sub machine gun downwards. His right foot is placed in front of him and his left leg behind him to provide stability on uneven ground. This is a common device, used in many monuments of the time, such as the star at Pishkash and the bas relief in Bajram Curri, to tell the story that the War of Liberation was one that was fought, and won, in the mountains and that much of the early fighting especially would have been surprise ambushes from up on high.

It’s not possible to see if there’s a star on his cap but we can make out a scarf flying from his neck so we can have a reasonable assumption that he’s a Communist. One unusual feature is that he seems to be wearing a greatcoat, the bottom end of it seen between his outstretched legs. This is something that hasn’t appeared on other lapidars, to my knowledge. Unfortunately, the very end of the gun is missing, there being quite a lot of small areas of plaster that have disappeared over the years.

Behind him is a standing fighter but who is dressed in civilian clothes, his open jacket flapping in the breeze with his movement. Around his waist can be made out four ammunition pouches.

Photographs of guerrilla groups of the time show a mix of uniformed Partisans as well as those in everyday clothing. (Why do left wing guerrilla groups, from wherever in the world from the 1940s onwards, keep on taking pictures of themselves? It’s OK if you win but these pictures will cause untold problems if they get in the hands of the enemy. Two of the worst disasters that came as a result of this obsession with photographing themselves was the case of Che Guevara’s ‘foco’ group in Bolivia in 1968 and the videoing of an inebriated Abimael Guzman, the leader of the revolutionary Communist Party of Peru – Sendero Luminoso, in Peru in 1991.)

This Partisan is not facing the action but is looking back over his shoulder, his right arm raised, his fist clenched, encouraging other, unseen, comrades to come and join the fight. His left arm is hanging down and he holds a rifle close to the bolt mechanism. The upraised right hand passes outside the main panel and he has lost all the fingers.

The third member of this group is another uniformed Partisan. His right foot is firmly placed on the ground and he is kneeing with his left leg. We see him from his left side and his right hand can be seen just above his left shoulder. It looks like he has just taken out the pin of a Mills bomb grenade with his teeth and is about to throw it at the enemy below. In his left hand he holds the top of a bag, the weight of which is resting on the ground, which looks like it’s full of stick grenades, so he’s well prepared for action. There’s evidence of a scarf around his neck so we are, again, to assume that he is a Communist.

Any facial detail on all three is very difficult to make out. In fact, any fine detail at all is almost impossible to see. To bring this monument up to a condition that it had when first unveiled would take a lot of work and money, an amount nobody would be prepared to pay.

Behind these three Partisans are five stars of varying sizes. They are cut into the panel (the images of the Partisans are in relief) and have been painted red. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to their arrangement and are presumably there to represent Communism but there actual arrangement means nothing more to me.

The centre of the panel is yet another conundrum. Originally here was a lot of text, in relief, on this part. It looks like it was painted out and then a separate plaque placed on top – possibly with the same text, possibly with something completely different. This must have existed for some time as that rectangle is black from the mould that was created in the moist atmosphere behind the plaque. Now the plaque has gone and it’s possible to see some letters that were covered as well as those outside the area but it’s very difficult to make out the sense of what is there. It will need a good Albanian speaker (which, unfortunately, I’m not) to spend some time to unravel this puzzle. It is obviously something important as this text is in the central position on the monument.

The right hand side of the panel has a number of very strange, unusual and confusing elements. Basically what we have is the figure of an officer, we get that impression by the very nature of his uniform. (The National Liberation Army had a ‘traditional’ officer structure but after the success of the Albanian revolution that hierarchical structure was abandoned and the focus became much more on a people based militia rather than one based on ranks and superiority.)

Seventh Assault Brigade Officer - Sqepur

Seventh Assault Brigade Officer – Sqepur

But all the proportions are wrong. His head is far too big for his body. When I first saw this lapidar I thought the artists had created a cartoon figure rather than a serious representation of a Partisan fighter, prepared to give his life for the freedom of his country. Having looked at it a number of times I’m also reminded of Stan Laurel.

His stance is also unusual. As part of his officers uniform he has straps that criss-cross his chest and around his waist there are ammunition pouches attached to his belt. Here we have him with the thumb of his left hand tucked behind these pouches in a very nonchalant manner. His right arm is hanging down but it’s not possible to work out what he might have had in that hand as this is another area where decay has had an impact on the image. There’s also some damage to the shin of his right leg. And the look on his face is a little bit weird. All in all not what you expect from an officer when there’s a battle raging close by.

It also looks as if the original design included a star which was to be behind this officer. The top point is above the rectangle of the panel, to the left of this officers head, but then the rest of the star just seems to disappear. It might be wear and tear but I can’t really work out why this star was placed where it was. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Apart from the neglect that the lapidar has undergone the whole area surrounding it is uncared for and dirty. The grass hasn’t been cut for years and the general area has an accumulation of rubbish and the ubiquitous flimsy plastic bags abound. The only living creature happy there (apart from me) on my visit was the stray dog taking shelter from the sun.

There is no known further information about the date of inauguration or the name of the artist.

Location

At a bend in the road, at the top of a rise just after passing the village of Sqepur when travelling from Fier.

GPS

N40.791619

E19.818821

DMS

40° 47′ 29.8284” N

19° 49′ 7.7556” E

Altitude

122.2 m

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