Remnants of religious thinking in Albanian Socialist Art

Bule Naipi's blouse

Bule Naipi’s blouse

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Remnants of religious thinking in Albanian Socialist Art

The contents of a small display case in the Gjirokaster Prison Museum pose a question of significance for an understanding of Socialist Realist Art in Albania in the past and the challenges facing those who want to create an art that is free from the superstitions and negative influence of capitalism (as well as that from previous repressive social systems) in the future.

One of the problems that all societies that have tried to build Socialism have had to face is the problem of the old ideas preventing the development and growth of the new. However fervent a revolutionary might be the influence of the old repressive system will always be there, in the way we act, speak and think. That, in itself, isn’t a problem. Just as we can’t control the way we look we can’t totally control the influence that the traditions and the culture under which we grew up have upon us, even though we might not like it. Those old ideas and traditions only become a problem if they prevent us from looking at the world in a different light under a system that seeks to end oppression and exploitation forever.

The revolution can change the structure and direction of society it is for us to change ourselves.

This is the reason for the ‘cultural revolutions’ that have taken place, to a greater or lesser extent, in all societies that considered themselves Socialist. That in China, between 1966 and 1976, described as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is the most well known due to the dominance it had in society in the final years of Chairman Mao‘s life but they also took place in other countries seeking to build Socialism.

In Albania the cultural revolution manifested itself in a number of ways. The construction of the lapidars which commemorated those who died in the struggle for Liberation against Italian and then German fascism, together with those that sought to celebrate some of the achievements of the revolution were all part of that. As were the paintings that were produced, a great number of examples of which were on display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana in 2021. Many others can be seen in various locations, museums and art galleries throughout the country but many are also being allowed to fall into a sad state of repair.

That’s unfortunate for those who like and appreciate such works of art but at the same time their demise is all part of the class war and at the moment, in Albania, it is capitalism which is the ascendant. The lack of care of the lapidars, sometimes to the extent of wanton political vandalism, is also a reflection of society as it is and not as we would like it to be.

The declaration of Albania as an atheist state in 1968 was also part of Albania’s ‘cultural revolution’. Although, so far, I have come across few examples of the art produced that were part of that anti-religion campaign the painting by M Jorgji, created in 1975, is a good example of how the campaign was carried out.

Anti-Orthodox Church

Anti-Orthodox Church

An Orthodox priest is surrounded by villagers and he is being forced to face his crimes, and the abuses of power, he had inflicted upon, in this case, the rights of women and girls. The somewhat long slogan written on the red banner at the top says it all;

The whole Party and the country must rise to their feet, burn fiercely and behead anyone who tramples on the sacred law of the Party for the protection of the rights of women and girls.

This was a direct attack upon the church that had been using, and abusing, its power for centuries and was an important, not to say crucial, aspect of the struggle against superstition and metaphysical ideas. However, that shouldn’t have been the be all and end all of the campaign.

Such a cultural revolution has to change the thinking of the population as a whole – and that includes those artists whose task it was to promote a new view of the world.

However, some of those artists, either consciously or unconsciously, carried their old, out-dated ideas into their work in the new society. And, to the best of my knowledge, such ‘transgressions’ (if I might use that loaded term) were either not recognised or certainly not openly criticised and publicly exposed.

Here we will look at an example of where this ‘old thinking’ manifested itself in few examples related to the murder of two Partisan women by the the German Nazis in the town of Gjirokaster in 1944.

Bule’s blouse

I don’t know if I’ve missed it in the past but on my most recent visit to the Gjirokaster Prison Museum there was a small glass case which contained a colourful woman’s blouse.

This is displayed with the label which says in Albanian;

Me keto rroba fshataret e Lazaratit e maskuan Bule Naipin ne fshat me 1944 per to mbrojtur nga Nazistet Gjermane

in English;

With these clothes the Lazarat villagers disguised Bule Naipi in the village in 1944 to protect her from the German Nazis

I’m assuming that this display case, with its arrangement and label were produced during the period of Socialist construction in Albania, to label seems to indicate so.

This blouse is displayed just under the sculpture, made by Odhise Paskali, of a twin bust of the two murdered women. In the case, towards the top, is a short piece of knotted rope.

And its the rope that introduces an interesting aspect of Albanian Socialist Realist sculpture (less so in the paintings) which demonstrates the task that a future Socialist society has to deal with when it comes to matters of culture.

By including the rope – in the glass case with the blouse, around the necks of the two young women in the sculpture above the case, as well as the statue that used to stand (and should be returned once the work is completed) in Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli – there is a very clear reference to (Catholic) religious art going back centuries.

In countless Catholic churches, throughout the world, you will encounter images of the saints together with the instruments of their torture and eventual death. The prime, and ubiquitous, example of this is, of course, Christ on the cross.

And this ‘tradition’ seeped into the work of some of the painters and sculptors when they came to produce works of art which I have included in the blog under the heading ‘Socialist Realism’.

A number of the works of Odhise Paskali contain such religious imagery – the most notable example being his sculpture in the Përmet Martyrs’ Cemetery. Here we have a group of three Partisans, one mortally wounded and a male and a female Partisan tending to and comforting him. This is an EXACT replica of countless images of the Deposition of Christ from the Cross as seen in many churches, especially in Spain and Italy – those being the most Catholic of the European states.

Now it can be said, and it was probably why he got away with it, that Paskali was already a mature, experienced and renowned sculptor before the Liberation of Albania in 1944. He was born in 1903 and even before the establishment of Socialism his work was on display in various locations in Albania.

His major works (many of which are included in the Albanian Lapidar Survey) are;

ALS 123 – Nationalist Fighter – Korça (1937)

ALS 244 – Comrades – Martyrs’ Cemetery – Përmet (1964)

ALS 246 – Monument dedicated to the creation of peoples’ power – Përmet (1964)

ALS 276 – Monument to the Martyrs of Kolonje – Ersekë (1938)

ALS 590 – Monument dedicated to the Assembly of Lezha – Lezha (1968)

Bust to Vojo Kushi in Tirana

The statue of Cerciz Topulli (1932, bronze) which stands in the square that bears his name in Gjirokaster Old Town.

The large ‘Skenderberg’ statue (bronze), 1968, in Tirana main square, in collaboration with Janaq Paço and Andrea Mano.

He also created ‘The Triumphant Partisan’ (1968). This depicts a Nazi soldier being forced to the ground by an Albanian Communist Partisan. The original is at the Mauthausan Concentration Camp in Austria – where many Albanians were taken if captured. There’s a copy in the Castle Museum in Gjirokaster.

As well as the bust of ‘The Two Heroines‘ – Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima.

Not all of these are loaded with religious imagery but it was certainly a not uncommon aspect of his work.

And this religious influence can be seen in other, much later lapidars created by younger artists who had been brought up and educated under the Socialist system. One clear example of this is the statue at the Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery, created by Maksim Bushi in 1984. Bushi wasn’t born until 4 years after Liberation but take away the gun and change the uniform to a blue cloak and you have the Madonna and Child – again very common in Catholic churches.

So this just goes to illustrate the struggle that is necessary (and the time required) for the working class to develop a body of art that truly represents their interests, clear of any metaphysical content. A new type of art, with its own symbolism and establishing its own traditions.

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Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

Martyrs' Cemetery, Gjirokaster

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

More on Albania …..

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

There are a lot of mountains in Albania and they played a role in the success of the Communist led Partisan çeta (guerrilla groups) in defeating first Italian and then German Fascism. For that reason most of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries in Albania tend to be high above towns, in the surrounding hills, as is the case in Tirana. On my first visit to Gjirokaster I was, therefore, scanning the hills above the old town looking for the tell-tale signs of a white lapidar indicating the location of the cemetery.

It wasn’t until details came out in the Albanian Lapidar Survey that I learnt that it was located at probably the lowest part of town, right beside the place where the long distance buses drop off and pick up. I had stood beside it a number of times not realising what was behind the trees. In the past the vegetation hadn’t been so dense (and there was probably more care taken on basic maintenance) and buildings wouldn’t have been constructed so close, but things are different now.

Like a number of lapidars the Martyrs’ Cemetery monument in Gjirokaster has gone through changes, developments, since it was first constructed in the 1960s. The earliest picture I have found is one taken in 1969.

Martyrs' Cemetery, Gjirokaster, 1969

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster, 1969

It’s not a very good picture (unfortunately, to date, the only one I have been able to find from the period of major lapidar construction) but on this we can see that the general, architectural, aspect is the same as it is today. What is different is the design on the right hand panel. I’ve been told by Vincent from the ALS that the original wording on the panel was LAVDI DESHMOREVE, TE LUFTËS N.C. The N.C standing for Nacional Çlirimtare, there not being enough room for the complete words – but understood by all who saw it. This translates as ‘Glory to the Martyrs of the National Liberation War’. That was all in 1969. (And if you look really hard you can make out those letters.) Some time later (and I would hazard a guess at 1983, when the Education, Partisan and Music and Dancing Monuments were constructed) the frieze of the faces and Partisan fighters were added. And, since the Albanian Lapidar Survey made their visit in the summer of 2014, the monument has been ‘cleaned and restored’.

A common aspect of Albanian monuments (and which provides the generic name of ‘lapidar’) is a soaring monolith, more often than not surmounted by a star. Not all present lapidars have this aspect but it was from this that the monuments got their name. Here there are two, which start out at the base further apart than they are at the top. Through the construction of a sloping section up to the height of the panel they are brought closer together and then a section links them together.

The column on the left is narrower than its companion but is a couple of metres taller. The column on the right is painted red and it would seem that has always been so. That can be seen in the indistinct 1969 picture above and also from the colour picture (below) taken sometime in the 1970s of a commemoration event. This was a little bit unusual. Although through recent renovations more colour has been introduced to many of the lapidars from the evidence I’ve seen the vast majority, at their inception, were just bare and unadorned concrete, at times concrete faced with stone tiles/slabs or white plaster.

At the top of the red column is a black double-headed eagle. This represents the Albanian national flag. Perched on the very top is a red star – but the present star is not the original. As can be seen in the historic pictures the original star was much larger. The restoration of a smaller version is a sign of the changing politics and the need for its replacement is a demonstration of the vandalism that occurred in the 1990s where the star (the symbol of Communism) was the target of reactionary ire.

The concrete of the structure is faced with tiles made from the local limestone and is in a much better physical condition than a number of lapidars I’ve seen.

It’s the panel to the right of the columns which tells a story.

Martyrs' Cemetery - Gjirokaster

Martyrs’ Cemetery – Gjirokaster

The panel has images which are slightly unusual. On the extreme left hand side, immediately next to the red pillar, two men are depicted. Both are armed but what makes this unusual is that they are not in any sort of uniform. One of them is wearing a bandana around his neck, which would have been red and indicates that he is a Communist, but apart from that they are dressed as civilians.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The Partisan army was not a state army. It didn’t have a huge infrastructure to supply it with all the equipment that a modern army normally uses. At the time that the Albanians were fighting the Fascists who had invaded the country the British were producing the uniforms but the soldiers weren’t involved, to any great extent, in the European theatre of war until most of the fighting to break the fascist power had been done. It’s just that in most of the lapidars that I’ve seen so far the fighters, overwhelmingly, are in some sort of uniform. Pictures of the guerrilla groups taken at the time indicate that uniforms were not always available to all.

Typical Partisan Group

Typical Partisan Group

To the right of these two partisans are the faces of eight partisans, 6 men and 2 women. This is again an unusual presentation of the story. The only other place I’ve come across the disembodied faces of clearly defined individuals is on the lapidar in Ngurrez e Madhe, to the south of Lushnje. So these are almost certainly actual images of particular people either from the Gjirokaster area or who died there.

Unfortunately, at this moment, I’m unable to identify them all but I do have an idea of some of them. To my mind the two female images are that of the ‘Two hanged Women’, Bula Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima.

Bula joined the youth wing of the Albanian Communist Party very soon after its foundation in November 1941. The first meeting of the Party cell in Gjirokaster was held in her home (when the country and the city were under the occupation of the Italian Fascists) and she was soon a member of the Party’s Regional Committee. She worked clandestinely organising support for the Partisans and was betrayed by the nationalist collaborators when she returned to her neighbourhood of Dunavat, close to the castle in Gjirokaster. She was captured and imprisoned in the Castle.

Dunavat - Gjirokaster

Dunavat – Gjirokaster

Persefoni was born in the village of Qeparo, on the coast between Himarë and Saranda. Not so far as the crow flies but there’s a few mountain ranges in the way. She was part of a Partisan group and was captured when she got wounded. She was also imprisoned in the castle.

After being tortured (giving no information) they were ‘tried’ by the collaborator organisation Balli Kombëtar and sentenced to death by hanging. Persefoni was 20 years old, Bule 24.

After liberation they were both declared “Heroine i Popullit” (Heroine of the People).

From pictures I’ve seen I think that Persefoni is the face at the top left and Bule the one in the bottom right.

Following that line of thought (that all the eight are People’s Heroes) I think that the face at the very bottom is that of Fatu Dudumi (Berberi). He was another Partisan fighter who was born in Gjirokaster.

Palorto - Gjirokaster

Palorto – Gjirokaster

He joined the Partisans in 1943 but in June of that year he fell in the mountains at night and was captured, unconscious, by the Nazis. After suffering the normal torture at the hand of the Nazis he was transported to a concentration camp in Thessaloniki in Greece. Early in 1944 he was murdered by being hung in that camp. He was only 17 years old.

The only other one I think I can identify now is the face in the top right, the male with the moustache. If you look you will see that he is wearing a flat cap, the sort that was common during the 19th century, and the cap Çerçiz Topulli is often depicted wearing. The problem with this theory is that if it is him it’s not a particularly good likeness. He was born in Gjirokaster and spent most of his adult life fighting the Ottomans for national independence. He was killed in 1915 in Shkoder, in the north of the country, but in 1936 his remains were brought back to the city and he was buried in a plot a few hundred metres from the Martyrs’ Cemetery (Enver Hoxha in attendance). There’s also a statue of him in the square that bears his name in the old town.

Çerçiz Topulli - Gjirokaster

Çerçiz Topulli – Gjirokaster

But if it is not him I’m not sure who it is. A common ‘problem’ when looking at the lapidars is that a person could be commemorated in more than one place; where they were born, where they fought in an especially important battle, and where they died. That wasn’t a problem during the Socialist period as all the information would have been to hand. Since the early 1990s that information has either been lost or if it does exist deep within different archives. So nowadays we have to complete the jigsaw by trying to find some of the pieces from different parts of the country. For example, Persefoni is not named on any of the Girokaster lapidars in different parts of the town but is in her place of birth of Qeparo.

(I’ll attempt to fill in the gaps when new information comes to light.)

The rest of the panel holds 4 images of Partisans. A male and a female in uniform and two men in ‘civilian’ clothes. All of them hold a rifle, three of them are standing and the male on the extreme right is kneeling. The uniformed Partisans have a star on their caps and are wearing a bandana, indicating their status as Communists. They have ammunition pouches around their waists and the woman has another across her shoulder.

One of the other men is dressed in the clothes of the mountains, with a loose cape across his back and is wearing the footwear of the mountains (I started to develop a bit of a foot fetish during my May 2015 trip in using the differences in footwear as an indicator of the background of the fighters). The Partisan who is kneeling, grips his rifle with both hands, the butt resting on his knee, is dressed in town clothes of the 1940s.

This bas-relief lacks the dynamism and sense of movement of some of the other lapidars but demonstrates that there were no strict rules laid down on how the events and individuals commemorated were depicted. No uniformity which is supposed to charcaterise Socialist societies (from those who know nothing of them and just trot out regurgitated anti-Communist propaganda without thinking) but quite a lot of experimentation in different forms and messages being conveyed.

The graves themselves are slightly overgrown and not cleaned as they would have been in the past but there is obviously some periodic maintenance being carried out. I thought that some of these cemeteries would have been pristine up to 1990 but as can be seen in the picture of a celebration prior to that date the grass was allowed to grow even during the Socialist period. (Here I’m obviously bringing my northern European prejudices to bear. One time in Tirana I saw the grass at the German Fascist Memorial being cut with a pair of scissors and bottled water used to clean the gravestones in the English Cemetery. Albanians celebrated their dead in a different way.)

Martyrs' Cemetery, Gjirokaster

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

In looking at the names on the gravestones one thing you notice is the youth of so many of the fighters, many of them barely out of their teens (as was the case with the three of the ‘People’s Heroes’). Also there’s one to Astrit Toto. That name is on the memorial in Dema, Saranda and I assume it’s the same person.

Although it’s not the case in all Martyrs’ Cemeteries I’ve visited here in Gjirokaster there have been a few post-1990 additions. Normally, if they have been buried in these cemeteries to the fallen of the National Liberation War, they would have had some military or police connection. (The extreme example of desecration of an historical location is the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana where there seems to be the ambition to fill the empty space with monarcho-fascists.) Here in Gjirokaster it looks as if a few partisans have been ousted to make room but I don’t know the exact details around such an eviction.

How to get there:

The steps to the cemetery go uphill, through the trees and bushes, on the left hand side of the road if walking north, just at the place where the buses and furgons depart, at the bottom end of Bulevardi 18 Shtatori.

GPS:

40.08600097

20.14256098

DMS:

40° 5′ 9.6035” N

20° 8′ 33.2195” E

Altitude:

207.5 m

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