Socialist Realist Paintings and Sculptures in the National Art Gallery, Tirana
This post will consist of images of the paintings (and a few sculptures) from the Socialist period of Albania’s past. The first floor of the National Art Gallery is almost now solely (with one notable exception, which I’ll come to later) devoted to the period before 1990 when things fell apart.
Some of the paintings have been on display for many years and, in a sense, have become the core of the exhibition. There must be many more in storage but as politics gets into everything there may be some which are not even allowed to be on public display for specific reasons. There are a couple that show images of Enver Hoxha but there must be many more – in fact I’ve seen reproductions which are in the national collection but which never see the light of day. I hope, and don’t think, they have been destroyed.
Other political and economic reasons might prevent certain works from being seen. One subject which comes to mind are those paintings which celebrated the developments of the Collective and State Farms. In the selection below the co-operatives are mentioned but only when they are showing people, There are no images of mass industrialisation of the countryside – with tractors and combine harvesters – as those would, perhaps, make the viewer wonder why such images cannot be seen in the countryside of the 21st century as land ownership has gone back to that of the feudal period with virtual strip farming.
The images that are presented are all those that are on display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana at the moment. They are presented here in an effort to encourage anyone who visits Tirana to make an effort to go to the art gallery. It is a unique collection and one that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Unfortunately you don’t have to push and shove to get a good view of the works.
As to the structure of the presentation they are presented in the alphabetical order of the artists’ first name – only because that’s how Windows organises files in folders. This is followed by the title of the work in English. Sometimes the title seems inappropriate but that is probably down to a poor translation from the Albanian. I have given the title as printed on the card beside each exhibit. Next comes the year in which the work was painted. Two were not dated and have ‘nd’ in place of a year.
There are advantages of placing works by the same artist together. The individual style becomes more obvious and if the work cover a long period of time it’s possible to see a development of that style.
The dates are also important as with some of the early works it’s not really possible to describe the works as ‘Socialist Realist’ – the artists’ training and development taking place under a completely different social system. Comparing the dates with events that were taking place both nationally and internationally can also help in the understanding of the various elements in many of the pictures.
I would hope (at some time in the not too distant future) to look at some of these works in a more forensic manner. As it is with time constraints I will only make a few comments on some of the works if I think such snippets helpful in understanding the whys and wherefores of the image and also how such images fitted into the society that the Party of Labour and its leader, Enver Hoxha, were hoping to achieve.
Hey, I might get it wrong but if I do I would appreciate being put along the true path of enlightenment.
From the late 1960s a biennial exhibition of figurative art was held in the National gallery (many of the examples below would have been entered into those competition).
It might be just chance but although Albania has a long coastline, in relation to the size of the country in general, and that the fishing industry would have been quite important during the period of the construction of Socialism there aren’t many paintings which celebrate that fact.
Buza was one of those painters who established his reputation before Liberation but did develop his work to deal with events and circumstances in the young Albanian Socialist State.
The factory, which was established in the town of Kombinat, to the west of Tirana along the ‘old road’ to Durres, is now (and has long been) an abandoned ruin. The statue of Stalin that dominates the scene is the one that is now at the back of the National Art Gallery.
You’d have to look hard to find a miner in Albania today. Even so there’s an interesting bas relief in the ex-mining village of Krrabe, on the way to Elbasan from Tirana.
Heavy industry was crucial for a self-sufficient Socialist society. This created problems as resources were not able to be directed to the production of consumer goods that people craved – especially when these were becoming ever more plentiful in the capitalist countries – whatever the consequences for the general well-being of the population. That is why images of heavy industry were so common in paintings of the period. This matter became even more extreme when first the Soviet Union and then the People’s Republic of China pulled the economic plug due to ideological reasons i.e., the fight against Modern Revisionism.
The title causes confusion – but that might simply be down to a problem with the translation from Albanian to English. In Albania working men and women were encouraged to write about their experiences and thoughts there being many outlets at a local and national level where amateur writers were encouraged to send in their work.
The construction of new houses was crucial in the early years of the republic and these 5/6 storey buildings are common throughout Albania. There not exactly pretty to look at from the outside but the few I’ve had the opportunity to visit were more than comfortable on the inside. What also went hand in hand with the construction of the flats were the communal heating plants, especially important in the mountainous regions and those towns and cities situated over a few hundreds of metres above sea level.
It will become noticeable the number of women – especially the young – who are depicted as playing a full role in the construction of Socialism. And not just as the manual labour but in positions of responsibility, reflecting how (between 1944 and 1990) Albania was succeeding to turn the world upside-down when it came to women’s liberation. Why women reverted to the ‘traditional’ role – which is the case when you look around 21st century Albania – is a question I’ve not been able to answer.
Some of the work on the Collective and State Farms would have been done by hand but the areas covered in some of these enterprises would have been impossible to have farmed without serious mechanisation. Albania wasn’t totally self-sufficient in the production of such items as tractors and combine-harvesters but it was aiming to be so.
Throughout the period of Socialist Construction a great deal of effort was put into maintaining traditional folk culture. What was represented in the paintings was not something of the past but of the present where tradition and the the goals of the future were working in tandem.
One of the aims of Socialist Realist Art is to maintain the dignity of manual labour, in both the town and the countryside, and to challenge the idea that certain jobs were more prestigious than others. As all Socialist societies have developed the fight against the development of an ‘intelligentsia’ that saw itself better than the majority of workers became one of the on-running battles. Efforts to challenge this, by sending intellectuals, Party functionaries and those in comfortable occupations, were tried in all the four Socialist countries (the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and Albania) but not continued for long enough to put the intellectuals into their place. The Cultural Revolution in China between 1966 and 1976 was the highest point in this struggle but even that eventually failed.
Women started to take on skilled manual jobs.
A similar theme is explored in the sculpture ‘On the road to war’ which can be found in Tirana Park. In the sculpture a peasant woman is giving water to a thirsty Partisan. This is by the sculptor Hector Dule. I don’t know for certain but I assume there’s a familial relationship and one piece of art nurtured the other.
I like the little joke in this painting where whilst all the others are working there’s a man in the bottom right hand corner, who is leaning against a tree reading a newspaper.
The date in the title of this painting could be a reference to the first steel being made in Albania after the ideological and economic break with the People’s Republic of China and a return to self reliance.
One of the principles established with the construction of Socialism was that the workers would live and work in the same place. This is not always possible but when we are talking about Collective and State Farms as well as major industrial complexes this makes sense. Apart from anything else this reduces the working day as people have less of a commute. This is not something ‘invented’ by Communism, it existed in the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and hence you had the creation of ‘mill towns’ and ‘mining towns’. For the capitalists this was a method of control – with the mine/mill owners also being the landlords of any housing. This, the capitalists hoped, would be a barrier to industrial action. Under Socialism it was a way of bringing people closer together with the creation of a true community where amenities could be shared. This also happened in the capitalist situation with the development of mutual societies and clubs. But not everyone in a community would be necessarily working at the enterprise. They would be servicing the population in other ways, such as education, health and culturally. Hence the idea of those people visiting a works to understand exactly what went on behind the factory walls.
When I was in the National Art Gallery a few years ago this painting had an additional card beside it indicating that this painting, and the artist, had been criticised for its formalist style. However, presently there’s nothing to bring such a criticism to the viewer’s attention.
If Gjergo had been criticised for the previous painting on matters of style this one should have been criticised for its content. Here we have the worker as some Christ/John the Baptist like character. There’s something cold and dead about the expression which I don’t like, either.
This documents an event during the War of Liberation. This was another painting that previously indicated that it had been the subject of political criticism during the period of Socialism. This time due to the fact that the figure in the centre is that of Mehmet Shehu when he was a commander in the Partisan army. The painting was removed from display when he fell from grace in 1981.
A portrait of one of the victorious Partisans who liberated Tirana from the Nazi occupiers on the 17th November 1944. We know it’s Tirana with the image of the Et’hem Bey Mosque (Xhamia e Et’hem Beut). It wasn’t used much during the Socialist period and is now undergoing an extensive renovation.
The Albanians were always proud of the way they were able to electrify the country and the opening of a new hydro-powered plant was always celebrated. Immediately after the liberation of the country in 1944 one of the first aims was to electrify the country, just as Lenin had declared for the young Soviet Union after victory in the War of Intervention.
One of the few sculptures that are displayed inside the Art Gallery. There are, of course, the fine sculptures of Marxist leaders and other examples of Socialist realist art behind the Gallery building.
This is another painting that celebrates the production of electricity, this time the power plant at Fierze. The construction of the dam for this plant created the magnificent Lake Koman.
Not all the art created by painters during the period of Socialism concerned either the world of labour or the events of the War of Liberation.
Women were well represented in Albanian Socialist Art.
A landscape painting which depicts a State or Collective farm – which made Albania almost self-sufficient in food production during the period of Socialism. Following the counter-revolution of 1990 the land was distributed amongst the population and now Albanian agriculture resembles more what you would seen in Britain during feudal times with ‘strip’ farming being the norm.
Notice the young female Partisan teaching her older comrade to read during a respite from the fighting. Illiteracy was rife in pre-Liberation Albania and education was one of the early priorities of the Socialist state. That can be seen by the number of books that are printed in the Albanian language still to this day, totally out of proportion to the level of the population.
This painting depicts the construction of one of the factories in Elbasan – the centre of Albania’s metallurgy production during Socialism. This huge area is now almost totally abandoned for its initial purpose. Notice also the central character is a woman. Women were not reduced to manual jobs but also took on responsible roles.
A female dairy farm worker. From the size of the herd and the structures in the background this is another depiction of a State or Collective Farm.
Sunflowers used for the production of cooking oils. There were also extensive areas of olive oil plantations, especially in the south of the country close to Saranda.
A celebration of the working class – those who had the potential to make a new and glorious future. A task, eventually, the Albanian working class were unable to fulfil. Rama was involved in the creation of a number of some of the most important of Albanian lapidars such as Mother Albania in the Tirana Martyrs’ Cemetery; the 1912 Independence monument in Vlora; the monument to the artillery in Sauk; the monument to the year 1920 outside Vlora; the bust of Shota Galicia in Kukes. Rama is the father of the present Prime Minister, Edi Rama – who was also trained as an artist. Whether the father would be proud of the fact is not recorded.
The poster on the right argues that it is only the work of the Party and the system of Communism that will ensure the true emancipation of women.
This is the only painting in the present exhibition on the first floor of the Art Gallery that was created after the counter-revolution of the early 1990s. And it sticks out like a sore thumb. Although painted by the same artists as the painting that goes before it above if lacks any meaning. It’s the sort of kitsch that gets re-produced in thousands and gets a pride of place in the homes of some people who refuse to look at art with a critical eye. All that can be said of it is that it is ‘pretty’ but conveys nothing. It’s a chocolate box image. There’s no character in the face, we can deduce nothing about the sitter. Compare this image with the other portraits of young girls and women in the rest of the exhibition. Blido in his dotage.
Environmentalists might look on this picture in horror but in the early 1970s the building of these industrial complexes was seen as a great achievement of the Albanian people. And indeed it was. Under attack from the very first days of the revolution, especially by the British, it was crucial that the Albanian people were able to be as self sufficient as possible.
An allegorical sculpture from one of the finest sculptors produced by Albanian Socialism and he was involved in the creation of some of the best examples of Albanian lapidars. His work includes: Mother Albania, at the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana; the 1912 Independence monument in Vlora; the Monument to Heroic Peze; the monument to the Peze Conference; monument to the battle of Mushqete in Berzhite; the amazing arch at Drashovice; the monument to the year 1920 outside of Vlora; the Priske lapidar; and the obelisk to education in Gjirokaster.
Before Liberation there were few paved roads in the country, even in the towns and cities. It would take time to improve communication throughout the country. What Socialism didn’t achieve capitalism has not ‘rectified’ as there are still many parts of the countryside without metalled roads.
The success of the Partisans in the fight against both the Italian and German Fascists was their control of the mountains of Albania – which were as much as an antagonist in the war as the combatants.
Like landscapes still lifes were not really the fare of Socialist Realist art but, obviously, artists turned their hand to various subjects.
These I understand to be a trio who would have been working on the construction of one of the hydro-electric projects, the Drin being the river that runs close to the northern city of Shkoder.
Albania has extensive oil reserves and workers in the industry were often depicted in paintings.
This picture borders on abstraction and I’m not sure how this would have been received in certain circles at various times during the Socialist period.
If he plays with abstraction in his previous painting above here Mele captures the character of a peasant from the mountains.
The three paintings above were painted as a triptych and show soldiers of the Albanian People’s Army showing them involved in various activities, practising shooting skills (note it’s the woman who has the gun), in manual labour helping in civilian activities and in study of Marxist texts.
Constructing the dam, referenced by the lake below, is only one part of the electrification of the country. The distribution infrastructure also needed effort and, in this case, a head for heights.
The worker at the top of everything and this one is waving a red flag.
In place of aristocrats and other hangers on Socialist Realist places the ‘ordinary’ man and woman on the walls of the Art Galleries.
Here the attack on the Quisling Assembly, between German Nazis and so-called ‘Nationalists’, on 18th October 1944 is depicted. A section of the 3rd Partisan Brigade dragged a canon up to the hills above Tirana, in the area of Sauk, and fired down on the meeting as it was taking place in the Victor Emmanuel III Palace – which is just across the road from the National Martyrs’ Cemetery on the Elbasan Road from Tirana. The remains of the fascist, Quisling and coward Ahmet Muhtar Bej Zogu (the self-proclaimed ‘King Zog’) were buried in the building’s grounds in 2012. After Liberation in November 1944 the 18th October was declared ‘Day of the Artillery’.
Here we have a representation of the solidarity that comes with collective labour – directed to a common goal.
Many of the early Socialist Realist paintings concerned themselves with incidents from the National War of Liberation.
Dashi was one of the many who were designated ‘Hero/Heroine of Socialist Work’ after the War of Liberation from the invading fascists.
Oil workers were distinguished by their distinctive hats and combination cape. In any circumstance not a particularly pleasant job.
To prepare the land for the establishment of the Collective and State Farms, after the Agricultural Reforms of 1969 would have required and enormous amount of hard physical labour. What so few people achieved in such a short time is admirable. It is a tragedy that so much of that labour has gone to waste and the land they made workable now being left fallow – until some big corporation steps in and reaps the fruits of the millions of men and women hours needed to make the land productive.
Vojo Kushi was a young Partisan who, when surrounded in a house in Tirana by Italian fascists with two other comrades, rushed the enemy and attempted to throw a grenade into one of the tanks of the occupying forces. This is one of the largest paintings in the exhibition.
As a predominantly agricultural society it was imperative, in order to make collectivisation of the land a success, that machinery was introduced into the process. This both created an industrial working class in the creation of the tractors, ploughs and combine harvesters that were produced in the industrial centres as well as converting the peasant farmers into agricultural workers with skills commensurate with the workers in the cities. It is only this year that I’ve seen any development in the use of machinery in the countryside – and that on a small scale. What it took Socialism to achieve in 20 years capitalism has barely made any impact in 30 when it had a solid base to start from whereas Albania in the 1940s was starting from scratch.
The ‘Beyond’ here is not just the route of the electricity pylons but what this will mean for the construction of Socialism and the building of a new future for working men and women.
Here the various phases in the development of a wheat crop are conflated into one scene – semi-lyrical, semi-romantic. But the title is important and it stresses that what the workers receive is due to their own efforts. The land and all its fruits belong to them as a whole, as workers in the countryside and in the cities, co-dependent.
This is one of the most interesting of the paintings in the present collection – and I’d never seen igt before. This is an action filled canvas. There’s so much going on there’s too much to go into here. And I’m not exactly sure where this strike took place. Even before the Partisan war against the invaders took off in an organised manner there were many actions by unarmed workers against the invading Italian fascists. One other notable example was the strike of tobacco workers in Durres in 1940. There were also many demonstrations on the streets of towns throughout the country.
A charming landscape scene of the entrance to the town of Pogradec, on the shores of lake Ochrid, in the south-east of the country. The first painting in the exhibition to include a lapidar – which is way out of scale to the actual monument still in existence.
Two young women outside their tent in the south of the country – the sea and the olive trees on the terraces in the background suggest that this is close to Saranda. Young people were sent to the countryside in an effort to ensure that as city dwellers they didn’t get separated from the hardships of labour in the countryside. This was similar to what happened in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966. As in China so in Albania some loved it, some hated it. Education given them by the revolution was then used to denigrate the Revolution’s achievements and eventually to undermine it.
A young woman working in a wire factory – where that might have been I’m not sure. What is certain is that there is no wire factory in Albania now. The building might, and probably does, still exist but it will be a mere shell, looted of anything valuable. The wire factory was in Shkoder and was supplied with raw materials from the copper enrichment plant at Rubik, Mirdite.
Albanian children were brought up with the idea that one day they might have to fight to defend their country. Unfortunately when it came to it they ran away and allowed their country, fought for with such bravery and with the loss of so much blood by their parents and grandparents, to disintegrate into chaos and disaster. A friend of mine was horrified when he saw this idea of children being taught about war but he seems to forget how that is entrenched in the culture of the capitalist ‘west’. He is also old enough to remember that many children in Britain, especially boys, had toy guns at a very young age – and ran around attempting to eliminate the entire indigenous population of America.
Another example of where a woman was in a position of responsibility – here a woman is keeping a record of what the Brigade has produced and who would have contributed what.
The idea of combat training is represented by the airman on the right playing with toy aircraft as they are involved in a dog-fight. In the background are lined up Russian or Chinese made MIG jets. Now there’s no such thing as an independent Albanian air force – I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a single trained fighter pilot in the country. Now Albania’s ‘independence’ is protected by NATO.
The emphasis that was placed upon the electrification of the country in the 1960s is demonstrated by the number of paintings that were created in that time and which would have been exhibited in museums and art galleries throughout the country. Some of these galleries still exist – however many have been closed and quite possibly looted in the early 1990s. There are some, however, where materials from the Socialist period are being ‘stored’, often haphazardly, so there is a chance of the material being available to the public view in the future.
A vast amount of man and women hours were expended on the creation of terraces in order to increase cultivable land in the hilly parts of the country. The sea in this picture would indicate that this is, again, in the south of the country in the area around Saranda. Until the the early 1990s the whole area on this southern part of Albania – opposite the Greek island of Corfu – would have been covered with olive and citrus trees. Many exist but many more have been destroyed to provide the ugly holiday resort of Saranda and further south still, the holiday ‘resort’ of Ksamil.
The only family scene in the exhibition. Note the red banner with a slogan at the entrance to the village down on the left and the white lapidar in the background on the right – a little to far away to identify exactly which one it is or where.
A painting which celebrates the declaration of the People’s Republic of Albania in Tirana in 1946. (The country was declared the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania in 1976.) This is one of only two images in the exhibition of the leader of the Party of Labour of Albania and the country, from 1944 till his death in 1985, Enver Hoxha. He’s the figure to the right of centre, under the flag wearing a long, grey overcoat and saluting the crowd.
This is a strange one. It’s an intimate scene of an artist’s studio where we see both the artist and one of his sitters. That sitter is Enver Hoxha, who was painted a number of times by Kilica. BUT – Kilica has depicted himself as he would have been in 1986 but the image of Comrade Enver is of him as a relatively young man at the time of the Liberation of the country in 1944, or in the few years after. Also the painting was created the year after Enver’s death. Can’t work that one out.
A colourful and joyful picture of a couple of young women going to work on a Collective or State Farm. The various crops are represented by the different colours in the fields in the background.
The establishment of a Co-operative would have involved long and detailed negotiations and here we see the success of those discussions with all generations of the population of this mountain village being present at the closing ceremony. The Banner to the right states: ‘Glory to the Party of Labour of Albania’.
Another picture of a female worker in a skilled occupation, this time as a turner in an engineering works. Again it’s unlikely the place depicted is still working and I would have thought it is very unlikely, also, that a young woman would be following such a profession in today’s capitalist Albania.
A painting which seems to be very much influenced by the early Soviet artist Alexander Deineka.
A character portrait with the construction work as a background.
This is the exhibition of Socialist Realist Art as it is as of September 2019. There are a few pictures which have been in previous displays but – for whatever reason – were not considered for this particular phase. A few of those follow:
A picture created before the problems of air pollution were generally accepted as being important even at the time of industrial development in a country which before Liberation had virtually no heavy industry. Albania has little problem with that 30 years after the counter-revolution as the factories and works constructed during the time of Socialism were looted and now, in the main, exist only as ruins.
A painting that puts the Party at the centre of everything – the oath is to the liberation of the country from the Fascist invader but also to the cause of Communism.
Another painting that celebrates collective endeavour in the countryside.
This is an interesting one as Cano painted at least another version. Here we have the important task, even in times of war, of the education of the Partisans – the majority of whom would have been illiterate. This version has been displayed in the National Art Gallery in recent years.
This version used to be displayed in VI Lenin Party School in Tirana. Whether it still survives may be in doubt. This has the same general composition but there are changes in the genders of some of the main figures.
Not a ‘Socialist Realist’ painting as it predates the Liberation of the country.
I also have the intention of adding to the blog images of other art works I have encountered in other art galleries/museums in the country. Sometimes they are difficult to find but there are still a few places where the art of the Socialist period of Albania’s history can be appreciated.
There are very few contemporary reference books on Albanian Socialist Realist Art – although there are albums of work from the erstwhile Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China nothing comparable has been produced for Albania – but material was produced during the time of Socialist construction. Here we reproduce two of those albums, any others will be added if they become available.
NB From the end of 2021 the gallery has been closed. I have no information about exactly why but there had long been signs of the need for structural repairs. When it will reopen I have no idea. There didn’t seem to be much activity when I was in Tirana in the summer of 2022. Neither do I have any idea of what will be exhibited. There is, I’m sure, a possibility that the items that were part of the permanent exhibition, works of Socialist Realist Art, might well be confined to the depths and the gallery will become a centre of decadent capitalist ‘art’.