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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The Revolutionary Spirit in Albanian Painting and Sculpture

The Lathe Worker - Zef Shoshi

The Lathe Worker – Zef Shoshi

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This article first appeared in issue No 6, 1969 of the bi-monthly magazine New Albania which reported on the biennial exhibition of Figurative Art that was held in the National Art Gallery in Tirana earlier in the year.

(All the reporductions here are of works of art that were on display during the 1969 exhibition.)

The Dam of Drini - Nexhmedin Zajmi

The Dam of Drini – Nexhmedin Zajmi

The Revolutionary Spirit in Albanian Painting and Sculpture

The most important manifestation in the field of the Albanian figurative arts is the national exhibition which, as a rule, is held once in two years. This year its motto was the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Albania and it opened on the eve of this jubilee day.

Testing - 1969 - Andon Lakuriqi

Testing – 1969 – Andon Lakuriqi

The artists’ creative work in socialist Albania has been constantly expanding. We have now a great number of painters and sculptors who are not only professionally trained but have also proved their creative artistic capability. There is side by side with them a big army of amateur artists who also wants to make their contribution to the new socialist art. The Party of Labour of Albania has always paid special attention to the development of literature and arts, its main concern being that art should reflect the life of the people, that it should militate for communism, that it must have a revolutionary content. Our art which is realistic and deliberately tendentious finds this revolutionary content in the very reality of our socialist life.

Working Girls - 1969 - Bajam Mata

Working Girls – 1969 – Bajam Mata

The national exhibition of figurative arts is of special interest from the point of view of the reflection in art of the all-round revolutionization of our society. The Albanian painters and sculptors have drawn inspiration from the life, work and thought of the working class of present-day Albania, the leading class of the revolution. In big tableau which sometimes assume monumental proportions and character such as Vilson Kilica tableau ‘The workers’,

The Workers - Vilson Kilica

The Workers – Vilson Kilica

Clirim Ceka’s painting ‘The technical scientific revolution’ there have been delineated in bright and light colours characters of workers in moments of their life and work in factories and plants. The painters have shown less interests in the simple everyday fact than in the great thought, which is inclined towards epics form, that the working class who is mastering theory and technique and who is the master of this country has reached the high peaks of science and is marching forward confident in its own strength. Joyful and fully optimistic is the life in our collectivized countryside as painted in Jusuf Sulovari’s tableau ‘The harvesters’.

The new look of socialist Albania which is forging ahead has inspired the painters to create beautiful landscapes, no more of an exotic character, but of a modem country which lives a happy intensive life. We see this in the landscape ‘500 new flats’ painted with compactness of style by Skender Topi.

The National Liberation War holds the main place in the creative work of the Albanian painters and sculptors. The more so would be the case with this exhibition.

Friends of the Mechanics Factory - 1969 - Dhimiter Mborja

Friends of the Mechanics Factory – 1969 – Dhimiter Mborja

In one of the main halls, one’s eye is struck by ‘The People’s Hero Vojo Kushi’ painting by Sali Shijaku.

The painter has been inspired by an event of the National Liberation War known to everybody. It is the moment when Vojo Kushi encircled with his three other comrades by the fascists in one of the Tirana slums before laying down his life for the freedom of the people threw himself upon a tank hurling a grenade to it. The painter’s image of the hero is that of a legendary figure amidst flames; his red shirt fluttering up like a banner which will remain such for centuries. Many paintings, sculptural groups, portraits and busts evoke moments, historic events or prominent figures of the glorious struggle of our people. Such is for example, the painting ‘The order from the staff’ by Hasan Nallbani which delineates the fighting and unyielding spirit of a brave partisan unit.

Farther (Me tej) - 1969 - Shaban Hysa

Farther (Me tej) – 1969 – Shaban Hysa

The revolutionary spirit prevailing nowadays over Albanian life, the great actions of the youth who are tempered while working for the construction of big projects, the selfless spirit to serve the people whenever and wherever need be, the high patriotic spirit to be ready to defend the fatherland from all enemies, all these lofty virtues instilled in our people during this quarter of a century could not but find their reflection in the works created by the Albanian artists. Shkurte Pal Vata was a very young volunteer girl from the highlands who died bravely at her post while working for the construction of the Rrogozhina-Fier railway. Her enthusiastic and romantic portrait has been lyrically and dynamically portrayed by the sculptor Mumtaz Dhrami.

Shkurte Pal Vata - Mumtaz Dhrami

Shkurte Pal Vata – Mumtaz Dhrami

Another valiant patriotic woman who had once commanded the fighters in the struggle against the foreign invaders and who fought all her life for the freedom and independence of the fatherland, is Shote Galica whose vivid and brave portrait we see cast in bronze by the sculptor Kristaq Rama.

People's Heroine Shota Galica, Kristaq Rama

People’s Heroine Shota Galica, Kristaq Rama

Likewise, the joyful life of our youth who are moulded in the great actions they undertake for the development of the socialist fatherland has been reflected in rich colours in the tableau ‘The return of the youth brigade’ by Dhimitraq Trebicka.

Guardians of the country - 1969 - Spiro Kristo

Guardians of the country – 1969 – Spiro Kristo

Many other aspects of our life have also been touched by the painters and sculptors. The national exhibition of the figurative arts is a manifestation of the flourishing of all kinds of plastic art starting with monumental painting and ending with various graphics. What is more, the 160 works displayed here and created by 110 artists have been selected among hundreds of works presented by authors of the whole country. The artists have not hesitated to face the difficulty of the work over big tableau or big sculptural groups, which thing has been dictated to them by the themes, thoughts and great epic ideas of the time they wanted to reflect. What is important is that they express themselves clearly by using such artistic means as are communicative and understandable for the broad masses. Basing their creative activity on the best traditions of the people’s art, by using a realistic style and guided by the revolutionary and optimistic tone of the life of their socialist fatherland, the painters and sculptors have created dynamic works, using various complete forms as well as rich and bright colours.

Danish Jukniu - In the light construction site

Danish Jukniu – In the light construction site

The works of this exhibition are the fruit of the socialist realism method far from any other decadent form content, or sickly subjectivism as is the case with the bourgeois and revisionist art. They are works which communicate with the people and whose aim is to serve the people and socialism.

For more examples of Albanian Socialist Realist Art the read about the 1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Arts – Tirana.

Socialist Realist Paintings and Sculptures in the National Art Gallery, Tirana provides a comprehenive idea of the examples of Socialist Art that have been on display in the National Gallery in recent years.

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