“This exhibition will go down in our history of painting”
Art Exhibitions in Albania around 1972 and the Promise of Spring
AbstractThis article explores the reactions to and critical discussions surrounding exhibitions in the first few years of the 1970s, primarily focusing on the 1971 National Figurative Arts Exhibition and the Pranvera exhibition of 1972. It looks closely at the responses of artists to the developments taking place – especially in painting – during Albania’s Ideological and Cultural Revolution, and to map out the ideas and aesthetic approaches that both clashed and mutually reinforced each other during these years. It considers the early reception of works by artists such as Edison Gjergo and Edi Hila, analyzes the complexities of debates over pictorial references to historical modernist styles (such as Cubism and Expressionism), and analyzes the significance of these debates against the background of Albania’s international cultural exchanges at the time. Treating the exhibitions that took place in the early 1970s as a kind of ‘new beginning’ – as contemporary critics in fact saw them – the article explores the direction of culture in state socialist Albania before the more conservative turn of the Fourth Plenum in 1973, arguing for a more diverse and nuanced definition of what artists believed Socialist Realism could accomplish in the Albanian context.
Keywords:exhibition history, Socialist Realism, socialist modernism, art criticism, Albania, cultural revolution
Fetah Hysa, Konstandin Stavri, Lutfije Vrapi, Liri Jaupi, Rrok Baba, Mynevere Baholli, Angjelina Lika, and Isa Metani, “Mendimi ynë mbi ekspozitën e pranverës”, Puna, 30 June 1972. Subsequent quotations in the following paragraph are also from this article in Puna. See also: “Ekspozita e pranverës”, Drita, 4 June 1972. All translations from Albanian to English are by the author, unless otherwise indicated.
Enver Hoxha, “Të thellojmë luftën ideologjike kundër shfaqjeve të huaja e qëndrimeve liberale ndaj tyre”, in Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin, Tirana: Shtëpia Botuese “8 Nëntori”, 1977, pp. 375-443.
Fjoralba Satka Mata, “Albanian Alternative Artists vs. Official Art under Communism”, in Cristian Vasile, ed., History of Communism in Europe, Volume 2, Bucharest: Zeta, 2011, pp. 79-91.
Hila is by far the best known of these artists, thanks in part to the reception of his work at documenta 15, and to the recent retrospective exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. See: Edi Hila: Painter of Transformation, Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2018. Gjergo has, unfortunately, not yet been the subject of a large-scale exhibition, although the prominence of his narrative in the displays in the House of Leaves (the Museum of Secret Surveillance) has foregrounded his importance in the political and artistic shifts of the early 1970s. (See also: Elsa Demo, “Edison Gjergo, çmimi i shtrenjtë i artistit”, Arkapia, 19 July 2017, https://youtu.be/30eC3XvdM7c.) Alush Shima was the subject of a substantial exhibition in Tirana in 2013 (Alush Shima: Territore të vogla lirie 1968-1973, Tirana: Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve, 2013), and Maks Velo’s numerous publications (including Esse për diktaturën komuniste, Tirana: Shtëpia Botuese “55”, 2003) on the communist period – and his own persecution – are widely known both within and outside Albania.
Enver Hoxha, “Thellimi i mëtejshëm i revolucionit ideologjik e kulturor”, in Mbi Letërsinë dhe artin, pp. 241-245.
See: Luljeta Ikonomi and Shannon Woodcock, “Imoraliteti në familje: Nxitja e ankesave të grave për të përforcuar pushtetin e partisë në Revolucionin Kulturor Shqiptar”, Përpjekja no. 32-33, Spring 2014, pp. 162-163; and Peter Prifti, “The Albanian Women’s Struggle for Emancipation”, Southeastern Europe vol. 2, no. 1, 1975, pp. 109-129.
Kujtim Buza, “Puna krijuese kolektive në fushën e arteve figurative”, Drita, 27 September 1970.
On the cult of Skanderbeg as a civil religion, and the association of Skanderbeg with Hoxha, see: Egin Ceka, “Muzeu Kombëtar dhe Muzeu i Skënderbeut si Institucione të Religjionit Civil Shqiptar të Komunizmit”, Përpjekja no. 21, Fall 2005, pp. 121-147. The inauguration of the equestrian monument to Skanderbeg in Tirana’s central square in 1968 reflected the public transformations accompanying this civil religion. The monument displaced the statue of Stalin that formerly stood in the square.
See: Ylber Marku, “China and Albania: The Cultural Revolution and Cold War Relations”, Cold War History vol. 17, no. 4, 2017, pp. 367-383.
“Vendim i Komitetit Qendror të Partisë së Punës së Shqipërisë mbi zhvillimin e mëtejshëm të letërsisë dhe arteve”, Drita, 4 June 1961.
For some representative articles from the debate, see: Drago Siliqi, “Në kërkim të së resë”, Drita, 18 June 1961; Mark Gurakuqi, “Traditë dhe Novatorizëm”, Drita, 30 July 1961; and Dritëro Agolli, “Traditë, natyrisht, por jo shtampe”, Drita, 27 August 1961.
Edi Hila has emphasized the importance of Jukniu as a teacher, noting that when he (Hila) began his studies in 1962 at the High Institute, Jukniu’s teaching pushed students to explore aesthetic experience in a way that developed their sensitivity to the “aesthetics of modernism”, even if books on more recent developments in global modern art were not widely available to all students. See Hila, “Paradoxical Realism”, in Edi Hila: Painter of Transformation, pp. 33-63 (p. 34). Unfortunately, Jukniu’s career and influence has yet to be the subject of a serious scholarly study.
Ermir Hoxha, Historia e Artit Shqiptar, 1858-2000, Tirana: Albdesign, 2019, pp. 145-150, 174-175.
The narrative that positions painters like Edi Hila as unfortunate victims of a system that could brook no alternative approaches to socialist art does an injustice to critics like Andon Kuqali, who saw in the generation of artists emerging in the early 1970s a new relation to history and new tools of Socialist Realist expression. I am not concerned with further entrenching the place of artists like Hila or Gjergo in Albanian art history – but their lionization has had pernicious effects on the way we understand the real diversity of artistic ideas that were present in Albania in late 1960s and early 70s.
See: Çlirim Ceka, “Përshtypje për disa vepra”, Drita, 6 December 1970; and Muntaz Dhrami, “Rritja e talenteve të reja të arteve figurative”, Drita, 13 December 1970.
“Diskutim krijues mbi ekspozitën kombëtare të arteve figurative”, Drita, 5 December 1971; see also the later discussion in early 1972 specifically focused on the aforementioned paintings by Gjergo, Hila, and Haxhiu – as well as Ferdinand Paci’s Nënat marrin hak (The Mothers Take Revenge), Ismail Lulani’s Mbas qitjes (After Shooting Practice), and Lec Shkreli’s Komunistët (The Communists) – “Diskutim krijues mbi disa tabllo”, Drita, 5 March 1972.
Andon Kuqali, “Hovet e realizmit socialist”, Nëndori no. 12, December 1971, pp. 54-68 (p. 57).
Andon Kuqali, “Me një synim të caktuar: Mbi disa probleme të arteve figurative”, Nëndori no. 12, December 1972, pp. 3-16 (pp. 13, 3).
See: “Duke u pregatitur për dy ekspozita të arteve figurative”, Drita, 22 April 1973; and “Para hapjes së ekspozitës së pranverës”, Drita, 13 May 1973.
Ermir Hoxha, Historia e Artit Shqiptar, p. 187. 21 Alfred Uçi, “Modernizmi – shprehje e degjenerimit të kulturës artistike borgjeze”, Drita, 3 June 1970.
Kujtim Buza, “Disa probleme të arteve figurative në dritën e fjalimeve të shokut Enver”, in Beqim Meta, Afrim Krasniqi, and Hasan Bello, eds., Indoktrinimi komunist përmes kulturës, letërsisë dhe artit: Vëllimi II (1969-1973), Tirana: Akademia e Studimeve Albanologjike, Instituti i Historisë, 2019, pp. 304-305.
See, for example, Dritëro Agolli’s speech at the July plenary meeting of the writers and artists union: “Mbi disa çështje ideologjike dhe organizative të Lidhjes së Shkrimtarëve dhe Artistëve nën dritën e plenumit të 4-të të Komitetit Qendror të PPSH”, Drita, 29 July 1973. Agolli had been named head of the union after the previous president (Dhimitër Shuteriqi) had been forced to step down.
“U hap ekspozita kombëtare e arteve figurative kushtuar 30-vjetorit të Ushtrisë Popullore”, Drita, 8 July 1973.
Raino Isto, “‘Criticism Should Open Up Horizons for the Future’: The Albanian Union of Writers and Artists and the Status of Art Criticism in the People’s Republic of Albania”, ARTMargins Online, 19 October 2020, https://artmargins.com/criticism-should-open-up-horizons-for-the-future-the-albanian-union-of-writers-and-artists-and-the-status-of-art-criticism-in-the-peoples-republic-of-albania.
Selections from the talks given at the plenum were published in the April 1972 issue of Nëndori. 27 Respectively: Fadil Paçrami, “Kemi nevojë për një kritikë me autoritet”; Andon Kuqali, “Kritika të orientojë e të hapë horizonte për të ardhmen”; Floresha Haxhilaj, “Të përdorim një terminologji të saktë”; and Llazar Siliqi, “Ne patjetër duhet të zhvillojmë edhe kritikën e kritikës”, all published in Nëndori no. 4, April 1972, pp. 64-96.
Foto Stamo, “Të ndjekim me vëmendje përpjekjet e artistëve tanë”, Nëndori no. 4, April 1972, pp. 83-85. 29 Kuqali, “Kritika të orientojë…”, p. 82. Bold-faced emphasis in original.
Andon Kuqali, “Në Zhongghuo”, Nëndori no. 4, April 1959, pp. 178-203 (p. 178). 31 Elidor Mëhilli, “Globalized Socialism, Nationalized Time: Soviet Films, Albanian Subjects, and Chinese Audiences across the Sino-Soviet Split”, Slavic Review vol. 77, no. 3, Fall 2018, pp. 611-637 (p. 614).
Of course, the Chinese socialist graphic tradition had in turn been influenced by the earlier Woodcut Movement (see: Xiaobing Tang, Origins of the Chinese Avant-garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), but this is precisely the point: the circulation of images in transnational socialist exchanges produced new trajectories of influence that were not always singular or linear. It is difficult to tell, in the Albanian context, how much the influence of East Asian art was explicit and how much was passive, unacknowledged. The latter seems to have been the case, and in my contemporary interviews with artists from the time (including Llambi Blido, Kujtim Buza, and Ksenofon Dilo) they deny that Chinese Socialist Realism had any meaningful influence on Albanian art. I think this sharp stance is the result of a xenophobia that both reveals the limitations of socialist exchange at the time, and shows how much effort has been put into advancing a post-socialist narrative that denies any influence from the ‘East’.
Muntaz Dhrami’s monuments in Peza are particularly emblematic of this aesthetic, I think.
See: Raino Isto, “The Dictator Visits the Studio: The Vlora Independence Monument and the Politics of Albanian Monumental Sculpture, 1962-1972”, Third Text vol. 32, no. 3, 2018, pp. 500-518 (pp. 505-508). On collective artistic production in China, see: Christine I. Ho, “The People Eat for Free and the Art of Collective Production in Maoist China”, The Art Bulletin vol. 98, no. 3, 2016, pp. 348-372.
See: Matthew Cullerne Bown, Socialist Realist Painting, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 387-395, and – on the “contemporary style” – Susan Reid, “Modernizing Socialist Realism in the Khrushchev Thaw: The Struggle for a ‘Contemporary Style’ in Soviet Art”, in Polly Jones, ed., The Dilemmas of de-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era, New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 209-230.
“Vepra të frymëzuara nga realiteti ynë socialist”, Zëri i Popullit, 28 October 1971. According to this report, the exhibition contained 184 artworks by 142 different artists.
Andon Kuqali, qtd. in “Diskutim krijues mbi ekspozitën kombëtare të arteve figurative”, Drita, 5 December 1971.
Llambi Blido, qtd. in ibid.
Dhimo Gogollari, qtd. in ibid.
Skënder Milori, qtd. in ibid.
Vilson Kilica, qtd. in ibid.
Skënder Milori, qtd. in ibid.
Vilson Kilica, qtd. in ibid.
Kujtim Buza, qtd. in ibid.
Dhimitër Shuteriqi, qtd. in ibid.
Kilica, qtd. in ibid. 47 Andon Kuqali, “Shprehëse, por edhe eklektike”, Drita, 19 December 1971, and Kuqali, “Hovet e realizmit socialist”.
Kuqali, “Hovet e realizmit socialist”, p. 65.
On Abdurrahim Buza, see: Ferid Hudhri, Arti i Rilindjes Shqiptare, Tirana: Onufri, 2000, pp. 35-41, 218, and Abdurrahim Buza: Piktor i Popullit, Tirana: Galeria e Arteve Figurative, 1980
“Diskutim krijues mbi disa tabllo”, Drita, 5 March 1972.
Skënder Kamberi, qtd. in ibid.
Sali Shijaku, qtd. in ibid.
Ermir Hoxha, Historia e Artit Shqiptar, p. 204.
Ksenofon Dilo, qtd. in “Diskutim krijues mbi disa tabllo”.
Foto Stamo, qtd. in ibid.
Moikom Zeqo, “Ekspozita I e pranverës”, Nëndori no. 7, July 1972, pp. 202-206 (p. 203).
Hasan Nallbani, “Ekspozita e pranverës e arteve figurative”, Drita, 11 June 1972.
“Diskutim krijues mbi ekspozitën e pranverës të arteve figurative”, Drita, 9 July 1972.
Lec Shkreli, qtd. in ibid.
Hektor Dule, qtd. in ibid.
Kuqali, qtd. in ibid.
Nallbani, “Ekspozita e pranverës”.
Kuqali, qtd. in “Diskutim krijues mbi ekspozitën e pranverë”.
Kuqali, qtd. in ibid, and Kuqali, “Me një synim”, p. 10.
Kuqali, “Me një synim”, p. 10; and Zeqo, “Ekspozita I”, p. 203.
Kuqali, “Me një synim”, p. 10.
Stamo, qtd. in “Diskutim krijues mbi ekspozitën e pranverës”.
Reid, p. 209. 69 Andon Kuqali, “Art dhe revizionistë: shënime për artin sovjetik të viteve të fundit”, Nëndori no. 5, May 1971, pp. 94-112.
I have not found a translation of Nina Dmitrieva’s specific essay published in Albanian, but it is worth noting that other texts by Dmitrieva were translated. One of the most ironic instances was the fact that – in 1961 – Dmitrieva’s text on Chinese painter Qi Baishi was published in part, in translation, in Drita – effectively translating the analysis of Chinese art history through Soviet interpretation at a time when relations with the Soviet Union in Albania were coming definitively to a close. See: Nina Dmitrieva, “Midis ngjashmërisë dhe pangjashmërisë”, Drita, 14 May 1961.
Reid, pp. 214-215, 226.
Reid, p. 224.
Reid, pp. 224-226.
Kuqali, “Me një synim”, p. 11.
Kuqali, “Me një synim”, p. 3.
On the Red Guard exhibitions and art, see: Julia F. Andrews, “The Art of the Cultural Revolution”, in Richard King, ed., Art in Turmoil, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010, pp. 28-31; and Winnie Tsang, “Building National Narrative: The Red Guard Art Exhibitions and the National Exhibitions in the Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-1976”, Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture vol. 3, no. 1, 2014, pp. 118-131.
Edi Hila, “Paradoxical Realism”, in Edi Hila: Painter of Transformation, p. 37
See: Dritëro Agolli, “Antologji artistike e rinisë”, and Gjergji Marko, “Në rrugën e formimit”, both in Drita, 18 June 1989.