Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës and the Metaphysics of Albanian Socialist Realist Painting

The first in a series of posts in which I haphazardly analyze several of the incredible socialist realist paintings I looked at (chiefly in reproduction) and thought about this summer in Albania. First up is Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës [Voice of the Masses], 1974


The innovative aspect of this painting is not that its author invited several other people into the studio, and depicted them alongside the painter. Its innovative, and national, character comes from the fact that it incorporates [class-]conscious workers, that their thoughts and their ideology are included within it. …the image’s novel quality stems from the artist’s attitude towards the working class and towards our new reality.” –Kristaq Rama, “Tablotë e Gjera të Jetës dhe Heroi Pozitiv në Artet Figurative,” Nëndori, May 1977, pgs. 227-228

Let us, for the moment, take Rama at his word, and accept that insofar as Shijaku’s painting represents an innovation, a new comportment towards artistic creation that accords itself to the ideological framework of the socialist ‘New Life,’ it does so because at its conceptual and compositional center stands the worker. This, of course, leaves open the question that Rama’s essay–which takes Zëri i Masës [Voice of the Masses], 1974, as its point of inception–never fully answers. Namely, what is the relationship between art, the working class and ‘our new reality’ as it actually appears in the painting? On the one hand, we must keep in mind that this ambiguity was not only endemic to the criticism of the socialist realist period in Albania, but was in fact an integral part of its functioning; it was just such an ambiguity that allowed the idea of ‘reality’ to remain so nebulous and elusive. At the same time we must accept that the socialist realist system possessed a great sense for metaphor, for the discovery of concrete hidden meanings–that is, it understood the possibility that the signs of subversive, revisionist ideology could appear anywhere, at any time, and thus that a heightened hermeneutical  sensitivity was always necessary, especially when encountering works of art. Thus, no matter how superficial Rama’s critical treatment of a work like Zëri i Masës  must seem at first glance, this should not prevent us from approaching the work as a complex system of meanings, and from accepting that that this complexity would have characterized the work in the context in which it was created and viewed. Of course, there is a right way to view and understand the painting–that is precisely what Rama’s description gives us–but that right way is not as reductivist as it might seem, for it involves  understanding how the totality of the painting’s diverse threads of meaning are to be united in the correct aesthetic comportment towards the new Albanian socialist reality.

To begin with, let me plainly state my argument: Zëri i Masës  depicts a system that encompasses the creation and reception of works of Albanian socialist realism. It describes a hierarchy of the materialization of ideas as well as of modes of perception and contemplation. In the depiction of this system, it engages with certain well-known tropes from the history of painting (the representation of the interior of the artist’s studio, of the creative process, of the absorbed reception of art, and of the blank back of the canvas, for example). One could say that Shijaku simply adapts these tropes to the conditions of socialist Albania, and to a certain extent this is true (which of course does not make the work any less important and informative as a document of that ideological territory). However, in keeping with Rama’s insistence that the work represents an innovation, I wish to proceed on the assumption that Shijaku has not merely changed certain thematic elements to make the painting at home in its political-historical context, but has in fact attempted to introduce a new structure–which is not to say that this structure is wholly innovative or without precedent, but rather that endemic to this structure is the production and sustenance of the new reality. The work does this by playing upon the same kinds of ambiguity that characterize Rama’s critical appraisal of the painting, by revealing the origin and reception of its reality without ever attempting to reflect or depict the reality itself. In this way, the work is perhaps one of the most honest works of Albanian socialist realism (a description that I will qualify below, for it certainly demands qualification), and one of the most successful, in that it understands the reality of socialist realism to be, as Dobrenko puts it, the image of production of socialist reality itself. In other words, the painting is a machine that produces socialist reality by showing the inner workings of the production of socialist reality.

At the center stands the worker, but for the time being we need merely note that the painting has a center, that all the elements and movements that make up the work as a whole take up their places around this center (which is, I will argue, not necessarily the only ‘center’ of the work in a phenomenological sense). So let us set aside the worker, caught mid-sentence, not because his role in the painting is merely formal (necessitated, for example, by the aesthetic demand for centrality in socialist realism) but because we will not fully understand his role until we examine the other elements of the painting.

There are, I think, two major movements in the painting. The first is a kind of ebb and flow that centers on the worker and his gesticulation, reflecting his own oratory back at him and then spinning it back out into the small groups of onlookers, and even into the canvas itself, seen only from the back. The second movement is the more quintessentially metaphysical one, the one that moves from the top of the canvas to the bottom and that, at first glance, seems to represent the movement from abstract ideas to concrete materializations of socialist reality. (There is also an element of the movement from the past to the present, to which I will return below.) Both movements pass through the worker, and as such he functions as the medium through which they become tangible and comprehensible to the viewer. However, both also ultimately draw the viewer’s attention down to the lower left of the painting, to the back of the painting that the onlookers are gathered to contemplate and discuss. Since the front of the canvas remains a mystery, it is left to the viewer to (re)construct the content of the work from the reactions and attitudes of the depicted viewers. The unseen painting within the painting thus functions as a second center, absorbing the viewer into its ambiguous space (since it occupies more than a quarter of the work) and then redirecting her attention back to the various modes of attention modelled by the onlookers in the studio. These onlookers display various levels of engagement with both the painting and the worker-orator at center. Two on the right (one of whom has a copy of Drita, the weekly publication of the Union of Writers and Artists, shoved in his back pocket, revealing a literary and ideological preparation to engage with works of art) gaze raptly back towards the worker who is speaking. Some of those to the left seem absorbed in their own activity, such as the man lighting a cigarette, while others either look to the worker, to the canvas at lower left , or–in one case–stare directly out of the painting. The artist himself stands unmoving just to the right of the speaking worker, his gaze fixed on the work that he has, presumably, just completed. His lowered hands, one holding his palette and the other his brushes, offer a counterpoint to the expressive gesture of the worker’s hands, and together the two suggest a definite parallelism: there is expression to be found in the work of the hands of both the artist and the laborer, both produce the kind of meaning that ecstatically pours forth (through the mysterious concealed image and through the worker’s narration) by means of gesture. Finally, at the lower right sits another worker, this one seemingly wholly absorbed in the contemplation of the canvas, his face cradled by a hand in turn braced upon his knee in an undeniably classical pose.

There is a sort of triangle formed by the central worker–the orator–the second worker–the contemplator–and the looming back of the canvas. In a certain sense, the canvas forms a second center to the painting. It not only conceptually anchors the gathering of figures in Zëri i Masës , it also visually holds sway over all other elements present, drawing the eye to its broad brown swath, even occluding part of the central worker’s body with its corner. Above all, the blank back of the canvas creates an air of mystery that pervades the experience of the painting: one wonders what is depicted on its surface. The final version of one of the sketches found on the wall behind the figures (one sketch, complete with color, is of Shijaku’s famous Vojo Kushi, another recalls his painting of Mt. Dajti)? Some other scene entirely? Perhaps even a depiction of the very people present in the room? (For one possibility is that the hidden canvas is a double of the work we are in the process of viewing, creating an infinite loop of viewing that includes both the viewer and all those present in the scene.)

The back of the canvas, placed so far forward in the scene, serves in some way to block off the space depicted within the work from the space of the viewer, but in doing so also employs the well-worn strategy of drawing the viewer into the work by just such a impediment. At the same time, the placement of the canvas (nearly, but not quite, reaching to the bottom of the painting) contributes to the hierarchical arrangement of space mentioned above, which maps the flow from ideas to their concrete materialization along the axis from the top of the painting to its bottom edge, which in turn suggests the transition to our space. At the uppermost level, the level of the artist’s sketches mounted on the wall, is the realm of ideas. The world of ideas is indistinct–devoid of color except in the case of the brilliant red and black of Vojo Kushi–and amorphous. Several different scenes form the white register, as if this ideal realm was coterminous with the artist’s mind. However, since the artist is not the central figure, I think it unlikely that the upper register of the painting merely offers a psychological snapshot, an inventory of creative ideas present for the artist, waiting to be (more) fully realized. Instead, I think that the upper level of the painting is meant to represent the metaphysical primacy of the images portrayed, and it is significant for this primacy that they are linked to the past. Images of war heroes (Vojo Kushi), of partisans, of the mountainous terrain of Albania itself: these images form part of a realm of primordial myth that both acts as the foundation for and is transformed by the ‘new reality.’ This transformation occurs through the artist, but his action alone is not sufficient to establish the full significance of the new reality–his bringing it to vision does not suffice to make it a part of the New Life. (This, I think, is one reason why we do not, and need not, see whether or not the images the artist has sketched find themselves realized on the canvas.)

Below the realm of myths and ideas is the space of the painter’s studio, where the motley group described above are gathered. In some cases (such as the man at far left) the transition between the sheet with the artist’s sketches and the figures present in the studio seems sufficiently ambiguous to warrant the assumption that there is an intentional and significant spatial bridge between the two; certain figures seem to occupy both spaces, or to be emerging from the upper space into the middle space (whose ambiguous flatness also suggests its continuity with the paper hung on the wall behind). It is in this middle space that the worker first enters the painting (and with him, Rama argues, his ideology and worldview, giving the work its revolutionary quality). Even the centrality of the worker who is explicating the canvas before him, however, cannot compete with the movement that draws the viewer’s attention down to the back of the canvas and, at the same time, over and down to the worker who silently contemplates the canvas.

As I have argued above, it is this third space or register that is meant to most closely relate to ‘our’ space. What is closest to us is most ‘real’–although I also want to suggest that it is meant to be more ‘real’ than us (a point I will return to below). Since we cannot see what is depicted on the canvas, we must default not only to the worker-orator at center, but also to the worker seated at lower right. In fact, if anything, we are more directly tied to this worker, since he models, in his rapt contemplation, the comportment towards the canvas that–presumably–we are meant to hold towards Zëri i Masës .

If the worker at lower right (who is also the final point of a sweeping diagonal beginning from the floating bust of the man at upper left), is meant to model our own engagement with the work (with a work of socialist realism in general), it is also important to note that his absorption in the work is not merely visual. After all, the very title of the painting–Voice of the Masses–reminds us that Shijaku’s painting is also about listening. Here again Shijaku references a rich tradition of images of people absorbed in listening (to music, to speech), and at the same time he creates an inner world for the worker who gazes at the canvas. This inner world is not one already populated with ideas and emotions; instead it is a world that exists only in relation to the prior to levels (the realm of ideas and the realm of the studio). (Here, we might observe, is the production of the space of the socialist subject, who can then be filled in with the ideological substance of the more metaphysically primary levels–not, we must say, with the substance of his own ‘world’).

To encounter a work of socialist realism–and thus to encounter socialist reality–the worker at right shows us, is both to look and to listen, to be shown and to be told. One need only consider the significant role played by radio and television, by speeches, in the life of citizens of socialist Albania to understand the phenomenological situation that Shijaku has translated into a strictly visual medium.

Allow me to restate some of the principal points outlined above, and hopefully to clarify my thesis about how Shijaku’s painting works as a paradigm of socialist realism. Put simply, and perhaps too bluntly, the painting shows that to understand reality is both to contemplate it and to listen to the explanation of what reality is. The image depicted upon the canvas is not just a mystery to us–it is also, insofar as we viewers imagine it is some recognizable scene of socialist life or history–but it is also superfluous in an important sense to the process Shijaku is depicting. This is what is most radical–and most honest–about Zëri i Masës : in this innovative example of socialist realism (if we take Rama’s description to be accurate) the artist has shown the futulity of comparing art to reality, as if we could examine the completed canvas with an eye towards its correspondence to some element of lived experience. Such an encounter with the image would be futile not because no such correspondence exists, but because we would learn little about the ‘new reality’ from such an encounter. The artist has chosen instead to show the new reality as a reality of mechanisms, the mechanisms of the metaphysics of aesthetic creation and interpretation. The reality of the painting is that it depicts the artistic process–both practical, in the sense of the physical production of the artwork in the space of the studio, and metaphysical, in the sense of the relationship between nascent ideas and myths and their materialization in the artwork–that gives rise to works of socialist realism. This artistic process is both visual and auditory, and it is both conceptual and ideological in addition to these aesthetic aspects. The outcome of this process is not simply the work of art depicted in the image but, by metaphorical extension, the whole ‘new reality’ occupied by the viewer.

I said at the outset that Shijaku’s painting was one of the most honest examples of socialist realism. I hope it has become clearer what I mean by this: that the work frankly depicts the production of a reality, its imposition and ideological strengthening, its genesis through different levels of metaphysical and ideological clarity to arrive in the world of the ‘new reality.’ Its truth is that the image of that reality is the image of image production, contemplation, and interpretation. To reflect this reality is not to reflect a finished object, but to reflect the mechanisms by which a viewer is produced who knows the ‘right way’ to encounter the world, to understand the interplay of authority and ideolgy as reality.


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