Shadows of Hands, or, The Dictator Born From the Sign: Brief Comments on the Representation of Enver Hoxha’s Body in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare

As part of a recent project, “Talking Back to Dictators: Reading Art and Culture In, Through, and Against the Writings of the Great Leaders,” I’ve been spending more time thinking about representations of dictatorial bodies—and particularly the body of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator. This observation grew out of this research. As always, thoughts are welcome!

In this brief essay, I would like to nuance a commonly made observation about the representation of Enver Hoxha in paintings produced during his regime, namely: that he does not cast a shadow. This observation, on the whole, is quite accurate, and my purpose is not to dismiss it, nor to suggest that it does not raise a plethora of important questions about the material and metaphysical status of the body of the dictator. However—like all good observations—it is not absolutely true, and I think we may learn just as much by looking at these cases in which it is not true. In particular, I want to consider the significance of the shadow cast by Hoxha’s hand in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare [Comrade Enver Hoxha During the National Liberation War], of 1974 (originally in the Museum of the Ministry of Internal Affairs; I am unaware of its current location).

Before I discuss Kristo’s painting, however, I want to begin by considering how the phenomenon of Hoxha’s immateriality manifests itself in Albanian socialist realist painting. Let us a classic image of Hoxha: Zef Shoshi’s official portrait, which was frequently reproduced in official publications, especially in the editions of Hoxha’s writings. In Shoshi’s image, Hoxha sits at his desk, dressed in his familiar grey suit and red tie. Hoxha’s upper body forms a stable pyramid, his hands resting gently—weightlessly—on the surface of his desk, which holds a number of carefully placed and clearly delineated administrative accessories. We come upon Hoxha as he is about to write: his right hand holds a pen to a blank sheet of white paper laid out before him on the desk. He appears either deep in thought or else suddenly distracted: his gaze looks out of the image to our right, missing us. The moment is uncertain: is he composing the first word of a letter, an official memorandum, an entry in his diary, mapping out the text in his mind before he begins to write? Or has he been distracted by some stray thought, some sound, perhaps even by the entrance of someone who has come in behind us to bring news to the Dictator of the Proletariat. In either case, Hoxha’s poise is exemplary: his face betrays neither the strain of thought nor surprise. His eyes are open and attentive, their darkness in contrast to the muted grays of his suit, hair and the wall behind him drawing us to ponder the purpose behind his look. On the desk before him, his left hand gently holds the upper left corner of the page in place, while his right hand rests just as gently upon the paper, holding a pen close to the surface of the center of the sheet.zef shoshi_enver_hoxha

In no small part, the perceived weightlessness of Hoxha’s figure comes from the fact that he casts no shadow. True, the light that bathes the room comes from no definable source (though it illuminates the right side of the dictator’s face more than the left), but nonetheless there is no trace of a shadow cast on the wall behind Hoxha, either by his body or his chair. Furthermore, at the point where Hoxha’s hand meets the paper, pen gripped firmly and purposefully, there is only the vaguest hint of a darkening in the white surface of the paper. Even at the very edges of Hoxha’s right hand, Shoshi’s soft and meticulous shading gives virtually no hint that the dictator’s hand exists as a material form obeying the laws of illumination. That Hoxha casts no shadow places him in a world apart from us, either more or less real than ours (or both at the same time).[1]

This is, undoubtedly, the standard for images of Hoxha produced during his regime: a brief survey of portraits and history paintings by Vilson Kilica, Sali Shijaku, Shaban Hysa, Kujtim Buza, and others will confirm that Hoxha never casts a shadow. Or doesn’t he? The first thing to be said, an issue I think is extremely important but which I do not wish to dwell upon here, is that figures in socialist realist paintings more often than not do not cast shadows in general.[2] Thus, Hoxha is part of a general rule. However, it is more fruitful to consider the counterexamples that prove this rule, one of which is Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare (1974). Here, we see Hoxha as a young commander,[3] presumably in the headquarters of the resistance: he stands at left, a map at his back and a table before him, where his left hand rests on yet another map. A rifle and binoculars hang on the grey wall to his left, and documents, a lamp, an ashtray, and notebooks clutter the surface of the table. The lighting here is once again quite vague, but the source clearly comes from the upper right side of the canvas, high over both our and Hoxha’s heads (not at all from the lamp at the desk). The map on the table disappears out of the frame at lower right, while its bottom edge is folded over the edge of the table against which Hoxha stands. A magnifying glass rests on the map, and black and red arrows mark the movements of the occupiers and the resistance. Hoxha holds a red pencil in his right hand, lax, while his left is firmly planted on the map, at a swirling cluster of arrows (presumably near Tirana). And there is the shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_1

It is slight, let us make no mistake, but also distinct: here, at the tips of Hoxha’s fingers, Kristo has used the deepest black found in the image, present in only a few other places (the black arrows on the map, a few folds of Hoxha’s shirt, the shadows in his hair…). The shadow is quite necessary aesthetically, for it differentiates the flesh of Hoxha’s hand from the colors on the relief map. At the same time, it accentuates the tips of his fingers, which end the dynamic diagonal downward movement of his straightened left arm; the fingers are pressed so firmly against the map that their joints bend inversely, the index finger concavely and the knuckle of the middle and ring fingers convexly. Even the tip of his thumb, pressed to the map, casts a small but distinct dark shadow. If the hand, and its shadow, are necessary to link Hoxha’s monumental body to the map itself, this is also the case because his gaze (in some ways, similar to Shoshi’s portrait) is not focused on the surface before him, but gazes off the right side of the canvas, looking at something we cannot see. As above, Hoxha seems to pause suddenly in the midst of an action, caught up in thought, looking at nothing. Here, however, his body is anchored to the map, and it takes on a material aspect through its connection to the map, where it casts a shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_2

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_3

            Why the map? I want to argue that Kristo’s emphasis of Hoxha’s hand as a material object touching the map is not accidental. What Kristo depicts is the becoming-material of Hoxha’s body in the presence of the representation of Albania. If we place the image alongside a host of paintings in which Hoxha’s feet, planted firmly upon the soil of the fatherland, cast no shadow, the significance will become clearer. The dictator does not become material when his feet touch the earth, he becomes material out of that most simulacral of simulacra: the map of the territory that does not yet exist (the future socialist ‘utopia’ of Albania). In this case, we might say that it is the map that precedes the dictator: out of the swirling represented motion of troops on the map, out of the flat surface made to mimic dimension, Hoxha emerges as something tangible. He is not simply historicized (his role in the war made the key element of the so-called National Liberation War [WWII]); his ‘reality’ (in the haptic sense) is a function not of the nation itself (whatever that might mean), but of the sign for the territory of the nation. is existence becomes material not at the level of interaction with everyday objects so much as at the level of meta-representations of the world. Kristo’s painting, and his depiction of the dictator’s hand with its shadow, gives us a glimpse of Hoxha taking material form in the higher realm of maps, the realm of surfaces and images that precedes our own.

Is it any wonder that amongst us, before us, at his desk about to write, he casts no shadow?

[1] For one discussion of the metaphysical significance of Hoxha’s body and the realm of appearances, see Gëzim Qëndro, Le surréalisme socialiste: L’autopsie de l’utopie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013).

[2] Stylistically, this is no doubt in part due to the tremendous debt owed to Impressionism, where intense light and dark give way to light as pure colors. This cannot of course fully explain the ideological significance of a world without shadows.

[3] This is also, I think, important: we see Hoxha here before his apotheosis: he is nothing superhuman, or beyond human, quite yet. Of course many images depictng Hoxha in the war years show him without a shadow. Some however, like this one and Guri Madhi’s Formimi i Shtabit të Përgjithshëm, portray parts of his body casting a shadow.

1 thought on “Shadows of Hands, or, The Dictator Born From the Sign: Brief Comments on the Representation of Enver Hoxha’s Body in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare”

  1. Brilliant. I love that idea. Enver casting no shadow. Reading Kadare one has the impression of someone who can alter time and space. His wings flap slowly, and malignly, over the people of Tirana. Your analysis adds to the Kadare image.


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