A Style and a Half or Half a Style?: Modernism, Socialist Realism, and Postmodernism in Albanian Art

Vilson Kilica realist? Më 1960 ai ishte një nga themeluesit e Institutit të Lartë të Arteve, të cilin ai e drejtoi. Në ateljenë e tij, një portret i presidentit të vjetër Hoxha tregon që ai di t’i pikturojë gjërat ashtu siç janë, por të gjitha vepra të tjera të tij afirmojnë vizionin e pastër dhe subjektiv të botës. Dhe për të, arti është një problem individual, e në asnjë mënyrë kolektiv. Herezi? [Vilson Kilica, a realist? In 1960, he was one of the founders of the Institute of Arts, for which he served as director. In his atelier, a portrait of the former president Hoxha shows that he knows how to paint things as they are, but all his other works affirm a pure and subjective vision of the world. For him, art is an individual problem, in no way a collective one. Is this heresy?]—Denis Picard, in Connaissance des Arts, 1990[1]

Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993
Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993

Among Boris Groys’ most famous formulations is that of socialist realism as “a style and a half,” occupying a middle position between the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century and the postmodernist ironic eclecticism of the latter part of the century.[2] Indeed, reading Groys—still probably the most oft-cited Western theorist of socialist realism—one has the impression that the acceptance of socialist realism [hereafter: socrealism] as a legitimate subject of study is based firmly (and solely) upon its role as theoretical, political, and visual fodder for the subsequent Moscow conceptualists and heroes of Sots Art. Groys’ analysis of socrealism has been the subject of a number of critiques, both in terms of its reading of the relationship between the avant-garde and socrealism and its reading of the relationship between socrealism and postmodernism, and my purpose is neither to summarize these critiques nor to add to them. Rather, I would like to pose a question that might seem to some to be straightforward and  even retrograde: What can we say about Modernism after Socrealism—in the case of Albania in particular? In a history of styles, how do we do justice to modernist paintings done in the wake of the system of socrealism? How does socrealism change the relationship between modernism and postmodernism? Is such a ‘belated’ modernism[3] a style and a half? Half a style?

Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004
Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004

The corpus I want to understand is not so much those ‘modernist’ paintings done in Albania during the period of socialist control, during which socrealism as the mandated style—and which were often ether condemned or kept secret, but which in some cases were celebrated as exemplars of socialist art. Instead, I am concerned with how we might understand the art (and in this case, I am most concerned with painting) created in the late 1980s (after Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985), the 90s, and the early 2000s that might be described as ‘modernist,’ much of it created by artists who began their careers as socrealists. (I use the term ‘modernist’ here in the vaguest and most uncritical sense, as a descriptor for art that tends towards abstraction [though it is still often figurative]; is concerned with formal experimentation more than content; and often embraces subjectivity or universality, or both in spite of their apparent contradictions.) What can we say about this art and its stylistic significance? What do we say about Zef Shoshi’s (seemingly unending) images of Zadrimoret ? About Vilson Kilica’s colorful surrealist landscapes? The question will, no doubt, be uninteresting to many readers, and I should like to elaborate some of the potential objections to this investigation, if only to make it clear what I am not concerned with understanding or criticizing. First, of course, one could ask: what is the use of trying to fit a belated, post-socrealist, pre-postmoderist modernism into a history of styles anyway? Hasn’t the history of styles long been an implicit enemy of the study of non-Western modernisms (and even of early-20th-century American modernisms), since it often inevitably privileges teleological narratives of the purification of stylistic paradigms (in regions where artists nearly always mixed the most diverse styles), not to mention continually drifting close to the trap of tying visual properties to ideological schemas in stable systems? Aren’t we art historians well and truly done with such a formalist enterprise, and aren’t we better off for it?

The answer, I think, is no on both accounts. I will not fully elaborate all of the reasons for the continued relevance of this question here, but one is of particular significance here: the history of styles is a global history, and it is a history of abstract ideas as much as of localized agencies, forces, and differences. The well-founded critique of the global history of styles is that, at best, it misses the specificities of the local and, at worst, it subsumes local specificities to dominant (Western) paradigms. Unfortunately, this critique often takes the form of a call for histories ‘radical contextualized,’ which both assumes that such contexts are actually and significantly present for particular works of art and often paradoxically implies that the only way to recover the importance of marginalized art histories is to discuss them on a political, social, and visual level almost totally divorced from that of the global history of styles.[4] Insofar as I am quite interested in the specificity of the Albanian case, I am here also interested in using it to help tell a much broader story about the temporal emergence of modernism and its possible chronological positions in a history of styles.

The second objection (or set of objections) that might be raised to the investigation of post-socrealism Albanian modernism as modernism is that this approach 1) heroizes modernism as the escape from the artificial confinements placed on painting under the socrealist system;[5] 2) perpetuates the idea of a country like Albania as ‘behind’ in the global cultural trajectory, since it has only recently produced modernist painting; 3) [the implicit corollary to the previous objection] reveals that there is nothing much of interest in such painting from a stylistic point of view, since it only repeats what has been done before elsewhere (at best it is significant in a ‘radically contextualized’ political-artistic history;[6] and 4) devotes too much attention to a (be)late(d) modernism and ignores the very real work to be done on modernist painting in Albania before the advent of socrealism. Against this set of objections I have little to say except that they represent points of views and approaches that are not immediately of interest to me. What I am interested in is the possibility of discussing modernism as something ancillary to socrealism in both a chronological and a conceptual sense, something that builds upon socrealism rather than being distorted or erased by it. Furthermore, I am interested in thinking more critically about how modernism-after-socrealism might continue to serve a real stylistic political function in a time when critical attention is more squarely focused on both ‘postmodern’ and ‘contemporary’ art.[7]

Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008
Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008

I doubt that many would insist that modernism (or, let me say for the moment, Modernism) is insignificant in the current and recent Albanian political context (and argue instead that the Albanian politico-cultural context is purely ‘postmodern’). Modernism’s current relevance—both stylistically and philosophically—is continually reaffirmed by debates surrounding public aesthetic policy in Albania, from the designs for the 2012 Monument to the Anniversary of Independence, to the aesthetics of projects like Bunk’Art, to Edi Rama’s own state-as-a-work-of-art political paradigm. No amount of metacommentary (of the kind, for example, represented by Anri Sala’s documentation of Rama’s projects) can completely displace recent examples of public art from the realm of modernist aesthetics into the realm of postmodernist post-aesthetics.

However, I hope that my present argument amounts to saying more than “We—or at least, Albanians—are still in Modernism; we never escaped it” (a decidedly unsatisfactory assertion at best). The traditional art historical trajectory sees the formalist concerns of modernist painting (as abstract expressionism, or as art informel, for example) in terms of an escape from the explicitly political contexts of the wars and subsequent totalitarian states, and a new kind of traditional reading of socrealism credits its explicit politicization of aesthetics with the postmodernist realization that ‘everything is political.’[8] What would it mean, however, to set alongside those general accounts of stylistic trajectories, and to take seriously, these three propositions: 1) Socrealism (as a realism) can predate modernism.[9] Alternately, it can come into being as an early, embryonic form of modernism rather than a late one; it can be “half a style” and not only “a style and a half.” 2) Positioned at in the earlier stages of modernism, socrealism is not so much partially responsible for the political awareness of postmodernism as it is partially responsible for the political awareness of later forms of modernism. In other words, it is not simply that socrealism inherits the philosophies of the avant-garde: it also forges the avant-garde. 3) With and in contrast to 2), socrealism doesn’t just help to create the collective, politically-aware positions that characterize some postmodern artistic practices; it also helps create the possibility of the modern artist as individual creative subject. This creative subject can be alternately conceived as radically political (a politician-artist like Edi Rama being a [perhaps worn out but still quite accurate] prime example), or as apolitical and ‘free’ from social pressures. This third proposition in effect reverses the implicit logic of Denis Picard’s quotation used to introduce my essay: there (in quite a cliché manner, but that does not mean it is any less critically relevant) the “pure and subjective” vision of art as an “individual problem” is considered primary, and any “collective” distortions are subsequent. Instead, let us entertain the possibility that socialist realism does not construct a collective aesthetic epistemology (for example, by effacing, subjugating, and distorting a more primordial individual artistic subject-position), but instead generates the individual subject, and with it the style of the individual artist, as something secondary.[10] Thus, the modern (or Modern) artist is the supplement of socrealism, not the reverse. Socrealism is not always something added on en route to postmodernism; sometimes it is modernism that is added on.

This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly precisely the claim of socrealism in Albania: the collective made possible the individual aesthetic personality of the artist. Kujtim Buza states it most clearly:

Në qoftë se M. Dhrami realizoi me sukses skulpturën “Lart frymën revolucionare”, K. Rama “Shote Galicën”, H. Dule kompozimin “Brez pas brezi”, Sh. Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut”, etj., kjo ndodi sepse personaliteti i tyre krijues u poq në mes të kolektivit, u farkëtua në shkollën e madhe të kolektivit. [If Muntas Dhrami successfully created the sculpture “Lart frymën revolucionare”, Kristaq Rama the work”Shote Galica,” Hektor Dule the work “Brez pas brezi,” Shaban Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut,” etc., this happened because their creative personalities matured in the midst of the collective, were forged in the great school of the collective.][11]

To a certain extent, taking seriously the model I have suggested here amounts to a structuralist reading of art history, where modernism and postmodernism always exist as stylistically or thematically distinct possibilities that need not conform to any teleological progression. I am certainly not opposed to such a framework, and I think it moves beyond certain teleologies that—no matter how much we insist they have been debunked—still guide the writing of 20th-century art history. However, I also want to suggest—in my use of the Derridean vocabulary of the ‘supplement’—that a reassessment of the chronology of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism does more than enrich our understanding of a structure: it also destabilizes and redoubles a set of conceptual and aesthetic categories that (and here the ‘radical contextualization’ will slip back in) have too often been considered primarily in the context of Western Europe, Russia, and/or America, and only secondarily (supplementarily) in places like the Balkans. This destabilization might result in a fresh set of questions regarding the presence or absence (read: the interiority or exteriority) of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism to each other both in the 20th century and in the 21st—questions that the chronological placement of socrealism as “a style and a half” cannot ask. What would it mean to write socialist realism as the effaced origin of a (be)late(d) Modernism, and to see that Modernism as interwoven throughout every attempt to go beyond it, every postmodernism? In this context, I think we might find a new significance in the (both valorized and decried) colorful geometric landscapes, abstract partial torsos, and Fauvist folk scenes of Albanian modernist art in the decades around the turn of this century.

Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009
Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009

This might seem a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, but I mean the previous discussion as an incitement to discussion rather than a definitive statement—not least because it seems that relatively little has been said about the (allegedly naïve, at worst hopelessly kitsch) emergence of modernism[12] in the past three decades in countries like Albania. Allow me to close—with a sort of footnote—by returning to Groys, who refers to the work of the Russian ‘postmodernists’ as “post-utopian,” suggesting that the utopia envisioned by the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde was ‘realized’ in a sense by socrealism, and that contemporary artists work in this fallout. Something in this implies (although I do not think this is Groys’ point) a spatio-temporal incompatibility between the failure (or the end) of utopia and the practice of modernist aesthetics…as if modernism can only prefigure utopia and all that comes after utopia is either ‘postmodern’ or ‘contemporary.’[13]  If the interior of the body of Modernism continually—and absolutely—reforms itself, why not consider the utopian dreams of socrealism yet another block of ‘becoming-Modern’? What kind of temporality would we have to conceptualize to envision stylistic modernism after utopia?

[1] Qtd. in Vilson Kilica: Një Jetë në Krijimtari (Tirana: Studio Kilica, 2012), 10.

[2] See Groys, “A Style and a Half: Socialist Realism Between Modernism and Postmodernism,” in Socialist Realism Without Shores, ed. Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 76-90. Of course, Groys is quite explicit that socrealism is a modernism, albeit one “of a very particular kind” (76). Thus, the significance of socrealism is also argued based upon its realization of particular principles inherent to modernism and the modern project or experience more broadly.

[3] I use the term ‘belated’ with a great sense of aversion and caution, but I think it is appropriate. While I think the term is often misplaced in discussing developments in Eastern European art of the (earlier) 20th century, there is a sense in which any modernist art coming in the final decades of the century (to say nothing of the 21st) is ‘belated’ not in the sense that it comes after the same developments have occurred elsewhere, but that it comes after developments that elsewhere, it preceded. For example, if it is generally the case that socrealism grew out of and ultimately against modernism, what can we say about modernism that grows out of socrealism and ultimately against postmodernism?

[4] These are, of course, extreme positions, and they most certainly should not imply either that all those who seek ‘radical contextualization’ adhere to these ideas, nor that ‘radical contextualization’ is unhelpful. It is. However, as an art historical strategy, it often displays an aversion to overarching discussions of style that are still helpful in understanding art history in the longer view. After all, it is not necessarily likely that subsequent histories of the 20th and 21st centuries will see the shift from modernism to postmodernism as we do, or even that they will see them as distinctly as we do.

[5] The quotation at the beginning of this essay is emblematic of this heroization of painters as ‘modernist’ (as opposed to ‘realist’.

[6] The implication being that one misses out on what is being done by actually innovative artists if one focuses on those who merely uncritically repeat or dabble in earlier paradigms. This may be true, but it is far more convincing from an aesthetic/art-critical standpoint, and less so from one that attempts to theorize as inclusive a history as possible. The more problematic side of this objection is when it also carries the implication that what we can all agree on is that such belated (or worse, pseudo-) modernist painting from contemporary Albanian painters is bad. I disagree that it is all bad, but that is not the point: questions of style are not all questions of  aesthetic merit, and I am not interested in aesthetic merit.

[7] In fact, I consider the designation ‘contemporary’ to be quite helpful in contradistinction to ‘postmodern,’ but  often theorists of contemporary art avoid using the label for art that seems squarely rooted in the presuppositions of  earlier modernisms. This is, in my view, a bit too limited; I would prefer that the term ‘contemporary’ also included the (set of rather uncritical) revisitations and re-appropriations of modernism that are often found in chronologically ‘contemporary’ and postmodern art. (I prefer it to a term like Svetlana Boym’s ‘off-modernism’, which, while I think it is accurate and appealing, seems to somehow imply that the off-modern is not coterminous with the contemporary…and in many cases it is.)

[8] Recently, for example, the relationships between the political position of socrealist art and that of contemporary art in China have been discussed by Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu, in ” From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism,” e-flux 5 (2014), available from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/from-the-issue-of-art-to-the-issue-of-position-the-echoes-of-socialist-realism-part-i/ (accessed 1/7/2015).

[9] When I say, in the context of Albania, that socialist realism can predate modernism, I do not mean to imply that Albanian culture existed in some vacuum where modernism did not penetrate. This was manifestly not the case, since nearly all of the earliest modern painters in Albania were educated abroad. However, there is a difference between a style being practiced by some and a style achieving heightened significance in society. The point is not that there was no modernism in Albania before socrealism, but that socrealism was part of the development of modernism, and not a break away from that development (either in a regressive sense, or in the sense of prefiguring what would come after modernism).

[10] We can of course still be suspicious of this individual creative artist, and the search for his or her origin, but we gain a new understanding of the origin of the myth of such a figure.

[11] “Puna Krijuese Kolektive në Fushën e Arteve Figurative,” Drita, September 27, 1970. Here too, there is the danger of imposing the kind of binary that theorists like Jameson impose, wherein ‘first world’ cultural production starts from subjectivity, and ‘third world’ cultural production starts from collective political analogies. However, one need not embrace such a rigid framework to extract valuable insights from the idea of beginning from the collective

[12] Note that I do not say “return to modernism.” if it is, in some cases, a return, a retreat from the excesses of postmodernism, I think that this is not always the case. Precisely because the movement I am suggesting here is not teleological, I do not think it is necessary to view the appearance of something very similar to (if not identical to) modernism in contemporary works as a ‘return.’

[13] Of course, the dream of utopia shows up in many ‘contemporary’ works, and I do not think that these works are all (or even mostly) modern.

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