History and Method: The Quest for Realism in Gëzim Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur

This post offers a review of art critic and curator Gëzim Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur (Tirana: Onufri, 2015, 115 pp.). It also serves as a sort of introduction to the two forthcoming posts, which will deal—in part—with the potential relationships between r/Realism and contemporary art, understood historically and critically, in Albania today.

Least of all can modern realism be characterized in conventional terms as a commitment to naturalistic resemblance. […] There is a clear continuity between the realism of late nineteenth-century experiments and creating more convincing portrayals of modern life and modernist or avant-garde attempts to invent artistic forms that challenged existing ways of picturing the world.—Alex Potts[1]

Spiro Xega, Ceta e Shahin Matrakut, 1930, oil on canvas, 108x130cm, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana
Spiro Xega, Ceta e Shahin Matrakut, 1930, oil on canvas, 108x130cm, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana

It is perhaps, finally, becoming a good time to be a Realist again. From the increasingly ubiquitous (if still frequently denigrated) philosophical efforts of the Speculative Realists, to the art historical recovery of global Realisms from social realism to socialist realism and beyond, there can be no doubt that notion of Realism has ceased to be associated with various cultural paradigms of the past and has become—again—something truly contemporary. This is a good thing for historians, critics, artists, and aestheticians for many reasons, and not only because it challenges the (undoubtedly decaying, but also undoubtedly still shambling) corpse of abstraction’s institutional victory in the second half of the previous century. Nor again is it a good thing merely because so many forms of Realism seem to explicitly challenge—with carrying degrees of efficacy—certain aspects of the postmodern love for ungroundedness and its dismissal of shared aesthetic judgments about the world. Indeed, if the ‘aesthetic’ as a category is gradually being returned to the postmodern configuration (after it first appeared that the postmodern left the aesthetic well in the past), it might also be said that r/Realism is returning as a central category of the contemporary.

However, the recent return of/to the r/Real (and not only in Hal Foster’s Lacanian sense,[2] but in fact in many different senses of the term) and its ‘isms’ is not only significant as a category of culture in the current moment but also of our understanding of the writing of 20th-century (and of course also late 19th-century) art history. The hope—at least for myself, as a historian of Eastern European art—is not just that widespread yet regionally distinctive styles like Socialist Realism will be unquestioningly introduced into the field of acceptable subjects for art historical investigation. (Although much ground has been gained, a great deal more remains to be gained in this area alone.) The hope is also that other specific Realisms (such as Photorealism) and less easily delineated kinds of Realism (academic realism, historical realism, the vast and extremely globally significant category of social realism) will be understood as crucial to the development of art in both the West and elsewhere (in Eastern Europe, for example). Of course, in many cases, too much attention to stylistic categories does not do much justice to works of art, but the focus on Realism as a category (it seems to me) is foremost a way to re-orient attention towards how artists were engaging with the social and material world—as opposed to solely either investigating their own subjectivity or the institutional confines of art and aesthetics. (Of course, these are in no way exclusive; artists were frequently doing all of them, and it perhaps one of the weaknesses of Qëndro’s study that it does too little to emphasize the potential diversity of Xega’s aims in the work discussed.) As such, the foregrounding of Realist aspirations in historical/critical investigations of artworks is a way to learn about how artists made works that were meant to actively intervene in and comment upon material systems of labor, empire, spirituality, sexuality, and so forth.

There are (at least) two ways to consider the approach to Realism taken by Gëzim Qëndro in his recent book-length essay Heronjtë Janë të Uritur [The Heroes Are Hungry], which focuses on a single painting by Spiro Xega (one of the artists of the Albanian National Awakening period), Çeta e Shahin Matrakut [The Warrior Band of Shahin Matraku] (1930, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana). The first is as an art historical investigation of the significance of Realism in modern Albanian art; the second is as a critical method meant to deepen our understanding of cultural production’s relationship to society not only in Albania during the late Ottoman Empire and early post-Ottoman period, but also in the present day. For a number of reasons, the book is rather unsatisfactory from the former viewpoint (as art historical inquiry), but incredibly rich and compelling from the latter viewpoint (as critical method).

Qëndro is without a doubt one of the most astute and creative commentators on Albanian art, and it is a pleasure to see him looking closely and thinking closely about a work (and an artist, and indeed a period) that has received relatively little attention in studies of Albanian art. The course of Qëndro’s thought is emphasized by the tone and narrative of the book itself, which begins with a first person account of the author’s enduring fascination with the painting in question and his attempts to uncover some of the historical circumstances surrounding its production. Eventually, the book moves away from this narrative style, and in a way this is to its detriment: the argument is at its best when its flaws are revealed as endemic to the individual critic’s forever-partial encounter with specific details about the artwork; as we follow Qëndro’s path of discoveries, we are taken down a number of interesting paths of speculation. However, when the author comes back around to making strong statements about the significance of the painting (as I will discuss below), these statements seem unconvincing precisely because the immediate historical circumstances surrounding the painting seem to be so ambiguous and uncertain. To some degree, the conjectural nature of the study is made clear at the outset: a brief introduction to the book makes clear that, as part of Onufri’s Khora series, the text “attempts to be a liminal space, generating interpretations that are never exhaustive, to be a fortuitous meeting of the sensory and that which can be grasped by the intellect.” Books in the series are intended as exercises in the “understanding of the interstitial spaces, so frequently disregarded, between the cultural and the natural” (7). In this light, it is almost certainly forgivable that the book raises far more questions than it answers—that is its most ideal function, no doubt. For this very reason, however, the book’s assertive conclusion and Qëndro’s rhetorical framing of these conclusions as the product of a kind of matter-of-fact logical argument ultimately undermine the text’s most satisfying element—its inherent open-endedness and speculative quality.

Through the course of the book, Qëndro argues that Spiro Xega’s painting is far from the heroically Romantic image of Albanian brigands as national(ist) heroes that it has long been framed as being (especially by the discourse of the socialist period, which sought to strengthen national emotion by treating all Albanian paintings of Albanians, especially figures from the Ottoman period, as examples of the highest values of the Albanian people). As Qëndro points out, in the socialist historiography, even a painting of a band of notoriously violent and lawless bandits was held up as revealing the character of the Albanian people as “brave, hardworking, and freedom-loving” (trim, punëtor dhe liridashës) (63). Unlike Xega’s undeniably Romantic portrait of Skanderbeg on horseback[3]—painted the following year—Çeta e Shahin Matrakut is, according to Qëndro, fundamentally a Realist work. All the details of Xega’s painting (from its scrupulous depiction of the apparent social equality of the two captains—Shahin Matraku and Leftenar Nuriu—seated next to each other on the same gunë [cloak], to the depiction of the band engaged in the everyday act of eating dinner), according to Qëndro, represent the artist’s commitment to observing and recording straightforward and optical facts about the event and persons in question. Ultimately, Qëndro claims that Çeta e Shahin Matrakut is not just a key example of Realist painting in early 20th-century Albania, but also the first and only example of historical realism.[4] That is, not only is it a realist scene with known historical characters, but it is also a scene whose content challenged the social and historical understanding of its time; its emphasis on the realities of brigandage exposed the heterogeneity and also the trauma in Albanian society under the Late Ottoman Empire. Far from aiming to create a r/Romanticized portrait of freedom-fighters, Xega (as Qëndro argues) treats the theme of hajduks because it is in these marginal and violent figures that the vicissitudes, dangers, shortcomings, and also possibilities of Balkan society at the time could be most completely depicted.

Qëndro offers this argument by way of a thorough reading of what the painting shows us and, to some degree, of the formal means[5] used by Xega to convey its subject to us; and by way of a broader investigation of the way brigands (or hajduks, as they are known; hajdut in Albania) like Shahin Matraku’s band functioned in the society of the Late Ottoman Empire. Qëndro draws much of his evidence for the latter investigation from another primary source, Gjerasim Qiriazi’s Rrëmbyer nga cubat (Zagreb: Illiricum, 1921, published in an earlier version in 1902; in English: Captured by Brigands), which tells of how the author—a member of the Istanbul Bible Society and publisher of several religious books in the Albanian language during the National Awakening period—was captured and held ransom in the mid-1880s by Shahin Matraku’s band until, eventually, his associates were able to muster the ransom money and he was freed. Noting the difficulties in taking Qiriazi at his word about Matraku’s band—who were, of course, both Godless and lawless, and thus for many reason’s the subject of Qiriazi’s disdain—Qëndro nonetheless uses Rrëmbyer nga cubat as the primary source of information for much of the book, alongside some histories of brigandage in the Balkans and general histories of the region and period.

Although there is nothing wrong with this particular limited focus, it is also the case the Qëndro draws essentially all of the painting’s context from a book published much earlier. Furthermore, given that Xega (who did know the band in question, although it is a bit unclear how many times he has contact with the group and when he might have had occasion to sketch or paint them) had direct contact with the subjects of his painting (44), it is curious that Qëndro does not spend more time talking about the artist himself. This would not necessary be part of a mission to install the artist’s intention as the primary source of the painting’s meaning, but would rather be a quite essential part of understanding what the painting meant in its time and to contemporary viewers. This latter aspect is almost entirely neglected, which makes it difficult to make the art historical link Qëndro repeatedly asserts between Courbet’s desire to “paint the historical portrait of my closest friend, the man of the 19th century” and Xega’s painting of Matraku’s band. To call Xega a Realist in Courbet’s sense, at the end of the of day, requires us to understand something about Xega himself. How, for example, does Xega’s participation in Çerçiz Topulli’s çeta [band][6] affect the way we read Çeta e Shahin Matrakut? What does it mean that Xega was most likely primarily self-taught, and that his works were seemingly only exhibited in his studio during his lifetime, only after his death being shown together in group exhibitions?[7] What does it mean, socially, that he was first of all a trader and only later an artist? All of these are questions that Qëndro avoids because his inroads to the painting’s historical context come from a quite separate set of historical documents, ones that treat the same subject matter but not necessarily the same situation of cultural production and reception.

This avoidance of dealing with (even by way of expressly saying that they are beyond the author’s scope) certain kinds of historical details is made more frustrating by the rhetorical flourishes that make the book’s argument seem logically complete (even if it supposed to be open-ended). Qëndro is a master of titles (how could one ask for better than the title of the book itself, Heronjtë Janë të Uritur?), and the section headings benefit from his own poetic brand of intellectualism: “Transparenca e subjektit,” “Primo inter pares,” “Ndërlikimet estetike të tranparencës së subjektit,” “(Pa)mundësia e transhendentimit të situates,” “Opaciteti ideolojik i subjektit realist,” [“Transparency of the subject,” “Primo inter pares,” “The aesthetic complexities of the transparency of the subject,” “The (im)possibility of transcending the situation,” “The ideological opacity of the realist subject,”] and so on. However, there’s a way in which all this apparent display of theoretical and philosophical elan is a bit at odds with the claim that the book is making; after all, Qëndro is, at bottom trying to make a claim for the simplicity of the painting: far from being some metaphysically elaborate example of metahistorical idealism (of the kind socialist realism would subsequently produce in Albania), and far from being a lofty Romantic image, it is a painting that represents Xega’s attempts to lay out just the facts. Of course this attempt is deeply sophisticated and interesting, but Qëndro repeatedly reminds us that Xega is really trying to show us a simple scene—a dinner among brigands—and that in this simplicity and honesty we in turn come to understand the wider social web of interactions that Xega wants us to see. Why then, is the philosophical language accompanied so strongly by the claim to a kind of abstract logical structure (one that seems ‘transcendentally’ at odds with the concreteness Qëndro claims for Xegas painting)? For Western students of Realism, the easiest explanation might be the following (and, given Qëndro’s constant reliance on Courbet as the exemplar of Realism, it is an appropriate one): despite the book’s initial narrative kinship with a book like T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, what Qëndro has written is quite far from Clark’s Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, and is in fact something much closer to Michael Fried’s Courbet’s Realism (a work that Qëndro cites several times in the text).

There is nothing inherently wrong with writing this kind of book—for many, it might be a welcome approach. However, in many ways, it makes the book of secondary interest in an art historical sense: it seems by the end of the book, that almost everything we could have gleaned about the social complexities of the period in question could be gleaned from Qiriazi’s Rrëmbyer nga cubat, since that book is used as the basis for many of Qëndro’s observations about what is going on in the painting. Thus, the book is a cipher for the painting, but what is left unclear is what the painting tells us about its time. Ironically, after introducing the painting with a quite close visual reading of it, Qëndro proceeds by spiraling outwards not only to the painting’s wider social context, but also to other sources of information, and in this sense the book—as a study of a particular painting—is a bit disappointing. However, Qëndro’s method of setting out to investigate the painting as a manifestation of Realism is productive as a critical method, even if it falls short as a pathway to certain kinds of (art) historical understanding.

For Qëndro, seeking the r/Realism of Xega’s painting is a necessary (and significant) step in responding to the vision of history created by art of the socialist period in Albania (much of which could be categorized as socialist realism). As he puts it, “Xega’s painting can’t help but be seen today as a ‘struggle’ against socialist realist painting, which viewed everyday life [such as the act of brigands sitting down to eat a meal] as something subversive when it was removed from the context of the rituals and political framework of the totalitarian system” (105). However, even this opposition seems a little strained. Qëndro is known for his observations about what is absent in Albanian socialist realist painting (Enver Hoxha’s shadow, rainy weather, and—in the present study—protagonists eating meals). However, in juxtaposing the positive content of Xega’s painting (its overwhelming wealth of details resulting in Barthes’ ‘reality effect’) to the negative content of socialist realism, Qëndro seems to be making too easy a contrast. Is it really the case that socialist realism functioned in Albania primarily in terms of absence, while Xega’s painting (as a one-off example of historical realism) functions only in terms of presence? What about what was really there in socialist realism, and what is really absent (violence, looting, death, laughter, joy, desperation, to name a few things) in Xega’s painting? Here, again, one yearns for a more robust art historical framework in which to consider the work, for this would not detract from the critical and aesthetic possibilities Qëndro is seeking but would, rather, expand and multiply them. However, these possibilities would involve not just the relationship between Xega’s r/Realism and socialist art, but something much more

No, in the end, it isn’t really the critical lens that Xega’s painting (very certainly) can turn on subsequent Albanian realism of the socialist variety that makes Qëndro’s quest for Realism as critical method in Heronjtë Janë të Uritur compelling. Rather, I think, it is the lens that the painting might turn on contemporary Albanian art and life. Even if Qëndro’s investigation of the work lacks all the historical details we might wish, it nonetheless establishes Realism Although Qëndro himself does seem to make the connection between Xega’s project and the contemporary moment explicit, it is easy to see the parallels given Qëndro’s insistence on realism as a project of contemporaneity—that is, as a project concerned with understanding how its own time exists and what its own time truly is. This is even more clear in Xega’s case, since the emphasis (at least if we follow Qëndro’s reading of the work) is on a consciousness of history rather than a simple chronicling of the conditions of everyday life. As Qëndro argues, there were many Realist painters in Albania during the period of National Awakening, but they lacked Xega’s attempt to link the genre painting aspect of Realism with the movement’s history painting aspect. In Çeta e Shahin Matrakut, Xega attempts to link the careful observation of everyday life, in its most mundane aspects, to larger flows of social time and interactions of economics, religion, and politics. It is the attempt to figure this interstitial space between individual and collective direct experience and the consciousness of a broader time that makes the painting historical.

This returns us to the questions that Qëndro’s book raises, even if its author does not seem to register them as fully as art historians such as myself might wish. First of all, what does this say more broadly about the relation of socialist realism to earlier realisms in Albanian painting? While it is certainly not the case that (as socialist criticism tried to claim) there is a smooth transition from one to other, it is perhaps possible to say that—in a way—socialist realism in fact learned from Xega: it tried to make the earlier tradition Albanian Realist painting historical.[8] Granted, it did so in a very ideologically specific way, and many elements of Realist subject matter dropped away in this quest, which passed through historical understanding into metahistorical mythmaking (and sometimes back again), and in doing so it tried to grasp even more robustly the character of the present.[9] The failures of this attempt to grasp the present, its absences, are still being elaborated, but many have been noted, especially by authors like Qëndro. However, it seems to me that what both Xega’s historical realism (as elaborated by Qëndro) and socialist realism call for as critical models of cultural production is the careful understanding of the historical quality of the present. In other words, with Qëndro’s particular interpretation of Xega as a model, we might imagine a practice of contemporary art in Albania that would be both deeply engaged in documenting its social conditions and in understanding the historicity of those conditions. It would not necessarily strive for avant-garde status, although—as the passage from Alex Potts quoted at the outset of this essay suggests—it might very well pass into avant-garde experiments with vision and representation. It would do so, however, only on the basis of a close observation of the world, an engagement with (and, perhaps, a real belief in) facts and materiality. This art could look like many different things: it might look like kitsch, it might not; it might be performative or installation-based, or it might continue the tradition of painting; it might embrace its own ‘ideological’ status, or it might avoid that status as a way of searching for a new ground for experience. No matter what it looked like, however, this would be an art that made us think about how we see the world, and what that world really is as a historical phenomenon. It would make us question what times we share with the world, and which ones escape our experience, Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur reveals the necessity of understanding Realism in Albanian painting as a historical phenomenon, even if the book itself does not fully take this task on. It remains to us to carry on both the speculative futures and pasts that come to light when we search for Realism in the history of Albanian art. One hopes that others will take up where Qëndro has left us at the close of the book.

The next two posts will be devoted to some further—and broader—considerations of how art made in Albania today might make claims to either ‘contemporary’ status or to ‘realist’ status.

[1] Experiments in Modern Realism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 23-24.

[2] As laid out in his now-famous study The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

[3] One crucial question that Qëndro never addresses—because he is not engaged in providing an art historical context for the wok he examines—is also an important one: what does it mean for Xega to have created a deeply Realist work in one year and, the following year, a deeply Romanticist one? What are the Romantic aspects of Çeta e Shahin Matrakut, and how do they interact with the painting’s Realist aspects? These are questions that must be dealt with if the investigation is to be anything but a sort of thought experiment. The answers would not necessarily defeat Qëndro’s reading of the painting, but they would suggest an event richer relationship between the work’s representations and its conditions of influence and production.

[4] The claim—asserted in the final sentence of the book—that the work represents the sole example of this kind of painting in the history of Albanian art makes the study seem suddenly much more closed than it did at the outset (113).

[5] Although Qëndro’s reading of the painting is thorough, it focuses almost completely (with the exception of some discussion of color and composition) on the recognizable aspects of the painting, and indeed primarily on the people in the painting (as opposed to their environment, which gets rather short shrift and is treated as somehow just a setting for attention to social issues, instead of an integral part of them). Although Qëndro at one point mentions the naivety of Xega’s compositional strategies, it would be worth examining the painting’s formal qualities much more exhaustively. This is especially true given Qëndro’s repeated references to Courbet as the paradigmatic Realist—Courbet knew, as many of the Realists did, how to paint ‘badly’ or awkwardly precisely in order to emphasize the socially (and academically) traumatic character of his subject matter and the emotional charge of his paintings. Although it might be difficult to make an entirely analogous case for Xega, who was largely self-taught, it seems like it would have been worth Qëndro’s time to pay more attention to how the painting is painted, and to consider how Xega’s naïve aesthetics might have contributed to the painting’s meanings in its own time and now. After all, what if the lack of convincing naturalism in the painting was not primarily the result of lack of skill or experience on Xega’s part, but rather the intentional avoidance of academic naturalism (in the way that Alex Potts describes as endemic to modern realism in the epigraph to this essay)?

[6] See the entry on Xega in Ylli Drishti, Suzana Varvarica-Kuka, and Rudina Memaga, Monografi: me Artistë Shqiptarë të Shekullit XX (Tirana: Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve, 1999), p. 115.

[7] For more on Xega, and on the art of the Albanian National Awakening period, see Ferid Hudhri, Arti i Rilindjes Shqiptare (Tirana: Onufri, 2000), especially pp. 202-203.

[8] This is perhaps an overstatement, but it has long been my conviction that socialist realism in Albania was part of the first truly successful conceptualization of a history of the Albanian people (in art, but also in society as a whole), and although I am not sure that Qëndro would agree, I think that socialist realism does in fact try to take up where Xega’s painting leaves off, to build upon earlier realisms while also developing (perhaps, beyond recognition) the historical contemporaneity of a work like Çeta e Shahin Matrakut.

[9] This is an argument I try to make in my “Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës and the Metaphysics of Representation in Albanian Socialist Realist Painting,” in Workers Leaving the Studio, Looking Away from Socialist Realism, ed. Mihnea Mircan and Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei (New York: Punctum, and Tirana: Department of Eagles, 2015), pp. 25-39, available from: http://punctumbooks.com/titles/workers-leaving-the-studio/.

 

1 thought on “History and Method: The Quest for Realism in Gëzim Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s