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/.

 

Për Një Hov të Ri: The Proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. More posts with critical content are in the works, but for the time being I’m too busy to do anything except scan more documents…

Nendori 1_1966

Today’s post is the January 1966 issue of Nëndori, which contains the proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists. The opening speech for the plenum, which took place on December 3-4, 1965, was delivered by Shevqet Musaraj, author of the satirical poem “Epopeja e Ballit Kombëtar” [1944]. The writer and poet Dhimitër Shuteriqi, director of the Union of Writers and Artists at the time, also delivered a lengthy speech related to the proceedings of the 15th plenum of the Central Committee, which called for “an increase in the role played by literature and the arts in the communist education of the masses.”

The issue also contains summaries and excerpts of the talks and discussions held by other members of the Union in attendance, including Andon Kuqali, Foto Stamo, Odhise Paskali, Kristaq Rama, and Pandi Mele.

Three of Pandi Mele’s graphic works are reproduced in the issue, including the dynamic (and undeniably Modernist) linocut Thatësira po mposhtet [The Drought is Being Defeated]. There is also a review of Mele’s October 1965 solo exhibition written by Vangjush Tushi, which gives a partial picture of the early reception of Mele’s painting and graphic works.

Perhaps most interesting (and most frustrating in the lack of information given) is a short note in the back matter of the issue describing an exhibition of works by the Korean painter Lju Hien Suk (in the Albanian transliteration), held in November of 1965 at the Puppet Theater. Liu Hien Suk was, the note informs us, vice-director of the central state Gallery of the Fgurative Arts in the Korean Democratic Republic, and his month-long stay in Albania (part of the still woefully understudied cultural exchange between socialist nations in the mid-20th-century) had included time spent in the Albanian Riviera—the landscapes of which inspired his painting. The exhibition opening was attended by officers of the Union of Writers and Artists such as Foto Stamo and the note in Nëndori contains excerpts from Rama’s speech. Although much of the study of Albanian socialist-era art has focused on the specificity of the conditions in Albania during its increasing isolation, and although much of the commentary produced within the country during the socialist years does not readily acknowledge the role of international cultural exchange in shaping Albanian art, it is precisely events like Lju Hien Suk’s exhibition that deserve our close attention and our greatest efforts in attempting to recover documentary evidence. These events, if we could trace their genesis and impact more fully, would give us a more fully rounded picture of how Albania related to international networks of socialist culture, and how artists from other nations participated in the formation of the narratives socialist Albania told about itself.

Happy reading!

Some Notes on the Apparently Mutually Exclusive Status of (M/m)odern (A/a)rt and Socialist Realism

I have recently—and finally—had the time to read Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (London: Reaktion, 2012), by the great (and unfortunately now deceased) art historian Piotr Piotrowski. For many, like myself, in the field of Eastern European art history, Piotrowski’s attempt to model and facilitate what he calls a “horizontal art history” remains a continued source of methodological and theoretical inspiration. Piotrowski’s scholarship always seems—to me, at least—to admirably walk the line between overarching regional and even global syntheses and, at least in those geographical areas where he had expertise, engagement with the specificity of local conditions and traditions. Of course, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe is, like Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (London: Reaktion, 2009), a survey, and as such it is engaged in the methodological project of understanding broad narratives and trends as opposed to delving deeply into particular, concrete situations.

One of Piotrowski’s key goals in mapping out these narratives and trends is to come to terms as fully as possible with the geographical (and geopolitical) implications of art history—both its limitations and its possibilities. With this geographical sophistication, however, comes a certain theoretical bluntness. Piotrowski embraces this—he declares at the outset that he is “not a political theorist” (even as he explains his use of Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy as a frame for the book). Additionally, he declares the book to be far more concerned with contemporaneity and its disjunctures than with providing a history (as In the Shadow of Yalta aimed to do). Nonetheless, as all historians are ultimately constrained to do, Piotrowski must start somewhere, and his starting point is a swift yet nuanced reiteration of the map sketched out in In the Shadow of Yalta.

In a way, what I want to do next is completely unfair to Piotrowski, but I will proceed regardless precisely because I believe that—in selecting a very specific moment in Piotrowski’s text, indeed a single sentence—we can grasp a vast and complicated problem that evidences the power of Piotrowski’s methodology. It also presents us with precisely the kind of problem that any “horizontal art history” should—indeed, must—be able to confront, if never resolve. Discussing the dubious merits of treating Eastern/Central European art history according to the model of “colonization,” Piotrowski suggests that the obvious angle would be to treat Soviet culture as the occupier, but points out that this dissolves in concrete cases, since Socialist Realism was only “an official ideological façade” in many countries in the region. He then declares, “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe [a term Piotrowski uses to encompass areas often described as either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Central’ Europe] between 1945 and 1989” (46).

Above all else, I think this sentence is a fair summation of Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta, which charted many of the Modernist movements in postwar Eastern Europe against the foil of a (/n always unfortunately un-illustrated and therefore amorphous and spectral) Socialist Realism. (One chapter, on the significance of figuration, is even titled “Un-Socialist Realism”.) It also raises the difficult problem that I alluded to above, namely: What is the relationship between “Socialist Realism” (let us note the capitalization) and “modern art” (let us note the absence of capitalization)?

Having raised this question, and moving in the spirit of Piotrowski’s desire to decenter hierarchical art history, we can almost immediately imagine a number of related, yet deeply different questions: What is the relationship between socialist realism and modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern Art? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and modernism? What is the relationship between socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and modernism? Etc., etc. This list of potential questions is not a fanciful play with the ambiguities presented by the un-codified (or, differently-codified) norms of capitalization. It is, instead, a very serious interrogation of the relationship between style, periodization, and ideology. It suggests the truly exhausting number of potential topologies that can be developed by really considering the question of Socialist Realism in Eastern/Central Europe (and remember, we have not even moved—as Piotrowski demands that we do—beyond a crude and generalized global-regional frame of investigation).

Allow me to elaborate what I think is deeply problematic about Piotrowski’s statement, and to attempt to present some of the ways we might both be more careful about our use of the language of style and periodization, and gain a more comprehensive picture of what “the cultural identity of Central[/Eastern] Europe” was in the years between 1945 and 1989. Juxtaposing “Socialist Realism” to “modern art” posits three related conceptual moves, both—in my opinion—fundamentally flawed. First, it assumes the monolithic (and therefore capitalized) quality of Socialist Realism, which we are invited to assume is clearly defined as the Soviet variety (which we are in turn invited to assume was a clearly codified and unified phenomenon, without meaningful ambiguity or internal, chronological strife). Second, it invites us to treat Socialist Realism as a movement or style that is straightforwardly and exclusively distinguished from the already vastly general term “modern art.” Third, instead of aligning “Socialist Realism” against a clearly (or at least what I would interpret as a clearly) stylistic alternative—namely, Modernism—it aligns it against a term that seems (again, at least to me) more clearly chronological—namely, “modern art.” The lack of capitalization in “modern art” implies the absence of an emphatic ideology (it is not even “Modern art,” or “Modern Art”); that is, it is the art that comes after pre- and early-modern art, and yet before post-modern art. This implies that Socialist Realism, a stylistically unified category belongs to a different chronological period, presumably an earlier one, yet this is never elaborated. The fact that both Modernism and “modern art” are generally considered to begin in the late 19th century (at least in the Francophile model Piotrowski implicitly critiques) means that the conventional way to read Piotrowski’s statement would be to say that Socialist Realism is a retrograde return to some pre-modern form of art-making, and thus—by implication—that it offers little of art historical significance.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of interpretation that Piotrowski’s “horizontal” art history would want to reject. Therefore, even if Piotrowski himself continues to use “Socialist Realism” as a convenient historical foil (and to use both “modern art” and, as is more frequently the case in In the Shadow of Yalta, “Modernism”), this should not prevent us from thinking critically about the ideologies at play here, and from rejecting the apparent premises and implications of a sentence like “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe between 1945 and 1989.”

I would like to offer, as it were, a series of both theoretical and polemical guidelines for thinking the relationship between Socialist Realism (I will retain the capitalization, but—as I note below—reject any implications of unified ideology or style) and both “modern art” and “Modernism.” These are, of course, methodological directives steeped in ideology, and not meant to be universalizing; they are intended quite explicitly to move away from the “hierarchical” art history Piotrowski critiques but does not fully escape. They are also the result of my own engagement with 20th-century Albanian art, much of which relates fundamentally to (a decidedly, I would argue, diverse and stylistically conflicted) Socialist Realism even if it cannot be subsumed under that label. As such, the applicability of these guidelines will vary geographically, just as do theories of psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, and postmodernism.

Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
So, then, a kind of incomplete methodological manifesto, and a challenge:

1) We must resist the urge to treat “Socialist Realism” as an a priori factor in our analyses of “modern” or “Modernist” art (to say nothing of our analyses of Socialist Realism itself). In other words, it is never enough to simply assert that such-and-such an artist, or a movement, rejected “the official doctrine of Socialist Realism.” As tempting as this summation may be, it tells us little, and even less when we have left the demarcated sphere of Soviet cultural policy. (Even there, especially in the absence of close visual analysis and illustrations supporting the point, the assertion that a work of stands opposed to Socialist Realism has little obvious meaning. We must think about what a particular group of artists understood by “Socialist Realism,” and about how that understanding might have played out in discourse, in material manifestations, at the time of the creation of a particular work. If we lack the resources to make these distinctions, then we are just as well off to avoid the statement that a work or an artist stands opposed to Socialist Realism.)

This is not a matter of ignoring what official documents and discourses claimed Socialist Realism to be, in particular locations. Nor is it a matter of ignoring stylistic, functional, and philosophical similarities between works typically described as “Socialist Realist.” It is simply a call to do what the best scholarship of Modernism does: enact a marked suspicion towards generalizations and a priori assumptions about the well-formed character of particular styles. (In a discussion of Antimodernism, for example, we would never take the term “Modernism” to be a self-evident (and stably codified) factor. )

2) As a continuation of this first point: We must resist the urge to straightforwardly oppose Socialist Realism and either “modern art” or “Modernism.” Whatever might be gained by such a general opposition, too much is lost. In short, what is lost is the status of Socialist Realism as a form of Modernism. The “modern,” and “Modernist” aspects of Socialist Realism—in nearly all of its manifestations—range from a stylistic indebtedness to schools of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism on to philosophical affinities with Futurism, Surrealism, and Conceptualism. Just as it would be strange to starkly oppose Expressionism (as a particular strand of modern art) to “modern art” in general, so do we accomplish little of worth when we oppose Socialist Realism to modern art.

This is not a matter of obscuring the ideological, aesthetic, and historical clash between many manifestations of Modernism and many manifestations of Socialist Realism. The perceived conflict between the two was, of course, fundamental to the official rhetoric that grew up in many countries around Socialist Realism; it often represented itself as the enemy of “bourgeois revisionist” Modernism, and set out to distinguish itself from much that Modernism stood for. But this differentiation was not only a temporal process that changed over time (as the character of both Socialist Realisms and Modernisms changed) and an exercise in the unstable process of identity production. Taking the word of Socialist Realism’s theorists that the style was not Modernist would be as pointless as proclaiming that it really is the true style of the future simply because they asserted it was so.

3) We must recognize that, insofar as it was a Modernist style, Socialist Realism was not a single “ism” but rather a constellation of the “isms” mentioned above, combined in new ways and in many cases incorporating new elements.

This is not a matter of throwing as many “isms” at a particular work of art or set of works of art as possible, but rather a matter of getting at the complex assemblages hiding behind the monolithic terms “modern art,” “modernism,” and “Modernism.”

4) We must pay close attention to how we periodize Socialist Realism, and avoid treating it as a simple (and naïve) throwback to pre-modern or early-modern ideologies, styles, and practices of artistic creation. (This is precisely what is risked by Piotrowski’s juxtaposing it to “modern art.”) Elsewhere, I have discussed the potential significance (narrowly speaking, in the context of Albanian 20th-century painting) of Boris Groys’ assertion that Socialist Realism was “a style and a half,” falling somewhere between Modernism and Postmodernism. This is one approach, but there are of course elements of Socialist Realism in particular cases and geographies that escape this chronology.

This is not a matter of returning to a kind of Wölfflinian art history that is concerned with the careful delineation of different periodic styles and eras of thought. (Though in actuality a truly Wölfflinian history of, say, Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe, would be much more subtle and stylistically and psychologically sophisticated than Wölfflin’s detractors would insist.) However, it does mean being more honest about what kinds of factors we are truly focusing on when we periodize artistic movements and styles, and thus about what we are claiming is innovative as opposed to that which we claim is conservative, traditional, or retrograde.

5) When we consider Socialist Realism, we must also grapple honestly with the heritage of Romanticism, Realism (more on this below), and (Neo-)Classicism in the 20th-century. Again, the problem often arises in the case of a double standard: we would seldom deny the influence of Romanticism on many Modernisms (if indeed we would even set the two apart so sharply), but are often far more willing to set, say, the “revolutionary romanticism” of Chinese Socialist Realism over against the development of “Modernism.”

This is not a matter of historicist devotion to the continuity of discrete concepts or movements through time, nor is it methodological devotion to the elaboration of a particular venerated “tradition”; it will suffice to point out that in many cases (and this is undoubtedly the case in Albania), the presence of a strong ‘tradition’ in the visual arts was absent in many fields. In other words, we are not speaking of the continuation of Romanticism, of Greek or Italian ‘schools,’ of Classicism or Neo-Classicism, of some primitivism archaism—we are speaking instead of the emergence of these styles, ideologies, and tendencies in the context of modernization and Modernism. Of course, Socialist Realism did look to particular elements of past art history, such as 19th-century Realism and Classicism, for inspiration, and it did so because they preceded the “decadence” of Modernism. However, the lesson that this teaches us is not so much as lesson about a backwards-looking ideology, but about the continued (re)invention of certain styles and philosophies in the 20th century. Modernism participated in this (re)invention, and—as a Modernism—so did Socialist Realism, in a number of temporally and geopolitically specific ways that bear further investigation.

6) Finally, we must take the engagement with Socialist Realism as an opportunity to re-evaluate the status of Realism(s) in both 20th– and 21st-century art and culture. “Realism” (and its sometime partner, “materialism”) have recently enjoyed a resurgence in cultural theory, and this has—to some degree—triggered a re-evaluation of R/realism in art historical narratives. However, some of the recent efforts at this, such as Alex Potts’ survey Experiments in Modern Realism (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2013) do not fully address the problem, since they often simply embrace already canonical figures (like Pollock) as ‘realism’ and continue to dismiss styles that have already been too often dismissed, such as Socialist Realism. We owe it to ourselves to write a history of the relationship between Real/ism and the 20th-century (neo-)avant-garde that does not simply reiterate the geographical and artistic foci of, say, Hal Foster. Part of this history must be the histories of various Socialist Realisms, and these Realisms must be acknowledged to be as diverse as the Realities they denied, reflected, distorted, emerged from, and constructed.

Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative

Today’s post is a special one: a complete scan of the 1969 publication Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative [The People’s Army in the Figurative Arts], a massive publication featuring paintings, sculptures, prints, and posters chronicling the glories of the Albanian People’s Army. The book should be invaluable to anyone studying Albanian art and culture in particular, or socialist realism in general.

Ushtria cover

The album features a number of works I’ve never seen published elsewhere (including works by Edison Gjergjo, Danish Jukniu, and Isuf Sulovari) and, with over 100 illustrations, represents on of the largest collections of visual art published during socialism in Albania. Some of the images are in color, others in black and white, and their quality varies drastically, but some of the reproductions are quite clear and details are visible.

Happy reading!

Mësimet Konsekuente Revolucionare: Nëntori 9, 1977

This is the twelfth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. More posts with critical content are in the works, but for the time being I’m too busy to do anything except scan more documents…

 Nentori Shtator 1977_cover

Today’s post contains selections from the September 1977 issue of Nëntori. The first selection is Dalan Shapllo’s fascinating “Mësimet Konsekuente Revolucionare të Partisë dhe të Shokut Enver: Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin,” a review and ‘study guide’ for Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin, a collection of Hoxha’s writings and speeches on the subject of literature and the fine arts, produced between 1944 and 1976. (The full text of that book is available here.) Shapllo concludes his review of the collection by drawing the reader’s attention to two sections of the book in which Hoxha made concrete statements and suggestions regarding the realization of works of art. The first is, of course, the well-known letter written (in 1969) by Hoxha to the trio of monumental sculptors Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntaz Dhrami in connection with the realization of the Independence Monument in Vlora. The second is the 1962 statement made by Hoxha to the Shkodran creators of the drama Plaku i maleve [Old Man of the Mountains], devoted to Bajram Curri. Shapllo points out that in both cases, one of the key ideas expressed by Hoxha was that the ‘great figures’ of Albanian history (Ismail Qemali and Bajram Curri, respectively) should be depicted as acting in close concert with the masses. Shapllo notes that Hoxha’s aesthetic interventions can be summarized as expressing the following two key principles: “1) Historical works [of art] must be characterized by revolutionary ideas, thus preserving their historical truth; and 2) the relationship of the masses and of the hero must be conceived as a dialectical and materialist one, in order to show that the masses create history and heroes can emerge from the masses and play a positive role only when they embody and reflect the interests of the people” (19). As formulaic and ambiguous as these principles might be, one can’t help but think that they might prove instructive for current politicians and artists in Albania.

Also of interest is the second part (I regret that I don’t have the previous issue of Nëntori, so I can’t offer you the first half) of an essay by aesthetician Alfred Uçi entitled “Arkitektura dhe Estetika.” Uçi, the author of the monumental Labirintet e Modernizmit, was one of the most prolific and distinguished aestheticians of socialist Albania, and his analysis of the relationship between architecture and the other arts—including the factors that distinguish socialist architecture from Modernist formalism—is enlightening for anyone interested in considering the precise character of the relationship between representational art and abstract arrangements of space and form in socialist Albanian culture.

Finally, the issue contains several great prints and drawings highlighting the activity of the Albanian youth in aksion in agricultural development.

Happy reading!

Beyond (The Grid)

There are two ways in which the grid functions to declare the modernity of modern art. One is spatial; the other is temporal. In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.—Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (Summer, 1979), 50.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
I admit that I had never looked closely at Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej [Further], 1969, hanging in the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, Albania. The work—which I have elsewhere seen reproduced under the title Elektrifikimi, and referred to a one panel of a triptych, though I have never seen the other panels that supposedly accompanied it—always seemed a rather straightforward image: a man and a woman, standing just to the left of center, consult a large piece of paper, either a map or a set of engineering plans. The man gestures with one arm out towards the space over the viewer’s right shoulder, indicating the expansive work to come. He is speaking. The woman listens attentively, her eyes following his gaze, her hands holding the expanse of paper that contains the plans, the designs, or the outline of the territory that will soon be included (indeed, is already included, but only conceptually) within the painting’s purview. In a truncated space to the left of the figures, a welder completes the skeletal structure of a tower for electrical cables, while to the right, this time in a space that seems to descend too quickly into the abyss of the valley behind them, another figure directs a crane that moves another such electrical tower towards its final position. At far left, more workers ascend scaffolding, and behind all the figures in the painting stretches first a bare valley crisscrossed by large trucks and finally a mountainous wilderness devoid of greenery: grey stone against a yellowish sky.

I remember having noticed, before, the way Hysa’s painting looks unfinished; particularly in the figure at right, the work gloves are left as a mass of brushstrokes that lack a clear delineation, and even the folds of the back of the worker’s shirt. The same is also true is areas such as the woman’s hand at center, as it grasps the map or engineering plans. (For the purposes of brevity, I am going to refer to it throughout as map. As we will see below, I do not think there is a tremendous difference between a map of territory and a set of plans for the construction and placement of electrical towers, especially not given what is actually shown in the space of the piece of paper.) These areas of loose brushwork also stand out, and particularly as unfinished, precisely because of the thinness of the paint in these parts of the painting. Elsewhere, for example in the stone upon which the figures stand, the brushwork is just as free and—at close range—abstract, but it is thick with layers and layers of paint that suggest the materiality of the rocks they also depict.

Likewise, in certain areas, Hysa has utilized a meticulously linear technique, for example in the rendering of the steel beams of the towers under construction. However, in some cases, he has left the pencil lines used to plan the layout of the lines, their points of intersection and extension. Indeed, in some cases (again, particularly in the figure at left and the tower he gestures the crane to position) it looks as if these pencil lines have actually been applied on top of flat areas of thin color, as if Hysa had laid down a ground, then planned out his lines, then decided to leave both thin ground of paint and lines visible without covering it over in a more meticulous fashion. This gives the painting the look of being incomplete, but as far as I know it was regarded as completed and the version reproduced in several publications during socialism was the same version that now hangs in the National Gallery. Thus, I can only assume that Hysa quite intentionally allowed many areas of the painting to retain an unfinished look, to show the thin layers of paint and even the canvas beneath, to emphasize in places the pencil lines that index the artist’s arrangement and re-arrangement of forms and their contact. In a way, this aesthetic fits perfectly with Socialist Realism, as perfectly as it did with the other Modernists (too numerous to name) who allowed the image to appear in its ‘finished’ state still bearing the marks of its conception and creation. What better way to articulate the labor of creating a work of art?

As I examined Hysa’s painting more closely (I admit, I had started to look at it because I wanted the cleaning lady to stop following me so I could covertly snap a photo of another image; I never got the photo of the other image, but I did get a detail of Hysa’s painting), I saw something I never had before. Almost directly in the center of the canvas lies the zone occupied by the map the woman is holding. We can see nothing of the images or words that may appear on it, and indeed much of what we see is the inverse of the paper, a sickly green expanse of loose brushstrokes thinly painted…and there, showing so clearly through this thin stretch of paint, so centrally placed that—in person—I could not understand how I had ever missed it before: the grid. A neat crisscrossing of lines that correspond in no way whatsoever to the forms that are painted over them, left not even as a trace of the specific preparation of the surface to receive the map, but indeed solely to reference the preparation of the surface to receive an artistic image, no particular one.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
Obviously, the presence of these lines suggests graph paper, suggests the cartographic, geometric division of the map (and indeed, this is why I assume the piece of paper to be a map, rather than a set of engineering drawings), but at the same time the abstract of the grid from the three-dimensional form of the map indicates the ontological priority of the grid itself in relation to the finished painting. The grid in Më Tej indexes not only the process of artistic creation, the preparation of the canvas with a set of lines to facilitate the copying of a drawing that will later be filled out with paint, but also the absolute anti-naturalism of socialist realism’s vision. It is left, I think, so blatant in its pseudo-presence, to show precisely the ambiguous metaphysical gap that exists between the work of socialist realist art and the perceived object of naturalistic painting (‘the world’).

As Rosalind Krauss famously puts it in her obsessive study of the grid, “the grid does not map the space of a room or a landscape or a group of figures onto the surface of a painting. Indeed, if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself” (Krauss, op. cit., 52). However, this ‘surface of the painting’ as it is emphasized by the grid is not any straightforward entity; the grid possesses, as Krauss asserts, a decided ambivalence: it seems to be both rooted in materiality (pointing to the existence of the painting itself as surface upon which paint is dispersed) and spiritual (pointing to the abstract realm of absolute ideas cherished by painters like Mondrian or Malevich).

This same ambivalence exists, I think, quite clearly in other forms of socialist realist art in Albania, where art is called upon (and the artist is tempted) both to reflect a kind of purified, simple, and universally accessible materiality and to index the schema of the sacred, to partake in the spiritual elevation of the religious icon. (See, for example, Gëzim Qëndro’s reading of Odhise Paskali’s sculpture Shokët, in “The Thanatology of Hope,” in Lapidari, ed. Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei (New York: Punctum Books, 2015), 61-66.) And it is, it seems, one of the central issues raised by Hysa’s Më Tej. Even the title, Më Tej, suggests the gesture towards another level of understanding and being, an index of a beyond that bears either a merely horizontal relation (as the grid of the map suggests) or else (also?) a hierarchical relation (as the grid beneath the painting suggests).

However, the grid here is not merely a self-referential or circular encapsulation of a (tautological kind of) statement art makes about itself. The grid in this instance, showing through the layers of the image in its center, has a quite specific relationship to reality (which I want to distinguish from ‘the world’ as a phenomenological setting that only sometimes coincides with ‘reality’). The grid unfolds in a space that is situated immediately prior to the figures’ current attention: they have looked at the map, and now they look out at where the unfolding grid of electrification (another grid that is both tangible and material, yet also somehow ineffable) will lay over the country. This grid will leave its trace on the unyielding stone of the mountains, much as the words etched on the stone at far right (“25 Vjet Çlirimit” [25 Years of Liberation”]) mark the passage of time and the expansion of man’s influence over the landscape.

The grid suggests not just that the expansion of the electrification is in some sense already present in some nascent (or ontologically superior) form long before the territory itself that will be the subject of the material grid of power lines. It also suggests that the progressive expansion of the grid is in some way not a narrative one. The grid at the center of Më Tej in fact simultaneously effects a certain undermining of chronological progression, suggesting an eternity or timelessness that is the other of socialist realism’s assertion on dynamic transformation and progress. Hysa’s painting, as an image of the Albanian socialist reality (which is not to say, an image of the Albanian socialist ‘world’), emphasizes the irreducible schism between the grid as an element of the expansion (to infinity) of the socialist space and the static pre-existence of that space at an ontologically privileged level. The construction of the electrical field is both necessary and redundant—it makes material and explicit a dispersion that on the one hand must always be physically instantiating and thereby multiplying itself, and on the other hand has no need of instantiation precisely because it remains in the realm of foundational myth, without beginning or end.

Ultimately, the thinness of the paint in the region of the map seems to allow the grid to emerge at the conceptual heart of Hysa’s painting, and so its appearance as the logical (as opposed to the compositional) underlying force of the composition, and in this way the grid as eternal paradigm seems somehow the stronger reading in Më Tej. However, as I have tried to suggest, the ambivalence remains unresolved; the role of and emphasis on the grid is ambiguous. This is perhaps one of the reasons behind the intentional incompleteness of Hysa’s painting: it allows the polysemy of the grid to fuse with the polysemy of the ‘reality’ presented, with maximum effect. This effect, of course, is missed if we merely look at the image in reproduction where these details are lost and the material circumstances of the painting are covered over.

A question posed by all Realist art, at some level, is: “What is reality? Where can it be found? What is our access to it? What is its relationship to our lives, to our art, to our politics, to our ethics?” The success of Realist artworks—whether they are Socialist Realist, or Photorealist, or New Realist, or Capitalist Realist—depends to a large degree, I would argue, on how successfully the work poses these questions, how deeply it pushes them, not necessarily in the direction of resolution, but in the direction of their own proliferation and epistemological sophistication. Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej raises precisely these kind of questions in the context of Albanian socialist realism. It asks, what is art’s access to reality, and does that access place it before the unfolding project of socialism, or after? Does art possess a narrative power that depicts—in a robust and accurate way—the dynamism of “building socialism,” or does it precisely precede and even undermine all narrative forces, in favor of an eternal instantiation of a fundamental principle? Does the grid, with its metaphysical priority, intervene before our experience of the socialist reality—the point at which is becomes, for us, a ‘world’—or after, emergent in the unfolding of territorial and material-ideological expansion?

Above all, Hysa’s painting reminds us of the importance of looking closely at socialist realism. To quote an omnipresent phrase from the American system of transport, one of which I was recently reminded by a book I sat down to read on the same day that I visited the National Gallery and saw Më Tej: “if you see something, say something.”

Image // Anti-Image

Preliminary Expectoration

The grand manner consists of four things: subject matter or theme, thought, structure, and style. The first thing that, as the foundation of all others, is required, is that the subject matter shall be grand, as are battles, heroic actions, and divine things. But assuming that the subject on which the painter is laboring is grand, his next consideration is to keep away from minutiae to the best of his abilities lest he offend against the dignity of historical painting by passing over with a hasty brush things magnificent and grand, and linger amid vulgar and slight ones. The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible. This preparation consists of three things: arrangement, measure, and aspect or form.—Nicolas Poussin

Attunement

On Thursday, July 17, I finally had the chance to enter the Center for Openness and Dialogue (COD), the new multipurpose exhibition space, archive, and library that now occupies the first floor of the Prime Minister’s building [Kryeministria] in Tirana. The opening of this center represents the latest in a veritable whirlwind of moves made by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government, to open spaces that have previously been—for various reasons—inaccessible to the Albanian public. These spaces include Bunk’Art and the Shtëpia e Gjetheve [House of Leaves; the former center of surveillance and torture under socialism], both of which were turned into short-lived (since neither is now open to the public) and heavily-promoted (especially to international diplomatic audiences) multi-purpose museum spaces. (The “multi-purpose” aspect was only true of Bunk’Art, which—as its name suggests—was also some type of art installation space.) While the opening of these two spaces was part of a larger touristization (and consequent monetization) of socialist-era history, it seems to me that Rama’s claims about opening the Prime Minister’s building to the public are aimed more directly at his predecessor, Democratic Party (now laughable) leader Sali Berisha, than at earlier occupiers of the building. As such, it presents a different (though by no means unrelated) version of the recuperation of Albania’s architectural spaces from their past uses, and it also allows the Prime Minister’s continued insistence on blending art and politics to be fully realized—presumably in precisely the way Rama wants them to be, since the space is literally his front doorstep.

According to the COD’s website, its primary goals are to “offer an open and transparent encounter between various forms of public dialogue, aiming to demystify an institution which up until now has been closed to Albanians, despite the fact that it has a tremendous effect on their lives.” [“Duke ofruar një qasje të hapur dhe transparente përmes formave të ndryshme të dialogut publik, COD ka për qëllim të demistifikojë një institucion, i cili deri më sot ka qenë i mbyllur për qytetarët, edhe pse ka ndikim shumë të madh në jetën e tyre.]. The COD (an acronym derived from a name that exists only in English, which already makes claims to “public dialogue” seem completely unbelievable) contains several different “installations.” (I use this catch-all term, since I do not know how else to simultaneously describe a small library, books laid out in various aesthetic arrangements on tables, groupings of laptops with videos of the space being renovated, slideshows of archival photos, a “minilab of souvenirs,” an art exhibition space, a space devoted to videos and books describing the three contemporary artists whose works are installed, respectively, in that exhibition hall, over the entrance to the building, and in a small patch of grass next to the building’s main entrance ramp.)

Despite the overt eclecticism of the space, much of the commentary has focused primarily on the installation of art in, on, and around the building, and this is no doubt the most spectacular aspect of the COD. It is also telling, since it indicates the degree to which the primary thrust of Rama’s (or whatever team he worked with to design and fill the space(s)) curatorial impact has been felt through the presence of the specific artworks in the space (as opposed, say, to the documents now made available, or the display of archival photographs, or even to the idea that—in theory—this will now be a changing exhibition space that will later be occupied by other works. The works in question are Triple Giant Mushroom by Carsten Höller (installed in a patch of grass to the right of the main stairs leading up to the building’s entrance); the flashing, glowing Marquee Tirana created by Philippe Parreno hanging over the building’s entrance; and three photos by Thomas Demand (Tribute, Attraction, and Sign) mounted in the entrance hall to the building on its three respective walls.

SAM_0123 SAM_0055

A number of astute and interesting commentaries (here and here and here and here; I’m sure I have missed others) have already been written about this space, and I doubt that mine will say anything substantively new. I refer readers to these pieces first, both because they nicely lay out (in three languages) the main issues. Nonetheless, I think it is certainly a space worth dwelling on, as it nicely encapsulates both the possibilities and the failures of the relationship between art and politics in contemporary Albania.

I begin this post with Nicolas Poussin’s words on the “grand manner” because the artist Anri Sala—the Prime Minister’s longtime friend and collaborator—begins his own curatorial statement on Edi Rama (available here) with a discussion of Poussin’s Landscape With a Man Killed By a Snake of 1648, a painting that has long presented interpreters with a quandary. If Sala begins his discussion of Rama with the painting precisely because of the kind of mystery the work presents, in its play of layers of meaning and attention, I begin with Poussin’s words on the grand manner because, in a sense, I think they de-mystify precisely what Rama is about in the creation of the COD space. There is, I think, no better summary of Rama’s artistic-political strategy than “The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible.” The Prime Minister’s building, and indeed all of Albanian politics is the matter, and the idea of beauty will not descend until preparations have been made. This messianic descent of beauty into the reality, with its classicizing overtones, is, I think, finally the promise of Rama’s Rilindja.

In a series of (often disjointed—perhaps necessarily so) problemata, I would like to consider the dangers and possibilities of this strategy, as they are embodied in the COD. Most of all, I would like to truly suggest a multiplicity of points of potential engagement, precisely as the COD claims (however disingenuously) that it wishes to facilitate encounters, and I wish to do so in part precisely by comparing the installations of the COD to existing works of art that occupy or depict the Albanian space.

Problema 1

The most straightforward criticism that can and should be made of COD is that it really has nothing to do with openness and dialogue and everything to do with the expressions personal aesthetic taste on the part of the Prime Minister and the elaboration of an authoritarian example that may guide discourse in particular directions even as it occludes other avenues of articulation. In a sense, the primary goal of the COD should be posing the question: what should be said next? And who will say it? These are both, in their own right, very difficult questions to raise, but I do not think that the COD effectively raises them. Precisely because of its completeness, its neatness, its cleanliness, its security guards and polite young women dogging the visitor’s every step, its ban on photographs—all of these things (to say nothing of the fact that it is in the Prime Ministerial building) conspire to make its statements seem definitive rather than open-ended. (Although this does not exclude a definitive open-endedness from characterizing the space as well.)

However, the very goal of “dialogue” is itself questionable. Dialogue presupposes the presence of well-formed, even essentially constituted subjects; it often presumes the presence of a shared object between those subjects, giving shape to their world. Dialogue may perhaps be defined by some as antagonistic, but it is not the condition of a plurality of antagonistic viewpoints defining and redefining their positions vis-à-vis an always-emergent field of objects. If we acknowledge this, then dialogue is in fact a condition quite apart from politics. It is even, if we view politics as ground of the possibility of subject-formations, a subordinate condition that is no longer directly political. Thus, if the COD presumes to fuse art and politics in the realm of dialogue, it adopts a view of politics that is already quite narrow, a view in which meaning-giving subjects have been ontologically united by shared reference to objects (in this case, the Kryeministria and the works displayed within and upon it.

Furthermore, the goal of “openness” is likewise open to suspicion. I once argued (in a talk on the relationship between the new placement of Odhise Paskali’s statue, the now-crumbling Monument to the Anniversary of Independence, and Postbllok) that the primary thrust of Rama’s Rilindja, as it manifested in the monuments erected around the anniversary of Albanian nationhood, was characterized by a paradoxical movement from closedness to openness that nonetheless retained the claustrophobic interiority of the former enclosed space. Thus, the Rilindja in politics was part of a constellation that also included the imaginary celebration of “opening” of the Albanian nation after it became independent from the Ottomans, and with the “opening” of the country in the wake of socialism’s end. This “openness” is suspicious because—as the publicity surrounding the COD’s opening and German chancellor Andrea Merkel’s visit to Albania as a “short break from the tortuous eurozone negotiations over the resolution of Greece’s financial woes” made abundantly clear—it creates a situation of disparity between Albania and its “outside” (namely, Europe). While this is certainly not the only, or even the primary, meaning of “openness” that the COD allegedly aims for, it seems clear that “openness” is—as it appears in the Monument to the Anniversary of Independence and Postblloku, an exterior condition, while closedness belongs to Albania itself at an essential level.

A political institution declared that it served particular goals, but did not. Instead, it contradicted these goals in nearly every instantiation of its policy. But the goals themselves were uncertain in their own right, and eminently corruptible. Lucky the public whose institutions do not pursue their stated goals!

Problema 2

The COD clearly wears its relational aesthetics on its sleeve, not just in the inclusion of particular artists often associated with the movement, but in its overarching conceptualization. This, however, seems to suggest that Rama’s fusion of art and politics is fundamentally a relational one. On this account, the continuum between art and politics is framed in terms of relations. It is worth considering, however, precisely to what degree the COD is a space not primarily of relationships but of objects. This in turn prompts us to ask: to what degree is Rama’s politics a politics of relationships, and to what degree a politics of objects?

An artist’s goal was to create relationships among his viewers, but his works stubbornly retained the qualities of objects. Lucky the audience that could still behold an object!

Problema 3

Part of thinking beyond the Kryeministria as a site of enclosure and thus paradoxically as (according to the logic of the COD) a primary possible site for “openness” must involve reconceptualizing the Kryeministria and its new installations in a broader spatial network. This network might extend across the entire globe, through economic flows, or through the intertwining careers of the artists, curators, and politicians involved. It might extend across the country, shifting through levels of citizenship, history, and access (since, as the COD points out, the Kryeministria has long played a key role in the lives of the Albanian people).

I think, however, that one of the most productive approaches to contextualizing the COD in space is to consider it in relation to the Postbllok memorial (installed in 2013) located diagonally across from the Kryeministria on Tirana’s main boulevard. This memorial, erected to commemorate those who died during Albania’s socialist period, was designed by Fatos Lubonja and Ardian Isufi, and consists of three elements: a concrete bunker that once guarded the corner of Blloku, the area of Tirana where the nation’s elite resided during socialism; concrete beams from the gallery of the Spaç forced-labor mining camp; and a graffitied section of the Berlin wall.

It has been suggested that Carsten Höller’s Giant Mushroom bears a resemblance to the “concrete mushroom” of Postbllok, a resemblance that is certainly weighted with meaning. I do not think, however, that this is the only visual—to say nothing of conceptual—connection between the two installations (COD and Postbllok). If Höller’s Triple Giant Mushroom connects the COD to the bunker of Postbllok, this irrevocably transforms both works. The mushroom becomes not merely a conglomeration of fungal types that “can be seen as a commentary on Albanian politics”; it is also part of a spatio-temporal dispersion (the “spore” of the dictatorship) that grows up in a new guise, echoing in turn the tripartite division of the socialist realist relief on the façade of the Kryeministria (created in 1974 by Kristaq Rama, Mumtas Dhrami, Shaban Hadëri, and Hektor Dule). At the same time, the bunker of Postbllok might also take on the multiplicity of Höller’s mushroom, its claustrophobic space now internally divided against itelf and its apparent direct relation to the traumatic memory of the socialist period brought into question.

The skeletal, crooked concrete pillars of the Spaç structure, in which tourists often stand to have their photographs taken, likewise present a logical juxtaposition with Parreno’s Marquee. Both frame an emptiness that is linked inextricably with the past. Indeed, the aesthetic(ization) of ruins that defines the logic behind the installation of pillars is inverted by the sterilized brilliance of Parreno’s Marquee, which would seem to threaten to empty out the emotional and material resonance of Postbllok. However, these ruins also function as a metaphorical gesture at the ruins of the Kryeministria’s first floor. In doing so, the building itself takes on some of the characteristics of the “prison of memory”—it joins even more closely with Postbllok’s rhetoric of “opening”, not longer simply on a rhetorical level but also on a visual/structural one.

SAM_0050

Standing tall and isolated, the thin section of the Berlin Wall that forms part of Postbllok is adorned on one side by scrawls of colorful graffiti, while its inverse is a blank expanse of grey concrete. In other words, on one side, signs proliferate—but they are fragmentary, illegible, exaggerated, split apart from their original context. On the other side, one looks in vain for the sign, and the materiality of the object asserts itself: it is a pseudo-presence that obscures, suggesting a role something like what Tony Smith suggested when he explained that his Die was neither a monument nor an object. This same blankness, juxtaposed onto the three walls of the entrance hall of the Kryeministria, also resonates through Thomas Demand’s works, particularly Sign, which takes on something of the Berlin Wall fragment’s dualistic semiotics when the space is viewed in relation to Postbllok.

It is worth noting that, looking out from one of the rifle slits of the bunker in Postbllok, positioning oneself precisely in alignment with metal rifle cradle, one looks out directly at the entrance to the Kryeministria. The gaze of the past is inescapable, and it echoes through the structures of the COD.

Designing an exhibition, an artist struggled to decide whether it was more important to enforce a tripartite reading of the works presented, or a dualistic one. Lucky the audience that need not choose between the logic of threes and the logic of twos!

Problema 4

The most satisfying aspect of the installation of Thomas Demand’s Sign—a photo depicting a vast white expanse that—upon closer observation—the viewer realizes is actually the silhouette of a model of a giant handshake. The incomplete handshake, which Demand identifies as a piece under construction for the 1939 World’s Fair, a piece commenting on “partnership of the people of the world by consumerism,” mounted behind glass, is not simply a vast expanse of white that gestures at the fundamental openness and instability of all signs. It is also a sensitive reflective surface that functions in the way that is similar to the way John Cage interpreted and used Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of the early 1950s. Standing before Demand’s photograph, one sees both the photo and, inescapably, one’s own reflection against the bright light flooding in from the doors of the Kryeministria. Thus, Sign is both empty and ironic and full of situational meaning. Indeed, it seems to contain the entire situation of the viewer’s encounter with COD within it. One moves from one side of the image to the other, trying—in vain, at least as far as my experience went—to really see Demand’s image without the superimposition of reflected light and shadow clouding what is ultimately, in the end, just a photograph of a painted white field.

An image suggested a deep, almost pessimistic emptiness that threatened to escape the understanding of those who confronted it. But in this image, viewers could always see—at least—themselves reflected, however distorted and incomplete that reflection was. Lucky the audience that can see itself reflected in an empty image!

Problema 5

If there is, in my mind, a single aspect about the COD that is most problematic from the standpoint of practical engagement with the space, it is the ban on photography (of which both the security guard and the polite young woman who shadowed me through the space reminded me). Of course, I understand the practical considerations that plague any installation of art in terms of copyright and so forth. The ban on “non-professional” photography, however—and by this I mean, the ability of the public to snap a few photos of the exhibition with their smartphones or cameras—seems most philosophically contradictory to the interior space of the COD itself. The entire interior space, especially the installation of Thomas Demand’s photos, is concerned precisely with the possibilities of the image, as both object and sign. In the video accompanying the exhibition, in which Demand and the other artists explain their work, Demand insists on his inspiration by the kind of superficial and generalized media images that are ubiquitous in the capitalist era (and certainly in Albania). This is further reinforced Demand’s production of the photos of his models as the finished works (in most cases); the image, not the object created, is what matters. The fact that most members of the public first encounter the COD through media images confirms the relevance of Demand’s ideas to the space, and—in a sense—contributes precisely to its “closed openendedness.” According to the logic of Demand’s works, the whole COD itself could be encapsulated in an image; if it disappears tomorrow (as Bunk’Art and House of Leaves have done), the COD will still retain its ontologically primary existence, as image (rather than as space, or object, or relation).

Given this thought-provoking but circular and somewhat pessimistic reading of the space, it seems to me that exactly what the COD should allow is photography—and photography of the most superficial variety. Although many lament the rise of selfies, and the gradual waning of interest in surroundings themselves, in this case precisely what is needed is an engagement with the space that acknowledges and repeats—ad nauseam—the image of power presented by COD, wearing it out through prolonged (re)exposure and (re)transformation into an abundance of images. This would be a far more appropriate form of “dialogue” for the space to promote—and one in keeping with the title of Zef Paci’s archival installation Fotografitë Rishkruan Historinë [Photographs Rewrite History]. It seems unlikely to me that the COD will open itself up to any truly democratic political condition if it does not open itself to the dangers and possibilities of the proliferation of images. This proliferation holds within itself an ambiguity that is—in an important sense—anathema to the meticulous curation of the space, its perceived teleological completion.

A government declared itself to be merely an image of power, and power to be a function of images. Lucky the population that has recourse to images in the face of such a government!

Problema 6

As it is, the COD occupies a curious conceptual space that I would like to try to elaborate further. One of the strongest—and I think, quite legitimate—criticisms of Rama’s curation of the space (and the establishment of the COD as an art space within the Kryeministria) is that it drifts quite close to a totalitarian model of the aestheticization of politics. While I think this is true, I also think there is more to be said, and that this can most effectively be said by comparing Rama’s work to that of Albanian socialist realism. There was a time when I would have shied away from such a comparison, considering it entirely too sensationalist (given both that Rama is the son of Kristaq Rama, one of the great sculptors of Albania’s socialist years and that the mention of socialist realism generally often provokes negative responses and declamations of kitsch). Now however, the comparison is unavoidable. I wish to consider just one work of Albanian socialist realism, and from it to extrapolate—metaphorically—the interstitial space of the COD installations.

One of the greatest paintings from Albania’s socialist period is Vilson Kilica’s portrait Shoku Enver Hoxha [Comrade Enver Hoxha](1976). The work, which is a three-quarter portrait of Albania’s dictator, places Hoxha against a vast and utterly flat red background. The Leader himself stands looking out, a kind and strong benefactor, one fist raised in salute. The assertive flatness of the background is undeniably modernist; it creates a non-space of color that seems, quite explicitly, to turn to the tradition of Byzantine icon painting for many of the same reasons that Modernist painters did.

Kilica_Shoku Enver Hoxha_1976

However, the lower edge of this red expanse is broken; it in fact resolves into the lower edge of a waving flag—although it is clear that this is not a real, material flag, but merely its abstract and perfect foundational Form. Its two-dimensionality is complete and utter, and in this way it draws our attention to the surface of the canvas as a field where two coeval zones of color meet, framing the figure of the Leader. It is in this thin, tan strip of ambiguous space that—at lower left—Kilica has signed painting. One could say that, placing his name outside the zone of red that serves as the ideological ground prepared to receive the Leader’s image, the painter has removed himself from politics, has attempted to sidestep his role as a shaper of ideology. On could likewise say that, placing himself outside the zone of the red flag, Kilica precisely draws attention to himself as articulator of the ideological and conceptual round that levels the image to prepare for the clarity of the dictator’s presence. Rather than including himself within the zone of ideological construction, Kilica reveals himself to be in the elevated position of creator, imposing form and order to heighten the effects of ideas. In this reading, the space in which Kilica signs the work is behind the flag, and thus also behind the Leader—and in this space behind it is also before.

The ambiguity of this position is heightened, however, by the way that the flatness of the painting’s backdrop removes the hierarchical conditions normally asserted between creator and creation (just as the flatness brings into question even the robust ontological character of the Leader by suggesting that he too exists on a plain with the composition’s other formal elements, that his power is abstract like the symbolic charge of the flag’s brilliant red). This space, at once removed from ideology but continuous with it, creating and controlling it through partition and metonymy rather than imposing form from above, is also—in a way—the space of the COD. It is a space that wishes to escape certain ideologies, but at the same time articulates itself as their point of origin. Finally, it is in interstitial space in which hierarchy is both preserved (since the image of power is celebrated to its utmost) and undercut, since the insistent blankness of that image places it alongside—rather than above—its perceived effects. The COD operates in the space where surfaces sometimes appear to be behind others, while at other times that are continuous with them, unable to escape their dispersion in a space that may be multiple or may only seem that way. Far from creating a space where there appears to be none, the COD seeks to create an image in a space where there appears to be only image.

A politician sought to create space, but in doing so looked to art to tell him what space was. In the place of space, he found only image. Lucky the politician who finds only images, and no space!

Epilogue on Beauty

‘The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible. This preparation consists of three things: arrangement, measure, and aspect or form.”