Socialist realism in Albanian art at Pera Museum
The exhibition features a selection of works produced during the years of dictatorship when a political attitude aimed at spreading the founding principles of socialism reigned supreme. The exhibition, which opened on July 7, will continue through Oct. 15.
Curated by Artan Shabani, “Constructing a Dream: Socialist Realism in Albanian Art” investigates the impact of the communist ideology on Albanian visual arts during the second half of the 20th century and offers an opportunity to become familiar with the culture and identity of Albanian people who had been isolated from the rest of the world for a long time, and centers around the daily life, working class, portraits of leadership, representations of the regime and a hopeful approach to upcoming generations.
Shabani defines “socialist realism,” which shaped Albanian art for 40 years, as a period during which the state directed and controlled artists as well as artistic creativity, and says that the exhibition brings together a selection of works from the leading artists of Albania.
Comprised of paintings, propaganda and film posters, clothing designs and children’s books, the exhibition not only reflects the period’s visual arts but also offers a chance to look into changes in Albanian society through partisan warfare and resistance against occupation forces, the defense of the motherland, national industrialization, social life and sports.
Among the exhibited artists are Guri Madhi, who was among the founders of the Albanian Fine Arts Academy and an “Artist of the People” (the highest accolade bestowed upon artists of the socialist realist period); Safo Marko, Pandi Mele and Pëllumb Bylyku, who were some of the most important graphic designers in Albanian visual arts; Robert Përmeti with his paintings of soldiers and athletes; Agim Faja, Zef Shoshi, Dhimitër Theodhori, Skënder Kamberi, and Ramazan Memishi with their works depicting the enthusiasm of “new” people building a new Albania; Kristofor Naslazi and Lumturi Blloshmi with their impressive portraits; Sami Roçi, Lec Shkreli, Guri Madhi, and Ilija Rota with their landscape paintings; and Myrteza Fushekati, Shyqyri Sako, Namik Prizreni, Aziz Karalliu, Bujar Zajmi, Kleo Nini, and Astrit Tota with their film posters.
Stalin’s ‘soul engineers’
A faculty member of the University of Art in Tirana, Ermir Hoxha, who also wrote an extensive article for the exhibition catalogue, defines Albanian socialist realism as “euphoric, optimistic, and beautiful” at first glance and adds: “Established in communist Albania during the Cold War as part of a state platform, it was the official image of communist ideology, from the late 1950s until the fall of the regime in 1991.”
As such, it would essentially preach a “new world,” rising above the ruins of the old one: A “new world” without exploitation, no exploited people and no exploiters, where no social classes existed and where the income was shared equally among all.”
Stating that socialist realism developed after the October Revolution in Russia (1917), more precisely with Stalin’s rise to power when the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia founded in May 1922 and encouraged the realistic approach to the avant-garde, Hoxha says that the “soul engineers,” as Stalin called these artists, were tasked with the ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.
The Albanian academic defines socialist realism with four key concepts: “Proletarian” for being relevant and understandable to the workers, “typical” for depicting scenes from the people’s daily lives, “realistic” for producing representational images, and “partisan” for supporting the objectives of the state and the party.
Hoxha says these themes were materialized in thousands of large canvases, billboards, posters, and monuments under the strict scrutiny of the propaganda machine throughout the countries of the Soviet orbit and defines socialist realism, which was built as an aesthetic method, as the material, tangible evidence of an immaterial dream and the artistic vision of another world almost impossible to reach.