The Vlora Independence Monument and the Politics of Socialist Albanian Sculpture, 1962–1972
Author: Raino Isto
Editor In Chief ARTMargins Online
Let us begin by considering a 1969 photograph showing Albanian sculptors Kristaq Rama (1932–1998), Muntaz Dhrami (b 1936) and Shaban Hadëri (1928–2010) engaged in discussion regarding an early model of the Vlora Independence Monument. The image appeared in the photobook Shqipëria Socialiste Marshon (Socialist Albania on the March) –also published in 1969 – where its accompanying descriptive caption read: ‘Through collective work, our sculptors often realise works of value to immortalise the major historical events of the Albanian people.’5 The clarity of the photograph’s visual rhetoric is striking:6 against an almost completely blank backdrop of a beige studio wall, the dark clay of the model rises to a sharp point that just breaks the top edge of the photo. Arranged in a semi-circle, the bodies of the three sculptors bracket the monument’s base: Dhrami at the centre and Hadëri to the right look on as Rama, on the left, leans forward intently and articulates his speech with an extended hand. The photo captures his gesture at the precise moment when his hand overlays the aggressively worked clay of the model’s base, suggesting the transformation of the artists’ thought and discourse into material form. The trio of sculptors is balanced by a tripartite distribution of the monument itself, which in fact appears in three articulations: two smaller models located at the level of the artists and the larger version towering above their heads. Furthermore, the way the sculptors are grouped horizontally around the base of the model finds a parallel in the grouping of figures in the monument itself, surrounding the flag and flagpole that draws the composition towards its apex. Above all else then, the photograph weaves together the strands and stages of socialist Albanian history and shows this history as a collective event: the present, the sculptors grouped in dialogue, becomes the ground from which the collectivity of past experience achieves clarity, form and metaphysical significance.
The photograph was probably taken prior to Hoxha’s visit to the sculptors’ studio, but in the wake of that visit, it becomes difficult not to read the artists’ engaged conversation as a discussion of the dictator’s aesthetic and ideological suggestions (which I will describe in greater detail below).7 In either case, however, the photograph reveals the importance of co-operative effort in representing the past. Such collective work became essential to the socialist Albanian cultural industry in the second half of the 1960s, when the country experienced a frenzy of memorialisation aimed at consolidating a shared national historical consciousness.
The Mapo article appeared less than a year after the hundredth anniversary of Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire (on 28 November 2012), an anniversary that included extravagant festivities in the southern port city of Vlora, where national independence had first been declared in 1912. The locus of these festivities was Flag Square, Vlora’s central plaza, a public space dominated by the seventeen-meter-tall bronze Independence Monument. The sculpture depicts Ismail Qemali, the Ottoman statesman who headed the assembly that first announced Albania’s independence, flanked by a collection of warriors belonging to different cultural and geographic groups, as well as a figure representing an intellectual from the period of the Albanian National Awakening. Rising behind this group is a towering boulder, atop which stands the massive figure of a flag-bearer, holding aloft the streaming flag of the Albanian nation, with its double-headed eagle. The monument—first officially commissioned in 1962, but not inaugurated until 1972—has long been a touristic landmark and source of national pride, both for the decisive moment it depicts and for its aesthetic qualities.
During these years, as artist and critic Kujtim Buza would write in 1973, ‘socialist Albania’s landscape would be transformed into ‘a landscape of stone, of marble, a landscape of bronze‘.8 The country witnessed a proliferation of monuments to counter their relative absence in the Albanian territory prior to the socialist years. This prior absence of monuments can no doubt in part be attributed to the relative political instability of the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the infrastructure and resources necessary for large-scale monumental projects were simply not available, or were devoted primarily to creating a modern urban architectural environment. Thus, it was not until well into the socialist period in Albania that monuments (which often served as localised architectural interventions into rural areas, symbolically creating a ‘modernised’ urban space without the need for larger-scale transformation) were profusely produced.9
The inception of the Vlora Independence Monument predates the surge in monumental construction of the late 1960s. The initial commission in 1962 coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of independence from the Ottoman Empire and the first plans for the work were significantly different than the sculpture that was finally inaugurated ten years later. The most detailed plan for the first version of the project was put forward by Odhise Paskali (1903–1985), one of the few sculptors who had realised works of a monumental scale in Albania prior to the socialist period. Paskali belonged to an older generation of artists than those who, in the early 1960s, were just returning from training at the Ilya Repin Leningrad Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture – the artists who would help establish the forms of Socialist Realism that subsequently characterised artistic production in Albania in the late 1980s. Paskali – trained in Turin in the 1920s – proposed an entire monumental complex that was essentially neoclassical in character: a central stone statue of Albania personified as a mother-warrior, holding aloft a flag in one hand and dangling a golden garland in the other, was to be surrounded by three separate groups of warriors.10 These groups would represent: 1) the politicians, intellectuals, and militants associated with the Albanian National Awakening, including Ismail Qemali; 2) the soldiers who fought in the 1920 Vlora War against Italian forces; and 3) the soldiers who fought in the National Liberation War, the struggle to free the Albanian territory from fascist forces during World War II.
Although many aspects of Paskali’s concept for the monument would survive in the version ultimately realised, it appears that Paskali himself was never contracted to work on the project. Instead, in 1963, the Central Committee of the Politburo announced an open competition for proposals for the monument,11 and finally in the middle of 1965 the Politburo approved a concept put forward by Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntaz Dhrami.12 The sculptors were contracted to complete the monument within three years. One condition of this contract, however, was the construction of a centralised studio space in Tirana for the purpose of national monumental construction – a fact that reveals the lack of an infrastructure necessary to the construction of monumental sculpture prior to that point. The construction of the new studio was also delayed, and in 1967 the sculptors agreed to complete the Independence Monument by the close of the year 1969 – the year that marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Partisan victory over fascist forces and Albania’s subsequent liberation.13 However, 1969 would ultimately mark not the completion of the Vlora Independence Monument but instead the aesthetic and ideological re-evaluation of the monument’s significance in the wake of Enver Hoxha’s visit to the sculptors’ studio and his comments upon their labours.
- Shqipëria Socialiste Marshon, Shtëpia Botonjëse Naim Frashëri, Tirana, 1969, p 13, translation in original.
- This clarity also suggests that the photograph was staged, as were many such photographs appearing in official photo books and periodicals under socialism.
- Muntaz Dhrami, conversation with the author, August 2016
- Kujtim Buza, Kleanthi Dedi, and Dhimitraq Trebicka, eds, Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar, Shtëpia Qëndrore e Ushtrisë Popullore, Tirana, 1973
- On this topic, see the state produced documentary film Lapidari (10:27 minutes, 1984–1986), written by Viktor Gjika and directed by Esat Ibro; see: http://departmentofeagles.org/tag/viktor-gjika/. For an analysis of the film see Julian Bejko, ‘About the Film Lapidari’, in Vincent W J van Gerven Oei, ed, Lapidari, Volume I: Texts, Jonida Gashi and van Gerven Oei, trans, Punctum Books, New York, 2015, pp 125–128.
- A detailed description written by Paskali together with sketches for several variants on this initial plan for the monumental complex can be found in the Arkivi Qendror Shtetëror (Central State Archives, Tirana; hereafter AQSh), f 490, v 1962, d 992, fl 4–34.
- Ibid, AQSh, f 490, v 1963, d 979, fl 9
- Ibid, AQSh, f 490, v 1967, d 521, fl 5