The Albanian Cultural Revolution, Monumental Sculpture and Collective Artistic Production
Author: Raino Isto
Editor In Chief ARTMargins Online
To better understand the significance of the collective labour of the three sculptors and the significance of the dictator’s visit to their studio, we must understand the political and cultural situation in socialist Albania leading up to 1969. As noted above, these years saw the beginning of a period of heightened industry involved in the construction of monumental sculpture. This commemorative surge – which lasted well into the 1970s – formed part of Enver Hoxha’s own Cultural Revolution, partially carried out in conjunction with Mao’s, primarily between 1966 and 1969.14 The 1960s were a tumultuous period in the country’s international relations: at the beginning of the decade, Albania broke off relations with Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and gradually shifted towards an alliance with the People’s Republic of China. This alliance made it logical for Hoxha to look to Mao’s policies as a model for socialist development, but the character of the Cultural Revolution that took place in Albania was markedly different from that of China.15 Hoxha viewed the transformation of China’s politics and culture beginning in 1966 with concern: to him, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was too frenzied, too potentially dangerous to merit imitation; a more controlled, top-down method seemed prudent.16 While Hoxha ultimately lent vocal support to the changes occurring in China, the Albanian Cultural Revolution was characterised by a greater consolidation of state power and national consciousness, coupled with a decidedly different version of the personality cult.
At the Fifth Congress of the Albanian Party of Labour in 1966, Hoxha outlined his model for ‘the deepening of the ideological and cultural revolution’.17 The ‘further revolutionisation of life in the country’ would manifest itself in many ways. The ensuing years witnessed an intensification of Hoxha’s anti-religious policies – especially vis-à-vis the Catholic tribes in the north of Albania, whose loyalty to familial ties presented an ongoing challenge to centralised governmental control.18 At the same time, the construction of a civil religion centred on the national hero Skanderbeg began, and this civil religion in turn established a link between Skanderbeg’s alleged role as medieval unifier of the Albanian people (against the Ottomans) and Hoxha’s socialist state.19 (In this and other ways, Hoxha’s cult of personality was constructed obliquely, by first establishing other national heroes such as Skanderbeg and Ismail Qemali, and subsequently associating Hoxha’s role with theirs.) The year 1966 saw the inauguration of the Palace of Culture in Tirana, home to the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet and the National Library, and the number and diversity of newspapers in the country started to increase, with local publications overseen by regional Party committees beginning publication.20 The final years of the 1960s also saw the publication of the first volumes of Enver Hoxha’s collected works – a set of writings that would eventually stretch to seventy volumes and would become the single most important reference point for all published criticism and analysis in the later years of Albanian socialism.21
Hoxha’s own writings on the arts in particular seem to indicate, however, that he was not primarily interested in directly participating in culture. Many of his writings on art and literature (including those from the period of the Cultural Revolution) are quite general,22 and only in a few specific cases (such as that of the Vlora Monument) did he make concrete suggestions. However, it is clear that Hoxha nevertheless consider it necessary for his involvement in artistic and cultural matters to become public, even if he himself did not emphasise his own artistic sensibilities, and there is documentation of other cases in which his artistic preferences shaped public commissions.23
It is difficult to assess the full impact of the – at least partially-shared – Cultural Revolution on the development of the arts in Albania.24 Many Albanian artists travelled as part of cultural delegations to China and other Asian countries (although such visits began far in advance of the Cultural Revolution). Exhibitions of art from China and Korea toured to Albania (including a replica of the massive sculptural ensemble The Rent Collection Courtyard, 1965), and Albanian artists such as Andon Kuqali, Andrea Mano, and Foto Stamo drew on their experiences of China to represent the landscapes and working classes of that socialist nation for Albanian audiences. What is clear, however, is that cultural exchanges during this period allowed Albania to solidify a position as the last truly socialist nation in Europe (holding out against various ‘revisionist’ neighbouring states), while at the same time attempting to create a socialist art that would be both nationally specific and globally accessible.25
Above all else, the model for the arts developed during the Cultural Revolution in Albania was intended to be popular in character and appeal.26 As Hoxha asserted, Our socialist art and culture must base themselves firmly upon our ancestral homeland, upon our miraculous people; they must spring forth from the people and be fully in their service, be clear and understandable to them but not in the least ‘banal and without ideas’. The Party supports artistic and cultural production in which deeply ideological content and expansive, popular inspiration are brought into harmony with an elevated artistic form: [artistic and cultural production] that touches the feelings and hearts of the people, and inspires and motivates them to do great things.27
It seems clear, however, that artistic production was not meant to relate to the masses solely through its content. The process of artistic production was also supposed to mirror the collective efforts that the socialist populace was purportedly undertaking, and such collectivity was ideally manifest in the creation of monumental sculpture. By 1970, Kujtim Buza would survey the plethora of public art projects (chiefly sculptural and architectural) at the time, and write that ‘nearly all of our sculptors, no matter their age, have joined together to form collectives’.28 While Buza’s assessment may be exaggerated, his observation indicates the shift taking place in creative work during the period of increased monumental construction – a shift that the 1969 photograph of the ‘Monumental Trio’ (as Rama, Hadëri, and Dhrami came to be called) at work on the Independence Monument demonstrates quite succinctly.
Many of the major monuments produced in the country during the late 1960s and 1970s were the work of multiple sculptors (to say nothing of the collaboration with architects in designing the environments for the installation of the sculptures), including the equestrian statue of Skanderbeg in the main square of Tirana (the work of Odhise Paskali, Janaq Paço, and Andrea Mano, inaugurated in 1968) and the Four Heroines of Mirdita in Rrëshen (the work of Andrea Mano, Perikli Çuli, Fuat Dushku, and Dhimo Gogollari, inaugurated in 1971).29 The collaborative aspect of monument-building in socialist Albania served both a practical and an ideological function. Multiple sculptors were often necessary to complete the works in time for the established inauguration dates and artistic collectives allowed younger sculptors to work with older, more experienced ones.30 The collective character of the creative process was also seen as vital for the development of artists as creative individuals in the course of building socialism. Collaboration allowed for group discussions of artworks – considered to unlock their full aesthetic-didactic potential – and co-operative work in the studio facilitated the exchange of both experience and ideas out of which individual artistic styles were able ‘to crystallize’.31 At the same time, collaborative artistic effort assured that individual style did not transform into individualism or intellectualism.32
This conflict, between the artist’s individuality as evidence of socialism’s cultural fecundity and the drive to model a collectivised mode of artistic creation, was never fully resolved in socialist Albania. Albania never really saw, for example, the kind of mass cultural production characteristic of Mao’s China, although the move towards collective artistic processes in the late 1960s might certainly be seen as a response to Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Thus, there was always a degree of tension between the concept of collaboration – implying individual subjects joining together in the work of creation – and that of an achieved artistic collectivity, in which such individuals would cease to matter as individuals. Thus, although ‘collective’ creative work was repeatedly celebrated in official discourse, the individual and indeed elite status of artists was retained both practically and to a degree ideologically.33 However, the imperative to collaborate and to study ‘popular’ sources of culture attempted (in a way analogous to some of the changes in artistic practices in Maoist China) to place artists in direct contact with social groups with whom they would not otherwise interact.
By 1969, Rama, Hadëri, and Dhrami were the paradigmatic artistic collective in Albania. Together, they had achieved notoriety as prolific and popular sculptors; indeed, their collective success was such that the three were caricatured as a monument by cartoonist Bujar Kapexhiu in a 1969 issue of Drita. All three first studied in the Jordan Misja artistic lyceum in Tirana and later (as was common for artists in Albania during the 1950s and early 1960s, prior to the break with the Soviet Union) in the Ilya Repin Institute in Leningrad. Upon returning to Albania, Rama worked first as an superintendent for the Ministry of Art and Culture, then as Director of the National Gallery of Arts (in 1960), and later as a director in the Ministry of Art and Culture (in 1966).34 Hadëri and Dhrami both returned from Russia to work as professors of sculpture in the Institute of the Arts in Tirana. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Monumental Trio was at work not only on the Vlora Independence Monument, but also on the Mother Albania monument destined for the Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Nation in Tirana (also inaugurated in 1972), the Monument to 1920 near Vlora (inaugurated in 1970), and a monumental relief on the façade of the Prime Minister’s residency (completed in 1974).35 The event that fully solidified the significance of the Monumental Trio’s position in socialist Albanian art history, however, came with Enver Hoxha’s visit to their studio.
- On the Albanian Cultural Revolution, see Isa Blumi, ‘Hoxha’s Class War: The Cultural Revolution and State Reformation, 1961–1971’, East European Quarterly, vol 33, no 3, autumn 1999, pp 303–326, and Peter R Prifti, Socialist Albania Since 1944: Domestic and Foreign Developments, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978, pp 143–149.
- Elidor Mëhilli, ‘Mao and the Albanians’, in Alexander C Cook, ed, Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014, pp 165–184
- Ibid, pp 172–175
- It is significant that the language used treated the policies as a continuation, a ‘deepening’, rather than an absolute break. Hoxha, Mbi Letërsinë dhe artin, opcit, p 241.
- Miranda Vickers, The Albanians: A Modern History, I B Tauris, London and New York, 2014, p 197
- On the cult of Skanderbeg as a civil religion, and the association of Skanderbeg with Hoxha, see Egin Ceka, ‘Muzeu Kombëtar dhe Muzeu i Skënderbeut si Institucione të Religjionit Civil Shqiptar të Komunizmit’, Përpjekja, vol 11, no 21, autumn 2005, pp 121–147. The inauguration of the equestrian monument to Skanderbeg (created by another trio of sculptors–Odhise Paskali, Janaq Paço, and Andrea Mano) in Tirana’s central square in 1968 was emblematic of the monumental aspect of the construction of this civil religion. The monument displaced the statue of Stalin that formerly stood in the square.
- Artan Fuga, Monolog: Mediat dhe Propaganda Totalitare, Dudaj, Tirana, 2010, p 59
- Akademia e Shkencave e RPS të Shqipërisë, Historia e Shqipërisë, Vëllimi i Katërt (1944–1975), 8Nëntori, Tirana, 1983, p 362.
- See the writings in Hoxha, Mbi Letërsinë dhe artin, opcit
- One such case involved Hoxha’s role in deciding the form of the monument that would grace the Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Nation in Tirana, under construction in the same years. Regarding this monument, see Raino Isto, ‘Dynamisms of Time and Space: The Synthesis of Architecture and Monumental Sculpture in Socialist Albania’s Martyrs’ Cemeteries’, Eesti Kunstimuuseumi Toimetised: Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia, vol 11, no 6, 2016, pp 42–67.
- In the realm of public space, one of the most concrete influences of Mao’s Cultural Revolution on Albania was the adoption of the ‘big character poster’, or fletë-rrufe, as it was called in Albanian. On this phenomenon, see Ardian Vehbiu, ‘Me Shkronja të Mëdha’, Përpjekja, vol 20, no 32–33, spring 2014, pp 216–227.
- See Raino Isto, ‘Between Two Easts: Albania, the USSR, China, and the Ontology of a Transnational Socialist Reality in Postwar Albanian Visual Art’, paper delivered at the College Art Association 104th Annual Conference (3–6 February), Washington, DC, 6 February 2016.
- As such, part of socialist Albania’s attempt to consolidate national consciousness involved documenting rural practices and gathering ethnographic information on rural populations.
- The quotation is drawn from Hoxha’s speech at the Fifth Congress of the Albanian Party of Labour in 1966, published in Hoxha, Mbi Letërsinë dhe artin, op cit, p 255.
- Kujtim Buza, ‘Puna Krijuese Kolektive në Fushën e Arteve Figurative’, Drita, 27 September 1970, (emphasis added). Buza alsomade clear the centrality of monuments to socialist Albanian life: ‘The ideological-aesthetic education of the working masses is an important duty of our artists, painters, and sculptors. Their works play a key role in shaping the masses’ notion of beauty, in creating a rich spiritual life [for the people]. Architects and monumental sculptors have a particularly significant role in this process.’
- Relatively little scholarship exists in any language on Albanian monumental sculpture, nor even on Albanian sculpture more broadly. In English, Vincent W J van Gerven Oei, ed, Lapidari, op cit, surveys commemorative sculpture from socialist Albania with several scholarly contributions. In Albanian, Suzana Varvarica Kuka is the author of several monographs on Albanian sculptors. On Odhise Paskali’s artistic activity, see his memoirs: Odhise Paskali, Gjurmë Jete, 8 Nëntori, Tirana, 1986, and Ferid Hudhri, Arti i Rilindjes Shqiptare: 1883–1945, Onufri, Tirana, 2000, pp 87–114.
- Suzana Varvarica Kuka, Andrea Mano. Skulptor i Merituar: 1919–2000, Ilar, Tirana, 2009, p 123, pp 127–128
- Kristaq Rama, ‘Arritje dhe Perspektiva të Skulpturës Sonë Monumentale’, Nëntori, vol 25, no 1, January 1978, pp 19–20
- Buza, ‘Puna Krijuese Kolektive’, op cit
- Likewise, as we shall see, although Hoxha’s interaction with the sculptors of the Vlora monument could certainly be termed collaboration, it cannot be said that the dictator’s own subjectivity disappeared into the artistic collective – rather, the leader appeared to emerge all the more clearly out of his participation in the genesis of the monument.
- Ylli Drishti, SuzanaVarvarica Kuka, and Rudina Memaga, Monografi: me Artistë Shqiptarë të Shekullit XX, Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve, Tirana, 1999, pp 76–77, pp 92–93, pp 106–107
- These latter two works were created in collaboration with sculptor Hektor Dule (b 1939), who was slightly younger than the other three.