The Vlora Independence Monument and the Politics of Socialist Albanian Sculpture, 1962–1972
Author: Raino Isto
Editor In Chief ARTMargins Online
The genesis of the Vlora Independence Monument established that the collaborative aspect of monumental industry did not occur only between artists. Enver Hoxha visited the sculptors’ studio in the summer of 1969, and the subsequent exchange of open letters between Hoxha and the artists established the paradigmatic involvement of the dictator in cultural affairs, assigning him a role that hovered between enlightened benefactor and educated critic. Hoxha’s intervention in the Vlora monument’s creation was highly strategic: it not only clearly established the meanings the monument would have upon completion, but it also contributed to Hoxha’s own transformation from military leader into a figure of intellectual and socio-cultural authority. As Albania entered the 1970s, Hoxha would wield this authority more aggressively, eventually declaring war on all ‘foreign influences’ in Albanian culture in 1973.36 However, he also used this authority to establish himself as the leader of a culturally and historically unified people, not merely of a politically delineated state. Coming as it did at a key moment in the political, cultural, and social transformation of socialist Albania, Hoxha’s letter to the Monumental Trio paradoxically indicated both the ‘correct’ interpretation of national history and the degree to which the interpretation of that history was still an open question. Put differently, Hoxha’s observations to the sculptors prescribed a set of meanings that the monument was intended to convey, but in so doing it also indicated that those meanings were not self-evident, that collaboration and discussion were necessary between artists, the state and the people in order to fully comprehend (and to make) history.
Hoxha made several things clear in his letter. First, he insisted that the Vlora monument should present not merely the events surrounding the Albanian Declaration of Independence in 1912, but the entire history of the Albanian people’s struggle against ‘centuries-long enslavement and [against] every impediment’ to national unity. Second, he emphasised that this historical synthesis should be embodied in an image of ceaseless and violent forward motion: he wrote, ‘The whole ensemble of the monument should be on the attack, so that the figures that make it up are not in static positions…independence must be protected, the war must be continued, the revolution must rise.’ As a result of these two suggestions, Hoxha argued that the monument should present a clear connection between the moment of independence and the ongoing project of Albanian socialism:
Zef Shoshi, “When Enver Hoxha Speaks and the Party Decides, All Albania Springs to Its Feet”, 1983 Colored pencil on paper 25 x 20 cm, Artan Shabani Collection
Additionally, and perhaps most significantly, he commented on the role of Ismail Qemali as it appeared in the sculpture: ‘I agree with you that the figure of Ismail Qemali should be the central figure, as you have made him, but from the entire ensemble it should be clear that his act is a consequence of the legendary struggle of the people’.37 That is, Hoxha desired the Independence Monument to reflect not only the past as history but also the present as history, and that history was meant to be a collectively popular one; if heroes emerged in this history, they emerged out of the kind of communal effort that characterised the creation of the monument itself, as an exemplary instance of socialist labour.
Hoxha made other concrete suggestions regarding both form and content in his letter, most of which were integrated into the finalised version of the monument. He lamented the absence of a representative figure from the period of the Albanian National Awakening, a movement of intellectual and nationalist consolidation that Hoxha clearly wished to establish as a parallel to his own administration.38 He also noted that the degree to which the artists had attempted to represent the specific clothing of fighters from different ethnographic regions within Albania, but suggested that the figures should be more generalised in their appearance, since – as he put it – war cast aside the need for costumes and finery. Finally, he remarked upon the flag’s rather crestfallen character, suggesting the need for a more dynamic form.
In their letter of response – published on the front page of the same issue of Drita in which Hoxha’s letter appeared – Rama, Hadëri, and Dhrami for the most part accepted Hoxha’s suggestions regarding the monument’s content. The sculptors’ letter indicates, in many ways, both the possibilities open to and the limitations constraining artists in socialist Albania. On the one hand, the sculptors take issue with none of Hoxha’s observations. They praise his incisive sense of both aesthetics and Marxist-Leninist history and describe at length the inspiration that his letter instilled amongst themselves and their colleagues. In short, the letter of response would appear to confirm that the artists themselves had little or no agency in the creation of the monument, that their work was suddenly effaced by the dictator’s intervention. However, this interpretation ignores the degree to which the publication of the two letters places the emphasis precisely on the dialogic character of the creative process, the need for discussion and exchange, for debate about history and its proper representation. The dictator’s letter published alone would have meant something quite different.
Furthermore, the changes to the monument that Hoxha proposed by no means fully encompass the changes that the sculptors subsequently carried out. First of all, the final monument in fact increases the number of warriors dressed in recognisable (though still generalised) costumes that locate them in various different ethnographic regions within or adjacent to Albania’s national boundaries under socialism. As sculptor Hektor Dule – a colleague of the Monumental Trio – wrote,39 the four warriors flanking Qemali appeared to represent a malësor (a resident of the mountainous regions of northern Albania and Kosovo, known to Albanians as Gegënia), a myzeqar (a resident of the region of southwest-central Albania once known as Myzeqeja, around present-day Fier and Lushnja), a lab (a resident of Labëria, a region in the south of Albania stretching between present-day Vlora south to Saranda and east to the Vjosa river), and a tosk (a resident of Toskëria, a historical region in southeastern Albania, east of Myzeqeja and Labëria and south of the Shkumbin River). Thus, the sculptors in fact heightened the ‘popular’ character of the figures in the monument, at once fulfilling Hoxha’s call for an art based upon direct contact with the people and in a sense rejecting his preference for a generalised image of historical Albanian fighters for independence.
Indeed, perhaps the most fundamental change to the model involved the flag form at the centre of the monumental ensemble, a change that affected not only the composition but the meaning of the work as well. In their letter, the sculptors emphasised that one of the most salient pieces of advice the dictator had given had been that regarding the need for the monument’s contemporaneity. They wrote, [Our] subject also always calls not only for deep historic truthfulness but also a solid connection to the present. Precisely in this connection between the subject of history and that of today, we artists sometimes have difficulties, since we may present the highest achievements of various periods of history as if they were disconnected from [our] present.40
To bridge the abyss between history and the present, the sculptors ultimately transformed the crestfallen flag into a sharp upward protrusion of the stony base, crowning this vertical element with a flagbearer – a youth representing the ‘New Man’ of socialist Albania.41 In this way, the sculptors satisfied both the monument’s historical character and the requirement that the work function as a reflection of the transforming socialist present. That is to say, the contemporaneity of the Vlora Monument lay in the way it brought together diverse times (the age-long struggles of the Albanian people, the emergence of national consciousness in the National Awakening, the rise of the ‘New Man’ of socialism) in the historical present. In this sense, the monument is not simply a representation of the ‘new’, of socialist modernity. As Peter Osborne points out, ‘The subject of modernity (and there is ultimately a singular one) has a “collective” dialectical unity; the equally speculative, but differently unitary, subject of the contemporary has a “distributive” unity.’42 In Albania during late socialism, there was a distinct political and existential clash between the attempt to construct a ‘modern’ subject (one characterised by the dialectical unity achieved through, for example, the nation, the social class, or the ethnic identity) and a ‘contemporary’ subject (one characterised not by dialectical transformation, but defined through its differential distribution across times or geographies). The Vlora Monument’s depiction of a unified history was not merely about the synthesis of that unity, but also about its distribution: it suggested that the warriors of the mountainous north of Albania (who had not yet been fully ‘modernised’), the late Ottoman political and literary elite that helped establish the Albanian state and the socialist youth, all represented instantiations of a historical reality that was being constructed most emphatically in the socialist present. In this way, the monument straddles collective synthesis and the distributive character of socialist contemporaneity.
Enver Hoxha would never again intervene as directly and publicly in the creative process as he did in the case of the Vlora Independence Monument. Nor would he need to: thanks to the peculiar citational economy of socialist Albanian culture, once introduced into discourse, an event such as the exchange of letters between Hoxha and the artists could be endlessly referenced, removing the need for subsequent interventions. Over the course of the next several years (as the monument was being completed, and after), the letter Hoxha had written to the Monumental Trio became established as a crucial document of socialist art criticism within Albania. Above all else, Hoxha’s letter emphasised that the historic moment depicted in the Vlora Monument should be seen as the collective struggle of the Albanian people – and his letter also performed that function, since it made clear the importance of the mutually reinforcing collaboration between the socialist state and its artists. In 1970, when Kujtim Buza wrote about the significance of collective artistic labour in Drita, he insisted that the open exchange of letters was responsible for significant aesthetic and ideological transformations in other monuments under construction at the time, such as the Four Heroines of Mirdita monument.43 When the Vlora Independence Monument was finally inaugurated in 1972, the article published in Zëri i Popullit (Voice of the People) – socialist Albania’s primary daily newspaper – did not fail to discuss the exchange between Hoxha and the sculptors in the summer of 1969. When Kristaq Rama delivered the keynote speech at the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists’ plenum on monumental sculpture in 1977, he stated that Hoxha’s letter ‘had special importance not simply for the successful realisation of [the Independence Monument], but for [Albanian] art in general’.44
Let us, finally, return to the 1969 photograph of the three sculptors published in Shqipëria Socialiste Marshon. It may now seem that the absence of the dictator from the photograph is all the more striking, even if we know that the image was taken before Hoxha’s visit to the studio. Of course, there is a kind of bathetic – and no doubt accurate explanation: even if Hoxha’s intervention was celebrated within socialist Albania, the photobook in which the image was published was one of those produced primarily for export to other nations, to demonstrate the successes of Albania’s Cultural Revolution. As such it was far more important to emphasise the freedom of Albania’s cultural workers, their independent innovation in the creative process. At the same time, however, it seems not entirely accidental that the dictator’s visit to the studio was an event that belonged almost immediately to the realm of discourse, that proliferated itself through texts and references rather than through photographic documentation. With its combination of vague ideological suggestions and concrete formal ones, Enver Hoxha’s letter to the Monumental Trio was perhaps also an example of socialist Albanian culture as pure text: far from a concrete material instantiation, as the monument would become – as it already appeared in the photograph of 1969 – the letter exchange between dictator and artists was the production of another kind of collaborative structure, a citational one. It allowed the Vlora Independence Monument to serve not only as a concrete aesthetic model to be directly emulated, but also – perhaps even more so – as a loose conceptual framework in which and across which a plethora of histories would unfold.
Understanding the genesis of the Vlora Independence Monument helps us understand the work of monumental sculpture as an agent of history and historical consciousness – not only the ways monuments represent historical events and produce an understanding of these past events through their enduring presence, but also the ways their production models various forms of history in the present. History made in the present in socialist Albania during the late 1960s was intended to be a collective history, and out of this collectivity emerged groups of artists more fully equipped to capture what Shaban Hadëri would later term ‘the monumentality of our socialist life’.45 It also produced a new image of the state and the dictator as collaborators in the construction of art, history, and collective life. The complexities of this process were far greater than is often suggested by contemporary accounts of Albania’s socialist past, such as the one presented in the 2013 article in Mapo, cited at the outset. Such accounts see the art of the socialist period primarily as a tool that political power used to distort history and reality alike. What these accounts omit is the degree to which neither art’s role in relation to history, nor history itself, were unambiguously defined concepts. Rather, they were emergent in particular works and particular situations, and the scale of monumental industry made monumental sculpture a particularly significant field through which these concepts could be configured by artists as well as political figures.
In so many ways, socialist Albania’s cultural scene was unique in terms of art history. The country lacked the neo-avant-garde tendencies that arose nearly everywhere else in the region. It largely avoided the tendencies towards either geometric or biomorphic abstraction that appeared elsewhere, even in monumental contexts, in favour of pursuing figurative Socialist Realism as an aesthetic ideal. Its monumental landscape sought to establish itself not against a long history of sculpture, but against a territory supposedly empty of developed commemoration. And yet, for precisely these reasons, the historical role that monumental sculpture was called upon to play in Albania can assist in showing us the importance of monumentality in the late socialist context. As political structures, international alliances and ideologies began to shift in the 1960s across Eastern and Central Europe, and socialist culture transformed, the role played by artists in relation to history also changed. In monuments, where a sublime vision of the past was intended to be unified with the socialist present, artists often found themselves not only representing history but also participating in its collective significance.
Raino Isto is a public historian, arts educator, and curator currently based in New York City. They are currently editor-in-chief at ARTMargins Online, and since December 2021 they will be a fellow at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and Art Studies in Tirana, Albania. Recently, they were ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Educational Video Center in NYC. Previously, Raino was the arts education coordinator at the Umpqua Valley Arts Association in Roseburg, OR (in 2020), and a doctoral fellow at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles (in 2018-19).
- This declaration was made at what would become the infamous Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Albanian Party of Labour, a meeting where ‘liberal’ trends evident in the Ninth Albanian Radio and Television Song Festival (December 1972) were condemned. On the effects of the Fourth Plenum in Albanian art, see Fjoralba Satka, ‘Albanian Alternative Artists vs Official Art Under Communism’, in Corina Pălasăn and Cristian Vasile, eds, History of Communism in Europe, Vol. 2–2011: Avatars of Intellectuals Under Communism, Zeta Books, Bucharest, 2011, pp 79–89.
- All citations in this paragraph are from Hoxha, ‘Në Gurrën e Pashtershme’, op cit.
- On the National Awakening period, see Stavro Skendi, The Albanian National Awakening 1878–1912, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1967.
- Hektor Dule, ‘Një Vepër nga më të Fuqishmet në Skulpturën Tonë’, Drita, 3 December 1972
- Rama, Hadëri, and Dhrami, ‘I Dashur Shoku Enver’, op cit
- In some ways, the flagbearer represented one of the monument’s clearest ideological tensions, discussed above: that between the significance in its own right of collective struggle and effort, and the coalescence of that collectivity into an individual figure.
- Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso, New York, 2013, p 25
- Buza, ‘Puna Krijuese Kolektive’, op cit
- Rama, ‘Arritje dhe Perspektiva’, op cit, p 15
- Shaban Hadëri, ‘Monumentaliteti i Jetës Sonë dhe Pasqyrimi i Tij në Skulpturë’, Nëntori, vol 24, no 5, May 1977, p 246