Art and (Gay) Sex in Communist Albania

In late November 2015 I visited Albania and Kosovo with a series of lectures on ethnolinguistic nationalism. During one of the very few moments left by this intensive program I happened to visit the National Art Gallery in Tirana, Albania’s capital. The paintings and sculptures exhibited there are solely from the 20th century, the majority of them originating from the communist times. Socialist realism was art for politics’ sake as opposed to bourgeois (capitalist) art for art’s sake. That was the dogma of stalinism in the field of fine arts. The system came to an end around 1956 across the Soviet bloc, but not in Albania, where Stalinism (with a hint of maoism) ruled supreme until the fall of communism in this country in 1992.

Socialist (communist) art was not only to reproduce an enhanced (that is, unreal) reflection of the reality of ‘people’s work and progress,’ but was also quite prudish. No talk or images of the erotic (let alone, sex) were permitted in public sphere. Janaq Paço (1914-1991) specialized in sculpting classical nudes, this being the canon of beauty on which in which the approved vision of the healthy muscular body of the socialist worker or peasant was steeped. Students of socialist realist art were to learn from the best examples of Graeco-Roman classical art.

sculpture-of-janaq-pa-ccedil-o

In 1964 the National Art Gallery acquired one of Paço full-figure nudes. But a decade later, in 1974, Sigurimi (communist Albania’s notorious security police) ordered him to destroy this nude, alongside others that he kept in his studio. The official reason of this sudden change of heart was that his sculptures were a proof of unwanted foreign influence spreading and ‘infecting the wholesome body’ of Albanian socialist realist art. Luckily, the destruction of the Gallery’s nude below the waistline was deemed sufficient. The thus created bust survived intact in the warehouse and now, as a dissident sculpture, rightfully takes the pride of place in the exhibition on the art from communist Albania.

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Nude (1964) by  Janaq Paco , National Art Gallery, Tirana

 

The painter Petro Kokushta (born in 1943) never made a mistake of pandering to foreign bourgeois tastes. He stuck rigidly to officially prescribed themes and to the ‘correct way’ in which they should be executed. Beyond the boredom of predictable communist visual propaganda, I was struck by the eerie beauty of one of Kokushta’s paintings, entitled ‘Reaching the Heights of Light.’ Ostensibly, the two young workers are installing some last pieces of machinery on a high voltage pylon that overlooks a deep valley. In the illusion created by this composition the two men, both in their prime, appear to be airborne, floating high above the earth, as free as angels in the dark deep blue of the sky. The background looks as though transported directly from an icon, which was blasphemous in communist Albania. It was the world’s sole country where all religions (or the marxist ‘opiate for the masses’) were liquidated in 1967.

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Reaching the Heights of Light (1981) by Petro Kokushta, National Art Gallery, Tirana

I wonder how come censors and political officers failed to take note of this extraordinary counterrevolutionary challenge posed in the painting. And even worse, out of earshot, only with each other in this austere environment, the two electricians seem only a minute away from a tender embrace. The Islamic tradition of men being strictly separated from women yielded the custom of male friends holding hands and greeting by kissing on cheeks. The suggestion of homoeroticism emanates unabashedly from this painting in direct defiance of the ideological decorum of communism. Was the painter aware what he did? Luckily for him, unlike in the aforementioned case of Paço’s nudes, the party failed to notice a heavy hint of gay love in Kokushta’s masterpiece.

December 2015

 

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