It would be impossible to write on the topic of Albanian art without mentioning socialist realism. Developed in the Soviet Union, the socialist realist movement played out across a range of disciplines. Essentially it comprised the various ways in which the doctrines of the state were reinforced in public life. Socialist realist artwork in particular was characterised by subjects and scenes that gave an idealised view of socialist life and the promoted communist values. Other Post World War II socialist regimes harnessed socialist realism at some point or another, including the People’s Republic of Albania.
Painters practicing during the communist era were forced to paint in this state-approved style. Failure to adhere to these standards could lead to very serious penalties including imprisonment. Many artists hid their less acceptable works for years, lest they were discovered by the Sigurimi, Albania’s infamous secret police.
Isuf Sulovari is a prominent example of a painter of Albanian socialist realism. Born in Elbasan on 15 July 1934, he attended several institutions in Tirana and in Bucharest between 1951 to 1964, studying under professors Sadik Kaceli, Tiberiu Kruz and Korneliu Baba. After completing his studies he moved back to Elbasan and held jobs as a drawing teacher and a painting lecturer. Later in the 90s he resided in Tirana where he continued painting until his death on January 26 2006. At the time of his death his name was relatively unknown to the public, although his work was exemplary of the standards of the period.
Some of his most iconic works can be found in the National Art Gallery of Tirana. These include “Actionist” 1967, “Industrial landscape”, 1969, “Tobacco cooperative” 1970, “Milker” 1971, and “Metallurgical giant” 1974. More works of his are displayed in the Art Gallery of Elbasan, while others are in the hands of private collectors.
As with other artists of his era who underwent rigorous formal training, his body of works shows his incredible versatility and an ability to replicate countless other styles. But the pieces for which he is best known use large distinctive forms with few details – a style possibly inspired by Mexican artists of the 20th century and French cubist painter Fernand Leger. The Crown Princess of Albania Susan Cullen-Ward is said to have referred to him as the Leger of Albanian art.
Thoughts on a selection of works by Isuf Sulovari
Socialist realist Albanian artwork is generally consistent with the principles of the original movement – an adherence to ‘revolutionary romanticism’ and the absence of tragedy and negativity. That said, Sulovari’s “Masakra e 4 Shkurtit” (1969-70) provides an example of a socialist realist artist using these very themes, as opposed to romantic ones, to express a political position. It’s a dramatic piece with no apparent semantic complexity. Rather it has the quality of a piece of propaganda, as though designed for the purpose of vilifying the government of axis-occupied Albania.
The piece is an interpretation of the events of 4 February 1944, wherein police units reportedly shot and killed 86 residents of Tirana suspected of being anti-fascists. This incident has been interpreted historically as a retaliation against communist guerrillas following assassinations of political figures, and specifically an act of personal retribution on the part of government Minister Xhafer Deva, for an attack upon his car the previous day which resulted in the injury and subsequent death of his nephew.
The painting is uncomfortable to look at. But it shows an profound understanding of the principles of composition.
The feet of the figures play a crucial role in the piece. All are located in the bottom right. The left foot of one child makes contact with that of the other child, representing a point of maximal density from which the rest of the scene expands. The eye is drawn to the fallen woman’s right sole and what looks like a bandage on her smallest toe. It also lingers with curiosity on the lower limbs of the little girl, which seem disproportionately long in relation to her arms and body. Her legs unnaturally muscular, the feet broad and almost talon-like. These faintly monstrous appendages sprout from her tiny dress and plant themselves decisively on the ground – perhaps to evoke ideas about ‘growing up fast’ and ‘filling the shoes’ of one’s parents.
The splayed crimson skirt of the fallen woman evokes a host of associated images – the petals of a poppy…the horrors of war…a beauty plucked in the flower of her youth…a fallen Albanian flag. In any case, this substantial portion of redness lends weight to the presence of blood around the figures. The top-most splash of blood is positioned above the left-most dead man. In the shape of it I see an eagle, as though escaping from his palms and taking flight.
The painting may have the hallmarks of propaganda, but it is difficult to imagine that it did not come from a place of real emotion. Sulovari put his heart into his work. And there is something singularly moving about the way he painted women. A writer for Gazeta Shqip opines
“…what makes this artist special from most of the other artists who lived in that period is his way of building his works, the life he gives them through seemingly very small elements.”
The article goes on to describe a painting featuring peasant women in headscarves.
“Regardless of the system in which these women lived, regardless of the norm and the work they had to do to support the family, deep down they were women and the painter knew how to say this.”
I look at “Tobacco Cooperative” and wonder what it is that is so mesemerizing about the subject. Full-figured, with red lips and shoulder-length brown hair, she is representative of a huge number of women.
And of course, that is the point. Sulovari has succeeded in communicating with extraordinary clarity the beauty of a woman. He has done so with an ordinary subject and with simple forms. He positively relies on simplicity to reveal the power a shapely bare leg stretching out to one side, and the serene expression of one peacefully absorbed in work.
Admiring the subject of “Milker”, my gaze shifts to the sea of red cows in the background, and I am reminded of another work of Sulovari’s. One I came across in Tirana’s E Rira Art Gallery depicting seven similarly red cows.
Sulovari’s body of work includes a number of colourful oil paintings and pastel pieces. In many of these we find a sense of movement completely absent from his classic socialist realist works. The difference is quite extraordinary, and I feel as though I’m peering into a secret place in the artist’s psyche.
In any case it is always interesting to see an artist paint the same thing in different ways. Where in “Milker” the cows form a dense and uniform wall in the background, supplying context for a wholesome scene, here they are the subject of the painting, and each has its own personality. With soft lighting and bright green grass, the scene could be described as idyllic.
But several elements give it an ambivalent tone. Like the strange white star on the forehead of the cow in the foreground, seemingly peacefully asleep. (An earlier version of this picture has deeper red cows and one white, their foreheads marked in black. Again I see the outline of the Albanian eagle – indeed it’s impossible for me not to see eagles in everything nowadays.)
And the way the cows’ spines and hipbones slither through the image. And the empty bucket lying on its side in the bottom left corner.
I find myself recalling Genesis 41:
“18 I saw seven fat, healthy cows come up out of the river, and they began feeding on the grass.
19 Next, seven skinny, bony cows came up out of the river. I have never seen such terrible looking cows anywhere in Egypt.
20 The skinny cows ate the fat ones.
21 But you couldn’t tell it, because these skinny cows were just as skinny as they were before.”
Of course, bones will be visible even in a healthy cow. And yet another pastel sketch depicts two horses grazing – one white, one red. Again a seemingly idyllic scene. But the horses are skinny. Protruding Hipbones and ribs are decisively highlighted. The horse in front is white but outlined in red with dashes of purple and yellow, giving it a translucent, ghostly quality in addition to this suggestion of malnourishment. And yet luscious green grass grows in abundance at their feet.
These vibrant pastel pictures are like scenes from a dreamworld. But memories are what they are. And if emaciated animals find their way through, no amount of dream-grass will ever make them fatter. But everything is lit up in this world, and such forms are shown to be beautiful purely as artistic subjects, so that even an empty bucket celebrates its own emptiness.
It seems Sulovari had a fondness for fantasy imagery. In his body of work from the 50s onwards, we encounter scenes with mermaids dancing like rag dolls in the wind, and nude nymph-like men and women embracing each other in a colourful vortex. According to Suzana Varvarica, a long time conssesuer of his work, at the end of the 90s he dedicated himself to nudes with greater commitment. The fluid quality of some of these pieces, which seems to sweep away any trace of human character that might otherwise settle in these undulating forms, is a far cry from the frank and static beauty of his socialist realist pieces. Outside the duties and constraints imposed upon the artist by the state, he is free to explore the subjects that appeal to him. And it is heartwarmingly human. Sulovari may have had a difficult life, but this did not hinder his capacity to be enchanted by rich mythologies and the inexhaustible beauty of the female form.
But I question how much of himself he invested in these kind of works. One of his final pieces features the valiant Skanderbeg upon his horse – an image that appears to imitate an icon of St George. Perhaps representing a point at which the artist was in some sense, fully submerged in fantasy.
Looking at the piece, I come to realise that the form of the national hero is no more integral to this fantasy than any other aspect of the picture. Like the mermaids, Skanderbeg is one that has dissolved into the scene – a scene that has dissolved into the style, which in turn has dissolved into the medium. This is the unity of a dream…something entirely divorced from reality.
No wonder then, these figures are not endowed with the life he gave his working class subjects – they cannot be viewed in isolation from the entire piece.
And I start thinking that maybe this is indicative of a kind of artistic disillusionment. The last flexes of one who has cut loose his beloved figures, given them up to the other side of existence, and resigned himself eternally to his position: that of the Painter – just another kind of labourer – in a world that had not been kind to him.
For a fascinating insight into socialist realism another Albanian artist Lec Shkreli , check out this article by the Balkanista.
“ISUF SULOVARI.” Facebook, www.facebook.com/unsupportedbrowser?_rdr (Isuf Sulovari website Facebook page)
Isuf Sulovari Facebook page [ISUF SULOVARI]. “LEGERI, SHQIPTAR I SOC-REALIZMIT….” Facebook, 1 Sept. 2018, m.facebook.com/IsufSulovari?eav=AfbXhbao45sbM0JWqt5i3QnaRJASPGm-ynxBSev1Twts0F7lqwEyvdWFHwAOP3DS69s&tsid=0.9900673534380502&source=result (Post containing an article from Gazeta Shqip, published 07/06/2007)
The National Gallery of Arts, Tirana. “Galeria Kombetare E Arteve | Isuf Sulovari.” Galeriakombetare, galeriakombetare.gov.al/en/collection/isuf-sulovari.shtml.
Rira, Edmond. “ISUF SULOVARI.” Galeriarira, galeriarira.com/Blog+Posts/isuf-sulovari.html.
Isuf Sulovari. sq.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isuf_Sulovari. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022 (Wikipedia article)
Masakra E 4 Shkurtit 1944. sq.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masakra_e_4_shkurtit_1944. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022 (Wikipedia article on the Massacre of 4 February 1944)
Republished with permission from Agnestilda.com
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