National Art Gallery, Tirana

  
  - darkometer rating:  2 -
 
National Art Gallery 7 - Stalin and an armless Lenin are relegated to the back yardAs the name spells it out: it's an art gallery. Now, such institutions don't feature a lot on these pages, but this one had to be included for its fantastic collection of socialist realism paintings – and for some surprising hidden gems in the back yard.  

>What there is to see

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What there is to see: Tirana's National Art Gallery, or Galeria Kombetare e Arteve" in Albanian, is a true gem even for those dark tourists that are not normally particularly fussed about art in general. So when in Tirana do not miss it. What makes it so good is the fact that it is a brilliant repository of socialist realism art. As such it is about the last place in Tirana that offers a fuller glimpse into the bygone era of communism. Not actually such a realistic one, of course – "realist" in this context means about as much as "democratic" in the official names of so many (former) communist states – but it still provides an insight into the era's official mindset in Albania.
 
The gallery's first two halls actually contain works that predate socialist realism as such. The early works are from the late 19th and early 20th century and comprise mostly portraits and rural scenes, as well as a few images depicting life in the towns. The latter are a bit more interesting as such – already realistic, but without the wacky fun factor of the later works.
 
This begins in Hall 3 and carries through to Hall 5, a treasure tome of fantastically OTT socialist realism, which forms the core of the exhibition. It is subdivided roughly on stylistic as well as topical grounds: There are historical depictions, including lots of victorious partisans, celebrations of the working class, industrialization and, again, the unavoidably glory of the army.
 
Many titles speak for themselves, such as "Oil Drill Man", "Partisan Ambush", "Going to Work", "Proclamation of the Republic", or "Working Girls" (and they mean literally! NOT it in the western euphemistic sense as code for 'prostitute' – who obviously didn't exist in those glorious days anyway, at least not officially …).
 
But my absolute favourite title was: "Everywhere we are at the forefront"! Oh, doesn't that just sum up the status of Albania under Hoxha? That's why the whole world looked towards that prosperous little country with so much envy. Ah, but then again, we were not allowed to even peek in, were we? So what do we know. But as long as the Albanians were convinced of this, then the purpose of this piece of art was fulfilled, of course. That, in essence, is what the fun is in socialist realism when viewed today … the scale of the lies told by such art is often simply hilarious. Maybe it's more fun for an "outsider" who never actually had to live under the oppressive living conditions of real-life communism. But I hope that enough people who had to endure the real realism of communism can today also see the humorous side of this artistic "realism".
 
One artist apparently got a little too real in this game: A painting by Edison Gjergo entitled "The epic of the morning's stars" from 1971 was later criticized as "displaying a pessimistic outlook" on life, blacklisted and subsequently banned from the exhibition. The artist himself was even arrested and put in prison in 1974. It goes to show that if you took realism too literally, it was patently dangerous! The piece, now on display again, is part of the final section of socialist-era works in hall 5 and in general is an interesting study in the delicate lines that artists had to tread. Here the style of paintings is often not quite so totally "realistic" but echoes, carefully, some other modern trends such as expressionism, cubism or fauvism a la Matisse, while thematically staying on target, as prescribed, though depicting peasants, workers, soldiers and, yet again, more working girls (of the innocent variety). Gjergo's case poignantly demonstrated that that alone was not enough: his painting did have the obligatory soldiers and peasants in it – but it just looked a little too much like Chagall. Aside: isn't it interesting that humourless ultra-communist regulators of the arts share(d) their dislike for even the slightest artistic expression that was vaguely modern and not representational and glorifying with the same stance on art that the Nazis of Germany had in the 1930s? What the latter declared "entartete Kunst" ('degenerate art') was exactly the same sort that was also suppressed by the likes of Ever Hoxha. What exactly is it about modernism that so disturbs totalitarian regimes of either ilk – is it the very idea of liberty inherent in artistic license?
 
But back to the National Art Gallery. The remainder of the exhibition presents more recent post-communist-era modern works dating from 1989 to 2001. Some are also interesting as such, but not particularly dark. With one exception that is at least dark in a very literal sense: a triptych-like piece vaguely resembling gothic church windows, executed almost entirely in black (by Gazmend Leka, called "Promised Land").
 
Apart from the paintings there are also a few sculptures dotted around all over the gallery. Some ere mere busts (and rather boring) but a piece like "The metal worker" is socialist realism at its heroically representational best once again.
 
There's a shop by the foyer downstairs, but disappointingly there's nothing about the gallery's collection of socialist realism art at all so all you can take home with you are the memories of the impressions the gallery made itself.
 
What, from a dark tourism point of view, is definitely the best bit of the National Gallery is not actually IN the gallery itself, but hidden away behind it, in the back yard: here they suddenly are, like curious survivors: statues of Stalin and Lenin. Given Albania's otherwise so thorough removal of everything reminding of the communist era, this is really a surprising find. I hope they are safe here, huddled away from the more open view they probably used to enjoy, but still out in the open air.
 
Lenin is a bit battered, mutilated even: his arms are missing. The right one presumably once reached forward (maybe pointing the way, as Lenin statues so often did), but is now just a stump. As if to avert a similar fate, Stalin hides his left hand behind his back and his right hand in his coat (Napoleon-style) … a posture you find him depicted in quite often, in fact (e.g. the grand Stalin at Grutas Park, aka "Stalin World" in Lithuania is basically exactly the same, only even bigger).
 
Anyway, while Lenins are still quite commonly found all over the east and especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union, happening upon a Stalin is a very rare thing. His survival until the fall of communism is of course perfectly explainable by Enver Hoxha's staunchly clinging on to Stalinism when everywhere else Uncle Jo images and statuary ware removed. What is much more remarkable is the fact that this Stalin even survived the subsequent revisionist clearing away of all traces of the communist era in Albania.
 
Dumped by the wall on the corner of the back of the Gallery building and facing the two great demi-gods of atheist socialism are also a few more mundane statues of "commoners". These are pure socialist realism too: a soldier forcefully aiming his rifle at something on the stairs next to him (an imperialist ant perhaps?), a worker raising a pickaxe into the air like a sporting trophy, and a legless, rather buxom girl – no, not another "working girl", but this time a female soldier – note the ammunition around her waist and the star on her cap.
 
Overall verdict: for me the National Art Gallery was a definite highlight in Tirana. Do not miss. Even if you're not massively into art.
 
 
Location: right in the centre of Tirana, off Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit, just opposite Rinia Park.
 
Google maps locator:[41.3255,19.8201]
  
 
Access and costs: easy, cheap.
  
Details: the central location makes the place as easy to find as it can. Just walk down the central artery that is Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit and look out for the squarish modern building set back from the street a bit behind a huge tree. On the front the older shorter name "Galeria e Arteve" is given.  
 
Opening times: Tuesdays to Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays only to 2 p.m., closed Mondays.
 
Admission: 200 lek (seniors, students, disabled 100 lek).
 
To see those statues of Stalin, Lenin et al., you don't even need to pay the admission to the National Gallery – you can just pop round the back of the building at any time.
 
 
Time required: not too long, maybe half an hour in all, unless you're a real art buff and need to study each and every painting in detail.  
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Tirana.
  
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Tirana – the gallery also has sections of non-socialist-realist style, including some contemporary modern art, mostly without any decidedly dark associations; and some of this is also worth a quick look.  
   
  
  
  • National Art Gallery 1 - outsideNational Art Gallery 1 - outside
  • National Art Gallery 2 - older shorter nameNational Art Gallery 2 - older shorter name
  • National Art Gallery 3 - some grand socialist realismNational Art Gallery 3 - some grand socialist realism
  • National Art Gallery 4 - main hallNational Art Gallery 4 - main hall
  • National Art Gallery 5 - scientists, peasants and working girlsNational Art Gallery 5 - scientists, peasants and working girls
  • National Art Gallery 6 - from the golden olden days of triumphant socialismNational Art Gallery 6 - from the golden olden days of triumphant socialism
  • National Art Gallery 7 - Stalin and an armless Lenin are relegated to the back yardNational Art Gallery 7 - Stalin and an armless Lenin are relegated to the back yard
  • National Art Gallery 8 - more chucked out statuesNational Art Gallery 8 - more chucked out statues
  • National Art Gallery 9 - back yardNational Art Gallery 9 - back yard
 
  

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