Japan: Courts and Culture

The sumptuous new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Japan: Courts and Culture which opened on 8th April, 2022 and runs until 12th March, 2023, displays some of the finest works of Japanese art in the western world, and covers items dating back to 1613, when King James I was presented with a magnificent suit of Samurai armour as well as other gifts by the Shogun Tokugawa in the Japanese Emperor’s name. This is the earliest Japanese item in the Royal Collection.

1. Suit of Samurai armour (1580-1610)

More importantly for the British, the British East India Company was officially permitted to trade with Japan and the 350-year relationship between the Japanese Imperial and the British royal houses began. Sadly, the initial entente cordiale lasted only until the 1630s when Japan closed her borders to the outside world in an attempt  to control foreign influence – a state of affairs which lasted for 220 years.

2. These attractive pieces of blue and white porcelain probably came from the collection of Augustus II of Saxony who set up his own porcelain factory once he knew the secret of how it was made

However, once the Stuarts had seen the wonderful Japanese porcelain and lacquer work, neither of which were known in Europe, they set about acquiring examples from European merchants wherever they could. Somehow, between 1639 and 1854, British royalty managed to keep in contact with the Japanese Imperial family, if not in person, then at least through their purchases. And, if Japanese merchants weren’t willing to sell porcelain, this couldn’t be said of the Chinese who swiftly produced a variety of blue and white porcelain aimed specifically at the European market.

3. Two sake bottles 1840-1860. Probably sent to Queen Victoria by Shogun Togugawa Iemochi, 1860

In the early years, the West had difficulty in knowing the difference geographically between India and Japan, and China and Japan. Did that matter so long as they got the luxury goods they coveted? But the trade secrets of porcelain eventually came out and top quality porcelain factories spread throughout Europe.

By the mid-19th century, the Japanese Imperial and British royal families were officially back in touch, and various British princes were sent off to Japan to broaden their minds and forge good relationships with the Japanese Imperial family.

Personally, I love blue and white porcelain, but, the new royal British owners of porcelain items obviously felt that they needed mounts. The moment I saw a vase with mounts, I was instantly taken back to the George IV: Art & Spectacle exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in 2019 when I first learnt what ‘mounts’ were. As one of the guides explained: ‘it was fashionable during the Regency to add extra bits to art objects to make them even more arty.’ She pointed to two Chinese vases under two small tables. ‘Originally, they would have been plain,’ she said. ‘The Chinese themselves did not go in for over-ornamentation.’

The guide continued: ‘What the Prince Regent wanted was to make the art object even more Chinese than it was already.’ I was staggered. I’d always believed that the gold rims at the top of a vase, or the gold stands at the base were part of the original. This, surely, was what Chinese/Japanese vases were really like.

Apparently not.

4. One of a pair of vases with covers. These vases are Chelsea porcelain dating from 1750-75 which have been given gilt bronze mounts. They were probably bought by George IV who definitely went in for mounts.

In other words, mounts were decorative bits of ornamentation, usually in gilt, gold, or silver-gilt, which transformed the original object into something else entirely.

5. The mounted jar above proves my point. The original porcelain jar has been mounted with gold and gilt bronze for use either as an urn or for pot pourri

George IV bought it in Paris, already mounted, and it ended up in the Brighton Pavilion.

We can see that, by the 18th century, the distinction between Chinese and Japanese porcelain was becoming blurred – let alone the question of the mounts; but we need to remember that, in the 18th century, the Imperial Japanese and the British royal families were no longer directly in touch.

6. I love these porcelain hares – or rabbits? Here, they are a pair of pastille burners.

The hares look as if they are wearing patchwork, perhaps against a chilly night. When they were in the Brighton Pavilion, their garments were described in the inventory as ‘harlequin patches’ Although they come from the Japanese province of Hizen, the hares themselves have been ‘borrowed’ from China, perhaps in recognition of The Year of the Rabbit, the 4th year in the Chinese calendar. But hares have longer ears than rabbits and they don’t have white powder puff tails like rabbits.

An exquisite lacquer box which contains drawers to hold precious objects.

I found myself wondering what the Imperial Japanese visitors thought of what had been done to their porcelain gifts when they visited the United Kingdom and saw them displayed with the added golden glitter of the mounts? Did they think them vulgar, perhaps? Or even ugly?

In 17th century Europe, the secret of the use of lacquer, together with the recipe for porcelain, were unknown. Lacquer comes from the sap of the Toxicodendron verniciflua tree and it has been used in Japan since 4000-3000 BC as a durable finish for luxury wooden objects or temple furniture. It is resistant to water, heat, woodworm, and it can be coloured or sprinkled with metallic powder. It takes a very long time to prepare and execute; each layer must be allowed to dry thoroughly and rubbed smooth before the next layer is added. It is an onerous task and needs an immense amount of skill.

Porcelain is based on crushed granite mixed with china clay which was extremely difficult to work.

8. Cosmetic box decorated with a heron, given to Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate her Coronation in 1953. It is made of wood with black, gold and silver lacquer

This has to be one of the most precious objects in the exhibition. It’s creator, the Imperial Household Artist, Shirayama Shosai (1853-1923), has incorporated miniscule streaks of gold to set off the softness of the silver feathers.

9. Lacquered cabinet with shelves

On the whole, the Japanese do not go in for furniture; shelves, like the one above, were reserved for the very richest families. One shelf might hold cosmetics, another might be for writing implements and books, and the third for incense equipment and small boxes. Queen Victoria was given the above item by the Shogun Tokugawa in 1860 and I was rather amused to note that the British Consul General itemized it somewhat helplessly as ‘1 dioesu (a sort of cabinet)’.

Once the two royal and Imperial families had re-established contact in the 1850s, the exchange of gifts continued more freely; British princes visited Japan and diplomatic and political links were secured. The early 20th century saw reciprocal Imperial and royal attendances at Coronations and the like; they were on each others’ Guest Lists.

10. A group photograph of Edward, Prince of Wales’s visit to Japan. Fortunately, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and the Japanese Prince Regent were able to converse in French. 1922.

11. I’d now like to look at this late 19th, early 20th century screen which dates from this time and which  I think is wonderful.

11. Silk screen: one of the stars of the exhibition

It comprises four panels, each representing a season: the left hand one features cranes and ducks, which represent winter, for example. What astounded me was that, at first I thought it was painted, but it isn’t. It’s exquisitely embroidered; the glossy feathers of the cranes are stitched with flat silk; long and short stitches help to blend the colours and create movement; round knots at the end of flower stamens emphasize the reality of the flowers. Looked at closely, the flowers, trees and birds almost come alive.

12. Inkstand in the form of a pheasant

Another object which really caught my attention was this silver, gold, enamel and ivory inkstand in the form of a pheasant, dating from 1868-1912. A pheasant’s plumage is iridescent and the enamelling brings this out beautifully. According to the label, it was probably acquired by King Edward VII – that enthusiastic shooter of game – it fits. Apparently, an inkwell is cleverly concealed somewhere – possibly under the wing but I couldn’t see it myself.

And I cannot omit to mention the splendid array of swords and armour, so important to the Japanese. I like the stories which accompany the chosen objects, and this sword was particularly appealing for the venerable age of its creator.

13. Field Marshal’s sword, scabbard and storage box made of gold, silver and leather (1918)

The note tells us that the blade is signed and inscribed: Gassan Sadakasu, Imperial Household Artisan, respectfully made this at age 83. It was presented to King George V by Prince Higashi-Yorihito on behalf of the Emperor Taisho, 29 October, 1918.

It is beautifully made and I’m delighted that I was able to photograph it successfully myself.

Finale:

Artistic exchange: Coloured woodcut: Buckingham Palace London, seen across Green Park (c. 1911) by Yoshio Markino (1869-1956) 

The influence that Japanese and Chinese art had on artists in the west, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards in well-known, what is less well-known is what Japanese artists took from Western art. First, perhaps, was the art of painting perspective but there is more. Here, in this exhibition, we see how Yoshio Markino reacted to London’s mists and fog – seeing Buckingham Palace through a London fog as ‘ghostly allure’ rather than using a ‘pea-souper’ soubriquet most coughing and wheezing Londoners might prefer. In reality, London’s smoke and fog clogged up the lungs. Where Markino sees the beauty of the rosy glow of the gaslights in front of Buckingham Palace; a Londoner would smell the gas from the gas lamps and note how dirty his clothes got.

Japan, Courts and Culture is a once in a lifetime exhibition, and well worth seeing. Get your ticket stamped as you go out and get in free until March 12th , 2023.

© Elizabeth Hawksley

Acknowledgements:

Photographs 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 14

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

Photographs 2, 4, 5, 9, 12 and 13 © Elizabeth Hawksley

BODY VESSEL CLAY: Black Women and Ceramics

                 

The exciting BODY VESSEL CLAY exhibition at 2 Temple Place looks afresh at one of the world’s oldest forms of the humble domestic water pot and its development from traditional pots which are serviceable for cooking and eating, to wonderful new forms, re-imagined with sophisticated new techniques which question age old gender assumptions and become works of artistry in their own right.

                                                                                                                                 Ladi Kwali: water jar

To give a quick overview: the exhibition’s subtitle is BLACK WOMEN, CERAMICS & CONTEMPORARY ART and it looks at what happened to the art of Nigerian pottery, which, until Nigerian Independence in 1960, was mainly viewed as a traditional female pursuit; that is, the making of large round earthenware water and storage pots, plates, bowls and so on for everyday use. The fact that the pottery objects themselves were beautifully crafted and decorated was not considered as worthy of comment; domestic pottery was just what Nigerian women did – and had done for hundreds of years; it was allotted little status.

Halima Audu, water pot (1957-62)

It was 1960 and, whether Britain liked it or not, the Second World War had changed everything. India had gained her independence in 1947 and now Britain’s African Colonies were clamouring for Independence, too. Suddenly, there were an number of other factors  – initially political, intent on being heard. Britain’s view was that independence should happen in a controlled way which did not rock the British boat; she did not want Nigeria to go headlong for industrialization. Nigeria, itself, of course, might have quite different aims.

                               Phoebe Collings-James exhilarating pottery challenge

I found the clash of assumptions aspect of the exhibition fascinating. For example, the exhilarating way that Phoebe Collings-James work engages with the Gothic decoration of the wood panelling behind her hanging breastplate; her work echoes both the architect’s display of sumptuous carving and, at the same time, challenges it. Both, to my mind, come off with flying colours – it felt to me that both potter and wood carver might have enjoyed the encounter.

The original catalyst for Nigeria’s post-war development with regard to pottery was  Michael Cardew (1901-1982). He was a superb professional potter, trained under Bernard Leach, who was appointed Senior Pottery Officer to the new Nigerian Government. Cardew was a high-minded, austere man who was all for Nigerian independence – but he also believed that this should happen in a way that benefitted Britain. He admired the traditional Nigerian designs and he had developed new techniques in pottery which were more cost-effective and his job, as he saw it, was to train young Nigerian men as potters who would establish small potteries all over the country which would expand into new markets. As Nigeria’s new middle-class emerged, people would, naturally, be eager to buy the new, and improved – yet traditional – pottery.

Except they didn’t. And young Nigerian men weren’t exactly queuing up to be trained, either. Why would a young Nigerian man want to become a potter in the first place – a skill which had little status? All you needed was mud for the pottery and a hole lined with wood, dung, dried leaves and so on to fire it. Anyone could do that – even a woman!

The exhibition sets out to challenge this, and we see below:

Jade Monserrat’s challenge to patriarchy

To come more up to date; Jade Monserrat (born 1981) is shouting out her frustration: why should I submit to male values and opinions of what is good pottery and what isn’t? She is asserting that she’s quite capable of discovering things for herself.   

Hurray for Jade, I found myself thinking!

Right from the start of the exhibition, I, too, found myself asking awkward questions. My first thought was that Cardew was surely extraordinarily naïve in what he was trying to do. Why would a newly- liberated country want to buy pottery which – from the Nigerian point of view – looked very like the traditional stuff their mothers and grandmothers had been producing for generations. Same old, same old. Surely newly-rich Nigerian customers would want new colours and designs? And they wouldn’t necessary come from Nigeria.

Beakers and lidded bottle

Having said that, I loved the everyday Nigerian objects on display: the plates, bowls, water-bottles (which had ceramic tops which screwed on – how on earth did they do that?), small casserole dishes, beakers and so on. I’d be happy to give any of them a home in my kitchen.

Ladi Kwali water jar with stylized birds decoration

And I loved the stylized animal designs on the objects: fish, lizards, chameleons, scorpions and so on – a lizard, for example, with its hard triangular shapes, can pack a design punch which could never be achieved by a European rabbit!

And what of the ceramic armour? I found myself wondering if it was challenging the cultural burden of Classical History from the Ancient Greeks onwards? Do women really have to imitate – as far as they are able, poor things – the glories of the Ancient Greek Bronze Age with its superbly decorated armour?

Ceramic armour

The women potters in the exhibition have other ideas: could they be arguing that they don’t have to cram themselves into an alien way of thinking? They can judge for themselves if it fits them  – or if it cramps them. While I was there a group of young Black schoolgirls were animatedly talking about the hanging breastplate and backplate.  ‘It’s a bit of a mess,’ said one. ‘Perhaps it’s OK if it isn’t perfect,’ suggested their teacher.

It was a new idea and the girls’ conversation argued about it enthusiastically.

Ladi Kwali (1925-1984), courtesy of Wikipedia

But the exhibition is really there to celebrate the genius of the astonishing Ladi Kwali (1925-1984), the first woman Cardew trained, and the first female potter in Nigeria to achieve world-wide fame. She changed everything. It swiftly became obvious to Cardew that her skill was outstanding. But, although he himself acknowledged Ladi’s skill, somehow, she never really got the help she needed which  would have enabled her to make her mark on the world much earlier.

I love her work – now in museums and galleries all over the world – but there are still awkward questions to be asked and answered – those of gender politics.

Terracotta figures by Bisila Noha

I loved Basila Noha’s challenging – and defiantly female – figures.

Shawanda Corbett’s colourful ceramic figures have something new and lively to say to us, too!

I loved the visual and performance artist Shawanda Corbett’s colourful, sculptural ceramics which are engaged in communicating with both each other, and with us, the viewers.

Going round the exhibition is a bit like being flung into a sort gender ferment: looking at both the pottery and the photos of women potters of all ages, one could tell that they were up in arms, insisting on doing things their way, pushing boundaries and asking new questions.

I want to end with a little vignette: I was very impressed by a class of Black schoolgirls (roughly 10-12 years old) who were there with their teacher. She was flinging around words like ‘tactile’ and I found myself thinking, isn’t ’tactile’ a bit beyond them? But I was quite wrong. As I listened to the group  discussing the exhibition, it became obvious that their teacher had thoroughly prepared her pupils linguistically for the visit. The word ‘tactile’ didn’t faze them. Then she chucked in a new word: Do you know what ‘empathy’ means? She then explained it (and ‘empathetic’) and then began to use the word. Soon they were all joining in unselfconsciously.

I found myself thinking: you get a gold star from me! Not only had she taken her pupils to what might be considered a challenging exhibition – but one with a lot to offer them, she had also given them the verbal equipment to enable them to discuss and work out what they thought with their classmates. It would serve them for a lifetime.

All in all, this year’s exhibition offers the viewers something both different and challenging, but also immensely invigorating. I loved it.

It closes on 24th April.

 

Elizabeth Hawksley

 

The Fascination of Street Furniture

One of the things I most enjoy about finding myself in a strange town is looking at the street furniture; that is benches, railings and their finials, door knockers, weather vanes and the like. And some countries are better at producing interesting examples of the genre than others. This struck me most forcefully when I visited Volterra in Etruria.

Two birds on a twig with a hook at the end, on the wall of the Piazza del Priori next to a tunnel in the city walls

The metal hook itself did not look particularly old, it could be 20th century, and I think the hook at the end was there to hold something, a lantern, or perhaps a basket with hanging flowers. Whichever it was, it was visually pleasing and I began to look around for more examples.

Drinking water is always freely available in Italy

Water taps and drinking fountains are ubiquitous in Italy; drinking water (well, it’s a hot country) is everywhere and the Italians have very high water quality standards.  One of our company stopped for a drink, and I was struck by how pleasing the shape of the water tap was; it stood on an iron hexagonal base with a four sided column which gradually sloped in to the neat four sided roof. It had a shiny copper tap.

A gryphon lantern high up on a building

This splendid gryphon lantern is set high up and the walls behind it look formidable. I walked round and round it trying to find a good angle to photograph it from.

Volterra is perched on top of a high plateau and the views are splendid. It was founded by the Etruscans, taken over by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, but it managed to remain an important town. It became a Lombard town in the Middle Ages and was eventually taken over – violently – by Lorenzo de Medici in 1472. It has a lot of history.

There is plenty to see: temple ruins, a cathedral, a museum with numerous funerary urns from Etruscan tombs and a Roman theatre. It has much to offer anyone who is interested in history and architecture .

The Plaza de España, Seville

I’m now jumping forward to 1929, to be exact. I don’t know if early 20th century Moorish tiles expanded into a long balustrade – echoing the city which was taken over by the Arabs in the 8th century AD – count as ‘street furniture’. I decided it did – after all, if it had been made of wrought iron, say, it would count. I thought it made a magnificently impressive piece of street furniture. In fact, I fell in love with Seville.

What I found interesting was that the decorative Moorish tiles, used extensively in mosques in North Africa, came to Spain with the Arab Conquest, and, when, several centuries later, the Spanish pushed out the Moors, the Spanish Hapsburg Empire eventually included the Spanish Netherlands. It was the Spanish who brought the art of Moorish tile decoration to the Netherlands where it became known as Delftware.

I had been wondering what Delftware was doing in Seville – but I had it the wrong way round. The question should have been, how did Moorish decoration get to the Netherlands!

 

The Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris dates from 1612. It is, surely, one of the most impressive.

I loved the symmetry of the tall red brick houses with their blue roof tiles; and the fountains with their lions’ head spouts. It’s a lovely place to relax in, and, in one corner, there’s an ice cream café with the most delicious home-made ice cream.

I don’t know if the wash basin in the café ladies’ loo counts as street furniture – probably not – but it’s certainly unusual and I decided that, as it was for the  public, it counted (at least for this post!).

The water comes out of the satyr’s mouth and, to pull the plug to empty the wash basin, you must pull the stick in the bottom left-hand corner. It took me quite a while to work all this out!

Parisian street furniture: the elegant 17th century lamp and the post of a wrought iron gate and railings in the Place des Vosges.

The view is down one of the sides of the Place des Vosges. You can see two lanterns and the well-known phrase from the French Revolution; Les aristos à la lanterne signifying that all aristocrats should be strung up from the street lanterns, made me shiver.

Remove the lantern itself and the resulting iron scroll would be just right to throw a rope and noose over. In fact, if you look carefully you can see that there are three lamps with lanterns hanging from them. You could get rid of three hated aristos.

The iron post is interesting, too. Could that be a head wearing a pom-pom hat at the top of the post?

Sofia, capital of Bulgaria. The Changing of the Guard outside the Presidency.

The street furniture here is the sentry boxes – they are modern but with a nod to tradition with their arched tops. I rather like the right hand one which is wired up for something but in a somewhat amateurish manner.

Incredible though it may seem, Bulgaria has a king: King Simeon II – you can see the Royal coat of arms above the door in the photograph. He was born in 1937 and crowned King as a child after the death of his father, King Boris III. He went into exile with his family in 1946 after Bulgaria overthrew the monarchy.

In 1996, after the Communist Party lost power, he was invited back and warmly welcomed; he was even Prime Minister from 2001-2005, but the country remains a republic.  

Royal street furniture: a lock from the gates of Buckingham Palace, London

The railings and gates along the front of Buckingham Place are covered with quirky bits of decoration. The lock in the photo dates from the late 19th century. The base of the lock plate has a scallop shell; above we can see a putto or cherub, wrapped in a voluminous cloak which swirls around him as he looks down at the shell. He wears a helmet (with small wings?) but not much else. What is he doing? Why is he dressed in that way? The scallop shell is a signal of direction – for example, if you are going on Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the scallop shell indicates the route to follow. But that still doesn’t really explain what it’s doing on Buckingham Palace railings.

I’ve come to admire good street furniture and, nowadays, I always look out for it.

All photos by Elizabeth Hawksley

© Elizabeth Hawksley

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British Museum: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

One of the most splendid exhibits in the British Museum is undoubtedly the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and its astonishing treasures, dating from the 7th century A.D. which was excavated 1938-9, as the country prepared itself for war.

The Bronze Helmet – fit for a King?

Continue reading British Museum: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

My Mother’s Choice: Six Ornaments

Back in the 1950s, my mother found herself kitting out a small modern London flat from scratch. She decided to go for modern and went straight to Heals, the place for the best modern furniture and fittings. Once she’d bought the essentials, she decided that the flat (bedroom, sitting-room, bathroom, small kitchen, and a small entrance area) needed a few ornaments. At the time, Mr Heal prided himself on buying top quality items from across the world to sell in his famous shop.

Ceramics chosen by Mr Heal

Continue reading My Mother’s Choice: Six Ornaments

St Thomas Becket: Murder in the Cathedral

On a cold winter’s day, 29th December, 1170, three knights: Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy and Hugh de Morville arrived at Canterbury Cathedral. They were King Henry II’s loyal men and, time and again, they had heard him fume against the Archbishop Thomas Becket’s wilful refusal to obey him and side with the church instead. They vowed to ride to Canterbury Cathedral, capture Becket, and drag him back to face the King, so that the long and bitter quarrel between them could finally be settled.

They did not, at this point, mean to murder Thomas.

A reliquary casket showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. At the bottom, three knights, swords raised, are about to attack Thomas who stands in front of the altar. Two monks on the right raise their hands in horror

Continue reading St Thomas Becket: Murder in the Cathedral

Souvenir Mugs and Jugs from the Napoleonic Wars

To set the scene: 206 years ago today, on 28th February, 1815, the ex-emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte, having escaped from exile on the Island of Elba, landed in France and immediately set about reclaiming his throne. His luck was to hold for 100 days. By the beginning of June he had raised 200,000 men, more than enough to match the combined armies of the Britain and her Allies. On 18th June, 1815 he would face his enemies at Waterloo.

‘British Voluntary Infantry raised 1797’, earthenware plaque, Bristol Water Lane Pottery c. 1801.

Continue reading Souvenir Mugs and Jugs from the Napoleonic Wars

The Queen’s Gallery: Judith and Holofernes

The story of Judith and Holofernes from the Old Testament inspired a number of Renaissance artists, Cristofano Allori and Artemisia Gentileschi among them, to paint the beautiful Jewish heroine, Judith, chopping off the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian General  who had been sent by King Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Palestine. Sex and violence, as ever, proved to be a popular mix – and very sellable.

Continue reading The Queen’s Gallery: Judith and Holofernes

Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden was described by the writer Marghanita Laski as ‘the most satisfying children’s book I know.’ I first read it when I was about 8 and I continued to read it throughout my childhood – and I still read it from time to time – always with pleasure. Interestingly, back in 1911, the book did not make much impression on the public (it wasn’t even mentioned in the author’s obituary in The Times in 1924) but gradually, over the years, it has acquired a host of devoted readers – including myself. It is now viewed as her masterpiece.

Frontispiece: Mary discovers the doorknob to the Secret Garden

Continue reading Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden

Albania: Art for Heroes?

Socialist Realism Art (promoted by the Stalinist Communist leader, Enver Hoxha until his death in 1992) is not to everyone’s taste but it does give a fascinating insight into what was going on in Albania, or perhaps more accurately, how Hoxha’s Communist Party wanted and, perhaps, needed Albanians to see themselves.

Dealing with a blockage.

Above, we can see that fiery sparks are shooting out of a malfunctioning machine on the right;  a man is struggling to unblock it. The vivid orange safety clothing and the worksite’s obvious heat makes the place look like an inferno. It must be incredibly dangerous work; the Communist Party’s national story has it that these men are Albanian Communist Party heroes.

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However, let’s start at the beginning. 19th century Albania was part of a weakening Ottoman Empire ruled with a rod of iron by the Turks, and, not unnaturally, the Albanians wanted their independence. There were a number of fierce uprisings, and Albania finally gained its independence in 1912 – but the timing was unfortunate and there was little opportunity to plan for the future. The Balkans erupted into war in 1914, which rapidly engulfed Europe and then much of Asia. Albania found itself struggling against its neighbours, all of whom had their own interests in mind with regard to Albania’s future. However, a small Albanian state was eventually recognized by the post war peace talks and the newly-independent country was led by Ahmed Zog, first, as President and then self-promoted to King from 1928-39.

In 1939, World War II broke out and Italian troops of the fascist Mussolini, who had been eyeing up Albania for some time, invaded.

Attacking the enemy with a cannon, 18th October, 1944 by Petro Kokushta (1979). Note the young man on the right picking up the next shell to be loaded. 

The painting above depicts the Albanian Communist Partisans’ attack on a treacherous Albanian ‘Nationalist’ Assembly which was hosting a meeting with German Nazis on 18th October 1944. The partisans suspected – probably rightly – that Albania was in imminent danger of being swallowed up by Nazi Germany.

A section of the 3rd Partisan Brigade has dragged a cannon up onto the hills above Tirana, and the cannon is firing down on the Victor Emmanuel III Palace seen amid the smoke in the background where the meeting is taking place.

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During the Second World War the Albanians found themselves fighting on two fronts: against the fascist Italians on the one hand, and the Nazi Germans on the other. When the Albanian Communist Party was founded in 1941, it looked to the Soviet Union for help. But Albania was only finally liberated in November 1944 when Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hod-ja) came to power and set up a Stalinist Communist regime.

Vilson Kilica’s painting below shows Hoxha returning from his crucial meeting with the other Communist countries, having secured a peaceful settlement from his Communist neighbours. He is greeted as a hero.

Declaration of the Republic in Tirana, 1944 by Vilson Kilica, (1982-3)

Enver Hoxha, wearing a long grey overcoat, salutes the crowd. A bride has come out with her new husband to welcome him; a small girl, holding white flowers, is, one suspects, about to cast them at Hoxha’s feet. The banner on the right reads ‘Glory to the Party of Labour – Albania’. A respectable working woman, spreads her arms in reverence. The painting depicts Hoxha as the people’s Saviour. It could almost be a modern Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph.

However, we note that it is an historical painting from 1982-3 depicting an event which happened nearly forty years earlier. We are allowed to ask: was it really like that?

Hoxha’s rule was a brutal mixture of back-breaking labour; massive industrial development; and the systematic crushing of opposition. He depended on the financial help of a number of communist allies: Tito’s Yugoslavia until 1948; Stalin and Khrushchev’s Soviet Union until 1961, and Mao’s China until 1975. Albania then found itself isolated and Hoxha instituted a new slogan ‘self-reliance’, and Albania withdrew into a disastrous isolation.

Students were co-opted as ‘Aktionists’ doing ‘voluntary’ labour for the glorification of the Communist Party. A painting by Rafael Dembo shows a line of young people setting off to work – the girls carrying pick-axes over their shoulders, young men with spades.

When I went to Albania in 2015, we travelled mainly by coach. One day, our Albanian guide stopped the coach; he wanted us to see a railway line, almost overgrown under weeds and grass. We all got out. ‘I helped to build that line,’ he said, flatly. ‘We had to. It was our ‘voluntary labour’. They never gave us enough to eat.’  He went on to tell us that they built it by hand, with only picks and shovels. His deliberately matter of fact tone, spoke volumes.

With no more foreign investment coming in after 1975, the country’s infrastructure rapidly fell apart. After Hoxha’s death in 1992, the communist party staggered on for a few years and then more or less imploded when the population turned against anything which symbolized Hoxha’s rule and destroyed it. The paintings gathered dust in forgotten galleries.

Albania adopted western-style capitalism and the huge task of reconstruction began.

Raising Pylons. 

Now the paintings are back on show, and we can see what the Communist Party of Albania was trying to promote.

For the very first time, the people of Albania will have the blessings of electricity to heat and light their homes, is the message here. Back in England in the 1930s, the poet Stephen Spender also found the bringing of electricity to rural England excitingly modern and liberating. He compared pylons to ‘nude giant girls striding the landscape‘. I’m not sure that Hoxja would have approved.

However, one thing that Hoxha must be given credit for is giving women the vote and allowing them to train for and take professional jobs. The young woman in the Raising Pylons picture is holding what looks like plans for the site behind her. The man accepts her authority. In the 19th century, Albanian women were probably the least liberated in Europe; they had no rights whatsoever, and they did most of the work. The Socialist Realism pictures include a number of paintings showing women having a professional role in the building of a new world.

I knew, from my reading about the traveller Edith Durham’s adventures in early 20th century Albania, that the Albanians had been heavily oppressed by their Turkish overlords and that the country was still in a state of almost Medieval poverty; farms were worked by hand, with oxen. I have a large World Atlas from 1897 and Albania doesn’t yet exist – it is still part of Turkey. There are no railways, and few marked roads.

When it finally came into existence, Albania was the only European country not to have a standard rail service.  A few narrow gauge lines were built during the First World War to access the mines and for military purposes, but that was it. Goods were carried by horses or mules. Carts were of limited use as proper road surfaces were non-existent and country roads were full of mud in winter and pot-holes in summer. People travelled on foot or on horseback.

It was Hodja, in 1947, who vowed to build a proper rail network.

The Assembler by Petro Kokushka, (1979) ‘The worker at the top of everything and this one is waving a red flag’’

If you look carefully, you can see that the young man standing, legs apart, holding the red flag with the black eagle of Albania aloft, is hundreds of feet up on a massive iron frame – part of a building in the process of being erected. He’s wearing a harness but he has no other safety equipment. None of the workers beneath him are wearing hard hats, for example, and scaffolding seems to be unknown.

This is how Hoxha wanted young Albanian men to see themselves. The worker at the top of everything and this one is waving a red flag’ as the caption has it. And he certainly doesn’t suffer from vertigo. It is young men like this whom the Communist Party of Albania is most proud.

To prepare the land for the construction of Collective and State Farms after the Agricultural Reforms of 1969 would also have needed an enormous amount of hard physical labour – as elsewhere.

‘Vojo Kushi’ by Sali Shijaku, (1969)

There are some vivid pictures of heroes of the revolution. One of the most famous pictures shows a real-life incident during World War II. Vojo Kushi, a young Partisan, found himself, with two other comrades, in a house in Tirana surrounded by Italian fascists. With incredible bravery, they rushed towards the enemy, and Vojo leapt onto an enemy tank and threw a grenade inside it. He was killed, of course, but, through this painting, his name is immortalized.

Note the angle the artist chooses to depict the scene. We, the observers,  crouch on the ground with Vojo Kushi above us. As befits his heroic status, Vojo is bare chested, with bare arms and feet. It packs quite a dramatic punch.

Zef Shoshi ‘The Turner’ (1969)

My final picture is of another female worker in a skilled occupation, this time as a turner in an engineering works. Note that her hair is tucked up out of the way, a safety precaution as well as a cosmetic one.

I doubt whether she earned as much as her male colleagues but after hundreds of years with no legal rights whatsoever (her very life was at the mercy of her male relations), having a paid job, and a vote, even if there was only one Party to vote for, must have felt like luxury indeed. At least for a while.

What is interesting about these Socialist Realist paintings is that most of them are, in fact, historical. They depict an Albania during the second World War and the post-war years at the height of its struggles. This can be no accident. Like it or not, by the late 1970s and without a rich Communist ally, Hoxha needed to face the fact that his ‘Brave New World’ may have turned into something akin to a nightmare – and his championing of this sort of art may be evidence of his ambivalence.

Do I like the art from this era? Actually, no. Having learnt of the horrors of the semi-starvation, the forced labour, Hoxha’s paranoid belief that evil Capitalists were just waiting to invade Albania, and how local communities were expected – as a show of loyalty – to pay for  useless gun emplacements and hidden bunkers which they could ill afford, I find it difficult to view the paintings I’ve shown as anything other than a huge lie. They tell splendid stories, no doubt, but, emotionally, compared with Goya’s war paintings, for example, they are hollow.

Photos taken by Elizabeth Hawksley

Elizabeth Hawksley