Shiny Happy People: The Art of Propaganda

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A few weeks ago I went to the National Art Gallery (Galeria Kombetare e Arteve), located here in Tirana. It’s a museum with several permanent exhibits tracing the history of Albanian art and a couple of galleries devoted to special exhibitions. Much of the upper floor is devoted to the museum’s impressive collection of Socialist Realism art, the exhibit I was most interested to see.

I first encountered Socialist Realism when I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Russian Studies and was curious to see if I found it as compelling now as I did then. The answer is YES – there’s something so fascinating to me about art that is so blatantly propagandist and simultaneously so accomplished and so outlandish.IMG_2118

During my visit to the Gallery, I didn’t notice the (very small) “no photos” sign posted on the wall and started to take pictures, at which point I was harshly reprimanded by a guard. As a result, only a few of the pictures in this posting are mine. Most are taken from the work of other bloggers* who were more discreet in their picture taking than I was. Nonetheless, these are all works in the National Gallery.

*I am especially appreciative of the help of Joe Bonk, a former Peace Corps Albania volunteer now living in Chicago. Joe is a history buff and his blog about his times in Albania is outstanding – both informative and enjoyable. You can check out his blog here.

Socialist Realism (SR) is an art form that was developed in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution as a way of furthering Communist values (the term “Socialist Realism” however wasn’t in official use until the 1930s, during Stalin’s reign). Over time the art form spread to other Eastern Bloc countries, Albania included. It’s not a surprise that in centralized, totalitarian countries, art was also centralized and its aesthetics dictated. The SR aesthetic was applied not just to the visual arts, but also to architecture, theater, film, music, and so on.

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Art for art’s sake, for enjoyment, is a bourgeois pursuit and bourgeois pursuits were forbidden during the Communist era. The goal of SR art was, by definition, propagandist: governments were using art to educate, persuade and motivate. SR art showed the world as Communist leaders envisioned it. IMG_2122

Art in the SR style has a number of defining characteristics:

Proletarian – Art was supposed to show real people engaged in real, everyday activities work.  At the same time, the everyday people depicted in the artworks were supposed to typify an ideal called “the new Soviet man,” a person of health, strength, purpose and idealism. Translation? Show people who look like they are superheroes.

(Side Note: Where, you ask, are the “new Soviet women”?  In some of the images you will notice that woman are shown working side-by-side with men — a reflection of the Communist ideal of gender equality. But you will also notice that these women do not look particularly like superheroes. Although there was a concept of the “new Soviet woman,” the concept was less about strength and more about working while also fulfilling traditional gender roles.)

y7EJTfH (1)Realistic – Images are depicted in a highly realistic style as a way of reinforcing that these are real people engaged in real/everyday activities. There are no artistic flourishes interfering with the message of the work.

Positive/Optimistic – in SR art, people are (in the words of REM) shiny and happy and the world they live in is shiny, well-tended and modern. The images show the world as an ideal, as the Communist leaders wanted it to be. In some of the pictures shown here (and more in the museum) people are gazing into the distance, showing a focus on, and a confidence in, the future. (I will say more below about work that was viewed as not sufficiently optimstic.)

4NaEQzy (1)Bottom line: SR art is idealized and idealistic. Everyone is working and working hard; everyone is healthy, happy and engaged; work is full of industry and industriousness; and the future, just over the horizon (and the result of hard work), is full of promise.

According to the explanatory material in the museum, Albanian Socialist Realism was “looser” (less strict) than the Soviet style. I don’t have specific examples of this to show here, but there were paintings on display that had more artistic flair (that is, a less realistic style) than is typical for Socialist Realism.

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The image below is one of two paintings in the exhibit that were included as examples of Socialist Realism gone astray. In each case, the content and/or style of the painting was deemed insufficient in furthering Communist ideology. This piece was Subvert (1)specifically called out for being “lacking in optimism,” which is interesting given that they seem to be having a good time. In the case of the second piece, which is no more subversive than this one, the artist was tried for his crime and sentenced to years in a forced labor camp.

During my time at the museum I thought a lot about Albania’s 40+ years of Communism — the paranoia, the mind control, the fear.  I realized that during our 10 weeks of Peace Corps training there was never a speaker who specifically addressed what it was like to live during those times.  We heard bits and pieces here and there but never a full-on presentation from someone who could tell us what it was like to be afraid to crack a joke, who had been pumped for information about his/her parents by a school teacher, who had an uncle or an aunt who did time in a labor camp.  I started to wonder if there were oral history projects in Albania to collect those stories and then remembered hearing someone say that it is difficult to get Albanians to talk about that time, that there’s a sense that dredging up bad memories serves no purpose.  I don’t know if it’s true that Albanians resist rehashing those times, but that’s what I’ve heard, just as I’ve heard that there is a lack of interest in preserving Communist-era cultural monuments.

Perhaps there is no reason to rehash those times, but people who witnessed the Communist years are getting older and older and at some point there won’t be any memories left to dredge.  I am wondering if that’s something future Albanians will regret having lost and so I am looking into the possibility of an oral history project.  Have there been attempts to record stories and memories of the Communist years?  Are there people involved with cultural affairs who think this history should not be lost?  I don’t know what I’ll find, but I am starting to envision a project, sort of like the “Story Corps” initiative, where younger Albanians interview older Albanians and gain an understanding of their cultural legacy.  We’ll see.

6 thoughts

  1. Great post Susan. I know Will has been talking to one older gentleman who was interned at the prison in the north (I forgot the name) for voicing his frustrations with the government at the time. I think that these projects are great and I’m convinced that future Albanian generations will want to know more about this darker period of their past.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The period that you call “totalitarianism” or “darkness” was actually our renaissance. We built a country from nothing, with all kinds of industries, and even exported art. Albanian music and movies were watched in China.
    All Albania has produced during a quarter century “democracy” was refugees, prostitutes, thieves and recently even jihadists. If Italy and Greece would expel all Albanian emigrants, without their remittances and with one million extra mouths to feed, a good percentage of Albanians literally would have to die of starvation.

    But thanks for keep trolling us about how great we are now that we left the “dark times” behind.


    1. Hi Justine! The paranoia of those times — in all the Eastern bloc countries — was horrifying. And I think that we understand that at an intellectual level, but without actual stories, without actual human emotion, we don’t really get how much fear there was and how ingrained it became.
      Today, researching the idea of an oral history project, I learned that there is an international NGO that is working on turning the most notorious of the Albanian prison camps into a museum. Later this month I will have the opportunity to visit a volunteer who lives in that town and we will be able to see the camp.


  3. Hi Sue! I love all of your post, and this one is especially captivating to me. I recently started reading a book that is related to this subject: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes. It has been fascinating so far, with a focus on personal accounts and interviews with the people (and the children) of those times. I’m surprised at how people are still afraid to talk about the past, and even more surprised at the secrets kept from close family members. Children raised without knowing their heritage and the religious customs of the past. Parents hiding their true opinions about religion, economics, and politics from even their own children, for fear they would be arrested. So far, an interesting read!

    – Justine

    Liked by 1 person

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