This past Thursday, I went to the National Gallery of Art with an Albanian friend. Some of the internal galleries were closed – hopefully just for renovation, since there were a number of works I’d seen in my Albanian art book that weren’t on display – and the works that they did have on display were not, as a whole, competent but not spectacular. Albania does have some fine artists, like Vangjush Mio, but it does not have the artistic heritage of, say, France, or its own stylistic vision like American impressionism; and forty-odd years of “socialist realism” and cultural isolation stamped out any post-war development that might have taken place. (Apparently, there is a body of work by the Albanian diaspora that is reasonably good, but none of that was on display at the Gallery.)
The first gallery we visited was a sculpture room. There were various statues and busts in stone and wood of archetypical Albanians, from ancient Illyrians to national figures to partisans. They were scattered throughout the room – on stands, on the floor, in an arrangement that looked more like an outdoor garden sculpture store on Route 1 in Norwood, MA. Pieces were presented without context or explanation – there was only one collection of small, genuinely funny, satirical busts (perhaps of bourgeoisie and foreigners; there was no information given beyond the artist’s name) that seemed at all thematic, and this was tucked away in a corner.
Next, we went into a gallery of mostly Communist-era art, with a few post-1991 pieces added in. While some of the painting was crude, some of it was quite accomplished, but almost all of it was propagandistic – handsome partisans rallying the villagers, cheerful peasant women preparing for a winter morning’s work, that sort of thing. (I did not take any photographs at the Gallery – although there were no signs up prohibiting the taking of photographs, I didn’t want to take my chances – so the photos that I’m including here come from a book, Albania Through Art, by Ferid Hudri, ISBN 99927-53-67-6. It’s worth a look.)
Then we came to the Icon room. Albania has as fine a history of iconography as any other Balkan country, but they aren’t displayed particularly well in the Gallery. It was here, in fact, that I saw the water-damaged walls and noticed the general dinginess of the place. Juxtaposed with the icons were plexiglass encased architectural models of the Tirana of the future – with parks, shiny glass towers, modern train station, etc. None of these had labels, or even a plaque explaining why they were in the museum, in the icon room particularly, or when they were put there.
Finally, we entered the pre-Communist room. Here the works were of normal people, street scenes, and still lifes, i.e., the more “classical” art. A good number of pieces stood out and a good number didn’t, I suppose is the best way of putting it. Hopefully, they’ll finish whatever renovations they’re doing, and they can put more pre-Communist works on display.