Why does Tirana need a new space for young artists like Suela Qoshja, Anri Sala and Adrian Paci, who have been shown in the outside world but haven't had a solo exhibition yet in Tirana? The answer lies in a visit to the National Gallery. The elegant modern building on the main boulevard had its last serious opening night in 2004. Upstairs, the space has remained practically untouched since Gzim Qendro quit his directorate to work on his thesis in Paris, about the socialist realism that was obligatory in Albanian art during the fifty years of communist rule. Qendro is a dreamy man with grey curls, the thinker next to Muka the maker. Before he took over the National Gallery he had studied in Amsterdam for six years. In the fascinating room with the classics of socialist realism, which he designed because the memory of a black past is better than a black hole in the memory, he points out the small digressions the painters permitted themselves.
At night, gathering round the open fire, the partizan commander tells a peasant family - during the resistance against fascism - about the communist paradise they are fighting for. The hierarchy is visible: the commander and the father of the family do the talking, the women keep silent, the soldiers concentrate on their arms. 'But take a look at the fire,' Qendro points out, 'the faces have been painted blank and according to rule. The censorship committee, after all, could always demand corrections. But in the stove and the flames the painter showed his mastery. They have been doen precisely and with feeling.' In two paintings by Sali Shijaku, emblematic for the Albanian adoration of war heroes, Qendro points at the surprisingly Christian use of symbols, absolutely taboo under communism. The martyrdom of the boy on the gallows, looking beyond the horizon towards the day of his resurrection, and the young partizan throwing a hand grenade into a fascist tank: the avenging angel, cape billowing around his shoulders, coming to punish the forces of evil. Standing on the dark, iron tank he symbolizes the victory of faith over rationalism - a notion absolutely alien to communism.
And there is the weird painting by Ahmeti from 1989: Enver Hoxha and his successor Ramiz Alia, walking alone through a dreamlike landscape. No cheering crowds in sight, no factory chimneys as proof of Albanian technological superiority, just an empty land, a small portrait of national poet Naim Frasheri on the wall, and the two leaders - one already dead at the time of painting, one on the verging of seeing his regime collapsing - walking with an air of guilt, apologetic.
The highlight of the short Albanian spring was 'Planting Trees' by Edi Hila in 1971, when young men suddenly started wearing moustaches and bellbottoms and listening to rock music. 'Was it really spring,' Qendro asks, 'or did the regime just want to see who was showing anti-revolutionary behavior? After 1974 Edi Hila, just like many others, had a high price to pay. At first sight, the painting is innocent enough: cheerful boys and girls, wearing red scarves, are digging holes and planting trees to make their country even more beautiful and green. 'But look closely,' says Qendro, 'do those kids look normal? It is the theatre of the absurd! This girl screams as if she's seeing a ghost, the other is just skipping around with a branch on her shoulder. This boy just kicks against a tree that another girl leans against, clearly dreaming. It is a delirium, completely non-functional behavior, and then all those impressionist colors!'