Mixed Media: ‘Feminist Awakening’ & ‘Albanian Art’
Hattie Morahan was effervescent as Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen at the Young Vic last year.
Ibsen, the father of modernism brought a realism and naturalism to the theatre with A Dolls House (1879), and was an influence on George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill. Ibsen’s play highlights the lack of women’s freedom, and was critical of marital roles in middle bourgeois society. In the middle bourgeois class, hearth and home, domesticity, motherhood and wifely duty were sacred institutions.
A Doll’s House depicts the feminist awakening (‘I’m a human being before anything else’) of Nora, a ‘good’ middle bourgeois wife of a lawyer, and a mother, who begins the play as a beguiling ‘doll’. Nora ends the play as an emancipated ‘Woman’, literally flying the nest, abandoning her children, and her act of slamming the door as she leaves has come to represent the play itself. Ibsen commented that ‘a woman cannot be herself in modern society since it is an exclusively male society’.
Eleanor Marx was an admirer of A Doll’s House, and played Nora in a ‘private’ performance in a Bloomsbury house in 1885 with Edward Aveling as Helmer and George Bernard Shaw as Krogstad. In 1886 she wrote the article The Woman Question where she identified that ‘the position of woman rests on an economic basis’ with ‘no solution in the present condition of society’ but in socialism ‘the woman will no longer be the man’s slave but his equal’. Eleanor Marx quotes Ibsen as Helmer says to Nora ‘home life ceases to be free and beautiful directly its foundations are borrowing and debts’. In her 1891 article A Doll’s House Repaired, Eleanor Marx satirises the English petty bourgeois reaction to the play and ‘repairs’ the last act in a parody ending.
Eleanor Marx criticised bourgeois women reformers who advocated palliative not remedial measures but in the early 20th century bourgeois women became prominent in the Suffragette movement which campaigned for middle bourgeois women to get the vote on an equal property qualification as men. The Socialist Standard in 1908 wrote that the Suffragettes, who were campaigning in practice for ‘votes for rich women, were ‘a bulwark of capitalism directly opposed to the interests of the working class’ and that ‘the salvation of working class women lies in the emancipation of their class from wage slavery’. The Suffragettes suspended their campaign in 1914 to support the Great War. In 1912 Rosa Luxemburg said the vote for proletarian women could ‘threaten the traditional institutions of class rule and advance and intensify the proletarian class struggle’.
Emma Goldman in her work The Significance of the Modern Drama of 1914 concluded about A Doll’s House; ‘when Nora closes behind her the door of her doll’s house, she opens wide the gate of life for women, and proclaims the revolutionary message that only perfect freedom and communion make a true bond between man and woman, meeting in the open, without lies, without shame, free from the bondage of duty’.
‘Socialist Realism’ was the official art of the People’s Republic of Albania between 1944 and 1990. Socialist Realism originated in the state capitalist USSR and was adopted throughout Eastern Europe. When Soviet leader Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, state-capitalist Albania alone opposed this ‘revisionism’ and continued to revere ‘Uncle Joe’ right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Partisan War against the Germans and the Liberation of Albania in 1943-44 is a source for Socialist Realist paintings in the National Gallery in Tirane. The Victor by Haxhiu depicts a heroic partisan amidst ruins with German POWs trudging into captivity in the background, while Vojo Kushi by Shijaku heroically romanticises a partisan in a red shirt atop a Wehrmacht tank throwing a hand grenade inside.
Workers in Albanian industry are portrayed, notably in the steel works depicted in 30 July 1978 by Ceka which recalls Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes) by Menzel. The Assembler by Kokushta is an inspiring painting of a worker on a girder with red flag flying above an industrial landscape of the building of Albania’s hydro-electric scheme in the 1970s.
Female Nude (1961) by Shijaku is beautiful and definitely not ‘socialist realism’ but it is ‘realism’ in the style of Courbet.
The enhanced status of women in Albanian society is captured by Socialist Realism in a painting of male and female engineers by Hysa in 1969, Milk Woman by Sulovari, Factory Worker by Blido, Bricklayer by Dule, and as athletes in The Relay Race by Nalbani. In the 1970s art in a Formalist style of Modernism (mainly Expressionism and Fauvism) developed operating within the official parameters of Socialist Realism.
Socialist Realism was formulated by Stalin in his 1932 On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organisations which decreed that art had to be unambiguous and elevate labour to heroic status. In 1934 the Soviet state instructed that art had to be ‘proletarian’, of everyday life, realistic in the representational sense, and support the aims of the Party. This effectively discouraged the avant-garde and any form of experimentation.
Socialist Realist rigidity was not encouraged by Lenin. He did not believe in a ‘year zero’ for Art: ‘proletarian culture must be the logical development of the store of knowledge mankind has accumulated’. In the years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution experimental ‘revolutionary’ art was encouraged in the shape of Constructivism, and in the cinematic art of Vertov and Eisenstein.
Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts identified the role of labour in man’s ability to reproduce ‘in accordance with the laws of beauty’. Engels wrote in The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man that ‘labour has given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael’, and in Dialectics of Nature he wrote ‘Italy rose to an undreamt-of flowering of art, which seemed like a reflection of classical antiquity’.
Marx and Engels would be uncomfortable with the rigidity of ‘Socialist Realism’.