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Thursday, 28 May 2015


In an era before photography became the principal mode of recording memorable scenes by travellers, the English poet and artist Edward Lear (1812-1888) toured Albania during 1848. His sketches and paintings combine realism with romanticism. They provide the viewer with a good sense of what he actually saw and felt. Many years ago in the 1970s, having recently seen one of Lear’s paintings of the Vale of Tempe (now in Greece), I attempted to follow in his footsteps to see where he had sketched. What I found was much as he had depicted the place many years earlier.

Conditions in Albania for a traveller in 1848 were far from comfortable as Lear described in his Journals of a landscape painter in Albania, etc, published in 1851 in London. Occasionally, he was attacked by dogs, and more often by the locals who were suspicious and also disapproving of his attempts to depict reality. For example, about Elbasan he wrote: “Dervishes — in whom, with their green turbans, Elbassan is rich — soon came up, and yelled, " Shaitan scroo ! — Shaitan !" in my ears with all his force ; seizing my book also, with an awful frown, shutting it, and pointing to the sky, as intimating that heaven would not allow  such impiety. It was in vain after this to attempt more; the " Shaitan" cry was raised in one wild chorus — and I took the consequences of having laid by my fez for comfort's sake — in the shape of a horrible shower of stones, which pursued me to the covered streets, where, finding Bekir with his whip, I went to work again more successfully about the walls of the old city.
Knots of the Elbassaniotes nevertheless gathered about Bekir, and pointed with angry gestures to me and my ' scroo.' “We will not be written down," said they. " The Frank is a Russian, and he is sent by the Sultan to write us all down before he sells us to the Russian …[1]” ( ‘Shaitan scroo’ meant, Lear explained, ‘ the Devil draws’). I do not believe that the Albanian artist Bashkim Izano who was born in Gjinokastër, had to face such difficulties whilst painting the wonderful series of pictures that were being exhibited as part of The Albanian-British Festival of Culture in London. I was privileged to be amongst those who attended the opening of the exhibition at Europe House in Smith Square on the 28th of May 2015.

The opening began with three speeches. One was given by Head of Representation of the European Commission in the UK, Jackie Minor. This was followed by an introductory talk by the Ambassador of Albania Mal Berisha. Then, the artist addressed the gathering also in English. The paintings on display were his homage to Edward Lear, and a very fine one at that. I am no art historian or critic, but I felt that like Lear, Bashkim Izano managed to combine romantic fantasy with realism.  Several of his canvases had symbolic figures painted in sharp contrast to the evocative impressionistic Albanian land- and townscapes that formed the colourful backgrounds. One of the images that I particularly liked was an almost comical depiction of an artist running downhill with a painting under his arm whilst dogs bark at his feet. This image that reminded me of the paintings of Marc Chagall must surely be Izano’s representation of poor old Lear who faced situations such as this.

I was fortunate to have had a nice conversation with Mr Izano, whose English is superb after having lived in the USA for a good number of years. I asked him whether he knew the author Ismail Kadare, who was born in in Gjinokastër. He said that he knew him well and that like me his favourite Kadare novel is Broken April. He also told me that he had painted Kadare’s portrait a number of times. I would have loved to have seen at least one of these, but the exhibition was a homage to Lear.

The exhibition is on until 19th June 2015

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