what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Guide to Bulgarian painting - or rather to books about......

My blog is now, it seems, the only one in the English language giving any sort of coverage to things Bulgarian. There used to be several young US graduates with nice sites which gave a “flavour” of Bulgaria (Sofia and Smolyan at any rate) but they’ve moved on after their statutory year or so – and, in any event, wrote chatty rather than substantive stuff (apart from one list of books with Bulgarian subjects).

My Bulgarian posts of the past 4 years have tended to be about either the distinctive charm of central Sofia for the flaneur or about the Bulgarian artisitic heritage – with only the occasional gesture to Bulgarian society. I should therefore mention that last week saw the latest (2013) EC report on the judicial systems of Bulgaria and Romania. Bulgaria emerged wounded from this analysis – as is evident for anyone who knows the (increasing) scale of the kickbacks which are needed to win projects here under the Structural Funds.

A lot of Brits still holiday in Bulgaria – but at the Black Sea (or the ski resorts) where they will not encounter the Bulgarian painting tradition. And that’s one of the things which this blog tries to cover - what paintings can tell us about the Bulgarians…..
It’s a good handle onto a country – see Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily for a “food and Mafia” take or Simon Winder for a “cultural” take on Germany. For example, I’ve just come across this dissertation on Bulgarian cinema - The Conformists – creativity and decadence in the bulgarian cinema 1945-1989 by one Evgenija Garbolevsky (2011) which nicely complements the recent post about recent Romanian cinema which attracted a fair amount of interest (100 hits). "The Conformists...." looks at the cinema here during the communist period -
My research focuses on the development of Bulgarian film between 1944 and 1989, as the youngest and most dynamic medium during the period. I explore several forms of subversion, such as decadence, silence and irony, among others, which fostered the creative imagination of the intellectual elite, and made the film art successful. I search for resilience in the oeuvres, in the operation of the institutions, and by looking at the views of the filmmakers and the works of the film critics.
I argue that the Bulgarian filmmakers, similar to their counterparts across the Eastern Bloc, vigorously resisted fitting into the role of lackeys of the Communist regime. Instead, the cineastes articulated their personal visions in their oeuvres by developing aesthetic practices and coded language, expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and communicating their complex political and cultural views to the audiences. The filmmakers eluded censors while including the spectators as accomplices. The tension between rebellion and conformism in the cinematic discourse was intense. Despite the powerfully oppressive cultural policies of the regime, the cineastes succeeded loading their works with subversive messages. Regardless of the ideological straightjacket imposed on them, they sublimated their artistic passions and creative impulses, protested, and mocked the Establishment.
I would be interesting to see if anyone has done a dissertation on Bulgarian art during this period!
You have to work hard to assemble anything remotely like a systematic treatment of Bulgarian art even in the Bulgarian language – let alone English. Four recent publications offer a good start – although only one is freely available to download on the internet ie The Treasures of Varna City Art Gallery (2013) - all 136 pages of superb reproductions. The other three can be bought here in Sofia -
·       A Possible History – Bulgarian art through the collection of Sofia City ArtGallery . It’s 200 pages of material well organised into the various time-periods with appropriate selections of reproductions and shorDimi Gachevt (bilingual) intros to each period - costs 25 levs
·       Last year the Bulgarian Union of Artists gave us a curious 350 pages (in English) - Bulgarian Art – 120 Years (2013) with 350 pages and costing a whopping 120 levs.  It’s a history of the various artisitic associations – with reproductions – but gives absolutely no information about the individual artists. The text gives technical and very boring details of the various splits which occurred – with no attempt made to explain the significance or reasons for the chages. 
·       last week the Academy of Art offered a marvellous catalogue to accompany its current, rather small, exhibition of some of the items from its extensive archives - Painting Collection (1896–1940)  (Museum Collection of the National Academy of Art) (2014) It’s 190 full page reproductions with a very short and general (bilingual)introduction and costs a very reasonable 25 levs.

But the one problem with all of these publications is that virtually no information is given about the individual artists (in whatever language)! This is also the problem with the other three older collections you can also download free of charge -
·         The Art Collection of the National Bank of Bulgaria (2009) 143 pages of beautiful illustrations 
·         Kazanlak Art Gallery’s offerings 

Four other very good and substantial collections are available if you look hard enough -
·       The Stara Zagora municipal gallery collection (2007) – about 200 pages with nice outlines of the artists (including a short English summary)
·       Bulgarian artists and Munich (City Gallery 2009) – German and Bulgarian
·       The Association of New Artists 1931-1944 (Sofia City Gallery 2012) – with short (bilingual) summaries of the artists
·      City Art Gallery's Catalogue (2003) - 500 pages of postage-size black and white reproductions and brief bilingual blurbs about the artists

Those who read Bulgarian can access a large Dictionary of Bulgarian artists which was produced some decades ago but there does not seem to be a introduction to Bulgarian art for the generalist (even Bulgarian) who wants to know something about the life of the artists – including how they dealt with communism.
The question, of course, is what exactly does information about an artists’s life add to our appreciation of his/her actual output – be it a novel, painting or piece of music

Most people would argue for a separation of the works from the life. One can (like Brecht or Dali) be a bit obnoxious as a person but still admirable as an artist. But I certainly enjoy biographies such as the recent one by Hilary Spurling of Matisse for the light they throw on the choices artists make or the influence of family and friends. The book on Matisse, for example, helped me understand his use of bright colours – they were the surroundings of his daily life as he grew up in a Belgian silk town! And I particularly value the black and white photographs of the artists – whether in streets or in their studios…..  

I have been accumulating a little library (most in the Bulgarian language) of detailed studies of such individual artists as 
·     Ilyia Beshkov (1983) – 500 pages of comprehensive coverage of most items with extensive diary-type text (ed by Bogomil Rainov) which makes me regret not being able to read Bulgarian
·     Marco Behar (Bulgarian Publishing House 1987) – 200 pages of great (black and white) repros and substantial text - by Ivan Mazarov
·     Alexander Bozhinov edited by Ruza Marinska (National Gallery 1999) – most beautiful and detailed 125 page treatment with an English intro and some annotations
·     Boris Angeloushev - by Atanas Stoikov (2003) – a very extensive 450 page coverage with a lot of text and what looks an almost comprehensive treatment of his works
·     Marin Ustagenov (2005) – good selections and a lot of (Bulgarian) text
·     Nikola Tanev 1890-1962 (National Gallery 2010) – two books, one (2000) by the famous art critic Ruzha Marinska, the other (2010) produced by the National Gallery to go with the special exhibition they held then for Tanev.
·     Nikola Petrov (Sofia City Gallery 2011) – small but attractive booklet
·     Vladimir Dmitrov-Maistora – the flower and the universe (National Gallery 2012) – wonderful 200 page bilingual publication!
·     Boris Denev (2013) – a superb 200 page collection of text and full-page reproductions of one of Bulgaria’s best artists. A nice feature is the black and white photos of him in his studio and with friends (such as Nikola Tanev)  
·     Jules Pascin (City Gallery 2013) – typically professional and extensive treatment by the City Gallery staff

Most – except for last five - are out of print. In the 1950s and 1960s a lot of short monographs were produced on artists such as Stoian Venev, Jaroslav Veshin and Tanko Lavrenov 

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