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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!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Drawing Back the Veil

Those wanting a sense of how the events of the last century have impacted on the soul of one Balkan country have a unique opportunity in Sofia these next few weeks. Three exhibitions in Sofia offer samples, first, of the paintings of Bulgarians who had the opportunity to study in France in the half-century before the communist takeover of 1944. By definition, those able to avail themselves of such opportunities came from richer families and were therefore often targeted in the immediate aftermath of that takeover.  They included figures such as Nikola Tanev, Tseno Todorov and Constantin Shterkelov. The National Gallery exhibition runs until 30 May.

Sofia City Gallery has an exhibition which some may think overdue called “Forms of Resistance – 1944-1985” with exhibits selected and presented to give a sense of how the world of Bulgarian (and central European) artists dramatically changed as their countries slipped behind the Iron Curtain from 1944. The State Security files (and prison drawings) of Alexander Bozhinov and Alexander Dobrinov (leading caricaturists) and others are a powerful initial exhibit… as are the 3 large industrial landscapes of one of Bulgaria’s greatest painters, Nikola Tanev, produced after his release from almost a year in jail. The roll-call of imprisoned or disgraced painters covers Bulgaria's main artistic names - and must have had a devastating effect on the creative spirit...... 
The gallery has produced an excellent video – with the paintings shown from the 4th minute

I first realized the scale of the veil which has been drawn over this subject a few years ago when I was compiling an annotated list of 140 Bulgarian painters for my first booklet…. "Bulgarian Realists – getting to know the Bulgarians through their art". The caricaturist Rayko Alexiev had died in his first weeks in prison and the superb landscape artist Boris Denev  was basically was banned for life but, slowly, the internet revealed (with help from google translate!) scraps of information which are not offered in the various catalogues and monographs which the Bulgarian galleries publish.
The Bulgarians, it appears, do not like to discuss this period…..there are still too many skeletons… the belated attempts at official investigations have been half-hearted – as one woiuld expect when its main political party (BSP) is effectively the old communist party….   
The (bi-lingual) text which accompanies the City Gallery’s current exhibition is, therefore, for me the first detailed explanation of what exactly happened to artists in Bulgaria – both in the immediate aftermath and as communist power consolidated and evaporated…..    

Fascinating to discover that, in the early weeks of the takeover (when the bodies of the murdered political and government elite were still warm), 30 artists were meeting to set up the first Union of Artists – and that Nikola Rainov emerged as its president!
The Zhendov affair (of 1950) named some 30 deviant painters and led to the dismissal from their academic jobs of painters of the caliber of Ivan Nenov and Kiril Tsonev. Any hint of “mawkish naturalism” was pounced upon as an act of sabotage. A hierarchy of accepted painting led with portrayals of political leaders followed by glorification of labour and liberation. Landscapes were accepted only if, like Tanev’s, they showed socialism in action….     
As the exhibition recognizes, artists responded in very different ways – some with alacrity, others by turning to other activities, a few with various forms of escape or rebellion….

Not surprisingly in a part of the world in which recent history is strongly disputed, the City Gallery exhibition – which runs until 26 May – has attracted some controversy.

The final exhibition I want to mention is that of Bulgaria’s grand old man and doyen of Bulgarian art - Svetlin Rusev who is still very active at the age of 83 and whose latest work is on display in the  Seasons Gallery at Krakra St.
Rusev is a unique and towering figure - Chairman (1973-85) of the Union of Bulgarian Artists but then fell out of favour with the authorities for his rebellious activities. His position allowed him to build up a fantastic collection of art which he has donated to two public galleries, one in Pleven, the other in Sofia at what used to be his studio very near the Alexander Nevsky Church.

He straddles both the communist and the modern period

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