An introduction to the classical modern art of Bulgaria.

Author:Mansbach, S.A.

For more than a half century the history of modern art has been presented in the West as if twentieth-century culture had been almost exclusively created in and defined by a succession of styles in Paris, Munich, New York, Berlin, or London. The narrative resulting from this now canonical perspective has foreclosed a more historically accurate appreciation of the richness, diversity, and complexity of the classical modern art created throughout Europe, the Americas, and beyond. Since the 1960s, however, there has been a notable broadening of the conventional chronicle of modern art, as the role of the Russian avant-garde and of those east Europeans who elected (or were compelled) to conduct their careers in the West - Constantin Brancusi, Frantisek Kupka, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, among others - has been incorporated. Nonetheless, the signal contributions of legions of eastern Europeans, from the Baltic to the Adriatic, to the history of modern art as a whole has been largely unacknowledged, and the role of artists from the Balkans almost completely ignored.(1)

The innovative art created three-quarters of a century ago on the eastern periphery of industrial Europe - an originary Dadaism in royal Romania, inventive forms of geometric abstraction in Romanov Russia, and singular strands of Expressionism in the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, for example - was essential to the development of modern aesthetics universally. Yet only now are scholars beginning to appreciate the extent to which the character and objectives of modernism were fundamentally drawn by pioneering figures active far to the east of Paris, Berlin, New York, and other centers of Western art.(2) Throughout the Baltic territories, the Czech and Slovak lands, Russia and Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans, scores of painters, sculptors, and designers audaciously defined the nature of modern visual expression and its social aspirations. Well into the 1930s, leading artistic personalities of these eastern regions were forging new visual cultures, preparing for new societies, and ultimately educating new audiences in revolutionary modes of thinking, seeing, and behaving. However, for the last seventy years, a succession of political developments, beginning with the rise of authoritarian regimes in central and eastern Europe during the 1920s and 1930s and continuing to the close of the Cold War in the early 1990s, made access to east European modern art difficult for Westerners and precarious for inhabitants of Eastern Europe.(3) As a result, awareness of the major modern monuments, their authors, and their context has been partial at best, and the discussion of modern art in the scholarly literature all too partisan.

Contemporary political events in the Balkans have done little to encourage dispassionate investigation of the region's contributions to modernist art and its social programs. Partially to compensate for this omission - but, more critically, to reclaim a more complete history of the modern movement in its decisive phase of dissemination and adaptation - a consideration of the Balkans' contribution to modern art is both timely and appropriate. Following a recent discussion of Romania's meaningful engagement with modernist currents,(4) an account of Bulgaria's progressive aesthetics is fitting.

Unlike the recognized masters of Romania's classical avant-garde - Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Victor Brauner, for example - Bulgaria's major artists and their modern monuments are little known.(5) That Bulgaria's modernism has been largely neglected by both indigenous academics and foreign scholars has not been entirely disadvantageous. Ignored by the West and insufficiently documented at home - mostly due to the brevity of its existence and the fate of its protagonists - the cursory investigations of this nation's classical modern art have generally avoided the extremes of chauvinist distortion and ideological exploitation that have plagued the treatment of much of Balkan culture. In this respect, a consideration of Bulgaria's encounter with modernist aesthetics can be undertaken without being compromised by the extreme politicization with which the cultures of its south Slavic neighbors - Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, in particular - have often been viewed. Despite its distinctive historiography, Bulgaria's classical modern art is best comprehended within a regional context. Indeed, once the nation's progressive artists have been identified and their activities outlined, scholars will be better able to evaluate Bulgaria's collaborative role in shaping the styles, functions, and meanings of modern art as a whole.

The present discussion provides an interpretative account of Bulgaria's selective embrace of progressive aesthetics. It offers the contemporary reader an instructive example of the compromises artists in southeastern Europe were forced to negotiate with indigenous conditions, local traditions, and regional loyalties(6) - material and abstract circumstances that continue to affect cultural programs and governmental policy in the area. When combined with other recent studies of the history of modern art in the Balkans, a history of Bulgaria's classical modern art will substantially enrich our picture of the creative complexity and diversity of eastern European visual culture. More important, however, an introduction to classical modernism in Bulgaria constitutes a further chapter in drafting a fundamentally more balanced and comprehensive history of modern art universally.

Historical and Political Background

Diverse in traditions, history, and language, the Balkan nations collectively played an instrumental role in the genesis of modern literary and visual culture.(7) Although the scope of original art movements was perhaps broadest in Romania, the development of a modern Bulgarian art was different in degree, emphasis, and character from that of Romania and other Balkan countries:(8) Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro.(9) Moreover, the genesis of a Bulgarian modernism occurred later than among its closest neighbors, Serbia and Greece. Much of the explanation for the comparative differences and tardiness can be found in the country's geography, demography, and, particularly, economic and political history.

The lands inhabited by the Bulgars lay closest to the Ottoman imperial capital in Constantinople, to which these territories were directly subject (from at least 1453, when the political structures of the Bulgarian state were finally destroyed by Ottoman armies). As such, they were relatively easy for the Turks to keep under surveillance and to control both militarily and economically. In addition, a flourishing local economy, benefiting from the assiduous attention of the local Greek commercial community and supported by the highest Turkish authorities in the imperial capital, known as the Porte, long encouraged Bulgaria to remain a quiescent Ottoman client state.(10) Nonetheless, a national consciousness began to emerge most emphatically in the 1860s, stimulated, as elsewhere on the Balkan Peninsula, by an energetic cultural revival. As was true for many of the lands on the periphery of industrializing Europe, what was known as the national awakening movement was rooted in a revitalization (and sometimes manufacture) of native myth and a corresponding emphasis on the vernacular language,(11) literature,(12) and pictorial traditions. Especially important in this regard were the indigenous folk arts and crafts,(13) the religious art of the Orthodox Church,(14) and secular works written in Bulgarian.(15) To counter the loss of linguistic identification that resulted from the gradual replacement during the nineteenth century of Old Church Slavonic - a language not unlike Bulgarian - with Greek, the local intelligentsia promoted the indigenous Bulgarian tongue as a literary language. From the middle of the nineteenth century, a host of grammar books was published, which, in turn, helped make possible a wider readership for the numerous studies of the legendary history of the country written in the vernacular.(16) In these efforts the Turks were far from discouraging; in fact, in order to secure political accommodation Constantinople pursued in its Bulgarian territories a policy of cultural toleration(17) - a practice completely at odds with the peremptory indifference or, at times, intolerance experienced in Ottoman Greece or Serbia.

By the 1870s the emerging national movement in Bulgaria splintered into two principal factions: reformers and radicals. The former, mostly comprising educated merchants and officials, sought cultural autonomy within the Ottoman Empire to be attained through peaceful negotiations with the Porte. The second (and numerically smaller contingent), whose most committed members were predominantly Russian-educated students and other well-traveled sons of the economic elite, advocated a path of political revolution along the lines pioneered in the Balkans by Greece and Serbia.(18) Inspired equally by the romantic aspirations and liberal ideologies of national liberation advocated by their contemporaries in the emergent German and Italian nation-states, the Bulgarian students counseled violent upheaval. In light of Bulgaria's relatively favorable economic conditions, its proximate geographic location to the Ottoman capital, and the considerable freedom of cultural expression already enjoyed, however, the students' exhortations proved futile; few among the influential classes wished to jeopardize the country's prosperity and relative freedoms for the romantic enthusiasms of foreign-educated radicals.

Thus, when the young revolutionaries rejected the deliberative policy of their parents and fomented an armed insurrection in April 1876,(19) their paltry numbers were overwhelmed by troops loyal to the Ottoman Empire. Ironically, it was the exceptionally brutal...

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