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Art and architecture

Take a native Hellenistic civilisation; add a touch of Roman civilisation, a hint of the Slavic, a generous helping of Byzantine art, and sprinkle with Eastern traditions introduced by the Bulgarians; leave to marinate for about five centuries under the lid of the Ottomans, stirring from time to time… And, hey presto, an astonishing stew of subtle flavours, further enriched by a dash of modernity: this is the remarkable melting pot of influences that gave Bulgarian art its originality.


First traces and Antiquity

A calendar and a Nécropolis

The country’s numerous caves were revealed to contain many engravings and rock paintings, which are proof of human presence. Without a doubt, the most astonishing of these caves are at Magura (near Belogradčik), where a lunar calendar is depicted, evidence of unexpected astronomical knowledge…

But it is the civilisation of the chalcolithic that disclosed the most amazing surprises, with the chance discovery of the Varna Necropolis (5th millenium BC), with its golden parures, which are the pride and joy of the local archaeological museum. Almost three hundred tombs containing thousands of objects, weapons and finely worked gold jewellery, weighing in at several dozen kilos of precious metal, mean that we are in the company of Europe’s most ancient civilisation!

The thracian footprint

Where do the Thracians start and end? They are generally considered to have appeared during the Bronze Age (3100-1200 BC). It is thought they disappeared in the era that saw the arrival of the Slavs (6C), meaning that this Hellenistic-type civilisation, for a long time little known, had time to evolve and to be impregnated with various influences, Greek and Roman in particular.

Exhumed necropolises, isolated burial mounds, cities and sanctuaries have gradually brought to light fabulous treasures allowing archaeologists to get to know this people, their rites and how they lived, and to reveal the Thracians’ mastery of sculpture, painting, architecture and goldwork.

One of the emblematic vestiges is the famous tomb of Kazanlăk , whose mural paintings are without a doubt the most accomplished of the pictorial art of the Thracians… while awaiting to be able to visit (perhaps imminently) the tomb discovered at Aleksandrovo , near Haskovo. Other notable vestiges that should be mentioned are the sacred city of Perperikon (on the headlands of the Rhodopes), avatar of the famous Oracle of Delphi, the neighbouring site of Tatul, dedicated to Orpheus, and Starosel Sanctuary , near Hisarja, not forgetting the Necropolis of Sveštari , near Isperih, with its breathtaking sculptures to rival the greatest successes of Ancient Egyptian art.

But what strikes visitors above all are the treasures in the numerous museums: on the top rung there features the extraordinary treasure of Panagjurište (at the National History Museum of Bojana, near Sofia) , the treasure of Vălčitrăn with its gold objects with geometric decoration (Sofia Archaeological Museum) and the treasure of Borovo (exhibited at Ruse) .

The Romans

Masters of the territory that is today Bulgaria from the 1C-3C, the Romans developed here in the provinces of Thrace and Moesia, as they did elsewhere, the road network and built or enlarged the cities: Trimontium (Plovdiv), Serdica (Sofia), Augusta Trajana (Stara Zagora), Apollonia (Sozopol), Nikopolis ad Istrum etc.

Among the monuments of Classic Antiquity that have survived until our day, the Roman Theatre and Stadium of Plovdiv , the Walls of Hisarja and the Baths of Varna are the most spectacular. During Roman occupation, Thracian and Hellenistic traditions were perpetuated, with a local artistic production that, up until the 2C-3C, favoured the Thracian theme of the “horseman hero” as well as local divinities that the Romans adopted and assimilated, as was their habit.

The birth of Christian Art

The late-Roman Empire (with the transfer of the capital of Rome to Constantinople) presided over the appearance of the first Christian art . This was the era of the great early Christian basilicas, superb examples of which have survived in Bulgaria: the basilica or ancient metropolis of Nesebăr , Ste Sophie Church and the Rotunda of Sofia , more or less reworked, are arguably the most prestigious examples of this 4C-6C art. However, the more humble buildings that miraculously resisted the tumult of Bulgarian history should not be forgotten, for example “ the Red Church ” of Peruštica (between Plovdiv and Velingrad, on the first headlands of Rhodope), with its multifoil layout and ambulatories.

The illustrations of paradise (Sofia Necropolis) call to mind the early Christian cycles of the Roman catacombes. Similarly, paintings and mosaics from Peruštica show the pagan imagery of the burial places in Alexandria.


From one Empire to another (8C-14C)

The arrival of the Bulgarians of Khan Asparuh (679) signified the introduction of Asian influences. The fortified capital, Pliska (8C-9 C), may have been built by Arab architects, whom we know were active at the court of Khan Krum. The famous Madara Horseman glorifying the feats of a 9C khan is reminiscent of Persian rock sculptures.

In the 10C and 11C, with the conversion to Christianity of the Empire desired by Prince Boris I and the construction of its new capital, Preslav, there appeared a first artistic amalgamation of these Eastern influences and native Byzantine and Slavic tradition . Mixing Eastern and Western traditions, the art can be seen in the construction of churches (the new capital’s round church), the decorative sculpture with splendid geometric motifs, and, in particular, painted ceramics , the most renowned example of which is the famous icon of St Theodor (9C-10C) comprising 21 ceramic panels, which is exhibited at Preslav Museum. Finally, a few frescoes have been preserved until today, such as those at Bačkovo ossuary (1083), or the most ancient layers of paint at St George of Sofia Rotunda, and in Bojana Church. As for goldwork it is represented by pectoral crosses, reliquaries and, above all, the treasure of Preslav, a superb collection of jewellery probably dating from the late 10C.

The late 12C saw the birth of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and the rise of Tărnovo, which became a rival of Byzantium. From an architectural point of view, this period of splendour saw the construction of a significant number of churches : you will see a good number in Nesebăr; the church of the monastery of Zemen (near Sofia) and St Nicolas of Sapareva Banja church are superb examples of this Romanesque-Byzantine art. Monasteries were built following the model of fortresses, holding chapels, hospice, cellars, cells behind their walls. As in civil architecture, palaeolith is used on the ground floor, while the upper floors are made of brick or wood. Military architecture is represented by fortresses : Vidin, Belogradčik, Asenovgrad and Carevec Citadel at Tărnovo are the most spectacular examples.

The Second Empire was the backdrop for the development and height of mural painting , always suffused with the Byzantine style, but whose themes are eminently Bulgarian. Among the greatest accomplishments are the frescoes to be found at Zemen Monastery (executed with archaic techniques), St Sauveur Church at Nesebăr, St Peter and St Paul Church in Tărnovo and, finally, those in Bojana, which foreshadow Giotto! The mural paintings of the cave monasteries of Ivanovo and Aladža should also be mentioned.

Miniature and illuminated manuscript art (essentially copies of the four Gospels) developed in monasteries and its heyday came under the influence of the Tărnovo literary school.

Despite the arrival of the Turks (1385), this Bulgarian art, which has been termed post-Byzantine, was perpetuated for some time in the frescoes of Boboševo (1488), ­Dragalevci (1497), and­ Poganovo (1500).


The Ottoman Era

During the long Ottoman occupation, Christian art became almost clandestine, while Bulgarian culture took refuge in out-of-the-way monasteries. Although the construction of Orthodox churches was sometimes tolerated, the edifices had to comply with specific orders. For example, the building had to be partly buried so that it did not stand taller than a Turkish soldier on horseback!

Gradually, from the 16C, icon painting replaced monumental painting, which led to the development of iconostases : simple, sparsely decorated partitions separating the altar from the nave. They became more and more complex with the addition of intricate wooden carving.

Gold masterpieces, reliquaries and artophorions (church-shaped boxes containing the blessed bread) continued to be produced, in particular in the northwest of the country (Čiprovci).

The successes of Ottoman architecture should also be mentioned: Eastern-style mosques and buildings sprung up all over the country. The most important mosques that have been preserved can been seen at Šumen (Tombul Mosque, 1744), Plovdiv (Imaret Mosques, 1454 and Džumaja, 16C), Razgrad (Ahmed Bey Mosque, 1442), Jambol, Kjustendil and Sofia (Banja Baši Mosque, 1576, built by Sinan). Examples of civil architecture are the bridges of Svilengrad and Nevestino, some bazaars (the Jambol bezisten ), baths (Nesebăr) and konak , fortified military posts.


The era of National Awakening

The 18C saw the emergence of a social class of Bulgarian tradesmen and craftsmen who had made money thanks to the market that the Ottoman Empire had opened up to them. In addition to playing a role in honing people’s consciousness of the idea of nation, these “nouveaux riches” laid the way for the renaissance of Bulgarian art by playing a role of patrons or simply by having sumptuous homes built. Remaining examples of these superb ensembles can be seen at Koprivštica, Plovdiv, Trjavna, Arbanasi, Melnik and many other places. The materials used were lime, stone and wood, grand oval reception rooms were embellished with sculpted ceilings and painted decorations covered the walls of the rooms. The most accomplished type is known as “Plovdiv Baroque” with façades decorated in the alafranga style . Meanwhile, monastic architecture was resurfacing and the monasteries of Rila and Trojan (to name but two) came to look as they do today.

To meet the demand, “art schools” sprung up, bringing together painters, sculptors and master builders: the Trjavna School is famous for its wood sculptors, but also for its zographs (icon painters), who developed a style that became manneristic to the point of blandness. The school is distinguished most notably by Kolju Vitanov and Dimităr Ošaneca ; the Bansko School by the Molerov family, whose name comes from a distortion of the German word maler (painter). Toma Višanov and Dimităr Molerov are the most renowned representatives. Members of the Samokov School , founded by Hristo Dimitrov , included the two sons of the founder, Dimităr Zograf and Zahari Zograf , as well as the son of Dimităr, ­ Stanislav Dospevski (1823-1873).

It was Zahari Zograf (1810-1853) who gave religious painting a new lease of life by introducing a previously unseen realism in the rendering of characters, landscapes and themes. His works, icons and frescoes can be seen in a number of monasteries, in Bačkovo, Trojan, at the Monastery of the Transfiguration near Veliko Tărnovo, in Rila… The verve not devoid of severity with which the artist (who used to leave one of his self-portraits in the places where he was working) enjoyed censuring his contemporaries in his vigorous Last Judgments is still entertaining.

Few master builders are recognised as being the author of any particular work. The (notable) exception is Nikola Fičev, known as Kolju Fičeto , from Drjanovo (1800-1881). This self-taught craftsman, known as usta (master) by the Ottomans, constructed numerous buildings (churches, monasteries, residences, bridges) at Veliko Tărnovo and around.


Birth of secular painting

Czech national Ivan Mărkvička (1856-1938) trained in Prague and Munich before settling in Bulgaria. The importance of this Academic painter (even Pompier) is mainly due to his position as director of Sofia’s Fine Arts Academy, where his influence on his students was such that he is considered the father of modern painting in Bulgaria.

This developed from portraiture, where Georgi Dančov (1846-1908) excelled, preceding the appearance of a landscape school, where some artists started to affirm a personal style: Atanas Mihov (1880-1975) is the representative of this almost ethnographic search for realism often coloured by a certain idyllic pastoralism, as found in the work of Ivan Angelov (1864-1924).

The main trends of European art were thus found in Bulgaria: Impressionism, with Nikola Petrov (1881-1916), Ceno Todorov (1877-1953) and Nikola Tanev (1890-1962), who worked in Paris and met Claude Monet at Giverny; Expressionism, with Sirak Skitnik (1883-1943) and especially Dečko Uzunov (1877-1953); Symbolism, with Goška Dacov (1885-1912); and the Cubism of Kiril Čonev (1886-1961) in the 1920s.

Julius Pinkas, better known as Jules Pascin (1885-1930), deserves a special mention, as a representative of Expressionism, and a colourful figure of Bohemian Montparnasse, as does Georgi Papazov ( Georges Papazoff, 1894-1972), an eminent member of the Surrealist group from 1925 and who lived and died in Vence (France).

During this time an original artist emerged in the form of Vladimir Dimitrov Majstora ( The Master , 1882-1960). Considered one of the greatest Bulgarian painters of the 20C, he was one of the few to have been the subject of retrospectives abroad (Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1973). On the themes of rural life, he took inspiration from popular art in highly stylised portraits, which he painted in pale tones with brightly coloured backgrounds. Canko Lavrenov (1896-1978) can be situated at the same level. Inspired by medieval iconography, he painted canvases evoking monuments that are representative of national culture in bright, even garish, colours. After initially being influenced by the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, Zlatju Bojadžiev (1903-1976), the so-called “one-armed painter”, changed his style and tackled scenes of peasant life that are full of freedom and humour.

Other names that deserve to be mentioned are David Perec (1906-1982), who moved from a very violent Expressionism to Abstraction; Ivan Nenov (1902-1997), who synthesised form and colour; Benčo Obreškov (1899-1970) and Vasil Barakov (1902-1991).

The two big names of the following generation are Svetlin Rusev (born in 1933) with his original style that has been called “Transrealism”: today he is acknowledged as a great master, as is Dimităr Kazakov-Neron (1933-1992), whose nickname, the “Bulgarian Chagall”, does not do him full justice. His square canvases – the expression of his highly personal experimentation with form, colour and materials – can be seen in Trjavna, where the artist has “staged” a collection representing his work. The original style of Dimităr Kirov (1935), member of the “Plovdiv Circle”, should also be mentioned.

Among the youngest artists is Nikola Manev (1940), who is well known in the West and displays a style akin to Abstraction, inspired by urban architecture and stony landscapes. He opened a gallery in his hometown, Čirpan, near Plovdiv. Also prominent are the Abstract artist Genko Genkov (1923), Luben Dimanov , who illustrated Dante’s Inferno , Emil Stojčev (1935), Dimităr Bujuklijski (1943), Hristo Nikolov (1945), and Jordan Kalčev (1955).

The big name in modern sculpture – too long condemned to monumental academicism – is without doubt Angel Spasov (1884-1974). Mara Georgieva (1905-1988), and, closer to home, Georgi Čapkărov , Ivan Slavov and Janko Nenov have also proven their considerable talent. Boyan , resident in France, Krum Damianov (1937) and Emil Popov (1951) remain the most original characters.

In the early years of independence, urban architecture (Sofia, Ruse, Varna) was influenced by the historicist and eclectic styles that were in vogue in Central Europe. Indeed, most of the Crown’s official architects came from Vienna, for instance, Friedrich Grünanger (1856-1929).

Under Communism, a dominant theme was the Stalinist taste for the monumental, as is perceptible in Sofia’s official buildings in particular, and in the grandiloquent monuments scattered about towns and villages. The model town of Dimitrovgrad (between Stara Zagora and Haskovo) is an example that reflects the “neo-Classical Stalinist” style, all the less elegant for the refurbishment it is undergoing after lying redundant for many years. But above all this period is responsible for an urbanistic disaster, which had towns organised according to the identical model of an immense central square surrounded by official buildings. Happily, the Bulgarian taste for greenery breaks up to some extent this ugly uniformity.

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