An Introduction to the Classical Modern Art of Bulgaria

Article excerpt

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, Laszl6 MoholyNagy, 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.l

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 avantgarde-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 protagoniststhe 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. …