The exhibition marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the National Gallery. During that period, it established itself as a leading cultural institute through carrying out a rich and diverse range of activities, and as a centre for the collection, research and presentation of fine arts. The gallery underwent various internal transformations: the separation of its branches into independent establishments, such as the National Gallery for Foreign Art and the Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts, and their subsequent reunification within the general structure of the National Gallery. Despite these changes, however, the desire to expand contacts with European cultural institutions remains constant and is realised through various forms and at different scales, from an overall and independent presentation of collections owned by the gallery to the inclusion of works from its collections in joint national and international exhibitions outside the country. The exhibition illustrates the ‘geography’ and the intensity of the gallery’s participation in the broad spectrum of European cultural relations over the past 70 years. From over 200 presentations outside the country of collections and works owned by the gallery, we selected 76 artefacts from 40 exhibitions that exemplify our contacts with different European cultural institutions.
The first exhibitions abroad were organised in the 1950s in the countries of Eastern Europe. In them, artworks by National Revival masters were shown for the first time, along with examples that were ‘realistic’ in form, and created mainly in the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, the presentation of Bulgarian art as a constant and ascending line of ‘realism’—from the National Revival portrait, through the genre composition, to the examples of the then-contemporary art—was established.
Changes took place around 1960. The National Gallery became the initiator and organiser of major representative exhibitions such as ‘2,500 Years of Art on the Bulgarian Lands’ and ‘The Treasures of Bulgarian Museums’ in France and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). They acquainted the European public with a virtually unknown culture, which stretches back into prehistory and antiquity, marking its apogee in the Middle Ages, and attaining the diversity of the creative leanings of modern times.
The tendency to present Bulgarian art in all its varieties was particularly strong in the 1970s and 1980s. The exhibition of Vladimir Dimitrov–The Master in 1973 was the first presentation of a Bulgarian artist at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. During those two decades, the National Gallery displayed its collections in the galleries in Prague and Belgrade, Athens, Ankara, Vienna, Bonn, Bratislava, Warsaw, and Lisbon… Although different in character, they revealed the wealth of Bulgarian art: the National Revival print and the advanced professionalism of our contemporary graphic artists, the mastery of the Bulgarian artists of the 1930s and 1940s, and the establishment by the younger generation of a new modern plastic language and aesthetic.
A particular focus of the gallery’s international activity during those decades was the exhibition ‘1,000 Years of the Bulgarian Icon’, included in the programme of all the national museums on the continent, from Moscow to Edinburgh. The Bulgarian presence in Europe’s cultural calendar was also marked by large-scale exhibitions of decorative art, highlighting the connection between tradition and contemporaneity.
The first appearance, in 1972, of Franz von Stuck’s painting, ‘Lucifer’, in an international exhibition in Berlin, should certainly be mentioned. Increased interest in the issues of Symbolism and the creativity of the artist has predetermined its inclusion in numerous exhibitions in different European countries, even today.
The intensity of the international activity of the National Gallery may have diminished since 1990, but continues to inspire the European public with the high quality of the exhibited works—icons, paintings, graphics, posters, installations, video art, digital collage
Each decade has its own preferences regarding the selection of the works to be displayed abroad. For ‘European Dialogues’, we have chosen exhibitions and works that not only mark our presence on the European art scene, but also reveal the changes in attitude towards the past and present (for that stage) artistic processes in our country. They afford another opportunity for a new, contemporaneous understanding of the artistic connections of Bulgarian art and European practice.