The exhibition, organised by the Stara Zagora Art Gallery, is dedicated to the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mario Zhekov, and is an occasion to bow to the talent of one of the most prominent figures in the sphere of marine landscape in Bulgarian painting. For decades, his name has been better known abroad than in Bulgaria.
Mario Zhekov was born on 16 October 1898 in Stara Zagora. There he took his first steps in the world of art. His preceptor was his uncle, the artist Vasil Marinov. In 1917, he was mobilised and sent to the front. Near Doiran, he was taken captive. By coincidence, he met a French officer, who advised him to study painting in France. In the autumn of 1918, he enrolled in the State Industrial School of Arts in Sofia (the present-day National Academy of Art), which he left the following year. In the summer of 1921, he was ready to fulfil his Parisian dream. He left for Tsarigrad [Constantinople, Istanbul] with the intention of boarding a ship for France, but the money he had saved up turned out to be very little. Remaining in Istanbul, he created dozens of drawings and aquarelles, which would be his first steps towards his future as a marine artist.
In the late spring of 1924, Mario Zhekov arrived in France. In the autumn, he began attending the School of Drawing in Paris. Several small gouaches, aquarelles and drawings from those days clearly reveal the internal struggle between the conflicting influences of the artistic processes he encountered in the exhibition halls of the French capital. To support himself, he commenced work in a Paris art studio and, at the beginning of 1925, he was invited to the then-famous Central Company of Painting and Decoration, executing assignments for its subsidiaries in Paris and Nice. He deliberately chose to take on most job orders for Nice in order to paint the sea. There, he discovered for himself the pictorial magic of Matisse and the Fauvists.
In the autumn of 1926, Mario Zhekov returned to Bulgaria. After a short stay in his home town, he left for the Black Sea region. Among the rocks and lonely beaches of Sozopol and Nesebar, he found the uniqueness, the infinite transformations of the sea, the light and the movement of the water.
Between 1933 and 1936, Mario Zhekov worked intermittently as an artist at the Plovdiv Theatre. It is from these years that his cityscapes of the Old Town date, while the free months were devoted to the Black Sea coast. He was a plein-airist in the literal sense of the term. He often looked for different views of the places that had impressed him. With some of these works, the artist opened in 1934 an exhibition in Sofia. Received with admiration by critics, colleagues and the public, it won Mario Zhekov recognition among the undisputed masters of the seascape. His popularity grew, illustrated magazines printed reproductions of his paintings; publishers included them in their calendars de luxe.
In 1936, Mario Zhekov left for Dalmatia. In Dubrovnik, he painted his most significant works. This city was as though created for his art of painting. This is where his sense of colour, light and artistry were vividly manifested. His palette was rich and bright, his painting blended in harmony with his emotion and artistic passion. His paintings were displayed in many Croatian centres. Their enthusiastic reception launched solo exhibitions in Belgrade, Zagreb, Budapest and Bucharest.
After his return to his native country, he settled in Sofia, arranging a small studio, which he rarely used between his trips to the seaside, to Dobrudzha, and to Rila. In 1941, he went to Greece, and visited Ohrid. Everywhere, he sought for and discovered the picturesque equivalent of a unique atmosphere.
The socio-political changes in the country following 1944 put to the test his free character. During these troubled years, he again found seclusion—above the waves of the sea breaking against the cliffs. After 1948-9, his painting lost, to a certain extent, its wealth of nuances. Alongside the landscapes of the country and the Black Sea, he worked in the field of scenography and spatial layout. With the founding of the Balkantourist enterprise, he became one of the most active figures in the sphere of advertising.
The retrospective exhibition includes 120 works from the collections of the Stara Zagora Art Gallery; the National Gallery; the Sofia City Art Gallery; the Plovdiv City Art Gallery; the Petko Zadgorski Art Gallery, Bourgas; the Dimitar Dobrovich Art Gallery, Sliven; the Boris Georgiev Art Gallery, Varna; the Kazanlak Art Gallery, the Dobrich Art Gallery, as well as from private collections.
Prof. Marin Dobrev, Ditector of Stara Zagora Art Gallery