In Lieu of Renaissance: The Bulgarian National Revival in Art— from the Icon to the Secular Portrait

19/04/2018 - 17/06/2018

The National Gallery presents the art of the Bulgarian National Revival—one of the most outstanding epochs in our culture, a time of economic, social and cultural flourishing of Bulgarian nationality within the Ottoman Empire. The beginning of this process dates back to the middle of the 18th century, marked by Paisii Hilendarski’s ‘Istoriya slavyanobalgarska’ [Slavonic-Bulgarian History] of 1762, and ending with the revolutionary movement and the Liberation of 1878.
In the exhibition, we have gathered in one place icons and portraits of the most prominent Revival artists: those of the great Tryavna painters Yoanikiy Papa Vitan and Simeon Tsonyuv; of the notable Samokovians, including the outstanding oeuvre of the most significant reformer, Zahari Zograph; of Toma Vishanov; the remarkable iconographers from Elena; the academic painters Nikolay Pavlovich, Stanislav Dospevski, Hristo Tsokev, Dimitar Dobrovich; and the painter, revolutionary and fellow-combatant of Vasil Levski, Georgi Danchov.
The National Revival icon grew to become ‘embellished’, as our professor, Atanas Bozhkov, who taught us to understand and love this art, used to say. The depictions of The Mother of God are no longer the stern Hodegetrias and Eleousas, but the Merciful, the Patron of Children, the Helper; in other words, directed towards the personal life of people. They glow with tender pink and pale blue tones, with beautiful, spirited faces, sometimes in brilliant Baroque or Rococo gold frames that emphasise the impressive appearance the artists sought. It was Zahari Zograph from Samokov, a typical representative of the National Revival, who achieved the transition to secular art and marked the beginning of the Europeanisation of Bulgarian art. He drew portraits, plants and animals, nudes, ancient ruins and landscapes, directly from nature.
The icon bears only an apparent resemblance to its medieval roots, and stands much closer—in chronological terms, as well as a means of expression and style—to the modern age. It is no coincidence that the conditional language, the characteristic generalisation of the form, the line and the expression of colour, which has its own logic and approaches the wealth of colour of folk art, are appreciated within the aesthetic of modern art. Bulgarian artists and the early art historians were also the first collectors of these works.
As early as the the end of the 16th century, and during the 17th, the elements of this new development emerged from the invigorating Italian Renaissance, with later Baroque influences and, through the icons and frescoes of the Cretan artists, enriched Orthodox art in the Balkans. The work of Pimen of Zograph—an artist and reformer who was awakened to the need to preserve the old ecclesiastical art as a cultural heritage that belonged to everyone—is attributed to that time. The first icons signed by their creators also date from this period. Two valuable examples of the artistic self-consciousness of the Renaissance kind are included in this exhibition: the icons, ‘Old Testament Holy Trinity’, by Zograph Nedyalko of Lovech, from 1598, and ‘St George with Scenes of His Life’, bearing the signature of Yoan of Chevindol, from 1684, with whose clear and distinctly individual style an entire group of masterpieces, known as the ‘Prisovo Icons’, is associated.
This development was held back by the severe ‘Kırcaali period’, and it was only as late as the middle of the 18th century, on Sveta Gora [Mount Athos], that the new generations of painters began to be trained, their activity flourishing under the new conditions of economic progress, especially in the small sub-Balkan towns. The intensive building of new, and the restoration of old, churches and monasteries—centres of Bulgarian culture and education— and the construction of new neighbourhoods in the large cities such as Plovdiv and Tarnovo along with the revival of towns like Koprivshtitsa, Kotel, Elena, Tryavna and Bansko, contributed to the exceptional growth of the guilds of builders and painters. A characteristic phenomenon appeared: the family iconographic schools in Tryavna, Bansko and Samokov, practising traditional icon painting. According either to legend or proven facts, the founders of these schools came from Sveta Gora and passed on their craft and skills to their sons or to other pupils. In these family legends, besides Sveta Gora, Vienna is also often referred to as a place of connection to European art.
The large-scale construction and the need for frescoes and icons turned iconography into one of the most lucrative crafts of the epoch, while, over time, like the great Renaissance artists, icon painters changed their social, and hence their financial, status: from being regarded only as craftsmen, they became respected, almost godlike figures, with whom people conformed, about whom legends were recounted, and who dared, as did Zahari Zograph, to paint their contemporaries or their self-portraits on icons and frescoes. The rich craft guilds or individuals—the Koprivshtitsa or Elena notables and chorbajis who built churches and restored monasteries—ordered not only individual icons, but also entire mural complexes. The saints enriching the imagery of the National Revival became the patrons of these distinguished personalities, craftsmen, or entire guilds; frequently, their activity or ideas found their place and changed iconography—in the icon of St Pachomius the Great, a Coptic monk from the 4th century and founder of a cenobitic monastery, the Tryavna painter, Krastyu Zahariev, omitted important aspects of the saint’s life but depicted a detailed genre scene of the work of the makers of goat-hair artefacts who had commissioned the icon.
A major indicator of the new Renaissance thinking was the drawing. The National Revival drawing was no longer merely a stage of the artisanal work, but an expression of the creative concept of the artist, a demonstration of his skill, of his interests; it had not only a preparatory, but its intrinsic artistic value, and was therefore appreciated and preserved.
Thanks to our former colleagues, the National Gallery has accumulated in its collection the graphic archives of our National Revival artists and their pupils or their heirs: the hundreds of drawings and the earliest and most extensive collection of European engravings by Zahari Zograph, the voluminous heritage of Nikolay Pavlovich, as well as patriotic printed graphics. The drawings of the Tryavna masters, of Toma Vishanov and his sons from Bansko, have also been preserved; as is a remarkable catalogue of the Elena iconographers, which, in this exhibition, presents the icons of these pre-eminent masters for the first time in almost two centuries.
It was from among the circles of the National Revival schools that the first secular artists appeared. Towards the middle of the 19th century, they commenced their studies in prestigious European academies: Stanislav Dospevski in Saint Petersburg; Nikolay Pavlovich in Vienna and Munich; it was in Constantinople, Athens, and then Rome that Dimitar Dobrovich—an artist with an entirely Western style, who returned to Bulgaria after the Liberation—acquired his education. Hristo Tsokev, a disciple of the Russian ‘Peredvizhniki’ [The Wanderers], received the most modern education. Among the self-taught representatives of secular painting was Georgi Danchov, companion-in-arms and friend of Vasil Levski, who created a series of portraits of famous figures of the National Revival. The exhibition includes one of his portraits of Vasil Levski, on which the artist worked until his death, leaving it unfinished.
Our academically educated artists painted mostly portraits—the leading genre in the second half of the 19th century and the first decades following the Liberation. They left a rich gallery of remarkable personalities, from their relatives to prominent figures of the epoch. After the middle of the 19th century, pioneered by Nikolay Pavlovich, history painting also developed; and, albeit infrequently, landscapes or genre scenes also appeared. They all painted icons, attempting to combine the traditions of their paternal craft with the principles of academic painting in which they had been trained. They also bequeathed us portraits of their fathers—the embodiment of the generations of humble iconographers from the epoch of slavery: Dimitar Zograph by Stanislav Dospevski, and priest Dimitar Kanchov from Tryavna, immortalised by his son Ivan Dimitrov, a student of the legendary Cabanel from the Paris Academy and the first Bulgarian painter to exhibit at the Paris Salon in the 1880s.
Artists of both these epochs are represented in the exhibition, with Konstantin Velichkov being typical—a distinguished writer, public figure and politician who studied painting in Florence, and who wrote ‘Letters from Rome’, the first Bulgarian work on art history, while, as Minister of Enlightenment in the liberated Bulgaria, he initiated the establishment of the School of Drawing in Sofia (1896), later to become the Academy of Art.
The exhibition includes icons and portraits from the National Gallery as well as from almost all the major galleries and museums in the country with National Revival collections—the city galleries in Plovdiv, Pazardzhik, Veliko Tarnovo, Sliven and Gabrovo, the National Museum of Ecclesiastical History and Archaeology, the Specialised Museum of Woodcarving and Icon Painting in Tryavna, the Ilarion Makariopolski Museum of the Bulgarian National Revival in Elena, the Haskovo Regional History Museum, and the Prof. Ivan Duychev Centre for Slavonic and Byzantine Research. They all prepared and generously loaned some of their most significant exhibits.
The project is approved under the Cultural Programme of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 2018.

Doroteya Sokolova