Origination of New Art Practices in Varna – First Attempts

by Irena Dimitrova

Where new art practices are mentioned, this normally means the object, the installation, the happening, the performance, etc., which are considered part of postmodernism. As regards Bulgaria, their occurrence and development took place in several cities such as Sofia, Varna, Plovdiv, Blagoevgrad, etc., encompassing the period from the end of the 1970s to the end of the 1980s. However, it is unanimously admitted that Varna artists were part of the avant-garde of this process. I will tell you briefly about the origination of the new art practices in the maritime capital in the period 1980-1990. The most prominent representatives of these visual forms in Varna were Vladimir Ivanov, Veselin Dimov, Tsvetan Krastev, Iliya Yankov, Dimitar Traychev, Koyno Koynov, Angel Angelov, Veselin Nachev, etc. Owing to the conversations with the artists of Varna and the research in the field of art history by Svilen Stefanov, Chavdar Popov, Diana Popova, Maria Vasileva and others, the picture of those years full of artistic experiments was outlined increasingly clear.

During the interviews of the artists, I asked them the following question: “How did you get to the new practices – intuitively or through your familiarization with the work of your fellow artists outside Bulgaria (mostly in Western countries)?” The answers of three of the main experimenters of Varna – Vladimir Ivanov, Veselin Dimov and Tsvetan Krastev, together with the key moments of their artist biography and the analysis of one of their works offer a certain idea of the nature of the new art practices in Varna.[1]

Vladimir Ivanov (b. 1946) graduated from the French Language School in Varna, which orientated him to the French and generally to the Western culture. During the artist’s studies at the National Academy of Arts (1970-1975), his foreign language background (at the secondary school and at Kliment Ohridski Sofia University – French philology) helped him broaden his cultural horizons. Through art magazines such as the Studio International, Opus International, Kunstforum International, Аrtforum, etc. at the library of the Institute of Art Studies at BAS and the SS. Cyril and Methodius national library, Vladimir Ivanov became intimately acquainted with the art of Western Europe from the second half of 20 c. For those readers who are not familiar with the cultural and ideological reality at that time, I will clarify that back in those years Western art after 1950 was not studied at NAA.

The training in philology, especially studying the exceptionally advanced in the 1970s-1980s linguistics, not only revealed to V. Ivanov the access to the then limited professional information, but also conceptualised his artistic thinking and developed art reflection. The 1970s were the time of direct contact with the new art practices in their Western variant: the artist visited GDR, Poland and France, where he was introduced to the art underground (Germany) and the Western conceptualism (France, Poland), which impressed him deeply. Among V. Ivanov’s various interests, we can also notice his penchant for chess as early as in his teenage years, which speaks of analytical skills and combinatorial thinking, exceptionally important for the artist’s conceptual endeavours. As is evident from the example of this artist of Varna, the adoption of the new art practices can be the result of different mutually stimulating circumstances, interests and natural talents.

In 1980, at one of the regional exhibitions in Varna, V. Ivanov presented his conceptual work Geometry of the Body. It consists of 4 square drawings (70/70 cm), made with black lead and crayons. In the series, according to the artist’s words, he deals with “the problem of inscribing the figure in a certain format”. Setting this task, and in particular its implementation, can be deemed a negative reaction to some academic canons, according to which, for instance, the head should not be “cut off”, and the entire figure should fit in the sheet. Naturally, the artist, who had completed a degree in Graphic Arts at NAA, was well aware of the classic rules. The conscious incompleteness of the larger part of the drawings in Geometry of the Body also defies the existing academic norm. The principle of visual pause realised by V. Ivanov, or of “the emptiness”[2] in the Geometry of the Body series shaped up after being introduced to the studies of the Russian orientalist E. Zavadska in the 1970s, dedicated to the traditional art and philosophy of the Far East. Ever since then, the artist had been fascinated by the Chinese and Japanese traditional painting and the philosophy of Zen/Zen Buddhism, whose influence can be noticed in other works by the artist. 

The Geometry of the Body series also contains associative connections with other visual art texts. For example, especially in the second and the fourth drawings, the artist was inspired by Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian Man. It is well known that by inscribing the figure in geometric shapes the great Renaissance master realised his artistic objective to clarify the principle of construction of the human body/human figure. “Quoting” Leonardo is seen both in the formulation of the very artistic task (to inscribe the human body in a certain geometric shape) and in its realisation (e.g. the composition with diagonal stripes, in whose centre is the human figure “the wreath of creation”). A contemporary humanitarian explorer will rightfully define this reference to the Vitruvian Man as intertextual. Intertextuality, i.e. the use of “other people’s” works (texts), motifs, plots, style devices, etc., has always gone along art; however, in the new art practices (respectively in postmodernism) it became one of the leading and almost compulsory principles in creating a piece of art. What is more, the recipient text may contain several “other people’s” texts (donor text, prototext, etc.), which enter into various meaningful interrelations. The Geometry of the Body cycle makes a wonderful illustration of this situation: along with Leonardo’s donor text, it traces the intertextual relation with the ancient Chinese symbolic images of the human as a universe. What is indicative of them is that the human body is inscribed in a square which, in turn, is inscribed in a circle. This hypothesis is fully adequate if we take into consideration V. Ivanov lasting interest in the Japanese and Chinese philosophy and painting.   

Intertextuality is also present in the other works of this artist, who turned not only to Renaissance models and the art of the Far East but also, for example, to European modernism (Mondrian).

The other experimenter who laid the foundations of the new art practices in Varna is the sculptor Veselin Dimov (b. 1955), who is regarded by a number of Bulgarian art historians as one of the forefathers of these forms in Bulgaria.

To the question how he got to the new forms of expression, V. Dimov replied that together with his artist endeavours the main role was played by his teacher – Lyubomir Prahov[3], from whom he adopted the idea of “the presence” of a work of art. During his work at L. Prahov’s atelier, the sculptor attended the painting courses conducted by Stoyan Kuyumdzhiev[4] and lectures in Art History at NAA. According to V. Dimov, the theoretical training at NAA, unlike the training at the Conservatoire, where he also attended lectures, contained almost no information about the contemporary art behind the Iron Curtain. At the Conservatoire, however, aleatoric music[5] was on the curriculum as early as the 1970s, and also the systems of polyphony and dodecaphony[6], which are largely based on mathematics. Thus, V. Dimov became acquainted with ideas and tendencies in global music, which provided him with a more critical view on what was going on at the cultural stage in Bulgaria, including in the field of visual art. This educational and cultural symbiosis included точните науки a well, which considerably shaped V. Dimov’s creative thinking: after he finished a mathematics form in Varna, he studied at the Technical University.

This “mathematical and technical approach” became evident as early as his first exhibition – Terrain and Structures, organised in 1982 in the Sea Garden in Varna. Most of the installations (Mast, Bowsprit, Battering Ram, etc.), in which V. Dimov demonstrated a visual language that was new for its time, reminded of elements of vessels or battle weapons. The dramatic fate of this exhibition was also indicative of the times. Initially, it was officially approved by the chairman of the Sculpture department of UBA Valentin Starchev and by the arts commission. V. Strachev described it in the report as “experimental”. Several days after its opening, however, the District Council of the Bulgarian Communist Party ordered that the exhibition be closed within 24 hours, but V. Dimov refused to obey the order for a month and a half. The professional college in the person of Georgi Lechev (artist, chairman of UBA in Varna) and Benyo Benev (a prominent artist and member of the District Committee of the Party) concurred with V. Dimov and also disobeyed the party decisions to destroy the exhibition. In the long run, the authorities decreed the destruction of the works, with only two of them being preserved to date, located in the Sea Garden in Varna (“Rest” and “Thrill”).

What exactly can we identify the post-modernistic nature of this “ensemble” by? Mostly by its affiliation to the installation in terms of genre. In the words of V. Dimov himself, in the creation of the works he was influenced by Russian constructivist Naum Gabo, who, when constructing the sculptural forms, stretched steel or iron threads in the “skeleton” of the object, which merge into one another and create an illusion of a moving and vibrating surface. Another sign of the new is the typically post-modernistic eclecticism[7] (hybridity) in the choice of the materials: V. Dimov combined the traditional for sculpture wood and stone with the untraditional cast iron, concrete and ship ropes. The very location of the installations in gardens, parks, etc., is sometimes considered unconventional for this type of art, although the inclusion of sculptural images in the natural and park context has an ancient tradition. The novelty in this case was namely the integration of installations in the public environment and thus converting it into a part of the artistic conceptual task. 

On the occasion of his first exhibition V. Dimov wrote that his main “endeavours are clear from the very title” [8]. During the installation of the structures, he find out to his surprise that the presence, the influence of the work is “a problem beyond the formal endeavours and experiments”.[9] 

The thorough analysis of one of those installations, Bowsprit[10], shows what these suggestions are and on what they are based. Besides resembling the form of a ship bowsprit, the structure has the shape of a cross orientated to the sky. The reconciliation of these two metonymic images leads to a historical and cultural allusion, related to the discovery of the new continents and their colonization by the Europeans, involving forced conversion to Roman Catholic Christianity of the local population. As for the materials, the use of wood, stone and rigging is closely related to the technological characteristics of the sailing ships, predominantly with wood as main material, of which they were made in the past. If the use of rigging needs no explanations, the unusual stone anchor provokes the explorer’s curiosity. It turns out it reproduced the most ancient anchors, some of which were found on the Black Sea bottom, near Sozopol. A similar accidental or deliberate reanimation of archaic artefacts and images is common in the practice of the new “unconventional” art. The combination of some materials or others and their forms expands the allusion field of the installation. While the use of wood and stone, on the one hand, and rigging, on the other, creates purely objectual contrasts between the hard and the soft, the combination of wood and rigging through the relation to sailing actualises the idea of motion, contrary to the Earth’s static beginning, symbolised by the anchor-stone. Meanwhile, the stone anchor balances the composition and in this way appears to be a logical counterpart of the very motion. These observations are in unison with R. Ruenov’s words, according to whom “the repertoire of Terrain and Structures” excludes contemplative decisions, and although it is all about abstract geometric shapes at first sight, they are specified and strictly defined with a view to their spatial expediency and functionality“[11]. 

V. Dimov’s works stand at the borderline between sculpture and installation and can be attributed to land art. This specific view on sculpture is also revealed in V. Dimov’s further endeavours, for example in the familiar to the researchers land art installation Water Dragon (1983).

The next artist of Varna who was a significant contributor to the development of the new forms and whose works are characterised by humour and irony is Tsvetan Krastev (b. 1961). He graduated from the Kazanlak Secondary School of Arts in 1980. Even as a student, T. Krastev refused to accept the imposed dogmas and requirements in the education in arts and developed his own method of work. He applied to NAA several times – for a degree in Painting, but was never accepted. He was introduced to the alternative to the generally accepted in Bulgaria understanding of visual art, listening to the stories of his fellow artists about the world-famous Bulgarian Christo Javacheff. The realisation of this information came later, when the artist attended an exhibition with photographs of Christo’s works at the Pompidou museum in Paris (1984), where he bought one of his albums. According to T. Krastev, Christo’s works gave him confidence that he had chosen the right direction in art. Another artistic stimulus came from the faraway exotic mythology of the Dogon (a Mali tribe), which is characterised by great complexity and eclecticism.

The artist’s first experiments in the field of the new practices were outdoors, in the open. The reason was simple – the lack of an atelier. In 1985, together with artist Plamen Mihaylov[1], T. Krastev created the work Sunflowers. This land art work combines the universally known metaphor for conformism – the human-sunflower, and the artist’s metaphor for the crowd-field. The latter was built on the Bulgarian’s lasting allusions from the Socialist age, in which the field was associated with the agrarian progress and the so called five-year plans. The use of official media such as the Narodno Delo and the Soviet newspaper Pravda in the form of hats which metonymically referred to the head and the respective type of thinking finally shaped up the ironic and parodial nature of the work. It features the typical of the post-modernistic conception of the world profanisation of the metastories and their concepts, which in this case are “collectivism”, “bright future”, etc. [1] P. Mihaylov was born in 1960 in Varna. He graduated from the Kazanlak Secondary School of Arts (painting). He is currently working in the field of painting and object. 

This approach in the Sunflowers by T. Krastev and P. Mihaylov resembles the Sots Art concept as an artistic reaction to the clichés of the Socialist realism. T. Krastev’s work underwent various metamorphoses, and in time he shifted from land art to works of a smaller scale and clearly expressed conceptual nature.

The transition of these three artists to the new art practices follows various plots. Veselin Dimov and Tsvetan Krastev came to the new forms following their personal artist endeavours, whereas Vladimir Ivanov was inspired by the foreign (Western European) experience as well. It is worth mentioning the circumstance that the origination of the new artistic forms in Varna started from the artists' individual endeavours and only later shaped up in terms of organisation and theory in the form of an art manifesto (“The Group of the Seven” – 1987 and club “Var/t/na” – 1996). The external factors that drive not only these but also other artists in the direction of the new visual practices include the following: the familiarisation with current information about the contemporary art around the world through printed media, attendance of exhibitions abroad, influence of the teacher and accidental impressions. However, the main role is played by deeper processes in the very art (not only the visual one) and in the creative thinking of its artists. In the artists developed an internal need of an alternative to the traditional narrativity and a search for new content and means of expression, which actually were the seedbed for an entirely natural, creative, and not an epigonian acceptance of foreign (in this case mostly Western) influences.

Thinking about the genesis of the new art practices in Bulgaria and in Varna, it is impossible to ignore one of the debatable questions related to the ideological and political context in our country at the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s. Some art historians believe that the ideology of the Communist party posed great obstacles to the free development of the so-called unconventional forms. It is indicative, however, that the three aforementioned artists of Varna consider such a claim exaggerated. In this connection, very interesting is Chavdar Popov’s opinion, in whose words in the period of the mature and late Socialism ”we had neither ”genuine” official art (...), nor ”genuine” unofficial one. The reasons for this specifically Bulgarian phenomenon, unlike the Soviet art, can be sought in various directions – in the lack of total ideological ”repression” (the control of the process was delegated to the very artists, more specifically to the management of the Union), in the peculiarities of the national psyche and mentality”[12]. 

[1] The illustrations of the works and portrait photographs have been provided to the author by the artists.

[2] Georgieva, Z. Zen: On the Nature of Mind and What Quantum Physics Says. Sofia. 2010, p. 10.

[3] L. Prahov (1936, Pleven – 1994, Sofia) graduated from NAA with a degree in Sculpture under Prof. Marko Markov in 1962. He designed commemorative coins both individually and in cooperation with other artists (the series “1300 years Bulgaria (1981)“, “1300 years Bulgaria – Madara Horseman (1981)“, etc.).

[4] S. Kuyumdziev is an artist, professor at NAA, author of mosaic panels in Bulgaria and abroad.

[5] Aleatoric music is one of the most significant trends in avant-gardism in the West European music, whose aesthetic and composition and technological techniques are based on the principles of chance, of the performers’ momentary resourcefulness and choosiness. – In: Dictionary of Musical Terminology. Nauka I Izkustvo. Compiler: Svetoslav Chetrikov. S., 1969. p. 16.

[6] Dodecaphony is an avant-garde atonal system of organisation of the tones of the chromatic scale. – Idem, Dictionary of Musical Terminology,  p. 91.

[7] See: Popov, C. Postmodernism and the Bulgarian Art in the 1980s and 1990s. Balgarski Hudozhnik, 2009, p. 66.   

[8] Afterword to V. Dimov’s unpublished book Black SquareWhite Square, VisibleInvisible, which was provided to me by him in an electronic version.

[9] Idem.

[10] A bowsprit (from Dutch: boegspriet) is an inclined spar on sailing vessels running out of a ship’s bow.   

[11] Idem: Ruenov, R. Actionist Art Practices in Bulgaria. p. 4.

[12] Popov, Tch. Officially, Inofficially and (or) ...? – Art / Art in Bulgaria, 1994, No. 18, p.8.