The Return of Painting after the "End" of Art

by Kiril Vasilev

The revolutions in art look as if they are over. There are changes, there are novelties, but revolutions – no. The very idea of revolution as a radical redefinition of the essence of art (with a capital A) seems dubious today. Conceptualism was the last such attempt. To claim that you know what art is and to ask others to follow your definition today seems to be a manifestation of arrogance. Pluralism reigns, all roads are open. At least ostensibly. We are in the age of "neo", "post", "trans". Revolutions were the hallmark of modernism. Is abandoning the revolution a rejection of the conquests of modernism and a return to premodern art forms? Of course not, that is why the last decades of the past century were called postmodern. Their distinctive feature was the combination of old and new, eclecticism as a programme, deconstructivism of languages and the basic principles of modernity. Through pop art, mass culture entered the heart of art, not just mass culture, but kitsch. Modern art was at war with mass culture. Postmodern art tried to call a truce with it by appropriating its images and aesthetics and recontextualising them.

Still, the basic conquest of modernity in terms of art is still valid. This is the idea of its autonomous nature, that is the understanding that all art questions cannot be answered by another sphere of culture — politics, religion, morality, science, philosophy. None of these spheres can lay claims to art from the position of its own founding concepts and values. However, this autonomy has been violated by the artists themselves, who many times, and in different ways, have insisted that what they create has a meaning and validity even outside the realm of aesthetics. Romantics saw in art a substitute for religion, that is a path to the absolute, but a path open to the secular moods of the modern human. Nationalisms attracted many artists who wanted in their art to express the national spirit. Totalitarian ideologies also attracted many artists in the direction of an art in which the historical triumph of race or class had to be represented in the most appropriate way for race and class. The avant-gardists themselves, who were rejected by totalitarian regimes as degenerative or formalistic, also insisted that they wanted to free the creative potential in every person, to turn every person into an artist, or in the long run to erase the boundaries that separate art and the artist from other spheres of culture. Over time, however, avant-gardists themselves became part of the culture of modernity, part of the specific sphere of art and its institutions, they penetrated the art museums, where they stood alongside the specimens of art from other eras.

Despite attempts within art itself to blow up its autonomy, it still survived as its leading feature and today exists relatively undisturbed in modern liberal societies. What avant-gardists in art and their opponents dreamed of – destroying its autonomy for higher moral and political purposes, happened in a way with the emergence of mass culture, technological development, and consumer capitalism. The aesthetic went out of its autonomous sphere, assigned to it by modernity; however not to return to the bosom of religion, but to become a universal mediator in the attitude to reality. Today, reality is inseparable from its media images, which are constructed using techniques developed by artists for millennia. The rules of composition, perspective, lighting first entered photography and cinema, and later television and videos. The more reality is mediated by media images, the more reality shows appear to convince us that there is no directorial interference with what we see, that reality is immediately revealed to us. This insistence on "reality" is a reverse confirmation of its absence.

In this environment, art reacts in two different, even opposing at first glance, ways. The first one is its radical retreat into silence and complete denial of all communication and aesthetic pleasure. This reaction was characteristic of the first half of the last century. Abstract expressionism and minimalism were such endeavors. The second way of reacting is the appropriation and recontextualisation of images of mass culture. This is the technique of pop art and its sequels. Conceptualism stands in the middle. On the one hand, there is a rejection of the work, of what can become a commodity and a fetish. Instead of the work, a textual description of it is offered, or documentation of its fleeting happening. On the other hand, however, conceptualism values the message, the idea that can be conceptualised, and values communication.

Peter Doig

Architect's Home in the Ravine, 1991.



  • Width: 200.00 cm    Height: 250.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Copyright: Source WikiArt
    Published under Fair Use

Neo Racuh

Der Laden, 2005.



  • Width: 210.00 cm    Height: 300.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Copyright: Source WikiArt
    Published under Fair Use

How, against this background, can we understand the recurrence of interest in painting (we can also add sculpture) at the beginning of the new century? Interest on the part of artists, critics, museums and galleries, and last but not least of the market. Is there any significant stake in this comeback, or is it simply the result of market pressure above all? Because there is no doubt that there is pressure. The prices of the paintings of some contemporary artists have reached previously unthinkable levels. The works of David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Peter Doig, Adrian Ghenie, and Neo Rauch reached multimillion-dollar prices at international auctions. This undoubtedly has influenced the decisions of debut artists when, after graduating from art colleges and academies, they hesitate in what direction they should be headed. However, it is not only the exorbitant prices on the contemporary art market that motivate them to engage in painting. The galleries and museums, the critique, have also turned out to be very hospitable and well-intentioned to painting. The process began with the emergence of neo-expressionism and transavantgarde in the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, with the bombastic appearance on the world stage of Damien Hirst and the rest of the group YBA (Young British Artists), painting again faded into the background. At that time, Scotsman Peter Doig made his debut with paintings and looked anachronistic. Today, things have turned upside down. Doig has a better reputation than Hirst among critics and curators, and also higher prices on the market.

What is the painting that is coming back like? Above all, it is about figurative art, but abstraction also has its share. All possible movements in the 20th century painting are represented in the works of today's painters – expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, photorealism, graffiti art, social art... And not only of the 20th century – Renaissance or Baroque painting are also present. What is new and different is that these directions, their basic style features, are most often mixed on the painting canvases that can be seen in galleries and museums today. Eclecticism is a hallmark of many of the works of the most interesting contemporary painters. We can even say secondarity. Secondarity in terms of the origin of the images and styles used and their function in the new paintings. New images are not conceived, but are appropriated, or if they are created, they are consciously created "in the style of". The same applies to abstract structures.  The images can come from anywhere – newspapers, magazines, TV, advertising, cinema, animated films, the Internet, family photo albums, illustrations in textbooks, paintings of great artists from the past (or of minor artists of the era), and street graffiti. Appropriating and mixing these images, putting them in a new context and in unusual contact with each other has become a mass practice in contemporary painting.

Adrian Ghenie

The Collector, 2008.



  • Width: 200.00 mm    Height: 290.00 mm    Depth: mm   

  • Description: Source Wiki Art
    Published under Fair Use

Stanislav Pamukchiev

The Wall, 2013.



  • Material: acrylic, earth, ash, soot, canvas

The surrealists' paintings offered a similarly eclectic combination of images, but in their works, the images were often not borrowed, and their creators believed that these dream-like images expressed the unconscious, the culture-suppressed layer of the inner life of individuals. Today, in the paintings of many contemporary painters, the appropriated images are mixed in a way similar to the one in the paintings of the surrealists, but there is no claim to express some oppressed inner life. If these are images of the unconscious, it is the unconscious of our consumerist culture. Only it is deprived of a subject, of consciousness, therefore the current of images cannot be called unconscious. It is a dream in reality that lacks a dreamer. This dream has no content and there is no point in interpreting it. The images make no sense in themselves, they gain meaning depending on their use, the context and conventions within which they operate. Therefore, their random combination in a painting is perfectly permissible. This underlines their external character relative to any content. It is deconstruction in action. When the meaning and stylistic homogeneity cease to be the criterion for the arrangement of certain images, then they can be arranged on the basis of syntactic and rhetorical criteria. Neo Rauch's paintings lack any sense, but they have syntax and rhetoric.

Contemporary painting focuses, above all, on visual language and not on what is used in this language. It doubts the possibility of reaching reality – outside of us or within us – unmediated by the language that is not created by us. Today, artists are not the only producer of images as they were in the past. Moreover, they lost the competition for the production of images to photography, cinema, television, and the Internet. What they have been left with, as I have already mentioned, is to insist that they are the only ones capable of capturing the imageless and make it appear on their canvases (something Lyotard insists on in his aesthetic texts) or steal images, abduct and deconstruct them, create spaces of the nonsense, of the blocked consumerist desire, which is always in need of the illusion of reality, of presence. The same operation of appropriating and deconstructing images is carried out with regard to the history of painting itself, to its own images and styles. They also become desubstantiated, devoid of presence, converted into the most ordinary formulae that can be used as the artist deems fit. Perhaps that is why critics such as Barry Schwabsky use the term "Mannerisms" to characterise contemporary painting. Today's painting, according to Schwabsky, is in relation to Modernism what Mannerism was in the 16th century in relation to the Renaissance – bringing already produced stylistic formulae to the extreme with no relation to any content.

Today's painting has no programme. The deconstruction of images is not a programme, but an effect of the operation for their decontextualisation and recontextualisation, which is not necessarily carried out with the idea of critical work. Artists have become suspicious of the theory and therefore when critics sometimes write that contemporary painting is conceptual – they are wrong. Conceptualism is important in today's painting only as an example of distance in terms of the media used. Artists are distanced from what they create, but not because they have an idea that is the real work of art. They do not have that idea; they do not have a message. Their distance in terms of the media, their alienation from it, is mirrored by the way images are created within the mainstream culture. They do not express any subjectivity, do not reveal the essence of some reality, they are formulae that should provoke a certain type of emotions and mental associations in consumers. Artists treat their paintings and images in the same way, only not to programme the emotions and fantasies of the spectators, but to block them, confuse them, and thus to reveal and unmask the function of the images. Alienation which is not concealed in the "warm" images, as in advertising, but is contrariwise put on display. The spectators cannot invest their "inner lives" - something advertising or genre cinema may offer – in these paintings. They leave us distant, but this distance can also be thought of as a form of freedom. The aesthetic pleasure they offer is cold and ironic. Contemporary painting is a monument to an alienation, which from an instrument of power becomes an instrument of freedom. However, this freedom is entirely negative, it is a "freedom from".

Tekla Aleksieva

Crossroad, 1977.



  • Width: 120.00 cm    Height: 180.00 cm    Depth: cm   

Therefore, the dissatisfaction of some art lovers who argue that contemporary painting leaves them cool, that they do not see it as an alternative to modernism, true originality, etc. is quite understandable. This is quite a true description of the experience in front of the paintings of contemporary artists. The originality in them is the originality of the individual play with the finished images and styles, and not an original answer to the question of the essence of painting in general. This frustration and distance in front of the paintings are purposefully sought. The task of the artists today is how to hold the spectator's attention without dragging them into deep aesthetic contemplation, but rather to keep it in order to replace this look, cold and ironic, on the stream of images that floods us in everyday life, that is to transform the daily reality in which we are immersed. Contemporary painting cannot give us more than that,. This may be one of the symptoms of its end, but also of its way of existence after the end.

The return of painting at the beginning of the new century may find an explanation that is not necessarily related to the answer to the question of what and how it is being painted. In this return, we can see a symptom of the renewed yearning for "auratic" art. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin published his most popular text, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936), in which he put forward his thesis about the loss of the aura and the authority of the work of art as a result of the new technical means of reproduction. With the advent of photography and cinema, the work of art lost its character as a unique, hand-made object and became a machine-made and printed object for mass use. Thus, it permanently lost its "cult value", that is its connection with its religious origin, which persisted even after the advent of all-secular art. The emergence of the new media, according to Benjamin, uprooted the work of art from its place in tradition. A return to painting can be interpreted as an attempt to rejoin tradition. However, not through the form and content that can negate or parody this tradition, but through media and technology. A Peter Doig's painting is a unique, handmade object such as the paintings by Cézanne, Titian or Rembrandt and is perfectly comparable with them.

Globalisation and global mediatisation have greatly accelerated the unification processes in the modern world. The same cars, household equipment, furniture, clothing, advertisements, films, music, language are gradually flooding the most remote corners of the planet. This has given birth to a backlash in modern Western culture. Today there is a huge interest in unique, handmade articles, in all kinds of disappearing crafts. A whole new niche appeared on the market – handmade goods (household items, clothing, accessories, food, etc.). This is not about handmade luxury goods, with which the rich have always demonstrated their social status. This rekindled interest in unique handmade items from natural materials is also part of the trend towards an environmentally friendly life and all the ecological concern of modernity. This broad cultural context can also fit in a renewed interest in painting and all other forms of visual art which use handmade components of traditional materials – textiles, wood, ceramics, and paper.

Roumen Zhekov

Fragments in red, 2011.



  • Width: 56.00 cm    Height: 76.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Property of: collection gallery L'UNION
  • Copyright: gallery L'UNION

Ventislav Zankov

Oh, Happy Days, 2014.



  • Photographer: Ventsislav Zankov
  • Material: oil, canvas
  • Width: 9.00 m    Height: 4.00 m    Depth: 0.10 m   

  • Property of: Ventsislav Zankov

The yearning for auratic art is a yearning for uniqueness and durability that more and more people are experiencing today because the object world of the modern human is increasingly unified and perishable. The consumer type of economy needs such a perishable object world to function effectively, but this contradicts the basic anthropological characteristics. Not only do objects serve us, but they also connect us with ourselves in the stream of time, as well as with our predecessors. Until recently, an object (a bed, a table, a car) could accompany the lives of more than one generation in a family. Now this is an exception. The objects of traditional art (painting, sculpture) are the most durable objects created by humans and can outlive centuries. In them, this durability, as Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Human Condition (1958), "demonstrates its own image of the stability of the artificial human world." We continue to need this stability that the durability of information cannot replace. Today, the durability of information increases at the expense of the durability of our object world. We are not spirits, but bodily beings, and therefore we need object durability that protects the traces of our own presence, as well as of the presence of those before us. A painting, regardless of its artistic merits, accumulates depositions from the eyes, gestures and presence of those through whose hands and eyes it passes. The story is embedded not only in its content and form but above all in its matter.

What does the return of painting look like in the Bulgarian context? Both similar and different at the same time. Painting has never left our art. It was the dominant form of visual art in the years of the Communist regime. In the 1990s, it continued to dominate the permanent exhibitions of museums, the exhibitions of the newly emerging private galleries, as well as on the art market, insofar as it existed. In the 1990s, however, its place in the field of "contemporary art" was challenged. Radically-minded artists and critics at the time, in unison with the ideas of their Western counterparts, thought that painting was a thing of the past because "contemporary art" used other media. Thus, the terminological pair of "conventional-unconventional" art emerged, with which radical criticism typified and evaluated Bulgarian art, using an easy and misleading criterion – the media used. Indeed, installation, performance, photography, and video were a novelty in our art in the early 1990s, but in Western Europe and the US they had already become "conventional" art. Many of the "unconventional" works created in our country in the 1990s were secondary, but this does not mean that painting and sculpture were not such.

Sirma Sarafova-Orahovac

Composition, 2013.



  • Width: 128.50 cm    Height: 69.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Property of: courtesy Sirma Sarafova - Orahovac and Sariev Contemporary

At the beginning of the new century, things changed in Bulgaria too. Today, neither artists nor critics and art historians involved in contemporary art would say that painting is not a part of it. The few galleries for contemporary art often show painting exhibitions. The competitions for the awards of M-tel, Gaudenz Ruf, BAZA, have enjoyed strong participation by painters. What makes an impression in the group of the active young artists under 35 years of age who live and work in Bulgaria is the large number of painters. The problem is that both the challenge of the status of painting in the 1990s and its acceptance today as part of "contemporary art" is the result not so much of conscious individual choice or of the influence of a thoughtful critical debate in the field of Bulgarian art but is largely following the fashion that comes from the major cultural centres in Western Europe and the USA. It is completely natural for the young to be fashion followers, but why have people who did performances, videos and installations in the 1990s reverted to painting and sculpture today? What is the reason for this, a new view of the possibilities of traditional media, achieved with individual efforts or simply market and institutional pressures? What role has the emigration of some of the most active artists of the 1990s played in the change of positions? How has the work of artists who emigrated to the US changed and how has that of artists who emigrated to France or Austria changed, for example? How have the differences between the art centres in the West projected in our home context? These questions remain open and require future serious research by art critics.

At the same time, it must be said that in Bulgaria in the 1990s there were artists who were fully aware of the situation in contemporary art in a global context and fully consciously chose painting as a media with which to work precisely as contemporary artists. Here we should mention the names of Andrey Daniel, Bozhidar Boyadzhiev, Ventsislav Zankov, Dinko Stoev, Krasimir Dobrev, Kolyo Karamfilov, Milko Pavlov, Nikolay Maistorov, Rumen Zhekov, Sasho Stoitsov, Stanislav Pamukchiev and a few others. They had enough courage and did not escape the question: How is painting possible today? It was the attempt to answer this question that made them very different from their colleagues, who, regardless of their talent and skills, simply followed the habit and had no intention of coming out of the comfort zone in which the context of the home country had put them. The restored symbolic status of painting today made conservative-minded painters of the 1990s feel rehabilitated, but this is self-delusion, because it is precisely the rejection of the idea of the central role of the medium in the visual arts that privileges the message again (to reverse McLuhan's wording). Few painters in our country (and not just in our country) have much to say to us.

The return of painting to the sphere of contemporary art in Bulgaria has another dimension related to the state of higher education in the field of visual arts. The National Academy of Art has remained virtually unreformed. The division of the applied and fine art faculties has remained. The degree programmes are basically the same. The methods of training have not changed much. Few lecturers are on the pay-roll of the National Academy of Art, especially among the heads of the workshops who have a good knowledge of and achievements in working with non-traditional media. In the 1990s, the most active students generally opposed their professors and tried to move away from them and from the traditional media with which they worked. Today's students are very different and rather follow their professors in their preference for traditional media. This largely predetermines the profile of young artists who graduate from the Academy. Their group will be dominated by painters again and it will be easy again to identify under which professor the student studied. This is something we had forgotten in the 1990s. In other words, the return to painting among the very young is due significantly to the peculiarities of the institutional format in which they are formed.

One of the most positive effects of the changed attitude towards painting in advocates of contemporary art among artists and critics is the new interest in the painting of some artists of the older generation, mainly women, such as Aneta Drugusanu, Sirma Sarafova – Orahovats, Tekla Alexieva, whose works have gained a new meaning in the contemporary, context much more sensitive to nuances and subtle differences.

Bibliography and citations: 

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Sofia, 1997, p. 143.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. Sofia, 2022. 
Nozharova, Vesela. Introduction to Bulgarian Contemporary Art 1982-2015. Sofia, 2018 
Tsanev, Peter. Towards a Critical Typology of Contemporary Bulgarian Painting1989-2018. OPEN ART FILES. 
Schwabsky, Barry. Painting in the interrogative mode. // New perspectives in painting. London, 2002.

Kiril Vasilev, 2022