The sustainability and importance of the figurative approach in Bulgarian art from the second half of the 20th century can be seen as key to understanding its specific development. In addition to the interest in the abstract, minimalist, or current conceptual trends in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of Bulgarian artists did not abandon the figure. It was not only an expression of the purely formal propensity for realism but also a more general symbol of the humanistic measure in art, with which the majority of the Bulgarian artists identified themselves.
At first glance, the figurative has dominated Bulgarian art since the second half of the 20th century, given the dictatorship of socialist realism, in which the human figure is a measure of realism and a carrier of the ideal of the builder of the new society, of the "hero". At the same time, even trends towards liberation from the ideological framework and experiments with new forms found their expression again through the human as a central figure – this time through the focus on personality, individual choice, loneliness, and fragility of the individual in the system.
The figurative is also the ideological antipode of the "modern," of the autonomy of the art surface – an opposition that was determinant of art during the Cold War on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The study of the figurative elements even in the work of avant-garde-orientated Bulgarian artists was in this regard an opportunity to think outside the dichotomy of "formal (socialist realism) – informal (influenced by the West)" art, which characterised the previous historicism of the Eastern European art from that period.
The problem goes far beyond this text, so here I have chosen as a focus an ideological opposition between the figurative and the abstract that was both symbolic and real at the same time for the second half of the 20th century, which I will examine here through the symbol of the "grid" and its significance for abstract thinking and expression in art.
The title Geometry of the Body was borrowed from a drawing by Vladimir Ivanov, which largely illustrates how this apparent "conflict" is synthesised in Bulgarian art.
Vladimir Ivanov is a Bulgarian graphic artist born in 1946, who began experimenting with the methods of conceptuality as early as his student years in the 1970s. Ivanov was far from being one of the system’s pets, but he was not exactly a dissident either. He graduated from the Art Academy and was well integrated, albeit further away from the centre, into the art scene of Varna, which also produced other key experimental artists in the 1980s such as Veselin Dimov and Tsvetan Krastev.
A graphic composition consisting of several panels, Geometry of the Body (1980) is a work in which the artist reworks the experience from the conceptual experiment onto the field of drawing. Along with many other works by this artist, Geometry of the Body contrasts the human figure with the geometry of the paper sheet and the parameters of fine art space. The obvious reference to Leonardo's Vitruvian man is no coincidence – it testifies to an overall humanistic view of art, in which the human and the humane are not only the measure but also the position from which we can explore the universe. This is also one of the significant differences with the alienated, mechanical and speculative position of "classical" conceptualism. At the same time, the influence of Zen philosophy on conceptual art has its role in the Bulgarian context as an intellectual background for experimentation. It has been consciously integrated in Vladimir Ivanov’s work; it is also present in the work of another Varnian conceptualist – Veselin Dimov, for example, and has informed quite a few of the abstract quests of different artists such as Stoyan Tsanev (also generally a graphic artist).
In Geometry of the Body the human figure, just like in the Vitruvian man, is presented in different positions, as the basis of the geometric expression of nature - "divine geometry at the heart of everything" in the words of the artist himself. At the same time, the work is an interesting synthesis between the dominating “figurative” approach in Bulgarian art and in the period of late socialism, together with the interest in pure geometry and the abstract self-sufficient surface of the image – as defined by Clement Greenberg.
In Bulgarian art, such synthesis is often seen as a "compromise" if not as a forced reckoning with the situation of socialist realism or its momentum in the post-Perestroika period. Vladimir Ivanov's work is an illustration that it is an inner experience of the artist and an attempt for two different worldviews and two different systems of art to meet.
Such synthesis, for example, also takes place in the famous paintings of Sasho Stoitsov from the 1970s, where the artist uses purely geometric, abstract motifs in combination with photorealistic human figures. Stoitsov's paintings unite trends in art which were popular during the period in both West and Eastern Europe – these are the photorealism that Stoitsov uses in the figures, and the technological geometricity of the optical illusion, typical of the Nove tendencije ("New Trends") movement in former Yugoslavia (1961-1973) or Op Art in America from the same period. Stoitsov sought a technological aspect in the very execution of the works as well – a projection of a photograph is used for the human figure, and the painting technique is a DIY version of an Aerograph. The general effect is a metaphorical collision between the individual and a technologised, inhuman, illusory environment. However, the figure always remains in the centre of the composition. It is a necessity, a basis for the geometrical to be achieved and expressed.
A Family, 1979.
- Material: Oil on canvas
- Width: 160.00 cm Height: 140.00 cm Depth: cm
- Property of: Sasho Stoitzov
The figure, as the centre of geometry, seemingly begins to be questioned in a later installation – Vladimir Ivanov's Dutch Landscape from 1988. The installation consists of four photographic collages, three chalices full of sand and sea water, and one red vertical line on the wall, "lent" by an imaginary foundation named after Mondrian. (Such a foundation was actually set up later in the Netherlands and today is a very authoritative national fund to support contemporary art. However, this was only a prophetic side effect of the work, which here was only of an anecdotal nature).
The photographs present the artist against the background of an anonymous seascape. The horizontals of the sea and the vertical of the human figure are rendered in a different scale and arranged in such a way as to reproduce the dynamics and proportions of the geometric abstractions of Mondrian. The text woven in them reads: "The beach is horizontal, the sea is horizontal; Mr Mondrian, could you lend me a vertical line?"
The paradox between the text and the image is obvious. The vertical in the photograph is not recognised as actually existing. It is as if only temporarily "secured" by the artist's very figure, which is not enough to withstand the horizontal line of the sky and the sea. A higher authority has been called – the abstract art itself and the grid as its symbol, where horizontal and vertical lines emphasise the plane of an artistic surface denying the reproduction of reality.
The grid, according to American art critic Rosalind Krauss, is the absolute form of modernism. Krauss calls it the most stubborn, unchanging and widespread form of the 20th century. (Her essay titled Grids dates back to 1979.) The grid embodies the understanding of the autonomy of art from the world that surrounds it – it is the perfect abstract form, flattening and stripping the space and all the specificities belonging to it. The grid makes references to both the self-sufficiency of the surface and the refusal of representativeness on the one hand, but also to the spiritual searches that, let's not forget, are at the heart of the abstract art of the early 20th century (Mondrian was influenced by theosophy, Malevich – by the ideologies of the fourth dimension just like Ouspensky). Of course, the "purity" and self-sufficiency of the grid are not absolute, they are actually undermined by its very structure. As Krauss notes, each grid contains a window and a cross – they both lead to something beyond the immediate surface – the world outside or a dimension beyond.
The American critic Leo Steinberg, for example, notes that the interest in the plane and the self-sufficiency of the artistic surface is not a rejection of reality at all, but on the contrary – a reflection of a specific contemporary perception of space through the new technologies and the view from space. (His text Other Criteria dates back to the late 1960s).
The very meaning of the word in English and French – grid and grille – is actually a grill, barbecue – a cooking frame. In Slavic, its etymology is rather associated with weaving and knitting, and the principle of weaving is also a grid, a net. And if we take the grid here as an example and a starting point, it is because, it turns out, even the most abstract and seemingly universal form has a basis in reality. It inevitably "weighs heavily" due to the traces of real life that surrounds the artists themselves. Even the purely abstract and minimal forms from the second half of the 20th century, which today are one of the examples of the universality of art, are in fact a product of their late era, of technical achievements but also of the alienation of late capitalism and could hardly be in its "pure" form elsewhere. They require faith in the object, in its absolute presence and autonomy to enter into a relationship with the environment, a sense of his detachment from the human as its creator. The very concept of the autonomy of art that these (art) objects embody – the idea of its freedom – is also possible only by converting the work into an object that is subject to market laws which protect it from the need to satisfy the requirements of a particular person/figure (patron).
As early as 1907, Georg Simmel published The Philosophy of Money, where he regards money as an absolute abstraction. Money, Simmel writes, gives us an absolute potential that doesn't need to be realised in anything concrete – while a value is in the form of money, it remains an endless possibility and can materialise in all sorts of forms. Simmel concludes that the abstract is a cultural priority of capitalism and that is why in such societies we value abstract, intellectual activities higher. The domination of the abstract art of the West could be read in this particular logic. Taken outside the cultural centres, whose material and intellectual environment gives rise to such forms, the grid puts on weight encumbered by other meanings and other realities.
The question that Vladimir Ivanov poses in the Dutch Landscape is symptomatic of Bulgarian art. It is a question formulating a shortage and also formulating the source of references for this shortage. Bulgarian art perceives itself as a history of shortages compared to the world's art centres. And although in this case the artist specifically searches for the missing vertical, its symbolism refers in general to relating of what is missing in the environment to something that is seen as completeness outside.
In Dutch Landscape, Vladimir Ivanov offers a confrontation of two reference viewpoints – his own immediate environment (the landscape, although anonymous, was photographed by the artist; the very artist, although used as a human symbol, is nevertheless photographed with his own figure (clothes), and the very (abstract) terrain of art – we are looking for the vertical in Mondrian, in the world’s art history, far before us, and not around us. For the artist, the world of art (irrespective of whether it is current or past) is a reality, just as much as the sea and the beach. It is no accident that the line "borrowed" from Mondrian and missing in the images is presented as materiality in the installation – it is not reproduced (painted or photographed) but is glued to the wall. The fancied vertical has been converted just as much into a real object as the sand samples from the seashore.
Russian art critic Margarita Tupitsyn offers a critique of the concept of grid from the viewpoint of art during socialism. (Margarita Tupitsyn, The Grid as a Checkpoint of Modernity, 2009). The socialist grid, she says, is constructivist, and has to do with life itself. It is not a narrative-hostile surface as it is in the West, but on the contrary, it is a structure for narrative. Boris Groys also made a comment in a similar direction. When looking at a painting, the Soviet viewer, without having even heard of Art & Language, saw this painting replaced by all its possible ideological, political and philosophical comments, and took these comments into account automatically, looking at the picture. In other words, the painting is never absolutely abstract, nor is it fully autonomous, but is metaphoric, plot-related, and full of references.
Such opposition to the abstract (Western) and the narrative or metaphorical (Eastern) model of the very field of the abstract is also ideological, and as we have seen before does not fully meet the searches of the artists themselves. Even in the West, the most abstract and minimalist forms inevitably point beyond themselves, to the reality that surrounds them. It is also the "accusation" of theatricality that the American critic Michael Fried makes against minimalist art in the 1967 essay Art and Objecthood. The minimalists' assertion that simple three-dimensional forms can resist anything that surrounds them, even the impressions they themselves evoke, is countered by Fried with the idea that self-imprisoned forms actually play theatre. Their claim to self-sufficiency inevitably draws the viewer's attention to all that surrounds them and involves them in a system of relationships and references.
In order to go back to the examples of the use of the grid in Bulgarian art, I will look at a few more works by Vladimir Ivanov, all from the first half of the 1970s. Until recently, these works were little known to the general public and were not displayed at the time of their creation. This was impossible in Bulgaria in the 1970s, and the artist was advised by his colleagues and fellow students with whom he shared his experiments to keep them secret.
Climbing without anesthesia, 1971.
- Material: Photocopy, felt tipped pen
- Width: 17.00 cm Height: 23.00 cm Depth: cm
All of these works are small, unpretentious, but significant experiments using the new and less accessible for its time technique of the photocopier, collages with photographs from Western magazines. Such was the case of the collage using a photograph documenting the performance Escalade nonanesthésiée (Unanaesthetised Escalation) by the artist Gina Pane, performed in Paris in 1971. This was a very physical performance, typical of the artist who works with her body and self-inflicted harm. In it, the artist climbs a grid on which there are spikes and her body bleeds. Vladimir Ivanov uses a photocopier, and this image from a French magazine should be perceived above all as a reproduced image – it has lost the immediacy of the performance and the reality of the environment in which it was created. In the reality of the Bulgarian artist, it becomes abstract – a human figure on a grid, on which Vladimir Ivanov seeks purely mathematical cross-sections, which he applies to the image directly with a colour felt-tip pen.
In another similar work by Vladimir Ivanov from the same period, a man's image in close-up was used, cut out from a French magazine, on which geometric ratios were again mapped. The narrative here is almost entirely neutralised. The source of the photograph is unspecified; it was not selected by the artist because it refers or creates an allusion to a story. The image, the figure, is used only to reveal the geometry hidden in the image.
All these photocopies date back to 1974-1975. With all their unpretentious aesthetics, these works are actually quite exotic and complex technologically for their time in Bulgaria. All the pictures from this series that the artist used as a background for his geometric studies came from foreign magazines, they were "imported". The abstraction procedure cannot be applied to the local context. As a form that originated in other conditions, it manifests itself on the reproduced surface of its "original" reality. It would have another meaning if situated on the artist's own reality.
Vladimir Ivanov's works from this early period are rather an exception. He himself continued in the following years with more classical graphic techniques and methods, which were not so pronouncedly "technological", although his interest in a geometry hidden in reality and in its images remained an essential theme in his works.
One of the most enduring myths against which art from Eastern Europe from the second half of the 20th century is evaluated is the myth of the dissident artist, the artist against the system. This model consolidates a binary, rather limiting perspective – the free West versus the totalitarian East, the absolute freedom of the artist versus his ideological subordination.
Program Andrey, 1989.
- Material: Oil on canvas
- Width: 160.00 cm Height: 140.00 cm Depth: cm
Naturally, we can deny neither the pressure on artists nor the ideological function of art during totalitarianism. On the contrary, another model of the connection between art and society was built here, self-perceived as antinomic in the West, so that it is too difficult to bring Western categories and values directly into it.
The problem is, of course, what we do with that art that does not meet this model of resistance, as it is already historicised and defining the framework for the representation of art from all art scenes of the socialist bloc. This is precisely the case of Bulgarian Art, where until 1989 it was very difficult to see art from this perspective even with the best of intentions. The privileges for artists, their admission to the regulatory structures that lay between the government and artists, the increasing "diversity" that was allowed, within certain frameworks of course, made it so that in Bulgaria there was practically no dissident art or art against the regime in its pure form.
It is difficult now to continue to attribute all this to some pure opportunism. There is definitely something in this scheme that corresponds to the attitude of the artists. The historical themes that dominate, for example, make it possible to look for timeless values, spirituality, spirit sustainability, great themes of man, suffering, heroism. and weakness. They impress the Bulgarian artist and this makes it possible to have this symbiosis between inner creative freedom and reconciliation with the demands of the regime. In other words, the requirement for realism and figurativeness (in later decades this requirement was abandoned in general), is not necessarily in conflict with some more modern views of the artist.
This synthesis is also present, for example, in the work of more "classical" and authority-recognised artists, such as the sculptor Krum Damyanov. In our conversation, he talked about his interest in architecture, about the search for a system, for structure and mathematical precision, for internal geometric logic in sculpture. For a moment, quite different forms emerged before my eyes – abstract-geometric, which would be at first glance a logical expression of this type of thinking. Only most of us know the sculptural groups and figures for which Krum Damyanov is famous, and there, in this figurativeness, he has managed to put in this type of architectural, geometric thinking without any conflict visible about it. Damyanov admits that until the 1980s he allowed himself bolder experiments with minimalist, purely abstract forms only at plein airs abroad. Nevertheless, even after the Changes, he continued to work mostly in the field of figurative sculpture. On the subject of his minimalist experiments abroad, Damyanov shares that even the purest forms he managed to achieve there looked somewhat different, or in his words "smell of socialism". Although Damyanov does not analyse in detail this intuition of his, it seems to me that his feeling is a fine reflection of the different perspective of the Bulgarian artist on modern forms.
Escape from New York, 2021.
- Material: Tempera, canvas
- Width: 200.00 cm Height: 200.00 cm Depth: cm
In support of this, I will also briefly mention the work of Alzek Misheff, an artist who left Bulgaria and who has had absolutely direct access to all current trends in Western art from the 1970s and 1980s. Misheff consciously avoids joining the tradition outlined by the modernity of Western art. He rejects its dehumanisation and seeks spiritual values in forms which, when they appear conceptual or inherent in media art, for example, have a completely different – humanistic – motivation. He himself is perceived as a "reactionary".
In the context of Bulgarian art history, we could speculate that the figure offers the same set of possibilities for a metaphysical re-creation of existence as the grid and abstract artistic surface for Western art.
We could look for the reasons for this in the late emergence of Bulgarian art as an autonomous social sphere, only at the end of the 19th century. When the Bulgarian state and national identity still need a representative model of art to maintain and legitimise their presence in the world, art could hardly take the path of deconstructing the reality, which it took in the avant-garde trends in the West, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as in the Russian avant-garde. It is no coincidence that most of the Bulgarian artists studying abroad in this period avoided the avant-garde circles, with the few exceptions of those who eventually did not return – such as Jules Pascin or Georges Papazov.
In more recent times, the reasons for the sustainability of the figurative compared to the abstract can be sought in the specific social role of art during socialism. The equivalence of figurative = humanistic underlies the very understanding of the role of the artist and art in society and in the general intellectual and ideological background of the understanding of socialism as "humanism" opposed to the Western "dehumanisation".
The very socialist environment of ideologised labour and ritualised daily round, in its total divergence from the real techniques of survival in it, essentially tends towards abstraction. Thus, paradoxically, the very human figure, which is the privileged expression of the products of official art, also turns out to be the focus of artistic attempts to get out of the system’s framework.
Rosalind Krauss, "The Grid", 1979
Georg Simmel, "The Philosophy of Money", 1907
Margarita Tupitsyn, “The Grid as a Checkpoint of Modernity”, 2009
Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, 1967
Dessislava Dimova, 2022