Bulgarian art

KATERINA BORISOVA – MEET THE DANCING DIRECTOR

Loads of creative energy and an original style tirelessly spread into new and new spheres of art: this sums in short an astonishing woman, Katerina Borisova, a Bulgarian film director and dancer. Art is her element; all her life it has flown freely from the performing arts to the storytelling behind the camera. Katerina Borisova prefers to describe herself as an artist and an entrepreneur and dislikes framing her ideas into preliminary set borders.

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SORRY FATE OF BULGARIA'S 'SCIENTIFIC-TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS'

Bulgarians are present in many fields of modern science and engineering, from medicine to space exploration, pushing new boundaries and breaking new grounds. If you have not heard much about it, it is because the great majority of them work for foreign universities, scientific institutions and R&D teams. As a result of the decades-long neglect of the fundamental and the applied sciences and of engineering in Bulgaria, academically gifted Bulgarians go abroad the moment they graduate from secondary school.

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THE TREE AND OTHER STORIES

Unlike the other visual languages, photography retains the "effect of reality." The photographic image verifies that what has been photographed is "really like that." At the same time, it arises "technically," through the effect of light on light-sensitive material. What, then, is the role of the photographer, where is the creativity in the creation of the photographic image, and to what extent is photography’s claim of being an art justified?

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CRACKING MEDIEVAL SMILE

A pair of dark, tender eyes glow in a delicate face crowned with a costly headdress decorated with pearls. The lady's lips are slightly curved, as if she is smiling at a private joke, or perhaps a secret she holds? The woman herself is an enigma. We know that the elegant lady painted on the walls of the Boyana Church was called Desislava and that she was the wife of Kaloyan, the handsome lord of 13th century Sofia painted next to her. But why is Desislava smiling?

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FINDING ANTIP KOEV OBUSHTAROV

In early 2021 veteran Kazanlak-based photographer Alexander Ivanov went to the Shipka community culture house called Svetlina, founded in 1861, to inspect "some negatives" that had been gathering the dust in cardboard boxes. The boxes were donated to the culture house in 1995. Previously, they had been stashed at the Chirpanliev House in Shipka in the course of 26 years.

What Alexander Ivanov discovered in those boxes changed his life – and the story of what little there is to 20th century Bulgarian photography.

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THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

Guidebooks boast about the beauty and artistic importance of the murals in Bulgaria's churches that date from the later centuries of Ottoman domination. Created by a society that was still deeply rooted in medieval tradition, but which was beginning to look towards and absorb Western European influences, this style of decoration sometimes charms but is sometimes hard to stomach. To the enthusiastic art lover, it embodies the search for new artistic means that defined the work of Bulgarian painters in the late 18th and 19th century.

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1,340 YEARS OF BULGARIA

When was Bulgaria founded? If you ask Google, be prepared for a travel through a rabbit hole of increasingly bizarre theories that use fanciful "evidence" to "disprove" the "ruling hypothesis" that Bulgaria came into being in 681. The most extravagant ones claim that Bulgarians are the oldest nation in the world, of course.

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THE BATHING

Sculptor Pavel Koychev, a household name for anyone interested in Bulgarian art in the past 50 years, marked his 82nd birthday with inviting a select group of individuals to attend the inauguration of an idiosyncratic installation by the village of Osikovitsa just off the Hemus Motorway, at the end of May. The "sculptures" – foldouts depicting famous works of art through the centuries – were planted, using an elaborate mechanism involving ropes and weights, inside a lake behind the wall of a service station.

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SEARCHING FOR BLOKE

Splendid saints, bosomy beauties in "traditional" costumes, saccharine angels: in the past decade, large scale wall paintings on concrete apartment blocks, business and public buildings in Sofia have flourished. The unveiling of the largest ones, particularly when Boyko Borisov's Sofia Municipality is involved, attracts media attention and results in an avalanche of posts, photos and shares.

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FROM GHOST TO LOUVRE

Whenever the Louvre is mentioned, most people think of tourists elbowing their way for a selfie with the Mona Lisa, the once controversial glass pyramid and the protagonist of a thriller searching for (spoiler alert) Jesus Christ's bloodline. In 2017, the number of Louvres in the world doubled with the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, an UAE-French partnership with ambitious architecture and an even more ambitious, multimillion-dollar programme for purchasing and loaning items of art.

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WHO WAS GEO MILEV?

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

For most foreigners, their only contact with Bulgaria's poets are the monuments of the 19th-century revolutionary Hristo Botev that have been erected all over the country, and Sofia's most beloved sculpture, the Slaveykovs, father and son, in the eponymous square.

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GRAFFITI VILLAGE

Until three years ago, the chance traveller passing through the village of Staro Zhelezare, in Central Bulgaria, would hardly find anything of notice here, bar the hard-to-pronounce name and the crumbling remains of one of Bulgaria's two prehistoric rock circles. Located near Hisarya, with its mineral water springs and Roman heritage, and Starosel, with its dilapidated Thracian tombs, Staro Zhelezare looked like an ordinary village in the Thracian Plain. Its sun-bleached streets, lined with low houses and lush gardens, were mostly empty.

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THE IRISHMAN WHO DANCED THE HORO

It is an image that stays in the mind. In a brightly-lit, austere tavern, a pair of men in traditional Bulgarian costume dance, surrounded by onlookers. Rachenitsa is a horo popular all over Bulgaria and is usually danced by one or two men, not holding hands, but on their own. Famous for its difficulty and the stamina required, in the olden times it was used as a competition between rival parties.

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FLIGHT OVER BULGARIA

Through the 1970s and 1980s Alexander Ivanov was one of this country's most innovative photographers. He was the mastermind of the association of photographers in his native Kazanlak, and his experiments in colour photography at the time brought him prestigious national and international photography awards.

Since 1988 Alexander Ivanov has been a freelance photographer based in Kazanlak.

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HELL IS NO JOKE

The architecture? The silver-haloed icons of the Virgin Mary? The elaborate carvings of the icon doors? These may all be astonishing, but have you noticed the river of fire, on the outside western wall of most of the churches, flowing towards the gaping mouth of a dragon-like monster? Have you bent to see in detail the devils in the flames? Have you wondered what were the crimes of the sinners they torture?

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PAVEL KOYCHEV'S ART BY THE HIGHWAY

This time, the hidden gem of Bulgaria is modern art.

The signs for the Originals Art Gallery lead you to a larger-than-life, white shepherd with a bright yellow cloak, leading his flock to the still waters of a small creek. The Vodna pasha, or Water Grazing, installation by Bulgarian sculptor Pavel Koychev is a mesmerising reflection on contentment and the connection with nature and appeared here first for a short time in 2009.

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IVANOVO ROCK CHURCHES

No, this encounter of past and present is not taking place in faraway Cappadocia of worldwide renown for its odd rock chapels, but here in Bulgaria. About 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they composed one monastic complex. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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THE BULGARIANS*

Later on, unless you go on to become a member of a nationalist party, you don't feel any particular need to remind yourself of "I am a Bulgarian." Such a statement, despite its straightforwardness, could invoke a measure of uncertainty, like the invisible steps on the front cover of this book. It is not because you could be something else than a Bulgarian, but because the affirmation presupposes a previous agreement between yourself and your compatriots about what it is that makes you Bulgarian and what makes Bulgarians a community.

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VALLEY OF THRACIAN KINGS

By the turn of the 21st century, however, another name popped up and has stuck in the public's mind, evoking images of hidden treasures and untold mysteries – the Valley of the Thracian Kings. The term was coined by Dr Georgi Kitov, the archaeologist who worked in the area in the 1990s and 2000s and made some of the most fascinating discoveries there, obviously as a parallel with the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

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BACHKOVO MONASTERY

Its mediaeval ossuary preserves the only mural portrait of a Bulgarian king. The last patriarch before Bulgaria fell under the Ottomans, Evtimiy of Tarnovo, is believed to have been exiled and to have died there. The fortress-like complex is one of the finest architectural creations of the Bulgarian national revival period, and some of the frescoes are by Zahariy Zograf, the most prominent Bulgarian artist of the 19th Century.

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