Dialogues: Bulgaria/Europe. Landscapes from the collection of Sofia City Art Gallery







City Gallery of Athens

Taking an overall look, we cannot help but see that the Bulgarian medieval art, and Byzantine art in general, lacks almost any interest in the landscape. There are only single details of nature and architecture, most often in murals and more rarely in other types of art which are dominated by the gold background. In all examples of medieval art, landscape is always symbolic in essence. It was not until the Revival in Bulgaria that icon painters started attributing ever greater importance to nature in their works introducing elements of landscape as realia. It was most often part of the background for the unfolding of religious stories such as “The Flight from Egypt”, “The Journey of the Magi”, “The Entry into Jerusalem” and others. Exotic landscapes started appearing and they grew in popularity. We can see them in the homes of Bulgarian chorbadzhii (wealthy elders) – from travels around the world, including examples where the landscape features realia from various locations.

It was only in the 19th century that landscape painting established itself as a genre in our country; in the beginning, it was rather an attempt to reflect not so much a visual reality but a sort of a pastoral ideal. In the second half of the century, the significance of landscape grew and, respectively, various styles and sub-genres appeared such as rural, urban, marine. The interest of Bulgarian artists in landscape as a topic is lasting and runs through the history of art in Bulgaria in the 20th century. This artistic wealth allows us today to reveal the authors’ passion not only for art nouveau, impressionism and expressionism but also for the spirit and yearning of the group of artists who set up the Modern Art Association, Bulgarian Art as well as the members of the Association of the New Artists who are influenced by the artistic processes in Russia in the 1920s.

It was the artists’ passion for impressionism and post-impressionism which turned landscape into the main source of fundamental stylistic innovation in painting and graphics in Bulgaria. Furthermore, given its richness and multifaceted nature, the art of the 1930s turned into an expression of the fulfilled yearning of several generations of Bulgarian artists. It is an organic part of the common European artistic processes which lay the foundation for the development of art in the second half of the 20th century. Along with the normative esthetics imposed in the transition between the 1940s and the 1950s as dictated by the political processes in Bulgaria, of equal importance to a Bulgarian artist after the Second World War was tradition and avant-garde art, modern esthetics and folklore. This determined the broad spectrum of European “attempts” on which the new generation of Bulgarian authors could rely.

In this exhibition, the audience can see, in a synthesized way, the long road that artists have come and which has become possible through the Bulgarian artists’ passion for travel. Whether as a part of their educational journey or as a conscious artistic trip, the Bulgarian artists wander around Europe; evidence of this can be found in the landscapes from different European towns and cities immortalized in the paintings of dozens of authors. The topic is exceptionally widespread in the works of Bulgarian artists and is a function both of their interest in the specific image of small or significant cities of the Old Continent and the challenge to capture the uniqueness of their atmosphere.

The exhibition showcases works from the collection of the Sofia City Art Gallery which reflect the travels of Bulgarian artists around Europe. The period covered spans from the beginning of the 20th century to the contemporary times and the selection features more than 30 paintings and graphics from dozens of Bulgarian artists representing different generations and artistic schools, including Yaroslav Veshin, Aleksander Bozhinov, Nikola Petrov, Nikolay Raynov, Sirak Skitnik, Eliezer Alsheh, Dechko Uzunov, Mario Zhekov, Pencho Balkanski, Pencho Georgiev, Veselin Staykov and others. Names of some of the most eminent Bulgarian artists who have long found their deserved place in the Bulgarian history of art and who have left us their legacy of landscapes embodying their personal and emotional dialogue with Europe and the European landscape.

Adelina Fileva

Director of Sofia City Art Gallery



History, memory, future

The emergence and development of museums in Sofia is premised on the public-cultural and state-political interest prevalent in the first decades after Bulgaria’s Liberation. The number of museums and museum collections gradually grew and, by the end of the 1930s, there were 83 throughout the country. The idea to create a Sofia City Museum which would house the local past and reliably reflect history, which would be a collective memory, was given long thought.

In 1928, on the occasion of the celebrations of the half centennial of Sofia’s Liberation and the Millennium of the Golden Age of Bulgarian letters, the then City Mayor General Vladimir Vazov issued an order to set up a special committee which would map out the ways and means to build a Sofia Municipal Museum. The new museum had three departments – a museum, a library and an archive while its main goal was “to collect, safeguard and research those items of Sofia’s material culture which are or will be of significance to Sofia’s history”. This laid the foundation of collecting material evidence of Sofia’s history, culture and art – books, documents, photographs, maps, plans, archaeological finds, items of domestic life, sculptures, paintings, graphics. The setting up of a “picture gallery” was an important part of the work of the museum.

The museum was housed in different buildings in the period from 1929 to 1941 when a building was constructed especially for the Sofia City Library and Museum at 3 Banski Square (it was demolished during the bombings). This is where the Sofia picture collection was exhibited for the first time. The “Sofia in Books and Paintings” award was established in 1942 by the Sofia Municipality leadership to encourage writers and artists to create works which “reflect the visible and spiritual outlook of Sofia”. It was the start of a process of a targeted collection of works of Bulgarian artists recreating the capital’s history and present. Today, this thematic collection includes more than 350 works.

In the first few years after the Second World War, the museum went through different stages of development and changes. In 1948, a part of its art collection was transferred to the newly established National Art Gallery to lay the foundation of its art collection. In April 1952, the Library and the Archive were separated from the City Museum and, and in October of the same year, the Sofia History Museum and the City Gallery were declared independent institutions by virtue of a decision of Sofia Municipality. The Sofia City Art Gallery was again left without exhibition space and showcased its collection in a hall at 11 Levski Street from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s; then, after 1964 when this hall was demolished, the works from the art funds were exhibited in different towns and cities throughout the country.

The Gallery, as a separate museum, got its space in the building at 1, General Gurko Street 21 years later – in 1973. It opened its doors to the public in 1977. The necessary architectural redesign into exhibition halls and storage rooms took place over the period. The first exhibition of the museum was prepared. The 1977 exhibition featured some of the most prominent works in the history of Bulgarian art from the 1920s to the 1980s. Over the course of several years, this exhibition was expanded and developed.

The transformation from a gathering of pictures to an important collection came a long way. In the mid 1970s, it reached 2,607 works allocated in three funds – painting, graphics and sculpture. These works are still the main pillar of the museum.

Over the years after the opening of the first exhibition, the Sofia City Art Gallery has established itself as an important cultural space in the capital. It opened a branch in 2006 – Vaska Emanuilova Gallery which owns a collection of 89 works of plastic arts, 38 pictures and 48 water colours of the renowned Bulgarian sculptress on show in the permanent exhibition.

As of 2016, the structure of the institution has included Dechko Uzunov House and Museum which is the largest repository of works of the eminent Bulgarian artist and public figure Dechko Uzunov with its over 13,000 pieces.

Today, the museum has four departments: painting, sculpture, graphics and contemporary art and photography while the collection features 8,000 works of Bulgarian artists from the end of the 19th century to this day. Some of the sculpture pieces are on show outdoors in the City Garden.

The Sofia City Art Gallery houses museum exhibitions, curated projects, visiting individual and group exhibitions of Bulgarian and foreign painters. It showcases works from its funds in thematic, genre, style and historical exhibitions. The visiting exhibitions are an important part of the Gallery’s policy and openness to the global processes in art. It organizes retrospective exhibitions of eminent Bulgarian artists and works actively with young painters and curators. It partners with a number of Bulgarian and foreign institutions in the common striving towards the development of the contemporary art scene.

Vaska Emanuilova Gallery combines the functions of a museum and exhibition space. In addition to the permanent museum exhibition, it showcases temporary exhibitions offering space to research and curated projects related to Vaska Emanuilova’s work or ideas realized under the initiatives and projects supported by the Gallery – Sculpture Program and Meeting Place.

The works presented in the numerous and diverse exhibitions contain messages directing thoughts to certain moments of the past, present and future of art, memory, identity and history. One of the main tasks of the museum is to expand its funds by purchasing works of Bulgarian painters and to safeguard, restore and popularize them through exhibitions and print editions. From the end of the 1980s, the funds grew solely through donations; the process of purchasing works of significance to the development of Bulgarian art, which is essential to each museum, was severed. It was not until 2007 that changes came about which offered assurance that the lag from the past 18 years would be compensated. In the past two years, with the assistance of Sofia Municipality, the Sofia City Art Gallery has been provided with the necessary funds to purchase works and expand the funds regularly of the required scientific and artistic quality.

The Sofia City Art Gallery conducts research and publishing activities as well as education programs. It expands the circle of its audience through meetings, lectures, debates, book presentations and concerts. The Gallery and its branch constantly update and grow their websites and offer opportunities not only to the media but also the general public interested in culture to have a faster and fulfilling contact and information about the exhibition program which attracts the attention and the high appreciation of audiences from different generations, the media, critics, foreign and Bulgarian cultural institutions. The Gallery has become a territory for dialogue between the generations of painters and the general public interested in culture which is also contributing to a high-caliber analysis of the development of Bulgarian art on the backdrop of global processes.

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