Der Anfang - Hintergründe

Vessela Nozharova

A Short History of Art Collecting in Bulgaria

It’s impossible to write about the history of art collecting in Bulgaria without briefly introducing the history of modern Bulgaria. The Russo-Turkish War of 1878 put an end to five centuries of Ottoman rule in the Bulgarian lands. Preceding this epoch-changing conflict was a century of Bulgarian awaking characterised by a surge in economic activity, education and culture. It was during this period that the arts began to emancipate themselves from the artistic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which had continued to operate throughout the Ottoman age. Up until the 19th century, Bulgarian artists had worked exclusively as icon and fresco painters, their craft governed by Orthodox canon. This tradition greatly influenced the style of the first secular artworks, which began appearing in the middle of the century. Among them were the first Bulgarian portraits by iconographer Zahary Zograf (1810–1853), as well as portraits and figure paintings by another icon painter – Nikola Obrazopissov (1828–1915). Following in their steps were artists such as Nikolay Pavlovich (1835–1894) and Stanislav Dospevsky (1823-78), both of whom had received secular artistic instruction abroad and were well known portraits makers. (Pavlovich studied in Moscow, Dospevsky in Munich.) The work of these four artists and others like them marks a period of transition from one visual age to another.           

After the Liberation, the new Bulgarian state had to build itself from scratch. Bulgarians had come out of the Ottoman age a predominantly rural nation – with few, poorly developed towns, no aristocracy and a thin upper class. This meant that until the end of the 19th century art collecting was practically non-existent. Sofia University opened in 1888 and the Academy of Arts in 1896. The Academy’s first teachers were foreigners – the Czech artists Jaroslav Věšín and Ivan Mrkvička. Many of the civil servants at the time were also imported, including the head of the young Bulgarian state – Prince Ferdinand I, son of the Austrian Prince August von Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha and Princess Clementine of Orleans. Gradually, Bulgarian society began to experience cultural stratification and interest in the secular arts – initially triggered by the interior decoration needs of well-to-do households – increased.