Sammeln von Kunst hinter dem Eisernen Vorhang: 1944-1989

Vessela Nozharova

Vessela Nozharova: A Short History of Art Collecting in Bulgaria

The Soviet-backed communist coup of 9 September 1944 marked the beginning of a totalitarian political regime in Bulgaria which lasted for four and a half decades. The new regime outlawed private initiative and almost fully destroyed the upper classes of Bulgarian society, causing a discontinuity in art collecting for almost twenty years. Some of the most eminent artists of the 1930s and 40s, many of whom had been educated abroad and were influenced by contemporary West European trends, were subjugated to various forms of repression – typically psychological, sometimes physical. A number of them stopped working; others switched to more innocent crafts like restoration and the applied arts. The free commercial exchange of artworks was substantially curtailed. Many of the existing private collections were confiscated in favour of the state galleries or sold off. These brutal, repressive years left a deep mark on artistic life in Bulgaria, which continued to be felt until the very end of communism.

Aesthetically, the first decade and a half of the period (until the early 1960s) was dominated by the so-called Socialist Realism – a platform imported from the USSR, which denied the historical achievements of West European arts. Like other countries in the communist block, Bulgaria was to a large extent cut off from the rest of the world, which meant that Western trends and ideas now reached it with difficulty and delay. This had a substantial influence on the path of Bulgarian art and the nature of art collections in the years to follow.

Throughout the whole period, the communist state kept a tight grip on all spheres of Bulgarian artistic life, while at the same time providing artists with plenty of work opportunities through a generous scheme of subsidies. Decision making was centralised under the Union of Bulgarian Artists and the national/municipal galleries and museums. The few people who collected art privately in this period were usually members of the political and administrative elite who either exchanged works with artists (or between themselves), or bought them directly from artists’ studios (private acquisitions from state-organised exhibitions was not encouraged).

The first private art collection of this period came into existence shortly after the political thawing which followed the April Plenum of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1956 (itself an echo from Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms in the arts in the USSR). It was started by aesthetics professor, spy-novel writer and diplomat Bogomil Rainov (1919–2007), who was the son of Nikolay Rainov (1889–1954) – an artist, eminent art historian and author of the first comprehensive art history in the Bulgarian language. After 1944, Bogomil became an active member of the Communist Party, but that did not prevent him from developing a passionate interest in collecting. He first gathered books, medals and coins, but during his residency as Bulgarian cultural attaché in Paris (1953 – 1960), he began collecting West European prints and African sculpture. His print collection, compiled over several decades, includes works by Goya, Théodore Géricault, Delacroix, Daumier, Millet, Manet, Whistler, Tzara, Vlaminck, Derain, Dufy, Chagall, Picasso, Miró, Moore, and many others. He also owned a number of works by the Belgian artist Frans Masereel (1889–1972), with whom Rainov had an enduring friendship. Rainov’s goal was to trace the history of European prints from the beginning of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. In 1987, he donated more than 300 prints to the city of Sliven, where they are on permanent view in the city art gallery.

After his return to Bulgaria, Bogomil Rainov began buying up large series of oil paintings by a select circle of artists: Kiril Petrov (1897–1979), Genko Genkov (1923–2006) and others. At the First Youth Exhibition in Sofia in 1961, he also took notice of the rise of a group of young artists of undeniable talent such as Svetlin Roussev (b. 1933), Emil Stoychev (b.1935) and others. Rainov recognized he had the rare chance of acquiring the first works of future stars and after doing so, continued to take interest in them for decades. His close friendship with Roussev sparked off the latter’s own interest in art collecting, eventually making him one of the biggest collectors in the country. Shortly before his death, Bogomil Rainov began selling off parts of his collection, while trying to preserve the integrity of its parts. The Masereel prints, for example, were purchased by Belgian art collector Hugo Voeten. The scattering of Rainov’s collection continued under his heirs.  

Svetlin Roussev is probably the most influential figure in Bulgarian artistic life of the second half of the 20th century. A painter of outstanding talent and productivity, he has had greater or smaller impact on many of his contemporaries. His reputation swelled in the 1960s, eventually earning him a number of leadership posts: director of the National Gallery, head of the Union of Bulgarian Artists, and others. At the end of the 1980s, he also became one of the few political dissidents in the country. Svetlin Roussev began collecting art in the late 1960s. The first works he acquired were paintings by Kiril Petrov and Genko Genkov – a choice influenced by his friend Bogomil Rainov. Roussev collected mostly Bulgarian artists, but he also owns works by Romanian, Serbian, Russian and Mexican artists, as well as 18th and 19th century icons, African sculpture and Christian sculpture from India. There are two distinct periods in his collection. The first one ran from the 1960s to 1984, when he donated more than 350 works – oil paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture and icons -- to his native city of Pleven (now on permanent display in the former public baths in the city centre). After this year, Roussev continued to collect, eventually opening a second museum in his former studio in central Sofia. This second collection comprises 250 works – mostly oil paintings and sculpture – by more than a hundred Bulgarian artists, but also icons from the 17th to 19th century, ancient sculpture, African sculpture, Tibetan art, as well as works by Auguste Rodin, Eugène Carrière, Corneliu Baba and others.  

Roussev’s selection filter in his two collections is that of an artist. He is more passionate about some periods and trends than he is about others, and he has a bias for strong, effective images. Each work is selected carefully relative to the artist’s other oeuvre, often marking a high point in his or her development. Other works are evidence of the collector’s friendship with fellow artists (a number of them have personal dedications). Special emphasis is given to the members of the Association of New Artists, which came into existence in the 1930s: Ivan Nenov (with his painting The Unemployed), Dechko Uzunov, Vera Nedkova, Eliezer Alcheh, Vaska Emanouilova, Kiril Tsonev, Stoyan Venev, and others. 

In 1981, Bogomil Rainov and Svetlin Roussev lobbied the government to pass a bill through Parliament which would encourage private collecting. The lobbying was successful, but the law never produced the desired outcomes.    

Svetlin Roussev’s activity and influence as a collector continues to this day. His close contacts with affluent circles of Bulgarian society make him a sought-after adviser for many beginner collectors.

Another note-worthy phenomenon of the late communist period is the collection of world and Olympic wrestling champion Boyan Radev (b. 1942). His accidentally coming into the ownership of an oil painting by Stoyan Iliev in 1975 converted him into a life-long collector and in the next several decades he has bought, exchanged and re-sold hundreds of artworks. His collection – now undoubtedly the biggest private one in Bulgaria – is understudied and has not been catalogued. It is exclusively dedicated to Bulgarian art. After initially using the advice of artist friends, Radev gradually came into his own, developing a taste for certain artists and styles. What distinguishes him from other collectors is that once he has made up his mind about an artist, he makes an effort to own as much by him/her as possible. His collection includes more than 120 works by Bencho Obreshkov (1899–1970), over 100 by Zlatyu Boyadjiev (1903– 1976) and 70 by Atanas Yaranov (1940–1988). Portraits, of which he has more than 150, are a special interest. Radev continues to develop his collection, but he shows it publicly less and less frequently. He also now collects ancient objects and tombstones, as well as 18th and 19th century icons. Unlike many other Bulgarian collectors, he is also an art dealer.

Another outstanding collector from the communist period is Alexander Lilov (b. 1933). By education Lilov is a philosopher and art historian, but he spent much of his active years in the ruling communist elite, eventually becoming a member of the Politburo. His collection has a focus on two generations of Bulgarian artists: those from the 1930s and his own contemporaries, with whom he has maintained close personal contacts.

During this period, there are also several non-Bulgaria-based collections which have had an influence on the Bulgarian art scene. One of them belongs to Constantine and Claudia Deltchev who had an interest in French and Bulgarian art. In 1982, 44 of these works – including some by Renoir, Signac, Matisse, Derain, Buffet, Vassil Ivanov and Nikolay Rainov – were donated to the Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia. Another such collection with a narrower focus is that of the German artist and critic Friedbert Ficker, who owns 210 works (prints, drawings and oil paintings) by 30 Bulgarian artists from the second part of the 20th century. Finally, there is the representative collection of Bulgarian art from the 1970s and 80s put together by the German collector Peter Ludwig. In 1984-85, it was catalogued and shown in Vienna, Aachen, Oberhausen and elsewhere. Ludwig was even in conversation with Svetlin Roussev regarding the possibility of opening a Ludwig Collection Museum in Sofia, but these plans were confounded by the political changes of the early 1990s. 

Despite the existence of several top-quality art collections, the communist period undoubtedly had a negative impact on the attitudes of Bulgarian society to art collecting. Large sections of it became accustomed to the idea that the state and only the state had a right to patronise the arts. The fact that a few members of the political elite were allowed to involve themselves in art collecting simply confirmed this perception.