The silver age! A time of spectacular flourishing of Russian culture and arts in the late XIX and early XX centuries, in constant connection with modern European achievements. In many of them, Russia is in the lead role. At the beginning of the period, Bulgaria, a country with a thousand-year history and culture, a cradle of Slavic writing and Old Bulgarian literature, had just been liberated with the help of Russia from five centuries of Ottoman rule. Immediately after the liberation (1878-1885), Bulgaria was divided into two – the Principality of Bulgaria (an autonomous state dependent on the Ottoman Empire) and Eastern Rumelia (an area that remained within the empire). The two districts were united in 1885, but Bulgaria achieved true independence only in 1908. After such a long oppression, during which folklore and crafts, icon painting, church painting, revolutionary poetry and prose flourished, Bulgaria turned to European culture, preserving a bright identity and reaching its peaks in the fine arts. In the middle of the 19th century, a number of young Bulgarians graduated from prestigious colleges and universities abroad. Some of them had returned before the Liberation and helped it happen. Others remained to work abroad. After the Liberation, these fresh, progressive minds and talents considered it their patriotic duty to help revive their homeland, and many artists were just leaving to study or specialize in Western European countries and Russia. This is how the rapid development of Bulgarian art and culture took place, exactly during the Silver Age in Russia, but it lasted longer. Fine art reaches peaks in all genres typical of the era.

Native Art Movement in Bulgaria

 “Some people definitely want to see ethnography in it in order to call it native. The hat and the tsarvuls will not make it so. Not the plot, but the sincerity of the artist makes it ours.

Sirak Skitnik

Despite Bulgaria’s openness to Europe and its natural influence from modern trends at the time, such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Secession, Cubism, Abstractionism, Symbolism, etc., most Bulgarian artists seek and preserve the unique native spirit, as in the individuality of the drawing. and color, and in the themes they depict. The most serious union in the fine arts during this period in Bulgaria is the movement “Native Art”, which originated in the early twentieth century. Its members were prominent Bulgarian artists at the time, some of whom, such as Ivan Markvichka and Yaroslav Veshin, were foreigners working in Bulgaria.

“Native Art” and Watercolor

Watercolor is music! Watercolor is Mozart, Strauss, Chopin, Vivaldi.Emotional, expressive, romantic, gentle and powerful at the same time!Music for the eyes! It speaks and vibrates like a violin. Watercolor is spontaneous and unpredictable. It is and provocative and challenging. No other medium is so expressive, luminous, fresh, catching the moment in one breath…Watercolor is music that sounds in the soul!

Stella Canfield

The development of watercolor is part of the general rise of fine arts. Most of the artists from “Native Art” practice it either as an auxiliary or as a main tool. But the paintings of Nikola Marinov and Konstantin Shtarkelov are mainly in watercolor – part of the world’s treasure trove of watercolor art.

Nikola Marinov was born in 1879 in Targovishte, where one of the largest fairs in the Balkans at that time was held annually. He graduated from the Academy of Arts in Turin – Italy, majoring in painting with a gold medal (1903). He was taught by Prof. Giacomo Grosso, from whom he was strongly influenced. He was a professor at the Academy of Arts in Sofia (1921-1940) and its rector (1935-1937). Among his students are Iliya Beshkov, Alexander Zhendov, Nenko Balkanski, Veselin Staykov, Lyubomir Dalchev, Iliya Petrov, Dechko Uzunov, Ivan Nenov, some of the most remarkable Bulgarian artists.

A preferred means of expression for his painting is watercolor, filled with very fine shades, complex tones with a harmonious blend of warm and cool colors. He uses the wet-on-wet watercolor technique, but when he paints finished watercolors instead of sketches to achieve deep and saturated colors, he washes and applies the paint several times. His portrait images captivate with finesse and expressiveness. Marinov is a fine connoisseur of the human soul and individuality, and the specific watercolor technique allows him to visually express the emotional world of the portrayed. He is a master of figural composition; he also paints landscapes. He is also the author of numerous frescoes in churches throughout Bulgaria, including the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.

His paintings are now owned by a number of prestigious galleries. The gallery in Targovishte is named after Nikola Marinov and has the largest collection of watercolors by the artist. In 1979 the house-museum of Nikola Marinov was opened for visitors, and in 1977 to this day (with some interruption) is held the International Watercolor Plein Air “Nikola Marinov”, organized by the gallery of the same name in Targovishte. The gallery is also a co-organizer of the I and II International Triennial “WATERcolor & SPIRIT” – Varna 2016, 2019 and hosts the traveling exhibition of the triennial around the country.

Konstantin Shtarkelov was born in 1889 in Sofia. He visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and was inspired by the art of Kuindzhi, Levitan, Repin, Serov, Vrubel, Aivazovsky, Polenov. In 1915 he graduated from the School of Art and Industry (now the National Academy of Arts – National Academy of Arts), under Prof. I. Markvichka. As a sophomore, he organized a large solo exhibition, which had unexpected financial success (only Tsar Ferdinand bought 27 works). Thanks to this, the artist went to Europe to get acquainted with European art. He painted, as he toured galleries in Munich, Vienna, Paris, London, Lausanne, Venice. Immediately after his return to Bulgaria, he was mobilized and as a military artist participated in the Balkan (1912-1913) and the subsequent Allied War in 1913. As a military artist he also took part in the First World War. After that he travelled again to Germany, Greece, and the Middle East. His paintings in Bulgaria arouse admiration among art connoisseurs. His exhibitions are highly praised by art critics, and his art is widely popular. His watercolors were collected by the royal family, which became the cause for political reasons, immediately after the change of regime in 1944 to be arrested and imprisoned together with other famous Bulgarian artists for five months in the Central Sofia Prison. He was later interned with his family in Varna and in the 1960s fell into disfavor. He was deprived of his Sofia residence and expelled from the Union of Artists. He was rehabilitated in 1953. Today the street of his home in Iztok district in Sofia bears his name.

Called the “king of watercolor”, Shtarkelov was able to sense the soul of nature. He achieved the deep connection with her by painting in the open air. He used to create everywhere – the touch of his brush to the leaf is a sacrament – breath, rhythm, music… You can feel the wind, the ice, the water. And before he went to the front, critics wrote about the spirituality of his paintings, defining it with epithets such as elegiac, melancholy, delight, loneliness, mysticism. And in his incredible watercolor “To Seret (Muddy Days)”, painted during the war in Romania in 1917, is intertwined not only elegiac and melancholy, but also hopelessness… On the back of the artist wrote:

“The earth, the convoy, the hills and the sky are filled with shades of purple twilight. Feelings of grief from the death of the day and memories, overflowing with death. The foreign land ……..seemed to cry with purple-bloody tears”.

He also paints portraits and flowers, but nature is his main passion.

Watercolor, in addition to painting technique, can be graphic and decorative, although color is also used. The artists Ivan Milev, Nikolay Raynov, Alexander Bozhinov and Iliya Beshkov use the watercolor mainly in a graphic way, but the style of Ivan Milev is in a strong connection of the secession with images and themes from the Bulgarian way of life and spirit. In his art, the pictorial and the graphic intertwine.

For his short 30-year life (he was born in 1897), Ivan Milev participated in the First World War, after which he visited museums in Europe, graduated with honors from the State Academy of Arts (Today National Academy of Arts) and organized several solo exhibitions. He worked as a teacher. He used to make illustrations and covers of books, cartoons, murals, scenography of theater productions. He was a master of watercolor and tempera technique, and his art had no analogue in achieving a balance between the current Art Nouveau style, folk art, fairy tales and icon painting. Ivan Milev gives freedom to his inexhaustible imagination and combines styles with taste, lightness and maturity. In his early works, his perception of color as a painter can be read. Despite the stylization and planar construction of the compositions, the painter is clearly visible in the complex color tones and combinations. Sirak Skitnik prophetically wrote after his death:

“Today, perhaps few people are aware of what we are losing. Perhaps many do not know the name of this extremely gifted young man, raised in poverty by his father – a shepherd. But years will pass and we will all feel the price of the gold he carried in his soul. And with the generosity of a fairy-tale king, he poured into his decorative visions”.

Today the face of Ivan Milev and fragments of his paintings appear on one of Bulgarian banknotes.

Nikolai Raynov was born in 1889. He graduated from the Theological Seminary and the State Art and Industrial School (now the National Academy of Arts) in Sofia. In the meantime, he was studying Philosophy at Sofia University. An encyclopedic mind, he is a connoisseur of Eastern religions and teachings, esoteric philosophy and mythology. He created boundless works of art: poetry, criticism, fiction, illustration, graphics, drawings. The poet Geo Milev wrote about him: “Nikolai Raynov is a rare combination of two talents – a talent of words and a talent of color form, a poet and an artist. His painting is closely related to his poetry; in love with the decorative verbal tangle, generously scattering in his poems and legends the expensive embroideries of Eastern mysticism, dotted with multicolored precious stones, Nikolai Raynov is a thin decorator in painting”.

The artist Nikolai Raynov works in the Art Nouveau style. He mixes different materials, calls his paintings decorative, and watercolor and gouache are preferred for his paintings with symbolic landscapes and compositions with fabulous folklore plots. For many years he was a professor of art history at the Academy of Arts. Academician of BAS.

Alexander Bozhinov was born in 1878. He is considered the founder of the art of caricature in Bulgaria. In 1896 he was admitted to the first class of the State School of Painting in Sofia (now the National Academy of Arts), but was expelled after two years because of the caricatures he made for his teachers. He worked as a freelance artist in Munich (1902-1904). After his return to Bulgaria, he published in the press numerous cartoons and caricatures of current personalities, filled with originality. Watercolor for him is both an auxiliary and main tool in the plastic interpretation of images. He uses it graphically in his work. He was a co-founder and editor together with the writer Elin Pelin of the first Bulgarian humorous magazine “Bulgaran” (1904-1909). During his 90 years of life, Al. Bozhinov created large-scale creativity and works in many fields: illustration, painting, scenography, mural painting, applied arts. He is also an art critic, writer and poet. Academician of BAS. His iconic characters Pijo and Pendo are renowned symbols to this day. He was imprisoned in tsarist times for his scathing political cartoons, but after World War II, when the political regime in Bulgaria changed, the new government sent him to prison again along with other talented colleagues. He was saved by another cartoonist – Iliya Beshkov.

Iliya Beshkov was born in 1901. He studied at the Faculty of Law at Sofia University. He graduated in painting at the Academy of Arts, in the class of Prof. Nikola Marinov. As a student he published cartoons and illustrations. He was arrested in 1923 for participating in the June Uprising and for political cartoons and caricatures in 1925, following the April events. But nothing could dull his satire on the king and the powerful of the day. After the new government came to power and his brother (former minister) was executed by the People’s Court, Iliya Beshkov’s hatred for the new regime remained everlasting. He was closely monitored by the State Security. From 1945 he became a full professor at the Academy of Arts; from 1953 until the end of his life he headed the Department of Graphics. A master of drawing, the professor advised his students: “You have to draw the figure of a person so that when you turn the sheet upside down, it weighs down and hangs like a bat on the ceiling! … Draw, paint until you become a drawing yourself… ”

Beshkov uses watercolor in his paintings purely graphically. The Art Gallery in Pleven today bears his name.

“The footsteps of light, the strings of being, the breath of the earth, the sound of silence – all this can be depicted in watercolor”.

Selma Todorova

The depiction of light is one of the most powerful means of watercolor. The artists Nikola Tanev, Vladimir Dimitrov-Maystora and Vasil Stoilov do not paint only with watercolors. But regardless of the pictorial technique, the sun shines from their paintings. They are devoted to the national, like all artists from “Native Art, but especially for the Maystora and V. Stoilov, the native is a mission. The existence of the Bulgarian man and woman excites them deeply. Despite the big difference in age, the two have been friends both in art and in life.

 Vladimir Dimitrov-Maystora was born in 1882. His talent was noticed when he was a clerk in the District Court in Kyustendil. A group of lawyers and judges from the Kyustendil court raised funds to send Dimitrov to study as a part-time student at the Art Industrial School in Sofia (now the National Academy of Arts) with Petko Klisurov, Zheko Spiridonov, Anton Mitov, Ivan Markvichka and others. He won first prizes in most student competitions. He received the nickname “MAYSTORA” as a student. Travelled to Venice, Turkey, Russia, Italy. He took part in the Balkan, Inter-Allied and the First World War and portrayed them as a military artist with hundreds of drawings of soldiers and scenes from the life of the army. He settled in the village of Shishkovtsi (1924 -1951). Between 1924 and 1928 he worked under a contract with the American patron of Slavic art, John O. Crane, who bought the best works created by Maystora during these four years. He travelled and painted around Turkey, Italy, the Czech Republic, America. But he worked most fruitfully in the village of Shishkovtsi on the topics of people, rural life and nature. Maystora is an innovator in the way he depicts the themes, as well as in the colors he uses. His images, under the influence of the bright sun, shine with their inner light. They are motionless, but full of inner strength. He applied this innovation and originality without analogue in both oil and watercolor techniques and experimented boldly. He paints small-format watercolors, preparations for larger oil paintings, which, in addition to being innovative, also sound completely finished.

“It is quite natural that the contradictory reaction of the members of the academic community then, faced with the shocking innovation of the artist – starting from the goal, he transforms the means / material / watercolor, increases the density of the pigment and as a consequence – the density of the form to the texture of oil paint. (in the 1940s he would “reverse” the experiment, reducing the density of the oil paint to the ethereal effect of watercolor…)“. Svetla Alexandrova – curator at ” Vladimir Dimitrov – Maystora Art Gallery”.

Maystora ‘s approach in the Constantinople series of his watercolors is different. Conceived and influential as finished paintings, they have a monumentality, atmosphere, spirit.

Vladimir Dimitrov-Maystora Art Gallery in the town of Kyustendil is the largest gallery in Bulgaria, which has the most complete collection and permanent exhibition of paintings by the iconic artist.

The house in Shishkovtsi, where Maystora lived and worked, has been turned into a museum.

From 1973 with some interruption to the present day, in the gallery of Maystora is awarded the most prestigious award for painting in Bulgaria in the name of the great artist.

Vladimir Dimitrov-Maystora Art Gallery is hosting the traveling exhibition of the International Triennial “WATERcolor & SPIRIT” – Varna, 2016 and 2019

Vasil Stoilov was born in 1904. He graduated from the Academy of Arts in Sofia, majoring in painting, in the class of Prof. Tseno Todorov in 1927. A year after graduation he won the right to specialize in France. He resided in Paris (1928 – 1932), where he participated in the Autumn Salon of the Grand Palais, the Figaro Gallery, the Henri Manuel Gallery in Montmartre and in the general exhibition of the Society of French Artists.. He paints with watercolor on primed canvas and plywood and this is his characteristic technique, which is reminiscent of the mural technique “Fresco”. A master of portraiture and figural composition, he seeks authentic beauty in his models dressed in national costumes and in a rural setting. His “Village Madonnas” are real and unadulterated. The feeling of holiness comes precisely from this frankness, as well as from the pastel color scheme and the frugal placement of the watercolor.

Professor of Fine Arts at the State Polytechnic – Faculty of Architecture (now VIAS) – Sofia and the Higher Pedagogical Institute – Veliko Tarnovo (now VTU).

He organized dozens of solo exhibitions and participated in numerous national and international joint exhibitions. A hall has been opened with a permanent exhibition of his works in Japan.

Holder of the Order of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria

Nikola Tanev was born in 1890. At an early age he went to Paris with his older brother. In 1912 Tanev graduated from the Paris Academy of Decorative Arts. His professors are Renoir and Manjan. He is one of the founders of the Native Art Society in Bulgaria. He travelled a lot in Europe and Bulgaria. He presents 28 solo exhibitions in Bulgaria and 27 in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Romania and other countries. His art received applause and recognition for the light-streaming paintings of streets, yards and houses from Karlovo, Balchik, Tarnovo, the Aegean coast. That’s why they call him the “sun painter.” The strong contrast between light and shadow, rich color and impressionistic approach, Nikola Tanev uses not only in his oil paintings, with which he is better known, but also in his watercolor. His watercolor is impressionistic and picturesque. After the September coup, Nikola Tanev was declared a “bourgeois artist” and spent several months in prison, after which he was rehabilitated.

The Nikola Tanev House Museum is a branch of the National Gallery in Sofia.

“Watercolor is like a love letter, when you write it you don’t think about grammatical mistakes – either you have something to say, or.. you better crush the paper”.

Dechko Uzunov

Dechko Uzunov was born in 1899. He graduated in 1924 from the State Art and Industrial School (now the National Academy of Arts). He specialized in painting with Prof. Karl von Maar at the Bavarian Academy of Arts in Munich.

From 1932 he was teaching painting at the Academy of Arts. Among his graduates were famous artists of the 60s and 70s generation of the twentieth century: Atanas Patsev, Georgi Baev, Kalina Taseva, Lika Yanko, Maria Stolarova, Svetlin Rusev. During his long life he created a huge scale of work: painting, graphics, illustration, scenography, costumes, monumental painting. He worked in almost all known genres of easel and monumental art, and used a rich arsenal of art materials. Painter at heart, Dechko Uzunov was one of the great masters of watercolor, whose works are characterized by lyricism and intimate quietness – motherhood, images of Bulgarian maidens, bouquets of flowers, idyllic landscapes, naked bodies, etc. He worked with the technique of watercolor “wet in the wet” and “alla prima”. Spontaneously and with a light touch of the brush, and like a game, the artist gave birth to his masterpieces. In them the colors are frugal, monochrome, and despite the fact that there is not much color, they are exquisite paintings, not graphics.

Dechko Uzunov is a prominent public figure in the artistic life in Bulgaria in the twentieth century. He was a member – co-founder of the society “Native Art”, chairman of the Union of Bulgarian Artists (1965 – 1969), academician of BAS. He became successive vice-president, president and honorary president of the International Association of Plastic Arts (AIAP) at UNESCO (1973, 1976, 1979). Honorary member of the Mexican Academy of Arts (since 1976) and of the Russian Academy of Arts (since 1983).

The Art High School in Kazanlak, a house-museum in Kazanlak and the Art Gallery (the artist’s house) in Sofia (a branch of the Sofia City Art Gallery) are named after Dechko Uzunov.

There are also famous artists painting with watercolors who are not in the Association “Native Art” (Chudomir, Yordan Geshev, David Peretz, etc.) during the communist regime and the rise of socialist realism, in addition to the already mentioned artists of “Native Art”, some of which continued to create in modern times. Watercolor in Bulgaria has its authors, more prominent of whom are Stoyan Venev, Alexander Poplilov, Nenko Tokmakchiev and others. But this article is limited to the artists of “Native Art” and Watercolor.

Bulgaria, Russia and the Silver Age of Watercolor

      Watercolor marks true heyday worldwide a century later – in the beginning of the XXIst century. Many call this rapid development the “Silver Age of Watercolor.” Russia and Bulgaria are a factor on the watercolor scene not only with their bright authors, but also with the organization of events related to watercolor.

In Bulgaria, anniversary exhibitions of classical artists of Bulgarian watercolor are regularly held in large Bulgarian galleries. In recent years, periodic international events of Watercolor were held: I and II International Triennial “WATERcolor & SPIRIT”, Varna – 2016, 2019 at the “Boris Georgiev” Art Gallery, with traveling exhibitions in 9 of the best art galleries in the country; International Watercolor Symposium, Belogradchik – 2016, 2017; Watercolor Symposium in the Himalayas “India ala Prima” 2015, 2019, with traveling exhibitions in City Art Galleries in Bulgaria and Romania; International Youth Watercolor Festival, Plovdiv 2019. The main organizer of the mentioned events is the International Watercolor Society – Bulgaria (IWS – Bulgaria). International Watercolor Exhibition 2019 – “16 World Renowned Masters”, organized by Evgenia Matsureva and Art Gallery “Nuance” Sofia; Regional exhibition “Watercolor” 2020 named after Nenko Tokmakchiev in Burgas, organized by “Petko Zadgorski” Art Gallery; Exhibitions in the gallery for watercolor “Absinthe”; International watercolor Plein Air “Nikola Marinov” with 23 editions so far;

In Russia in recent years, the larger events of Watercolor are: Watercolor exhibitions from 2018 in ART-TROPHY gallery, Moscow – organizer Natalia Ushakova; Watercolor exhibitions in the Tushino Exhibition Hall, Moscow – Organizer: Tushino Museum and Exhibition Center; 2015-2021 – periodic national and international watercolor exhibitions at IWS Tioindigo Gallery, St. Petersburg; 2018 – International Exhibition “Masters of Watercolor”, St. Petersburg. Organizer “lectoroom”; 2019, 2021 – International Art Festival “World of High Watercolor”, Moscow. Organizer: creative association “World of Modern Watercolor” (Ibryaev, Kruglova, Kharchenko) 2020, Russian exhibition “Memories of Spring”, Moscow. Organizer: creative association “World of Modern Watercolor” (Ibryaev, Kruglova, Kharchenko) 2019/2020 International Interactive Festival of Contemporary Art ARTLIFE. (Oil, watercolor, pastel); 2019-2020 periodic watercolor exhibitions at SARE GALLERY MOSCOW.

More about the Silver Age of Watercolor can be read here: https://iwsbulgaria.com/the-watercolor-a-graphic-or-painting-medium/

Consultant: Plamena Dimitrova-Racheva

Translation from Bulgarian: Mario Stoyanov


Author: Selma Todorova

Selma Todorova has been actively working and exhibiting watercolors and oil paintings for 26 years Leader of Bulgaria for Fabriano in Acquarello and Urbino in Acquerello (world watercolor organizations) Curator and organizer of: International Triennial, “WATERcolor & SPIRIT” – Varna 2016, 2019 International Youth Watercolor Festival, Plovdiv 2019, International Watercolor Symposium, Belogradchik – 2016, 2017, Watercolor Symposium in the Himalayas “India ala prima” 2015, 2019 Ambassador of the “Nevskaya Palitra” – Russia and Peter Paul Rubens – China Member of UBA and AIAP

The report is from the International Scientific Forum of the Center for Complex Artistic Research of the Saratov State Conservatory “LV Sobinov”. Organizer – Doctor of Art History E. A. Skorobogacheva.

Reproductions are provided by: “Vladimir Dimitrov-Maystora” Art Gallery, Kyustendil; “Nikola Marinov” Art Gallery, Targovishte; Gallery “Loran”, Sofia

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