Boyan Manchev

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Out of Time 1

(Sofia City Art Gallery, 2011). Read it in Bulgarian

Translated from Bulgarian: Katerina Popova


What an impartial look at the Sofia City Art Gallery collection finds is surprising: contrary to expectations, grand historical narratives, ideological canons and monumental historical events by no means dominate or form the structural centre of the collection. On the contrary, representations of various aspects of the private world unquestionably predominate, with a pronounced interest in elements of everyday life which are not directly related either to the ”grand” time of history and monumental events or to major existential-metaphysical themes like life, death, birth, change, passion, violence, suffering or, outside of the human sphere, the elements, cataclysms, the sublime, the sacred – the limits of representation, the sphere of radical alterity, of the unimaginable. Thus, what stands out in this collection, built over the last sixty years, are dominant themes and associative lines such as the relationship between work and leisure, fatigue and rest; the relationship between everyday and holiday (where holiday signifies the transition from private to public or, conversely, the reduction of public to private); the image of nature, intimate, ”domesticated” by human presence (the image of nature as an elemental force is almost absent), depicted as a mountain, forest or seaside idyll – summer holidays, vacations as a counter-historical utopia; the image of animals as a peculiar pastoral image. Of particular interest are transitional spaces between private and external space: the window, the balcony, the townscape and, hence, the private world of intimacy and sharing represented in genres such as interiors, still lifes, intimate landscapes – home, family, intimate portraits. Through those themes one may identify a series of organizing oppositions: private/public, everyday/holiday, human/inhuman, coercion/freedom, ideological utopia/idyllic utopia.

The exhibition Out of Time attempts to examine precisely this imagery – and precisely these images, exploring their enigmatic energy and focusing on the variations and shifts in the repetition, accumulation and dynamics that organize the images in a way that is different from the historical narratives concerning what paintings represent and why they were made, as well as from the immanently historical narratives of the history of art which examine, in their turn, how paintings represent and how they are made. Instead, we are interested in the matter of these images, in their dynamics over time. Over a time that is out of time.

Ivan Nenov 1902–1997
oil on cardboard, 38x46 cm

Vera Nedkova 1908–1996
оil on canvas, 46x56 cm

Images, Idylls

What do those images expect from us? What shines through their skin? What is this light that pierces us deep inside?

I shall call the strange light of these images idyllic.

The genre of the idyll, a genre of the retro-utopian ideal life in the bosom of nature, was invented not by poets or artists living among nature but by refined librarians and philologists, the offspring and creators of the principal city of Hellenism, Alexandria. The idyll is the first genre where nature appears as a value in itself. The necessary condition for this recognition of nature as a value in itself was the very idea of nature. This idea appeared when a distinction began to be made between nature and culture, between fusis and tekhne. In other words, nature was invented as a value only after it was differentiated from culture. Arcadia, the ideal land of idyllic life among flocks, art, love and wine, was in fact the wildest region of ancient Greece. It was the Roman poets who situated the idyll in Arcadia, a region described by a Greek author like Pausanias as an arid wilderness populated by brutish, barbarous people clad in animal hides, people from before culture. In it there is nothing of the refined imagery of the idyll and its figures. The idyll is a space of ideal fiction, an imaginative reinvention of the brutal matter of the world.

Actually, the idyll presupposes above all an imaginary world. The idyll is an ideal world populated with images, woven from images. It is no coincidence that the word ”idyll” is derived from the Greek eidolon, which means ”image” but also ”ghost”; tellingly, this is the same word which the word ”idol” comes from. The idyll refers less to primordial, primitive pastoral poetic or erotic existence; it refers to the image – or to the phantasmatic double.

Idylls are idols. They are idols because their representation is removed from the truth – at least according to Plato and, after him, to iconoclastic, monotheistic religions. But idols are neuralgic points of the world, they are condensations and organizations of the world. The picture is not outside of the world; it is in it that the world becomes a world. The question, then, is: what world?

Thus, the idyllic tendency of Bulgarian painting should be understood not as ”flight from the world” (or as an impossibility of relating to reality as the dominant intuition of representation) but as discovery of the world by attaining its technical mode: attaining an image. The image is discovered in the form of painting and of presence of the world.

How are we to explain this obsession of painting with form? Why precisely those images? Why the sea? Why the still life? Why the window? Does this mean that the world is renounced in the name of formal studies? Pictorial formalism? Is this the notorious ”New Objectivity” of new Bulgarian art? To begin with, instead of condemning the formal we must take form completely seriously. Form is not separate from ”content”; it is a force of the real, it reveals the tekhne or technique of life. That is why form matters precisely in its form, in its ”skin”. It is precisely the boat, the fishermen, the nets and the fish that are the images of a world in which the image is captured, in which time is dominated by the experience of matter and in which this experience appears precisely as an image. A world of the elements and of their ”domestication” into an idyll. The technique of life manifesting itself.

The idyll is the u-topia of the image where time is sedimented in the form of intensity.

Vera Loukova 1907–1974
1966 оil on canvas, 100x60 cm

Ivan Nenov 1902–1997
1946 oil on cardboard, 35х28 cm, detail

Time and Images

The problem of time looks central in the empirical findings noted above: it is the possible organizing principle of the dominant themes in the collection. This principle looks very productive at least for three reasons. In the first place, time is the metaconcept of the museum, of the archive in general and of the Sofia City Art Gallery collection in particular. This collection assembles ”works of art” – paintings, sculptures, prints, installations. But the most important ”value-added” of their mechanical assemblage is precisely time. Time is what flows through the multitude of images: it is precisely time which is the force that organizes this multitude. Not just because the images form a sequence as they are located linearly in space and therefore draw a vector of time. And not just because they are organized according to the intuition about the ”grand” time of History and the smaller time of the history of art inscribed within the former – ideas of a model-time according to which the collection was inevitably built in order to represent, to depict this grand flow of time that transcends each individual work: to depict the time of history inscribed within the development of art itself, of art as time – as human time, or in other words, as organization of human experience. Yet it is not just because of those reasons that time is a force that organizes the multitude of images. But also because the collection speaks of an ontological time that is beyond historical definition. The simultaneous consignment of these works to the storage room, their coexistence away from the visible, manifest time of history makes present precisely this anachronistic time. Now that the ideal fiction of time, model-time and repository-time are no longer valid and the objects from the collection simply lie in the storage room, the time comes for dynamic-time. Underlying the simultaneity of these images, their piling up and assemblage, is precisely the dynamics of time – a dynamics of time which is out of time, which does not belong to any time and which is neither eternity (whose image, according to Plato, is time) nor a moment: the eternally flowing, fleeting moment – the moment or ”lightning-flash” of modernity referred to by Baudelaire (un éclair… Puis la nuit!); the moment referred to in Bulgarian poetry, after Baudelaire, by Dimitar Boyadzhiev, Peyo Yavorov, Dimcho Debelyanov or by writer and art critic Chavdar Mutafov (in his short story ”Mortal Dream”).

How is time itself (the time of life, the time of the world) without its ”added-values” – and not the historical, eventful, symbolically organized and ideologically-oriented time – present in Bulgarian painting?

Vera Nedkova 1908–1996
оil on canvas, 43x33 cm, detail

Sami Bidjerano (Sabin) 1920–2007
оil on canvas, 45x60 cm

So, why out of time?

Of course, ”idyllic” imagery also conveys a definite image of time or experience about time. The act and the flow of time associated with it have as if frozen in the idyll of the moment. It is this empty, indefinite, indeterminate, impersonal time, time out of time, that we are interested in here: out of time.

Thus, the problem of time would allow us to think of the collection itself – of the hidden dynamics of the collection as such – through the prism of the exhibition that is taking place here and now, out of time.

One may say that time is the most enigmatic object of painting, that spatial art par excellence as we know after Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. How can time be represented in painting? Through the static moment, the frozen moment in a dynamic action which presupposes progression, that is to say, a plot, says Lessing. Through Einstein’s refraction of space, claims Mikhail Matyushin, one of the leading painters of the Russian avant-garde.

But can time itself become the object of representation?

Yes it can: insofar as time itself is the subject of representation.

This is an extreme hypothesis, but we will not hesitate to consider it: a definite idea of time, a definite experience of and about time determine the visibility of definite areas of reality – they determine ”objects”, ”themes”, ”scenes”, their choice, organization and modulations. Furthermore, a definite idea of time, a definite experience of and about time determine the very structure of the gaze. The gaze sees time and emanates time. How is time seen? It is seen in the shifts and vibrations of the image.

The image is time in the form of condensation, of dynamics.

Time is the element that cannot be identified in the form but that sediments it in a form. Time is a property of form. Here we are interested in time without properties, in time sedimented in the forms of an image.

The time of paintings in the storage room is a potentiality – potentiality for a new time, for new sequences of time, for new progressions, new vectors, for new rhythms, for arrhythmic times, for new forms of life. Time is an anachronistic potentiality – a potentiality for resistance and even for revolt as it is only the potentiality of time that can overturn the order of the world.

But no, the images are neutralized, they are as if nullified, they are definitely rendered harmless, carefully wrapped, consigned and kept down there below the ground. To see those images means to see them out of time. Those images can be seen only out of time. They themselves are out of time. They are in no one’s time. Welcome out of time!

Only a miracle can expose those images and put them on permanent display. Every exposition is salvation. Exposition means revealing the potentiality of the image. But what does revealing the potentiality of the image mean? Does it mean illuminating its hidden life outside the field of vision?

Stoyan Sotirov 1903–1984
оil on canvas, 92x101 cm

Dariya Vassilyanska b. 1928
PLAY, 1979
oil on canvas, 135x135 cm, detail

Who is it that reveals this potentiality? Who is responsible for it? Could the irresponsibility of the image awaken our responsibility?

In the storage room work people – it is their gaze, their memory that is the personal archive of those images. Maria Vassileva, Marin Marinov, Daniela Radeva demonstrated this responsibility to me. Here I do not just work with the images; I also work with the re-imagining of those images by the people responsible for them.

How can we create an archive of inaccessible images? Archiving means, among other things, mapping: the storage room has its own rules of organization, its routes, its technicalities and its event-condensations, its banalities and its enigmas. It means bringing to light precisely the dynamics of the hidden organization that is sedimented down below, in the dark depths of the storage room, directly beneath our feet.

The images are waiting for their time to come like chained titans in the dark, formless depths of the earth. Idyllic titans? Pictorial freaks of nature, exiled martyrs of the banal? Still, the image is a form of revolt. It is an anachronism, a condensation of the inevitable. It is wiser than the eye.

When will the time come for the revolt of images?

Banal Painting

”And perhaps it is only thus that the art of new time – or maybe time itself? – becomes understandable: a new reality where things, stripped bare in their visibility, acquire the cruel necessity of being art.”

(Chavdar Mutafov, ”Banal Art”, 1927)

Thus, Bulgarian painting, modern Bulgarian painting which is the object of the Sofia City Art Gallery collection, is situated between two types of images: between the images of the archaic idyll and the idylls/idols of modern banality.

Bencho Obreshkov 1899–1970
oil on canvas, 54х64 cm

Zina Yourdanova 1904–1998
oil on canvas, 65x85 cm

The theme of banal art was introduced by Chavdar Mutafov (1899–1954) – probably the most radically modern author who wrote about Bulgarian art in his time – as a critical task. ”There are moments when life is as if laid bare, becoming impersonal, indifferent, terribly empty, yet nevertheless completely ordinary: like the conversations about time, like traveling on the train, like looking at yourself in the mirror. And then comes that which we always know and which we do not know is always the same: banality itself! – but this time in another form: because now it has become art.” (Chavdar Mutafov, ”Banal Art”) What Mutafov calls ”banal art” is not art that deals with the banal and avoids its opposite – the exceptional, the extraordinary, the sublime; banal art is art that lives by the rhythm of the world, that pulsates to the same beat. ”It may be that our life is still not sufficiently full to be completely banal; it may be that our art is still too insufficient to fill, to make sense of, to cognize our life. … Art should be nothing more than simple.” Banal art is democratic and hence political art: ”An art that equalizes everyone in order to make them nothing more than people, debunking every exceptionality, including its own, in order to make reality nothing more than the same, everyday, normal – normal art, why not? – an art that everyone would find in themselves; an art that would eliminate the imaginary boundary between the personality of the artist and the impersonality of the public; an art that unifies until it itself becomes life; banal like life, indifferent like luck, inevitable like our neighbour. Only then one may understand the secret of many modern artists, of whom the latest is George Grosz, the master of brilliant banality.” From this perspective, Mutafov’s ”banal” is nothing other than Baudelaire’s modern: art founded on the image. But what is the image in modernity? In Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Walter Benjamin claims: that which is about to disappear (the fleeting, the ordinary, the banal) is transformed into an image.

Thus, the modern ”idyll”, the modern eidolon, is opposed to the narratives where grand historical time is the central agent, as in Hegel’s history of the spirit or Romantic ethnography. The banal is the technique of the Real, while academism is its substitute.

In the banal there is an enigma we cannot break through. The banal comes with the breakthrough into the banal economy of the gaze.

Image With No Subject?

What strikes one about this collection is the limited set of techniques and formal motifs in the paintings. Thus, for example, the portraits and figures are as if ”restrained” in several stereotypical poses: seated figure, full-face portrait, open window, still life, seascape, fishermen on the shore or a boat in the sea, festive scene, workers toiling in the field, townscape… They can hardly stand comparison with the iconoclastic female figures of Degas or of Expressionism.

Except, that is, for Stoyan Sotirov’s Abandoned, a fascinating painting in which the unusual perspective from above presses the heavy, solid body of the half-dressed woman down towards the table on which she rests on her elbows, staring down at a glass of wine… Reduced to a still life – to nature morte, natura morta, Stillleben – she is seen as the misogynist Degas sees the female body: from above. He sees it from above, yet it is in this haughty misogynistic view that the female body breaks the constraining stereotype of banal interpretation, of standard, stereotypical salon form (the salon form whose transgression is punished by expulsion from the Salon, as was the fate of Manet’s Olympia).

This observation could lead to the discouraging but premature conclusion that Bulgarian painters lack originality and imagination. But if we move away from the banalised Romantic idea of the unique individuality of the artist, of the autonomy of individual styles and their association with the vector of historical progress conceived of as progress in historical techniques, then we can think of this similarity of motifs and techniques less as lack of originality and imagination than as transition towards the anonymous technique of the Real, this most complex, difficult and powerful of all techniques that Baudelaire intuited in the figure of the painter of modern life, that anonymous person from the crowd, the eye of the Real that preceded the Kino-Eye of Dziga Vertov – an anonymous technique whose essence is elucidated by Mutafov through the concept of banal art (”An art that equalizes everyone in order to make them nothing more than people, debunking every exceptionality, including its own”).

Vihroni Popnedelev b. 1953
oil on canvas, 129х165 cm

Edmond Demirdjian 1951–2009
soft pastel on paper, 54x71 cm

That is why the problematics of imitation and epigony becomes irrelevant. The techniques and motifs of the paintings in this collection form several concentric rays, several clusters or fields of intensity that spread out transpersonally. What we see is a ”weak”, minimal, if not minimalist, shift. The abundance of seemingly similar images has the potential to reveal the minimalism of the shift and variation. It is as if we are faced with a practice of the image that unfolds transpersonally, beyond the individual artistic techniques and obsessions, thus mastering the very technique of the Real. Could this be a display of an immanent messianism of the image – the almost invisible shift, the sedimentation of completeness/completion and, hence, of closure?

Image with no subject: do the images themselves become the subject?

Idyllic Work. Work-as-Celebration

One of the forms of idyllic imagery is the image of idyllic work (which can be only georgic, that is to say, agricultural work, unquestionably the most frequent form of representation of work in Bulgarian painting until the 1940s which was transformed during the socialist period through the techno-poetics of combined harvesters – the new techno-georgic myth of technology as a means for creating collectives: see, for example, Evtim Tomov’s print series Collective Farm, 1947). Idyllic work, even if it is intensive, is harmonious. It remains in tense harmony with the form. Thus, in the representation of work there is no struggle with matter: absent is not just the heroic struggle of the productive, transformative force of organic life with inert, inorganic matter or the new titanic, heroic struggle of the worker, the new Prometheus, but also the struggle of Degas’ ballet dancers or even of his bathing women with the weight, limitations and limits of the organic body, with fatigue and exhaustion. (Interesting from this point of view is Margarita Deneva’s unusual double portrait of two grim, resolute and maybe somewhat resigned gymnasts, Sports Daily Round, 1986.) Absent is the scream of the flesh – of the suffering, frantic, crushed and contorted flesh – that runs through modern painting from Goya and Blake to Courbet, Van Gogh, Munch, Ensor and the Expressionists to Francis Bacon. With one possible exception: Nikolai Maistorov’s expressionistic paintings? The scenes of work in Bulgarian painting are on the whole harmonious, irenic – in them there is no selfsacrifice or challenge to a higher power.

One of the few but symptomatic exceptions from this tendency, at least in the Sofia City Art Gallery collection, is Stoyan Sotirov’s strange Harvest Time. The nude, strong, tense bodies of the harvesters carry heavy sheaves of hay. But this is no simple eroticization of the working bodies – the georgic workers in whom forest bacchantes lie dormant? The strange image achieves rather the opposite effect: here the intensity and sacrificial-political implications of agricultural work are given adequate expression through the introduction of an element of difference, of disturbing alterity – namely, the eroticism of nudity. Nudity lends a sculptural, dynamic form to the combative strength of the tense bodies standing firmly as if they were driven into the ploughed soil of the field. This indifferent, alogical but powerful nudity – nudity as a resisting, active force of the body – makes it impossible to situate those bodies in any context other than that of the anachronism of the pictorial image. But it also fleshes out the image – and a fleshed out image is inevitably political, intensifying a neuralgic point of the world.

Dimiter Voinov b. 1946
oil on canvas, 139х200 cm

Naoum Hadjimladenov 1894–1985
oil on canvas, 65х79 cm

Work is frequently depicted through its consequences – through fatigue and exhaustion. The representation of workers at rest can be peacefully conciliatory and idyllically harmonious, as in Zlatyu Boyadjiev’s Haymaking, 1942. But the state of the figures of the tired workers is always ambivalent (or polyvalent): exhaustion is sublimated in the tranquility and relaxed form of the workers at rest, as in those portrayed sleeping in the field (for example, in the paintings of Stoyan Sotirov and Nenko Balkanski) or as in the exhausted bodies sleeping on the bus on the way home from work in the paintings of Vihroni Poponedelev (Bus, After Work, 1982). In Popnedelev’s paintings the exhausted bodies are seen from above, as in Sotirov’s abandoned woman – in both paintings the weight of exhaustion has a gravity force that pulls the bodies and the gaze down. Do the paintings suggest that one social class goes home to sleep when the other goes to work? Is there a hidden social tension in this downward gaze reminiscent of the structure of Degas’ haughty view of the female bodies crushed by their organic weight? (A similar vertical view appears later in Dimitar Kazakov’s ritual canvases and in Boryana Rossa’s Still Life: the face of the painter is reduced to a still life/nature morte, and the still life to a black-and-white surface which, however, is animated by the dynamics of photographic matter, by the matter of technique: a surface that licks itself not to wipe the spilt milk of the image but to draw into its fabric the erotic cleavage of the tongue-gaze.)

Ultimately, in becoming the object of modern Bulgarian painting, even the hardest manual work is transformed into work-as-pleasure, that is, paradoxically, into work-as-celebration. Idyllic work is work removed from the basic cultural anthropological opposition between work and rest, between everyday and holiday. But if modern Bulgarian painting erases the line between everyday and holiday, between work and rest, it does so not just in order to build retro-utopian myths, but because work is the activity that intensifies the material elements of the world – its forms, reducing them to the level of tense, exceptional existence, an existence that is essentially festive. Thus, in its turn, the representation of work-as-celebration gives flesh to the liberation and triumph of the image, the escape of the image from the clutch of stereotypical representation, an escape in which the image transcends itself and begins to live – to vibrate and pulsate. To enter into time – that is to say, to open up time.

Nadezhda Kouteva b. 1948
SUMMER, 1976
оil on canvas, 71x79 cm

Naoum Hadjimladenov 1894–1985
oil on canvas, 70х90 cm

Representation of Work in Literature and in Painting

A comparison with the political and social de-aestheticization (or political aestheticization) of work in Bulgarian literature from the 1930s could help reveal the specificity of the image of idyllic work in the paintings of artists belonging to Rodno Izkustvo (Native Art), a national art movement that emerged in Bulgaria in the 1920s and 30s, and of later Bulgarian painters. Thus, in clear opposition to Todor Vlaikov’s domestic retro-utopias or Petko Todorov’s symbolistic idylls, as well as to the synthesis of the tragic and the idyllic in the poetry of Peyо Yavorov (”Hailstorm”) and the tragic-idyllic descriptions of collective and individual agricultural work by Elin Pelin and Mihalaki Georgiev, leading members of the Bulgarian literary avant-garde in the 1920s – such as Lamar, Geo Milev, Nikola Furnadzhiev and, later, Nikolai Marangozov – exposed the image of an archaic bestial Arcadia, an ”Arcadia” of mud and of inhuman, stunting, primitive work, hidden behind the image of the idyllic paradise. Parallel with them came new literary aestheticizations of the new forms of work, starting with that of blue-collar workers – symbolistic in Hristo Smirnenski, futuristic-constructivist in Chavdar Mutafov and neorealistic in Nikola Vaptsarov – connected, in their turn, with the new romanticization of adventure, including the political adventure of the revolution: the image of the worker-seaman (in Vaptsarov).

Unlike those new critical and political images of work in Bulgarian literature, it is as if Bulgarian Modern painting did not seek tension, conflict and struggle with matter in the activity of productive work, striving towards transformation, or in other words, towards distance, a project, a horizon; Bulgarian painting strove above all towards achieving proximity of place, proximity of the human form to the forms of the natural and social worlds. Thus, fishermen – one of the recurrent images in painting from the period, an image that remained marginal in the politico-aesthetic economy of Bulgarian literature – are not only not seamen, they are not workers sailing into and fighting with the elements of the sea (Captain Ahab never appeared in Bulgarian painting); they are people with a liminal place on the seashore. In their work they tend to be intermediaries, weavers of the links between the elements of the brutal world. And it is no coincidence that they often knit – as Ivan Nenov’s young women knitting fishing nets by the open window looking over the blue sea, Vera Loukova’s fisherman toiling on the shore or Vera Nedkova’s fishermen stretching out nets on the beach. The net becomes not just the object of representation but also a meta-technique of the pictorial image itself: it weaves the links in the world while simultaneously capturing its images.

The scenes of work are a sort of anthropomorphous landscape; work is depicted as a relationship to the world, to the matter of the world – and it is this relationship that lends the form authenticity (where, of course, the word ”authenticity” is to be understood as a complex set of techniques – techniques constituting a definite order of the image). If the struggle with matter, as it is often represented in the different scenes of work in Bulgarian literature, creates a tension orienting the vector of time towards a definite goal, towards a telos or new technique, towards a new organization of form, in Bulgarian painting the interpenetration, cohesion with the forms of the world tends to stop time anew – yet not to erase it but to reveal its potentiality. Time does not freeze into an image, it stands still like an image.

Stoyan Sotirov 1903–1984
oil on canvas, 65х81 cm

Vihroni Popnedelev b. 1953
oil on canvas, 107x138 cm


In this relationship the landscape genre acquires a peculiar form; it acquires a constitutive conceptual role. That is not just because the scenes of work are set against intense, vivid landscapes. But because the scenes of work acquire (as do the festive scenes) the status of a landscape – a human landscape or an anthropomorphous landscape 2. Here the landscape is much more than a decorative genre, a neutral eidolon. The idyllic-poetic landscape, that is, the landscape of work (the original meaning of the Greek poiesis, from which the word ”poetry” is derived, is ”making”, ”bringing forth”, ”creating”) condenses the materiality of the world, concentrating it into the intensity of an image where the human form appears precisely as an immanent agent of this condensation. What at the level of reference of the image we will call ”work” is, at the immanent level of organization of the image, a welding force of the form, a concentration of the image. The theme of work is attained as the work of the image, as the deed of the image; that is to say, it begins to function as a sui generis meta-theme of the pictorial image.

The Unreserved Gaze

The ontological inscription into and focus on the landscape also has another significant aspect: indifference towards the invisible viewer who is abandoned to himself or herself in the same way as the people portrayed in figurative paintings are abandoned to themselves. It is this detachment and distance founded on proximity – the proximity of the portrayed people to the matter of the world – that underpins the idyllic fiction. The images we are speaking of here largely renounce and even repel the theatricality of representation, unlike the main tendency in modern painting which, after Manet, introduced the gaze – or the awareness of its existence – into the very structure of paintings. This gaze, the gaze of ”the painter of modern life”, is no longer the order-constitutive and space-organizing gaze of the sovereign or of the painter-demiurge as in Velаzquez’s Las Meninas or in the paintings of Jan van Eyck or Vermeer; it is the neutral, anonymous gaze of the new major subject, Society: the gaze of the narrator in the modern novel and of the painter of the nineteenth century – the painter who, by introducing the gaze into the structure of the painting, debunks precisely its theatrical structure, its hierarchies and political modulations (this gaze was probably the main artistic reason for the scandal over Manet’s Olympia 3), thus clearing the way for an absolute or radically material gaze – the gaze that strives towards the very matter of the image before or beyond mimetic representation, the gaze and the vision upon which non-figurative painting is founded.

Nikolai Maistorov b. 1943
guache on paper, 60x80 cm

Adelina Popnedeleva b. 1956
plexiglass, print, hand-made paper, metal details, 45х45х9 сm each

We can take as an example the concentration of the fishermen whose gaze is fixed on their own work, closing the energetic circle of the image into themselves. Or the techno-idyll of Assen Nikolov-Shopa representing the locomotive factory as a landscape, as a titanic idyll where demonic creatures from an unreal world are engaged in an incomprehensible activity; the industrial landscape as a landscape of alterity represented in a strange, ghostly light and with its own enigmatic organization – a landscape revealed to the gaze as if furtively, as in the voyeuristic paintings of Romanticism (such as The Turkish Bath by Ingres), from behind the shelter of steel sheets – like rocks strewn across a lunar bay. A ship-locomotive that will never set sail, never and for nowhere, which generates feverish and concentrated collective activity only in the frozen moment of the painting – here and now, out of time.


The landscape: the things of the world abandoned to themselves. This is the idyllic image. Sasho Stoitsov’s Waterfall is nothing other than an image broken up into multiple images all of which are things-images. Things that stand still. Things that stand still but seem to be in motion. Not water that flows just like everything flows. Water that falls, that falls into itself only to flow again; water that does not return to itself but disperses into images, coincides in images. This is the landscape in its purest ontological form: not water that falls but waterfall. An image that coincides with itself in terms of calligraphy and signs. Eastern miniatures. Water falls = waterfalls.

Inventing the Sea: The Blue-Yellow Idyll and the Utopian ”Base”

The seashore is the exemplary place of the transition from work to rest. The blonde girl on the beach holding a fish in Ivan Nenov’s painting – is she a modernday sea nymph, the daughter of Sozopol fishermen or a tourist who has bought a fish? A fellow townswoman of Violeta or of the woman sitting on a terrace in Balchik in the work of Bencho Obreshkov? Or of the young couples strolling along the streets of Sozopol in the work of Nadezhda Deleva – or of the young people sitting in a café, maybe in the same central street of Sozopol, in the work of Zina Yurdanova? Or of the elegant, Renaissance-like enigmatic young women in the work of Sami Bidjerano (At the Window), standing before hills reminiscent of the silhouette of the hills of the bay of Sozopol that can be seen behind the fishermen returning from a day out at sea in the work of Iliya Petrov (Sozopol)? Thus the seashore, covered with fishing nets, is transformed into a beach – the utopian place of sharing in the form of a collective vacation that ranges from timeless idyll (Stefka Aroyo) to grotesque repetition, outside of their normative context, of the roles from the social theatre of the everyday (Kosta Forev, Beach).

Vera Loukova 1907–1974
оil on canvas, 89х69 cm

Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova b. 1960
from the VANITAS performance, 1999
digital print on paper, 17x22 cm

This idyll acquired its supreme emanation after the professional institutionalization of the artist’s trade that led to the creation of the Union of Bulgarian Artists (UBA) in 1953. The institutional utopia of the Union was kept up by the image of the privileged existence in the idyllic topos of the Union’s socalled ”creative base” (tvorcheska baza) – fully equipped rest homes and studios where UBA members could stay and work for a token fee. The UBA’s seaside ”bases” at Sozopol and Balchik were as if conducive to a ritual liberation of work, as the result of which Sozopol and Balchik became a modern-day Arcadia for UBA members. They were a free place of creativity, the place where the work/ rest dichotomy was transcended, as envisaged by the communist utopia of work shared also by Meyerhold: in the future, work and leisure will constitute a single whole united in the full, non-alienated time of existence. Liberated work will be a permanent pleasure and, hence, rest. A permanent revolution? Were UBA members Trotskyite or utopian communists?

Thus, the phrase out of time may be understood in another sense as well: out of time is idyllic time for it precedes the division between work time and leisure time, between work time and holiday time, between the banal time of workdays that produces, saves and accumulates goods, and the exceptional time of holidays that spends goods in excess. In the idyllic world, work is unseparated and inseparable from the pleasure of resting – the arts and animal husbandry are a pleasure associated also with the game-contest between the free shepherds-musicians-poets. Hence, this is less a pre-cultural structure (for, as we have seen, the idyll is a cultural fiction) than an anti-cultural or supracultural fiction (insofar as it transcends one of the basic oppositions of culture – both of archaic cultures and of modernity and capitalist production where leisure time is purchased as a commodity being, at the same time, a biopolitical condition for increasing workforce productivity by improving the quality of the productive force of workers). This fiction, however, is especially relevant today, in the situation of neoliberal capitalism where according to some theorists the boundary between work time and leisure time, and by extent, between the public sphere and the private sphere, is increasingly blurred (but thus, in fact, hiding new structures of exploitation, reducing leisure time to the imperative of consumption, a structural condition for the existence of the said economic regime and, hence, reducing holidays to the excesses on Friday night which are nothing other than obliteration of the exceptionality of holidays in the form of a dull workday night) 4.

Hence, out of time is the exact opposite of the over-qualified time of a growing workday that absorbs the evening, the intimate time of night and Sundays. Out of time is also anarchic free time. Anarchic leisure time today is out of time, it is at the wrong time. From this perspective, we may say: yes, in most cases the anachronistic tendency in Bulgarian painting is indeed not politically ”committed” in its subject matter and themes. But then, it is profoundly political in its pictorial gesture: it lends an image to the anarchic time of leisure, or in other words, of freedom.

Aneta Alexieva
oil on canvas, 41x52 cm

Boryana Rossa b. 1972
рhotography, 53x74 each

The Dark Side of the Idyll

It may seem strange that, the only apparently conservative in their mythological subject matter, paintings of Dimitar Kazakov-Neron, which are close to the antimodern fascinations of Pablo Picasso or André Masson, reveal the dual foundation, the dark archaic background of the idyll, the sacrificial violence at its anthropological roots – namely, the Dionysian mythical sparagmos, the sacrificial dismemberment as an apotheosis of the ritual of the ”foreign” god, of the god whose ritual practices are identified by Tsvetan Stoyanov as an anthropological substratum of Bulgarian national psychology 5. The Dionysian sparagmos that befell Pentheus, the young king of Thebes who was torn to pieces by his mother Agave and the women of Thebes in a bacchic frenzy, as well as the legendary singer Orpheus whom the new champions of the Thracian origins of the Bulgarians in the 1970s placed at the centre of their neomythological idyllic pantheon. Thus, the reference to the myth in Dimitar Kazakov’s The Remains of Orpheus – a painting depicting, in a Greek-like graphic style that as if follows imaginary idyllic canons, the dismembered body of Orpheus, the paradigmatic singer of the idyll who was close to nature and to the beasts enchanted by his music – seems to have a subversive critical role. It not only inverts the idyll of modern realism in painting; it also speaks of the violence that lurks below the mythical idyllic fiction which in the 1970s was explicitly assigned legitimizing tasks by Bulgarian communist ideology (or at least by one of its internal factions). In other words, the critical inversion of the idyll was done in a specific and meaningful cultural and historical context: at the time of the birth and structuring of the so-called ”Thracian myth” of the origins of the Bulgarians. This involved the invention and imposition of an overall new mode of production of idyllic myths that had a clear ideological subtext at the time of a legitimacy crisis of the Bulgarian communist regime. The new idyllic ideology was developed in the context of the adoption of new, unconventional forms of self-legitimation in the period of a new cultural politics associated with the figure of Lyudmila Zhivkova and her circle of artists and intellectuals, forms that ranged from Far Eastern mysticism (Yoga, Nicholas Roerich’s teaching) to neo-Thracian Orphism to a new archaic cosmo-nationalism (see the extreme example of esoteric pan-cosmic nationalism in Plamen Tsonev’s Homo cosmicus, 1980) that seem to be undergoing a revival today when there is a similar crisis of legitimacy and rhetorical discrediting of the democratic political project. The above-mentioned period of crisis and of articulation of new ideological discursive regimes was also an era of explicit, if not obsessive, fixation upon the problematics of the pastoral and of the idyll, split between animalistic sacrifice and retro-utopian harmony 6. They were reflected in the notorious debate on Nikolai Haitov’s Wild Tales in the 1970s as a debate on the sacrificial and the idyllic, and in Yordan Radichkov’s absurdist parody of idyllic obsessions in the same era. The symptomatic of the era Odysseus Myth (1985) by Toncho Zhechev in its turn thematized and explicitly used as a legitimizing tool the idyllic (and georgic) myths of the bosom of the earth and the primordial village – sacrificial idylls directly bound to the anti-modern idylls of authors like Naiden Sheytanov and Yanko Yanev in the 1930s who promoted the utopia of the global idyllic village after a sacrificial cleansing in the last, total war – in whose monstrous historical reality Yanev, who was fascinated by National Socialist ideology, found his death.

The exposure of the sacrificial foundation of the idyll definitely renders meaningless the kitsch of the idyllic epos, for example that of Evgeni Poptoshev’s goatherdesses, the brilliant idiotism of the representation of two nymphgoatherdesses and a goat evoking archaic bacchic sodomistic phantasms within the context of an irenic idyll. An innocent idyll painted at the time when Nazism was on the rise, an idyll that was unbearable from the point of view of the new artists who championed the leftist materialistic idyll, the idyll of the world insisting on the here and now.

In a similar way, Dimitar Kazakov’s Song of Praise has an implicit critical potential that is actualized through the strange vertical perspective of the painting – the inversion of the world along a vertical axis where the eye of the painter coincides with the eye of the god looking down from above. The introduction – into the until then neutral vis-а-vis the gaze, ”untheatrical” fabric of realistic idyllic representation – of an ”absolute” eye falling from above like a celestial drill breaks the contract – the convention – of the idyllic fiction. The absolute eye exposes the essence of the holiday as an initiation, as an instant and topos of the sacred. Thus, Kazakov reveals both the dual foundation of the idyll and the dual foundation of the holiday; he exposes the sacred and sacrificial foundations underlying the holiday banalized as everyday. Thus the holiday, absorbed into the everyday, is suddenly exposed and confronted with the brutal, vertical distance of being.

Vera Nedkova 1908–1996
оil on canvas, 100х100 cm

Sasho Stoitzov b. 1952
oil, acrylic on canvas, 120x145 cm, detail

A further critical inversion of the idyll realized by radically new means can be found in Lyuben Kostov’s radical political installation Time: Idol-Breaking Machine, 1989. Lyuben Kostov’s idol-breaking machine closes, in its turn, the circle of the image but it does so precisely by breaking the idol. Here the explicit political moment contains also an implicit, if not icono-clastic then idolo-clastic, moment: an idoloclasm that undermines and destroys the idyllic ideology of modern Bulgarian painting. The world-as-machine is no longer the same world which is energized by images-idylls. Time-as-machine is Someone Else.

Lika Yanko 1928–2001
mixed media, canvas on cardboard, 80x72 cm

Genko Genkov 1923–2006
oil on canvas, 85x101 cm

The Matter of Time. In Lieu of a Conclusion

How is time ”thematized”? Is such an operation possible at all? What does time-as-object mean? Or time-as-subject?

To what extent can the saturation with non-material energy intensify the space of the image and to what extent can it organize this space? What does ”saturation” mean: saturation with time?

How is space transformed from a site into an energy field?

What does mastering space mean? Or ”liberation of time”? Could we empower space by liberating time? Empowerment, liberation of whom and for whom?

What looks at us?

The frottages in Milko Pavlov’s Rеsentimenti series (2012-2030) attempt to answer those questions. Their technique simultaneously asks a question and gives an answer.

Graphite, the medium-matter, is rubbed into the matter of the sheet of paper, cardboard or canvas – of the large format; thus, instead of fixing time, it spreads time out as a surface, as concentration and dispersal. Graphite is a cloud, a meteorological front, a passage from potentiality over into actuality which is not a reduction of the potentiality.

Graphite is a nebula that dissolves the surface and hence shifts and suspends the fixation upon the time of the frozen image, the time of the idolbreaking machine. Here the time that breaks up idols, that is to say, paintings, takes the form of a serpentine constellation, of a black hole of the image. Graphite is a technique-matter and an image into which the revolt of the hand/tool is transformed. It is the matter of life becoming-time. The time of life becomingmatter.

Milko Pavlov calls the process of time-becoming-matter ”dematerialization”. In his words, the ”dematerialization” of time, its becoming-a-picture, is a process of ”entering into time” 7. Milko Pavlov’s frottages are not a picture but a becoming a-picture, they are the dynamics of potentiality, that is to say, the dynamics of dynamics. Dematerialization, as the process of time-becoming-a-picture, is the process of the becoming-matter of time.

Georgi Bayev 1924-2007
оil on canvas, 72х80 cm

Milko Pavlov b. 1956
Resentimenti 12, 2023, graphite on paper, 157x350 cm
Resentimenti 17, 2024, graphite on paper, 157x300 cm
The works is part from the forthcoming exhibition “100 Years Of Milko Pavlov” in 2056

His frottages are messianic because they interrupt time; furthermore, they are anarchic because they do not end time but kindle its multiple beginnings, the source of the invariably bursting anew sparks, of the scattering matter, of the arm growing out of the grave, through the cosmic dust of graphite, of carbon, of stellar clay.

Graphite is the matter of time.

Here time does not end: it begins as matter, that is, as an image. That is why it is out of time.