text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Vezhdi Rashidov establishes museum of Socialist 'art'

Sofia Museum of Socialist Art 5.jpg

Despite some failed, and not very persistent, attempts by intellectuals, Bulgaria remains the only former Warsaw Pact country not to have a museum dedicated to its recent past. In fact, it would be safe to say that Bulgaria remains the only former East bloc country where Communism is still debated and any outspoken criticism of it, especially if it involves the Russians, may be looked down upon and discouraged. Unlike Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Riga and so on, Sofia still very much lives in Communist-designed housing, uses a Communist-engineered transportation system, gets Communist-attitude services and has to deal with a Communist-style administration, where nothing works unless you know the right people in the right places.

Vezhdi Rashidov

Vezhdi Rashidov

Of course, I am wrong (see my article entitled 20 Ways To Fight Off Ostalgia, in the next issue of Vagabond due out in October 2011). Of course, the citizens of Bulgaria, now uneasily in the EU, enjoy the sort of freedoms that would have been unthinkable in the old days, when life this side of the Iron Curtain was dictated by a single party and you had no chance of getting along unless you were willing to go along.

East European and Soviet Communism developed its intricate system of values and modes of behaviour that omniscient apparatchiks imposed on the masses. It spread itself in all areas of life: from work ethics to service in restaurants, from the subjects being taught in schools and universities to sports, from cinema to sculpture and painting.

Unlike most other East European states with the possible exception of Romania, Bulgaria chose the easy way of dealing with its own past: it opted to forget and erase rather than analyse and remember, so it could not happen again. This collective amnesia quickly developed into collective schizophrenia, and its results can be seen in many areas 22 years after the fall of Communism. But one area in particular deserves special attention: art ‒ or the sort of "art" the Communist Party promoted and encouraged.

Art under Communism was seen as an essential element of building up the "new" mentality and it was strictly supervised by the organs of the state, assisted where necessary by the secret police. Any Western influence was either discouraged or banned outright, and stringent Party directives were applied to any form of artistic expression. The state actively encouraged, usually by commissioning trusted artists and paying out large sums of money, its own ideas of art. These included the heroism of partizans and "anti-fascists"; sturdy, supple female workers; men with very small heads and very large arms and, of course, endless replications of leaders' portraits. At various times, depending on who was in power at the time and who had not fallen out of favour, these included Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Bulgaria's own Georgi Dimitrov, Valko Chervenkov and Todor Zhivkov.

Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia

At the end of 1989, thousands of oil paintings and sculptures, posters and leaflets, banners and wood-carvings, porcelain vases and metal badges carried these images. In fact, no public rally could proceed without some form of "visual propaganda," as it was called, nor could you enter a public office without seeing a portrait of Todor Zhivkov or Georgi Dimitrov hanging over the manager's desk.

Most of these "works of art" were quickly consigned to the dustbin of history in the 1990s. No one wanted to look at them, so they were stashed away in basements and vaults, back yards and industrial complexes, and it appeared they stood little chance of being properly displayed again.

But probably inspired by the success of "museums of Communism" in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, the current Bulgarian establishment has decided to change things. The culture minister, Vezhdi Rashidov, himself a sculptor, pushed through with his idea of collecting and displaying some samples of Communist "art" in a building very near the headquarters of the traffic police, in the eastern reaches of the city.

The new "Museum of Socialist Art," according to its mastermind Vezhdi Rashidov, is first and foremost designed to make money, similar to the museums of Communism in other East European cities. But unlike them, it will focus on just art, without setting the specific context in which that art was created.

The collection, personally curated by the Bulgarian culture minister, is indeed a motley assemblage of paintings and sculpture, some of them mere propaganda, but others created by Bulgarian artists who had established themselves independently of the regime. Rashidov indicates that one principle he applied in curating the exhibition was the artistic merit of the individual pieces. Some of these pieces, he says, show "great art and talent." Referring to a portrait of Todor Zhivkov painted by Zlatyu Boyadzhiev, one of Bulgaria's foremost 20th Century artists, Rashidov adds the names of Nayden Petkov, Professor Poplilov, and his personal favourites Ivan Neshev and Velichko Minekov.

Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia

However, critics assert that mixing very varied works, some made by unabashed collaborators with the regime, and labelling them "art" in some way legitimises Communist propaganda over two decades after Communism collapsed. Some were done as one-off commissions for the money or because their artists were forced to comply. Instead of clearly stating what is good and what is bad, such a collection will further obfuscate the boundaries between Communism and democracy and will revamp Ostalgia, one critic said, adding it would be like having a show of Nazi art in Berlin solely to admire its "artistic qualities."

If art reflects reality, which it was supposed to do under Communism, wandering through the halls of Vezhdi Rashidov's new museum evokes an eerie feeling of the sort of "lukewarm" averageness which characterised the Bulgarian Socialist system as a whole. In Sofia you will not be able to see anything on a very grand scale, such as the monuments in Volgograd or Warsaw, nor anything particularly striking, such as those displayed in the Budapest sculpture park. Just as Socialist Bulgaria manufactured semiconductors and apricot jam that were neither very bad nor very good, the Bulgarian art scene at the time produced no one to compare to El Lissitzky or Alexandr Rodchenko. Therefore, if seen in the proper context, the new Museum of Socialist Art will explain why post-Communist Bulgaria has no Komar and Melamid or Art Spiegelman.

Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia

Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia

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