This is the first international project of this kind initiated by a Bulgarian institution. It aims at presenting a visual narrative through the works of some of the most prominent artists of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Serbia, who worked actively in the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The research team of the exhibition was focused on the subject of the specific development of art on the Balkans in the shadow of the Orient and it offers the public an opportunity for encounter with authors and works that are emblematic for the art history of the four Balkan states.
As an illustration of the way the Westerner thinks of the Balkans, Maria Todorova quotes Arthur Douglas Howden Smith, an American journalist and an established adventurer who not only contributes as correspondent of the New York newspaper Evening Post, but also takes part in the Bulgarian national struggles for liberation as a soldier. He describes his first impressions of Sofia from 1907 noting that the city may disappoint the tourist looking for picturesque scenes since it has electricity by then, trams and it is, to a certain extent, a developed city. “Yet the disappointment is going to be only on the surface, ”Sofia is not that civilized as to lose the fascination of the old world, the spicy flavor of the East. The façade of civilization affected in a superficial way only some of the aspects while others were not changed in any noticeable way. When you step out of the corridor of the clean yellowish Sofia railway station, you feel instinctively that Europe is now behind you and you stay in the shadow of the Orient.”” According to the Westerner, the fascination of the Balkans is brought about by the Southern Sun’s rays, pure nature and, most importantly, the people, their inner life, their true emotions, even the everyday life – it lacks any superficiality and is close to the natural state of affairs, uncontaminated by modernization.
Certain notions and their reverberations through culture constitute the main research focus of the exhibition. These are the ideas stemming from the oppositions “one’s own – foreign”, “Occident - Orient”, as well as the place of the Balkans in this global discourse. Due to the extremely valuable help of National Gallery – Alexandros Soutzos Museum (Greece), Matica Srpska Gallery, Bucharest Municipal Museum and the regional galleries in the country, the Sofia City Art Gallery proudly presents works of some of the most prominent authors from Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Serbia. Many of the presented artists received their education abroad and, knowing at least intuitively the Western way of thinking of the Balkans, they are able to create works of art that are on the one hand included in the tradition of the Western-European painting, but on the other – art works functioning as definitive for the borders of the one’s own in cultural aspect. In the 19th and the early 20th centuries, in the paintings of those artists who laid the foundation of the “new” secular painting in their countries, we can research the idyllic notion of the one’s own and the ordinary life, the close Otherness of the different cultures within the community, and the distant Otherness of the Orient that is simultaneously characterized by civilizational violation and exotics.
For these reasons, the interest for the close and the distant Other persists and throughout the 20th century, it expands, at least as far as Bulgarian artists are considered. While the topics related to foreign cultures in the community are still present, the trips to distant, unknown countries become affordable for the schooled authors, which opens new horizons to them. With the rise of the artistic agenda of Modernism, the descriptive paintings from the early years after the National Liberation disappear. Fascinated and inspired by the distant cultures, the artists portray them in their works in a new manner. Thus squares bathing in the Southern Sun, markets with artisans, coffee shops with opium smokers, harems and odalisques, imaginary baths, all are present in the painting of the 20th century. The artists discover what is appropriate for their temperament and they add their new manner of painting to the the charm of the Orient. A kind of Other view of the East marked by the historically and geographically determined relation of the Balkan artist to the shadow of the Orient.
In this sense, the exhibition In the Shadow of the Orient, developed as a sequel to the conference Orientalism and the Balkans held in March 2017 with contributions by a number of established scholars, for the first time presents a visual narrative on the place of the Balkans in the large topic of Orientalism as a cultural concept that is not restricted to the field of art-studies. The most prominent theoreticians of the topic remain Eduard Said and Maria Todorova. Moreover, by means of the present exhibition, the team of the project creates an opportunity of tracing the reflections of the dichotomies “one’s own - foreign”, “We – The Others”, “Europe - Balkans”, “East - West”. These are civilizational reflections that show us the versatility achieved through encounters and coexistence of different cultures and ethnoses. It is versatility the world of today tries to cope with. In the context of the contemporary political processes, our world deals with these issues sometimes through dialogue and tolerance, other times – through aggression. Hence the exhibition In the Shadow of the Orient shall be viewed as a chance for one to get acquainted with the past experience. It is a chance to find new ways of conceptualizing the present day cultural chaos that has engulfed our epoch – an epoch when the true encounter with the Other is getting ever more difficult. These difficulties, albeit strange at first sight, can be proven completely explainable.
The visual material of the exhibition is systematized in several conventional topics. Audio-guides for the topics are prepared with additional information for the visitors.
In October the catalogue of the exposition shall be presented, as well as the scholarly collection of the papers from the scientific conference held in March 2017.
The project is developed in partnership with the National Gallery of Greece in Athens, the National Gallery of Romania in Bucharest, and the Gallery of Matica Srpska in Serbia, and with the valuable support of the Ministry of Culture, the Sofia Municipality, the Embassy of Greece in Bulgaria, the Embassy of Romania in Bulgaria, the Embassy of Bulgaria in Greece, 13 Centuries of Bulgaria Foundation, National Fund Culture.
This exhibition could not be realized without the support and professional work of the teams of the National Gallery in Sofia, the Archives State Agency, the National Library “St. Cyril and Methodius” and many of the galleries in the country.