The current exhibition is part of the now traditional research projects carried out by our gallery. It focuses on a poorly researched and still unanswered question relating to the past developments of Bulgarian art, namely the place and the role of women artists in this country’s exhibition practices in the time period following its Liberation until the Balkan Wars. So far, the dominant thinking has been that back then women painters were a rare phenomenon and their participation in collective exhibitions was an exception. Furthermore, it is widely believed that at the time women in the art world were suppressed and held back. Even worse, they were denied access to arts education. The exposition presented in the art halls of Vaska Emanouilova Gallery is an attempt to refute such ideologemes, based not on facts but on assumptions.
A drawing dated 1882 has been stored for decades now in the Sofia City Art Gallery’s Graphic Arts collection fund. Until recently, its authorship had remained unknown. A recently completed three-year research project allowed our team to unveil this previously forgotten artist. The DESTINY IN ART exhibit centres on the story of this unsung woman painter, Olga Krusha, whose drawing qualifies her as the first Bulgarian female, who made so bold as to sign her name as a painter two decades earlier than Elisaveta Konsulova-Vazova and Elena Karamihailova, often cited as the first Bulgarian women painters. Olga Krusha was the daughter of the eminent Renaissance figure Zahari Krusha. She was born in 1860 and was educated in Moscow, where her art teachers were members of a notable émigré family of French artists. Her return to her homeland in the late 1880s was marked with vicissitudes and the socio-political situation in the country prompted her to take up teaching as her mission. Over the years, her health deteriorated and she was forced to give up painting. The skilful mastery of her only drawing known to us today inspires admiration and respect. Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to view said drawing 133 years after it was created.
In an attempt to enhance their narrative, the project team exposed the oeuvre of dozens of female painters, who were active at the turn of the twentieth century and exhibited their artwork at collective art exhibitions set up by the Society for Support of Arts, which morphed later into the Society of Bulgarian Artists, the Contemporary Art Society, and the Lada Society of South Slavic Painters. Thanks to their diligent work with archival documents and sources, the gallery team have honoured and perpetuated the memory of a number of female artists whose talent is still radiating from their paintings in all its purity and warmth. The exhibition brings to life fragments of artwork by Pansy Marian Brown (Hadzhimisheva), Victoria Georgova, Maria Dospevska, Yulia Belkovska, Maria Hadji Nikoli (Haralambieva). Also on display are works by the celebrated first ladies of Bulgarian art Aneta Khodina-Chermakova, Anna Hen-Yosifova, Elena Karamihailova, and Elisaveta Konsulova-Vazova.
The narrative however does not end here. The archives of the National Academy of Fine Arts reveal the names of all 160 women, who received their arts education at the art studios of the Academy. The fact that the fifth name on the Matriculation Registers was that of a female student – Ariadna Dragomanova, speaks for itself. There is very little information available about the training period of those ladies. Not much of their oeuvre has been preserved either. Some of their artwork though is on display at the gallery. The exhibition contains early drawings by Elisaveta Konsulova-Vazova, paintings, sketches, freehand drawings, and decorative artwork by the now forgotten artists Donna Illieva, Evlampia Zlatareva, Nevena Badzhakova, Donna Krastnikova, Raina Evtimova, and Ivanka Ksenophonova, as well as a piece of sculpture by Anna Masheva, the first known female master of three-dimensional plastic arts.
The quest to expose those nearly 200 long forgotten female names in the history of Bulgarian arts and to display the surviving pieces of their artwork warrants a review and provides an opportunity to reconsider the general public perceptions of women's role and place in this country’s artistic milieu in the period from 1878 to 1912. The gallery display presents a story told through images. It is a story of women’s emancipation and about their free choice, their talent, and creative potential. That story did indeed take a new and rather different path in the aftermath of World War I when patriarchy in society diminished and “domineering men’s” attitude towards women underwent a radical change. Until then however women played a praiseworthy role on the Bulgarian art scene and their role was well received by the critics.
We would like to express our gratitude and appreciation to all our partner organisations that supported us in this nearly four-year research endeavour — the Archives State Agency; the Regional State Archives in the cities of Ruse, Shumen, Varna, Burgas, Plovdiv, Vratsa, Veliko Tarnovo, and Sofia; the National Academy of Fine Arts; St. St. Cyril and Methodius National Library; the Sofia City Library; St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia; Prof. Ivan Dujčev Centre for Slavo-Byzantine Studies; the National Museum of Literature; Ivan Vazov National Theatre; the Gallery Archives at the National Gallery of Art; the Gallery Archives at the Sofia City Art Gallery; the offices of the System for Civil Registration and Administrative Services (CRAS) in Ruse, Sofia, Samokov, Plovdiv, Varna, and Veliko Tarnovo; the Institute of Art Studies with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS); the Scientific Archives of the BAS; the Union of Bulgarian Artists; the Archives of the Bulgarian National Radio; the Union of Architects in Bulgaria; the National Institute of Immovable Cultural Heritage; the Regional Museums of History in Pazardzhik, Samokov, Vratsa, Plovdiv, Ruse, and Lovech; the City Art Galleries of Kyustendil, Plovdiv, Razgrad, Haskovo, Ruse, Yambol, Smolyan, Pleven, Shumen, and Veliko Tarnovo; Nancho Popovich Math and Sciences High School of Shumen; the Ecclesiastical Historical and Archival Institute of the Patriarchate of Bulgaria; the Board of Trustees of the Intercession of the Theotokos Nunnery in Samokov; the Sofia Holy Bishopric; the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
We wish to personally thank Prof. Ivanka Gergova for her lessons and tolerance, Ass. Prof. Ruzha Marinska for her invaluable guidance, support and assistance, and Ms. Marina Ivanova for her professionalism and for the unconditional access we were granted allowing us to work with the Sofia City Library’s rare and valuable books.
The exhibition contains works owned by the Sofia City Art Gallery, the National Academy of Fine Arts, Prof. Ivan Dujčev Centre for Slavo-Byzantine Studies, Ivan Vazov National Theatre, Stanislav Dospevski Art Gallery of Pazardzhik, Vladimir Dimitrov – The Master Art Gallery of Kyustendil, Prof. Ilia Petrov Art Gallery of Razgrad, as well as from private art collections.
This exhibition is dedicated to Maria Yoncheva (1926–2014), the woman without whose unflagging support we would hardly hav