The National Gallery - Museum of Socialist Art presents from May to November 2017 the next thematic exhibition in its halls on 7 Lachezar Stanchev Street.

"Mythologems of the Heroic" includes pictorial and graphic works united by its focal point - the image of the anti-fascist character. The sixty works are from famous Bulgarian artists: Ilia Petrov, Stoyan Venev, Stoyan Sotirov, Nenko Balkanski, Nikola Mirchev, Marko Behar, Hristo Neykov, Todor Panayotov and others.

This is how the exhibition is presented by its curator Nikolai Ushtavaliiski, Director of the Museum of Socialist Art Department at the Bulgarian National Gallery :

For several years following 9 September 1944 and as a result of the political, economic, and social change that occurred in Bulgaria, propaganda functions were imposed on art. In politics, conducted by the Communist Party, special attention was paid to the "ideological front". The ultimate goal, the supreme ideal of Communism, was the construction of a new world. For this new world, new people were needed. It was precisely in the image of the hero that the social demiurges saw this new historical type, which, on the path of revolution and struggle, would destroy the mainstays of the "old" and, on its ashes, would build the utopian society of freedom, equality and fraternity.

One of the most important themes in art became that of the revolutionary, also known as the historico-revolutionary, historico-heroic, etc. It reproduced and glorified significant facts and events from the activities of the leftist progressive forces in Bulgarian society, including the September Uprising of 1923, the underground anti-fascist struggle, the partisan movement, and the events surrounding 9 September 1944.

Under the conditions of a regulated artistic life and a centralised state system for its funding, art became strongly committed to a specific political and social engagement. The Union of Bulgarian Artists, financially supported by political and social organisations (the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), the Fatherland Front (FF), the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU), professional unions, etc.), organised and conducted thematic art exhibitions devoted to particular historical events and dates. As a result of this cultural policy, over a period of nearly 45 years an enormous corpus of artworks, hardly comprehensible in its entirety and detail, in all types and forms of the fine arts, was accumulated.

"The Hero" is a specific imagerial category and one of the central mythologems in the art of Socialism. Under Bulgarian conditions, it sprang luxuriantly from a singular historical and socio-psychological soil. The ideas of the October Revolution in Russia and the social tensions and conflicts in Bulgaria between the two World Wars found a strong resonance in the works of a number of artists in the 1920s and 1930s. Their oeuvre played a huge, ideologically propagandic role among the broader strata of society in proclaiming the new socio-political ideas of the time. The imagerial genealogy of the hero can be traced back to the early 1930s in the Social Realism of the "New Artists". Their works are characterised by an acute and topical thematics and a new artistic form. It was precisely then that, in painting, sculpture, graphic art, political drawing, and the caricature, a new hero - he worker - appeared as the generalised image of the class of the proletariat and its struggles.

A careful and in-depth perusal of the works in this exhibition reveals the political climate of the times in which they were created. During the period of Stalin’s Cult, compositions of partisan thematics and portraits of figures of the revolutionary movement were created, where the emphasis was placed on the externally illustrative side of events and personalities. The artistic production of those years is characterised by an easily accessible visual language in a spirit of superficial naturalism. In paintings and graphics, it is the external pathetics and the declarative nature of the messages that dominate. The unification of artistic language led to a blurring of personal artistic style and a mass reproduction of "paintings-clichés" with predefined ideological content and stylistically plastic frameworks.

Following the April Plenum of the BCP in 1956 and the "liberation" of the political and social life of the country, Bulgarian art was freed from the restrictive dogmas of Socialist Realism. The rehabilitation of the personal civic and creative position, the return to the essential dimensions of the artistic process, also find expression in the interpretation of the revolutionary theme. It was during this period that the most significant exemplars were created, marking some of the highest achievements in Bulgarian art. The illustrative narrative method gave way to the conditionality of the artistic image. The synthesis of the plastic language, the monumentalisation of the form and the impact of the work found their expression in memorable solutions that take the theme beyond the framework of the concrete to the level of symbol and allegory.

Through the imagerial characteristic of the hero in the context of the heroic theme, art was charged with the task of creating idealistic objects of worship and role models. The scale of values included moral and ethical categories such as bravery, determination, self-sacrifice, self-denial, and heroism in the name of the ideal of freedom. In Bulgarian art, the theme of the heroic has almost always adopted a dramatic flavour and has directly corresponded to the theme of the tragic. The dramas of our national history, the centuries-long foreign oppression, the revolts and pogroms, the wars and their casualties, have left a deep imprint on the mentality of Bulgarians and have formed a particular piety for the tragic. In the 1960s, artists not only rediscovered the formally plastic principles of medieval and National Revival frescoes, icon painting and woodcarving, but also related the Christian themes of "Pietà", "Crucifixion", and "Descent from the Cross", among others, to the symbolic system of the revolutionary and heroic theme.

At the beginning of the 1970s, a new generation of young creators emerged in Bulgarian art, whose endeavours were marked by the aspiration for a clear, accurate and complete form. This new approach for that time found its manifestations in the heroically revolutionary theme. The photorealistic trend provided excellent possibilities for simultaneously combining the documentarily historical layer in the imagerial structure of the work with the allegorical suggestions.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the revolutionary heroic theme was placed on the personal scale of plastic and philosophical values in an effort to be perused from the position of contemporaneity and with hindsight. The greater the distance of each next generation, the more the focus of attention shifted from the concrete historical fact to the idea of its intransient and universal human meaning.

In the works on display in this exhibition, we can see the entire spectrum of the emotionally psychological states in which the heroic theme manifests itself, whether in a poetic, romantic, or pathetic light. Its dynamic over the years has been achieved from the concretely individual in the historical personality, through the collective type of the hero fighter, to the allegorically symbolic generalisations of the heroic as a whole, and the revelation of its psychological essence.

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery.

Picture: Stoyan Venev (1904-1989). September nights, 1962