what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Perceiving the Balkans

Patrick Leigh Fermor is a name to conjure with - as the wikipedia entry puts it -
At the age of 18, Leigh Fermor decided to walk the length of Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople He set off on 8 December 1933, shortly after Hitler had come to power in Germany, with a few clothes, several letters of introduction and a few books. He slept in barns and shepherds' huts, but also was invited by landed gentry and aristocracy into the country houses of Central Europe. He experienced hospitality in many monasteries along the way. Two of his later travel books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), were about this journey. The final part of his journey was unfinished at the time of Leigh Fermor's death, but was published as The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos in September 2013 The book draws on Leigh Fermor's diary at the time and on an early draft he wrote in the 1960s
Neal Ascherson's review of The Broken Road in the current issue of London Review of Books puts his writing in the wider context of British writing about this part of the world -
There are fewer schlosses in this book. The explanation is that after using a good many introductions to nobility across Austria, Hungary and then Transylvania, he had entered Bulgaria. Barons with Germanic titles and estates didn’t feature in this land of peasant villages and Orthodox monasteries, which had only recently emerged from centuries ‘under the Turkish yoke’. And Leigh Fermor was now crossing formidable mountain barriers – the Balkan and Rhodope ranges – as winter approached. To survive, he had to rely on the food and shelter offered to him along the way. He is in no way condescending about his hosts. This strange, penniless English boy walking to Constantinople had nothing to offer them but his curiosity, and they were as interested by him as he was by them.
‘Paddy’s travel writing is often brilliant and moving, always humane. And yet its sheer descriptiveness, its concentration on things and people exotically “other” when contrasted to some assumed English norm, does put it in a category.’ The guide here is Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (1998). As she shows, writing imaginative or purely fictional work about the Balkans has been an overwhelmingly British habit. Byron can be said to have set it off. But the genre reached its zenith in the late 19th century and early 20th. Anthony Hope’s Ruritania seems to be located in Germanic territory rather than further south-east, but other writers – ‘Sydney Grier’ (Hilda Gregg), Dorothea Gerard, Bram Stoker etc – floated their dreamlands far down the Danube and into the ‘bloodthirsty’ Balkans. Later, John Buchan, Lawrence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Bradbury were among those who tried their hand at brutal, gaudy Balkan Ruritanias.

Weeping old houses

It seems that some Romanian architects at least have a soul. Some months back I mentioned a lovely little production on the rehabilitation of traditional Romanian houses produced by the Igloo architectural publishing house
And this month, an even better one has been produced by the Association for Rehabilitation which started its work in 2010 and identifies “weeping houses” ie those whose semi-criminal neglect has brought houses almost to the stage of collapse.
The attractively produced new book has the underwhelming title of The RePAD  Guide - and sets out - in English, French and Romanian - guidelines and examples for restoring old houses to their previous glory. Its available for only 7 euros!
Such initiatives need encouragement in the climate of hostile indifference which exists amongst the Bucharest and Romanian authorities! It contrasts with the celebration by the Bulgarians of their Bulgarian revival style which can be found in abundance in so many villages - one of which (Koprovishitse) I visited again only a few weeks back.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A case-study in political stupidity and ideology

Southern England is in the grip of strong winds and floods - and an excellent article in The Guardian reminds us of the ideological imbecility which has gripped the political class in that unfortunate country - 
Trains are being cancelled en masse while would-be travellers are instructed to follow news from that array of corporate names which still feel like some alien imposition on national life: First TransPennine, CrossCountry, First Capital Connect, c2c. Even the most efficient set-up can probably not do much about "localised flooding, fallen trees and debris on the tracks". But still: as rail travel is disrupted, thousands of people will once again seethe with fury at the operating companies' shortcomings, whether unfairly or not. Public anger, moreover, will also reflect a firmly embedded belief: that the approach of politicians to the railways is lily-livered at best; and at worst, completely barmy.
If you want a good example of the latter, consider the fate of the east coast mainline, which runs between London, the north-east and Scotland. In 2006 GNER lost its contract to run trains along the route when its Bermuda-registered parent company filed for bankruptcy. The franchise then went to National Express, which soon defaulted on its payments. So the then-Labour government created a not-for-profit public operator called Directly Operated Railways, which has run the service for the last four years with much success.Since 2009, DOR has paid £602m into public funds: over £200m more than National Express did, and £209m more than Virgin Rail – the franchise-holder for the west coast mainline – has managed during the same period. Its public subsidy is comparatively minimal – seven times less than that paid last year to Virgin. Its record on safety improvementsis jaw-dropping: "major customer accidents" are down 81% since 2009. And customer satisfaction and punctuality are at unprecedented highs.Now, of course, the government wants to re-privatise it – which is where things get truly absurd. Among the top bidders for the franchise is a consortium split between Eurostar and Keolis, both majority-owned by the French state firm SNCF. As well as Virgin, another probable contender will be Arriva, the British train company wholly owned by Deutsche Bahn, which is in turn wholly owned by the German government. As is increasingly the case across a whole range of national infrastructure – from power stations to water suppliers, via airports and bus companies – supposed free-marketeers are gleefully happy about state ownership of British assets, as long as it's somebody else's state that's doing it. In the case of the railways, moreover, you end up with the inevitable consequence of profits being skimmed off and invested in trains and tracks overseas.This is another of the insanities at the core of an economic model that George Osborne in particular wants to develop. Labour argues that the east coast mainline should stay in public hands and that DOR should be allowed to bid for other train franchises, following the same revenue-generating model as publicly owned firms from Germany, France and the Netherlands.But is that really enough? The Greens' Caroline Lucas, a rare voice of sanity, recently tabled a private member's bill outlining a simple alternative: that over time, as rail franchises expire, they should be restored to public ownership – which would cost peanuts, repatriate a fair bit of money, and commence the abolition of all the complex and costly stupidities that privatisation produced. This would at least slow those outrageous ticket price rises. And just imagine: we would also get the kind of integrated railway system to which politicians could finally apply some joined-up thinking.
And the economics correspondent of the same newspaper actually had the courage to argue that basic utilities should be returned to the public sector.
Four of the "big six" cartel, which controls 98% of electricity supply, have now increased prices by over 9% – blaming green levies and global costs – while wholesale prices have risen 1.7% in the past year and profit per "customer" has doubled.
Thousands of old people will certainly die this winter as a result of the corporate stitch-up that is called a regulated market – designed in large part by the same John Major who last week called for the introduction of a windfall tax on energy profits.
Meanwhile, David Cameron's coalition has signed a private finance initiative-style deal with one of the cartel, EDF, and two Chinese companies – all three state-owned, but by other states – to build a new nuclear reactor which will guarantee electricity prices at almost double their current level for the next 35 years.
As if all that wasn't grotesque enough, most of profitable Royal Mail has now been privatised by the supposedly dissident Vince Cable. The current loss to the "taxpayer" from selling shares below their market value is upwards of £1.3bn – more than the government's entire planned savings from benefit cuts in 2013-14. And its biggest shareholder is now the hedge fund TCI.
Within days, the Co-operative Bank had also fallen prey to US hedge funds, as Conservative ministers put out to tender the country's most successful rail service, the publicly owned east coast mainline. Never mind its reliability, value-for-money, popularity and the £208m dividend payment to the public purse. Privatisation dogma is undisturbed by evidence.
But then privatised water companies are planning to increase prices by 40% by 2020; Simon Stevens, an executive for the US private health firm UnitedHealth, now bidding for NHS contracts, has been put in charge of the NHS in England; and the security firms, G4S and Serco, are allowed to bid for a share of the probation service despite fraud investigations into existing deals.
It should be obvious that powerful interests are driving what is by any objective measure a failed 30-year experiment – but which transfers income and wealth from workforce, public and state to the corporate sector. In the case of privatised utilities, that is the extraction of shareholder value on a vast scale from a captive public.
What's needed from utilities are security of supply, operation in the public interest, long-term planning and cost effectiveness without profiteering. The existing privatised utilities have failed on all counts.
The case for public ownership of basic utilities and services – including electricity, gas, water and communications infrastructure – is overwhelming. It's also supported by a large majority of the country's voters. But it's taboo in the political mainstream.

Off the Bulgarian beaten track

There are two parts of picturesque Bulgaria which are off- the beaten track – the south-east borderland (with Greece and Turkey) and the entire stretch of the Danube in the north. A small but fascinating book on the Danube Riverside which I picked up in a Sofia store had a substantial section on the town of Svishtov (birthplace of artists Nikolae Tanev, Alexander Bozhinov and Nikolae Parvevitch)  persuaded me to take a detour for it – despite the bank of fog which was darkening the otherwise cloudless skies over norther Bulgaria. It was a worthwhile journey – through small desolated settlements and rolling hills until I reached a town which has seen much better days. In its heyday it was a bustling city which history (and shifting transport patterns) have left isolated. 
Having viewed a few of the old houses, I took the road for Russe and, a few kilometres out of Svishtov, hit an amazing sight – what appeared to be a building site was in fact the reconstruction of the old Roman camp of Novae and I was lucky enough to meet up with the Polish archaeologist who had been working the site for 35 years!
There is a nice little guide here about visiting the site which gives an excellent sense of the whole area. And I learned that this was the very site from which the Russians launched the campaign in July 1877 which brought Bulgaria independence from the Ottoamn Empire - I had earlier passed through one of the villages which houses a grand house which was the Russian HQ. Several hundred Russian soldiers lost their life here........
The subsequent drive to Russe was very beautiful - with the autumn leaves in their most glorious foleage.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Aesthetics and economics

Two sad departures – the lovely small Tabak cafĂ© which occupied the back of the National Gallery building (the old Palace) and spread on to the quiet garden area leading up to the Russian Church was unceremoniously bundled out of its space a few months back. By the Minister of Culture himself apparently – for failure to pay back rent due. I loved the challenge the cafe represented to political correctness – and also the serenity of the garden section with its views of various statues.
And the large gallery space which used to offer paintings, ceramics and wine from the Katarzsyna estate in Ivan Denklogu st just down from Vitosha which also offered musical performances a couple of times each week in its downstairs basement has also disappeared – now being made over I suspect into a luxury shoe shop. 

Not good for Sofia’s European City of Culture 2019 bid! Although the pavements (the worst of any European capital) are now being repaired!!

Times have been bad for Sofia’s small galleries for the past few years – and still don’t show any sign of looking up. I talk to their owners – one of whom told me that she recoups very little of the 1,000 euros a month which her small space costs her - in rental, facilities and help. It is a labour of love – and I look forward to being amongst the participants of tonight’s event which celebrates her first year. I’ve bought three things from that particular gallery so far – and am pleased that pride of place in the exhibition which marks the first anniversary are aquarelles from a 90 year-old! And it's good to see that the older painters still alive are honoured by several of the smaller galleries.....

Sofia’s atmosphere was nicely captured for me yesterday when I was leaving another gallery (having bought the Kostadinov “lady in red” which heads the last post). A man with a painting under his arm was walking past and paused to let us examine it. “Do you like it?” he asked after he told me it was a Trichkov (a painter I have been trying to buy) and then walked off……..

Friday, October 25, 2013

Temptations and turbulence

The beautiful weather continues here in Sofia – 24 yesterday – and, invigorated by the exercises and swim at Rodina hotel, I strolled  for some 4 hours visiting my small galleries 
First the Absinthe gallery (where I bought this aquarelle of a view from a window - by a young woman - Klementina Mancheva); 

then Vihra at the Astry Gallery (tempted by this fetching Kostadinov figure in the red dress on the right): 

My friend Yassen was showing his latest oil at his Konus gallery; 

A rarer visit to the Kristal gallery had me tempted by an Alexandrov and a Zhekov;
and, finally, a first visit to the Grita gallery just past the Opera for a Vernissaj - one of four apparently which were taking place that evening in the capital. 
A lovely little area this last – between the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and General Dondukov Boulevard – with a tiny gem of a classical disc shop just outside the Opera house on Vrabcha St from which I emerged with 20 odd discs – mainly Dvorak. Incidentally, I was shocked to see the extremist party Ataka offices prominently sitting ajowl the Opera!!

Earlier I had purchased some charming Bulgarian ceramics and also reproductions of the irresistable Angela Minkova - at Albena's wonderful tiny but joyful shop- Art Magazin at the corner of the Catholic Church and Skobelev St (number 38);  and popped into the Raiko Aleksiev gallery on Rakovsky St which turned out to be celebrating the works of one Nikolay Rostovchev (1898-1988). 
Rostovchev was an officer in the Russian dragoons who was part of the residue of the White Army which landed in Varna in 1921. In 1925 he enrolled in Boris Mitov’s class at the Art Academy in Sofia and graduated in 1930, exhibiting in the annual exhibitions of the Association of Independent Artists until 1945 – at which point the new communist authorities stripped him of his membership of all associations. His past was against him – not only presumably his time with the White Army but his religious painting during most of the 1930s – for example his work on the St Nedelya Church. What a turbulent life he had - fleeing from the Bolsheviks only to land up 20-odd years later facing their successors who at least only ostracised him. It was appropriate therefore that the exhibition is in the Raiko Aleksiev gallery since Aleksiev died in custody a few weeks after the communist takeover.    
On this historical note, I was aware of the slaughter which took place in 1925 at the church but had not properly connected it with the September 1923 communist uprising. I remember passing a monument to communists at the roadside near Vratsa in the north-east of the country – and wondering about it. I posted last year about the massacres which took place in the communist takeover of September 1944 - 70 years ago next year. I wonder how the period will be remembered next year??

My evening finished with another nice discovery as I took a side road back to the flat – a small bookshop which had a copy of a remarkable 500 page book on Bulgaria – Bulgaria Terra Europeansis Incognita by Ivan Daraktchiev. Original both in its provocative text and superb photos of old ceramics. There's an interview with the author here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Imagining a future

A space for books, paintings, wine and….ideas? A possible new concept for Sofia – European City of Culture?
As well as conducting my usual haunts of galleries and bookshops here in Sofia, I’m looking at property – and feel that any flat has to be large enough to take my present (let alone future) stock of books and paintings. 
I found a dream flat – on the edge of a forest a mere 20 minutes’ drive (or metro) from the centre – but it’s only 70 sq metres; and does not allow the flaneur life I love in the centre of town.
And the second-hand and remaindered books whose titles appealed to me in the last few days (and now lie around the flat) speak powerfully of the importance of serendipity and conversations - eg 
So why not a small gallery space in the centre where I can hang the paintings, display books, offer wines and converse in whatever language......? Fine for experience - but what would I actually sell - apart from glasses of wine?? The books (eg my extensive collection of about Bulgarian painters) and paintings would not leave the shop but simply be a catalyst for conversation.....
Now that the British Council here has closed its library of books, perhaps there is a place for people to go who wish a taste of European (if not British) culture. I could add French and German books; link with the British butcher and the second-hand English bookshop here; and with cultural centres such as The Red House........Dream on.......

Friday, October 18, 2013

Yovo Yovchev - a painter to watch!


My great friend Yovo Yovchev of Sofia has had an exhibition these last few weeks – at the Finesse Gallery in Hristo Belchev St just off Solunska St. 
Here he is with my other great gallerist friend, Yassen Gochev at the exhibition - which, sadly, ends tomorrow. Yassen's artistry is variously surrealist (oil) and realist (aquarelle and oil) - and you can find him at his Konos Gallery
Yovo was the first guy to introduce me to the great traditions of Bulgarian painting - he sold me my first Emilia Radusheva (I have about 5 now) and was the first person to show me the catalogues of the Victoria Gallery Auction House....and hence help captivate me into the incredible tradition of Bulgarian painting .

Tomorrow is the last day of the exhibition - and 3-4 of his paintings have caught my eye.
I managed to buy the second of these.....

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Global Looting - Taxing Times

Rumours about a tax on bank savings – have been sweeping Europe according to The Slog blog which implicates a document available on the IMF website dated ‘October 2013′. This document with the significant title Fiscal Monitor; Taxing Times argues that a 10% tax on bank accounts would bring public debt in European countries back to 2007 levels! Go the box at page 49 for the full argument

You thought the Cyprus raid was a one-off?!!
Be very afraid.

Savings in bank accounts are not safe - on the other hand, is it really possible that European governments are so suicidal as to be contemplating the infliction of losses on their middle classes???????? But thee IMF has now given them the legitimacy.....The unthinkable has become the thinkable.......

But where are those of us who haven't sunk our money in property to put it? Money that we earned (in my case) in consultancy fees over the past 20 years. I had nothing except a mortgage in 1990. Now I have a fair amount. I cashed in the investments in the mid 2000s just before the whistle went on the financial system. Since then they were earning a pittance in the northern banks! So I transferred most to Romanian and Bulgarian banks where they have been earning about 4%. Now I even insist on checking the serial numbers of notes withdrawn - and the watermarks.....

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Zest for Life

A zest for Life seems to me the most admirable of qualities. So many of the people I have blogged about in the past year – eg Naomi Mitchison, Dennis Healey, Dervla Murphy, Diana Athill , Tisa von der Schulenberg, Georgy Faludy (1910-2006) all had it in buckets – and so, I think, did Iris Origo (1902-1988) whose incredible Images and Shadows I found this week in the Vasil Levsky branch of Knigomania (for 4 euros).  The blurb tells us that -
Iris Origo was born in 1902 and was instantly catapulted into a life of "unfair advantages of birth, education, money, environment and opportunity." But she used this birth-right wisely, and her legacy includes a string of books apparently beloved and admired equally by historians, biographers, and readers.
Iris spent her youth in the ancestral estate on Long Island and in her grandfather's castle in Ireland. Her father died tragically when she was eight, and she continued her peripatetic life with her indefatigable mother and beloved governess. A woman who always knew her mind, in 1923 Origo bought La Foce, an entire valley, almost feudal in organization, in the Val d'Orcia of Tuscany. There for fifty years she worked tirelessly with her (Italian) husband, improving the land and the lot of the peasants, saving endangered children from the brutal incursions of the Nazis, and writing history and memoirs that are still considered classics of the genre.
Origo was at once a woman of action and introspection, of boundless curiosity and endearing innocence. She writes beautifully, thoughtfully, and lucidly.
The introduction to her memoir is typical of her style: "It has sometimes been pointed out to me that I have had a very varied and interesting life, have lived in some extremely beautiful places and have met some remarkable people. I suppose it is true, but now that I have reached `the end game', I do not find myself dwelling upon these pieces on the board. The figures that still stand out there now are the people to whom, in different ways and in different degrees, I have been bound by affection. Not only are they the people whom I most vividly remember, but I realise that it is only through them that I have learned anything about life at all. The brilliant talk that I heard at I Tatti in my youth, in Bloomsbury in the thirties, in New York and Rome in later years, has lost some of its glitter. All that is left to me of my past life that has not faded into mist has passed through the filter, not of my mind, but of my affections. What has not warmed by them is now for me as if it had never been."

Born into an international family, Origo spent her childhood years between her paternal grandparents' estate in Westbrook, Long Island, her maternal grandparents' home in Great Britain, and her mother's villa in Fiesole. Although her father died early, he made sure his daughter grew up devoid of limiting national identity and open to different cultural influences. Her mother instilled a passion for travel and books. While grateful to her family for the comfort and care they provided, Origo portrays certain aspects of her upbringing with restrained criticism. 
Her proper British mother, for instance, insisted on Origo's private education by governesses and tutors, opposed her desire to enroll in university, and committed her to a tasteless, nauseatingly ``healthy'' diet. In hindsight, Origo considers her period of ``coming out'' into high society a considerable waste of time. Readers, however, will appreciate her colorful accounts of balls and theater visits as a glimpse of elite diversions in bygone days. Origo's descriptions of early 20th-century American magnates and patrons of the arts and her detailed reconstruction of Italian landowners' traditional life are among many other engaging passages. Sketching her own character in an irreproachably modest tone, she commands respect for her ability to apply her superb education, knowledge of the world, and financial means to worthy causes. She helped modernize devastated farmland in Tuscany, volunteered in the Red Cross during WWII, and sheltered orphaned children at her home after the war. This active, creative attitude arises out of Origo's profound sense of being ``singularly fortunate,'' despite some personal tragedies a rare and therefore doubly appealing trait. Along with its exquisite style and thought-provoking digressions on the philosophy of writing, this autobiography documents fascinating experiences of the modern European and American aristocracy.
She is marvellous at nuances of place and personality, writing with a subtle mingling of candour and affection that lingers in the mind.
Images and Shadows seems to be one of a few of her a books which are still in print (or rather reprinted in a lovely 1999 Nonpareil edition). It is time her other books saw the light of day again eg her 1953 biography of the Italian poet Leopardi whose proliferous Notebooks have just been published in a huge translated version, 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Through Tourist eyes - and taste buds

A hectic few days as my youngest daughter and her husband flew in for a long weekend. Sofia and Bulgaria were looking at their best – with the early morning mist, later sun and autumn foliage much in evidence as we visited the isolated redoubt of Koporivishtica village to the east of Sofia and, the next day, Rilski Monastery two hours’ drive south of Sofia.
Koprivshtitsa is a captivating mountain town, unique with its cobblestone alleys, houses painted in bright colors with expansive verandahs and picturesque eaves.
During the Ottoman rule, Koprivshtitsa withstood many a raid- although it was reduced to ashes several times and its inhabitants were frequently robbed and driven away.
The wealthier townsfolk managed to “ransom” Koprivshtitsa from the Turkish rulers and win some special privileges, thus keeping the Bulgarian traditions and atmosphere of the town intact.
In this way Koprivshtitsa was able to preserve its freedom-loving, patriotic spirit and hand it down to its children. Quite a few Bulgarians who laid down their lives for the liberation of their country were born here.
The April Uprising, which broke out in Koprivshtitsa on April 20, 1876, gave voice to the desire and efforts of the Bulgarian people to win back its freedom after five centuries of Ottoman oppression. A lot of foreign journalists reported the events of the spring of 1876 and showed the world that there was a people on the Balkan Peninsula who had not lost their identity and were willing to strive for independence. Eventually, in 1878 Bulgaria won the freedom it had so long yearned for, at least partly helped by the publicity of the April Uprising and its subsequent brutal suppression.
We were not the only ones to visit Rila – one of my favourite ex-pat bloggers about the Sofia scene (now sadly back in the US) was there at the beginning of the month (and also at Plovdiv)

Rilski Monastery is now a UNESCO site and, much as I enjoyed this time the exuberance of the recently repainted artwork,
I felt that it was actually a bit over the top and inconsistent with the soul of the place. The screams of hordes of kids shattered what little calm the Saturday crowds allowed the monks in their warren of cells.

The only calm element were the postures of the 3 Japanese visitors who sketched the buildings.

 In between times a bachanalian  feast of Bulgarian dishes and wines was enjoyed – particularly at the two restaurants in my area, one of which is vegetarian and cooks superb black bread on the premises,

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Words ....and silences

I suppose I live an odd life – for the past 23 years in countries whose languages I don’t speak (although I had a good stab at Russian during the 7 years I spent in its old empire in Central Asia and the Caucasus). But the last 6 years I’ve been living alternately in Bulgaria and Romania and confess to have made no real effort to learn their languages - which are just so much musical background for me. I note the different intonations, stresses, voice and delivery pitches as if I was listening to a symphony….
I think, read and write in English – and am spoiled by having access to great English bookshops in Bucharest and Sofia (the latter the second-hand “Elephant” just a few minutes’ stroll from my flat). It was my first port of call the day of my arrival and I quickly picked up a couple of books - Dennis Healey’s Time of my Life (a 1989 hardback) and Dervla Murphy’s Silverland – a winter journey beyond  the Urals . Murphy has become a favourite of mine and I have always had a soft spot for Labour statesman Healey - he may have been a bruiser but he was (indeed is - going strong at 95 like his friend Helmut Schmidt) a highly cultured man with a real European perspective - working in the Socialist International in the 1930s - a taste of poetry and paintings and strong opinions. 
The next day I was back and left with three interesting books  - Tony Benn’s More Time for Politics- Diaries 2001-2007 ; Arthur Marwick’s British Society since 1945 (2003) ; and Roy Jenkins’ Gallery of 20th Century Portraits (1988)
Coincidentally I came across an excellent Bulgarian online bookstore which gives short resumes in English and actually has a short list of books in English on Bulgarian topics. The resumes give me precisely the glimpse of Bulgarian life I need.

I don’t mind not being able to read the newspapers (which contain noise in every country we are better off without) but I do miss not being part of other conversations on matters literary and artistic.

And, while on the subject of noise, let me draw your attention to a fascinating read - A Book of Silence by Sarah Maitland

The sculpture is one of the bronze ones which are in the grounds of the Sofia City Art Gallery.
The oil painting I got for 50 euros from my antique dealer Alexander Alesandriev and is by an unknown. The sketch (also from the AA gallery) is apparently by (or of?) Petr Chukovsky, a teacher of Ilyia Beshkov.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Two who died too young

Two wonderful exhibitions – first the Sofia City Gallery’s one of Jules Pascin’s amusing erotic drawings from 100 years ago.
I wrote about Pascin last October - referring to a dedicated website  and a blogpost about his oil portraits, The gallery's coverage says - Julius Mordecai Pincas, known as Jules Pascin, was born on 31 March, 1885 in the city of Vidin. In 1892, his family moved to Bucharest. Pascin graduated from high school in Vienna. Between 1902 and 1905 he received training at the art academies in Vienna, Budapest, Munich and Berlin. He contributed to the “Simplicissimus “ magazine published in Munich. In 1905, he moved to Paris, where he met his future wife, Hermine David. In 1907, he organized his first solo exhibition at Paul Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin. In 1914 he left for New York, where he lived until 1920. He travelled to the Southern states and Cuba. Then he went back to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1930. Pascin reflected in his paintings the influence of Art Noveau, and later – of expressionism. The exhibition includes artworks belonging to all major themes and genres but particularly the nude body,
There is an exhibition catalogue in Bulgarian and French, including all artworks featured in the exhibition. The research paper “Jules Pascin and Artistic Developments at the Turn of the 20th Century”, compiled by the exhibition’s curator Maria Vassileva is also available (again in Bulgarian and French) as a separate edition.
I then paid a visit to the School of Art in Vassil Levsky Boulevard – and was very touched to view a small exhibition of the aquarelles of a young man - Margarit Tsanev - who committed suicide in 1969 at the age of only 25. 
The curator told me that they had been found only in the 1980s (?) and donated to the School - which exhibits them annually on a rotating basis. Pity the exhibition ends tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Remembering Europe

Drove up to the mountain house at the end of last week – the village is under half a metre of snow and was shivering in minus 13 during the night. But the place was beautiful. 
Had to check out the alarm – which had been triggered either by the powerful high winds early last week or by mice. Everything was in order and properly operational. 
A log fire had the bedroom snug and warm in no time – the heat lasting in the brick-stove for a good day. So two books (and some Bulgarian and Romanian wine) were duly consumed – the former being the spell-binding The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal; and Hilary Spurling’s gripping Matisse – the Life 
Both books evoke the worlds of the late 19th/early 20th Century – but using very different approaches.  De Waal’s book is a one of a kind – using a collection of small Japanese ivory artefacts to weave a highly personal story of an emblematic banking family in first Paris, then Vienna and, finally, Tokyo. A whole era is superbly captured in his taut prose – culminating in the destruction of family fortunes in one week with the Nazi putsch of Austria in 1938. 
I also have a (small but) lovely collection of Uzbek terra cotta artefacts which I treasure - so I can understand the fascination.

Spurling’s purpose is more biographically conventional – but the tale she tells of the courage of Matisse in facing outrage and frequent migrations in the first half of the 20th century is a vivid one. His powerful sense of colour was apparently developed as a child in the environment of the silk-weaving towns of NE France and she paints a wonderful picture of a man driven with his own sense of what was right.
This is the sort of detail I need when I meet a painter whose work speaks to me; and which I would love to develop for many of the Bulgarian and Romanian artists of the same period.
I have become an avid collector of books about such artists but the cyrillic of the Bulgarian texts totally defeats me. The Romanian texts I can make stabs at!
You can therefore imagine my delight at being presented yesterday with a large book in English - Bulgarian Art; 120 years - 1892-2012 - Unions, Societies and Groups - published in 2012 with superb reproductions.So many new names!! Although, sadly, no details are given of their lives - instead we are fed a general drip of references to internecine squabbles between the various artists's associations - with no attempt made to explain them.
There is one blog which does sterling work in sketching vignettes of the lives of interesting older artists - its called my daily art display

Early Sunday morning a significant earthquake (5.2) was experienced by people in central Romania - my partner was in her Ploiesti flat and had to seek shelter under the eaves of the hallway as the place trembled. Very frightening - particularly as everyone is fearing the next big one to hit Bucharest........ 

Back Monday in Sofia after a gap of 5 months – a beautiful run down, just 5 hours in a Kia loaned by the nice management by way of apology for the delay in my car’s arrival.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Georghe Stefanescu

It’s a curious fact that most of the Romanian painters I have come to know and appreciate in the past few months were born in the 1860-1900 period – whereas almost all of the 150 Bulgarians who figure in the little book I produced last year about realist Bulgarian painters were born a generation (30 or so years) later. What, I wonder, does that say about cross-national influences? Thanks to Theodor Aman, Bucharest certainly attracted some Bulgarian  painters at the turn of the century – but it was the city of Munich which had the pulling power for Bulgarian artists then.    
Georghe Stefanescu (1914-2007) is one of the few new faces in Romanian circles of that interbellum period. Earlier this week I found an attractive painting attributed to him in one of the Bucharest antique shops. I cannot, of course, be sure whether the painting is actually one of his - but he certainly had a lovely sense of colour - and the composition I saw (for 300 euros) has a mastery which appeals - this picture gives a sense. If I buy it I will put it online.

This facebook entry has some nice photographs of the guy in his studio.