And — here I am: standing before you is my incorporeal ghost, having summoned the charms of a foreign country and a foreign time. — The ghost of a queen stands before you — o, mortals! — the ghost of a queen who has known the peak of bliss and the abyss of sorrow, who has embraced fiery death!

And — here I am: I carry the fragrance of thousands of kisses, and among them — the charm of the supreme kiss, from which one perishes: the kiss of the flame!

Why do you awaken me?

Nikolay Raynov, from “Queen Ahinora” (1918)

The Artist

1897    Ivan Milev is born in Kazanlak’s Karenski neighborhood on 19 February (3 March in the new calendar), into the family of the livestock-breeder Milyu Lalev and the housewife Maria Ivanova. Born in the town that same year is the artist Ivan Penkov, with whom he builds a lasting friendship.

1901    The Museum of Antiquities and Art is founded in Kazanlak, and on the initiative of the future artist and active public figure Ivan Enev – Vidyu, the first art collection in Bulgaria outside of the capital is organized.

1911    On August 31, a meeting of the board of the Kazanlak men’s pedagogical school is held. According to the text of Protocol № 2, Ivan Milev is enrolled as student number 14 in the first high school class, and his request to be exempted from the school tuition is approved. His first art teacher in the school is the artist Aleksandar Gaytandzhiev.

1912    He is a student in class 1B, and 41 more students are taught alongside him. The grades he receives at the end of the school year are as follows: for behaviour – “fair”; for diligence – “inconsistent”; for the written work submitted as part of the boys’ external evaluation – “good.” The future artist’s first creative endeavours known to us date from this year. 

1913    In August he submits a request to the school board of the Kazanlak men’s pedagogical school to be allowed to sit for exams in the “the abbreviated program for the upper class,” from the first to the second year. Ivan Milev received a poor grade in Bulgarian language, French language, algebra, and drawing, as a consequence of which he remains in the first year of high school.

1914    On June 25, he finally completes his freshman year of high school successfully, as part of group 1D, the same group as his friend Nisim Haimov. The grades he receives are: for behaviour – “exemplary,” and for his externally evaluated written work – “exemplary.” In the following academic year, his art teacher and homeroom teacher is Stefan Sharich. Ivan Milev’s first dated drawing is from October 3.

1915    On June 25, he completes the second year of high school and has to sit for make-up exams in geometry and algebra. Among his classmates in the group are Yosif Chelibonev, Nisim Haimov, and Georgi Petrov. On August 25, he sits for his algebra exams from 8:00 to 9:00, and from 11:00 to 12:00, he takes his make-up exam in geometry. He doesn’t manage to pass the exams and has to repeat the sophomore year, again as part of group B.

1916    He successfully completes his sophomore year, and his art teacher is Zahari Zhelev. In July of the same year, along with his classmates, he organizes a “Classical Evening” in the salon of the Iskra Cultural Center in Kazanlak. He actively depicts the environs of his native town. In the autumn he is assigned to the headquarters of the Aeronautical Battalion.

1917    A stay in Sofia. His first attempts at poetry are from this period. On April 13, the magazine Otechestvo [‘Fatherland’] publishes the first version of Nikolay Raynov’s text “Queen Ahinora.” In June of the same year, Ivan Milev makes a series of Danube landscapes, and the following month he officially quits the Kazanlak men’s pedagogical school. He is in Tulcea, Romania, in September – October, where he writes his “Letters from the Steppe.” From November 17 to 27, he has a nine-day leave in Kazanlak. A day after his return he organizes his first solo exhibition in the town, which lasts only two days. He creates a series of works connected with the war and the compositions Music, Healing, Death, and others.

1918    At the beginning of the year, a caricature of his is printed in the magazine Balgaran [‘Real Bulgarian’]. On October 19, his is issued document № 19055 for military service, which certifies that he is dismissed to continue his education. At the end of the same month, he lodges a request with the Kazanlak pedagogical school with which he announced his desire to sit for the written and oral entrance exams for the First Special High School as a “private student/soldier.” In his petition he indicates that he is hindered by an oral defect – stuttering – and that he cannot perform well orally. On December 5, a new request follows – he wants to be enrolled directly in the second special high school class. To the request he also attaches a “declaration that he will not work as a teacher after graduating from the school.” With the intercession of the son of the school director – Kuzman Kuzmanov – his request is satisfied. His art teacher is again Stefan Sharich. Nikolay Raynov’s book Visions from Ancient Bulgaria is published, which contains the second version of his text “Queen Ahinora.”

1919    On July 12, he is issued a certificate of completion of the fifth class of the Kazanlak state pedagogical school, with average grades. On August 29, he sits for make-up exams in maths and chemistry. His grades on the exams are not satisfactory – a “poor” in mathematics and an “average” in chemistry. It is stated that he passes “provisionally in mathematics.” In spite of this, as well as in violation of the education laws, he is hired as an art teacher in the village of Gorski Izvor (Haskovo region). On September 16, he is at his place of employment, and on November 4, he lodges a request with the school to be allowed a three-day leave – from November 5 to 7 – indicating “domestic reasons” as the basis. On December 24, Ivan Milev goes a 30-day sick leave.

1920    Between April 9 and 12, he holds a solo exhibition in Haskovo, in which a total of 64 of his works of art are shown. That same year, he organizes his exhibitions in Gabrovo and Sofia. For his exhibition in Sofia, he sends a letter to the board of the State Arts and Industrial School (today’s National Academy of Art), in which he requests that a gallery room be provided to him. He receives no answer and opens his exhibition on August 22 in the lakeside pavilion in the Borisova Gradina park. Reviews of the event are published by Chavdar Mutafov and Geo Milev. His work Starry Grief is printed in the magazine Vezni (‘Scales’). On September 13, he sits for the entrance exams for the State Art and Industry School, where he is admitted on September 17 as a regular student in the general course. In December, a caricature of his is printed in the magazine Cherven Smyah (‘Red Humour’).

1921    In February he is threatened with expulsion from the State Arts and Industrial School because of unexcused absences. In May he submits a request to the educational institution to be admitted to make-up exams in anatomy, art history, and the study of styles. Between September and October, he publishes more caricatures in the pages of Cherven Smyah.

1922    In July he applies to the board of the State Arts and Industrial School to be allowed to take the exams for two years at once in the special department of decorative arts, in order to enter directly into the third year. His request is denied. That year, books by Edgar Allan Poe, Hanns Heinz Ewers, Lamar, Vladimir Polyanov, Svetoslav Minkov, and others are printed with covers designed by the artist. His graphic design treatments are published in the magazine Maskarad [‘Masquerade’]. In December, he submits an application to the State Academy of Arts, in which he states his desire to arrange a solo exhibition in auditorium No. 2 of the educational institution. Probably in this year he also created the first version of his painting Ahinora, today in a private collection.

1923    On Christmas he opens a solo exhibition at the State Academy of Art, which is mentioned in critical texts by Stefan Mitov, Aleksandar Bozhinov, and others. In the summer he travels to Constantinople, Athens, Corfu, Naples, Rome, Florence, and Venice. He illustrates the literary collection Edirne and designs the cover of the magazine Kula [‘Tower’]. In December, he is appointed to the Ivan Vazov National Theatre as the assistant director of the art studio. He maintains an active correspondence with Anna Pashoolu, the future wife of a friend, the artist Pencho Georgiev.

1924    On January 12, the premiere of the play He Who Gets His Face Slapped takes place on the stage of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. The artist works together with his colleague Ivan Penkov on the creation of the costumes and scenography for it. His scenographic designs for the play Ivanko are published. In the first half of the year, he contributes to Ek [‘Echo’] magazine with his graphic treatments. His artistic efforts are printed on the pages of the magazine Maska [‘Mask’]. He designs the cover of Emanuil Popdimitrov’s collection of poems Ships. On September 25, the premiere of the play Princess Turandot takes place at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, for which he creates the scenography, while the costumes are again a joint undertaking with Ivan Penkov.

1925    He creates the mural ensemble in the interior of the Staynov House in Kazanlak. In May, he takes an exam for a special course completed in the decorative arts department of the State Academy of Art. His exam work is entitled Nativity and is purchased for the collection of the Academy’s museum for 1,500 Bulgarian levs. On June 29, he is issued a certificate of completion for a full course of training at the State Academy of Art, with the rights of a completed higher education degree. He visits Vienna. On July 19, he marries Katya Naumova in Sofia. He paints the murals in his home at 34 Gurko Street in the capital, where he lives with his family. In December, he embellishes the response to Tsar Boris III’s throne speech. With Vasil Vichev, he participates in the competition for a monument on Mount Shipka, and he creates the second version of his painting Ahinora.

1926    At the beginning of the year, he is awarded for his work Mother of God in a competition sponsored by the Ministry of Education. He receives a monetary award in the amount of 10,000 levs. He is accepted as a member of the Native Art Society. In March, he participates with his works in a large representative exhibition of Bulgarian art in Prague. His works Mother of God and Legend of Svetogorsk are shown in April–May in the Native Art Society’s exhibition. On May 18, his daughter Maria is born. On July 14, he is in Kazanlak. He is commissioned with the task of creating two sculptural figures for the facade of Iskra Community Centre in the town. Between July 19 and 29, he vacations in Borushtitsa and Tryavna. He travels to Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi. On October 19, the premiere of the comedy The Enamoured takes place on the stage of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. The scenography and costumes are the work of the artist. On October 25, he donates his paintings Ahinora and Prayer to the Iskra Museum in his hometown. Many of his graphic designs are printed on the pages of Vestnik za zhenata [‘Newspaper for Women’]. He illustrates Dora Gabe’s Little Collection for Children.

1927    In January, he begins working actively, again in partnership with Ivan Penkov, on the creation of the sets and costumes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is supposed to premiere on the stage of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. On January 20, he is fired from his position as the assistant head of the art studio at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. He dies in Sofia five days later.

The Work

The title of the picture refers us to the legendary story of the writer and artist Nikolay Rainov „Queen Achinora“. Ivan Milev met the plot when it was first published in the pages of the magazine „Fatherland“ in 1917. A year later, the text will be included in Nikolay Rainov’s book „Views from Ancient Bulgaria“, in which the first known to us is also reproduced today an image of Achinora, the work of the author himself (fig. 1).

In 1922, still a student at the State Art Academy in Sofia, Ivan Milev turned to the plot to create the first version of his painting „Ahinora“ (fig. 2).

A comparison between the works of the two authors shows us that they have perfectly distinctive facial features. If in the case of Nikolay Rainov, eastern type (multiloid) features are sought, then in the case of Ivan Milev, they should be thought of rather in the context of the meeting between the native and the Orient. Compositionally, Mileva’s work is, as it were, borrowed from the graphic image bequeathed to us by Nikolay Rainov, but rotated in a mirror. What’s more, we find a similarity even in the proportions of the two images. An obvious influence is also suggested by some of the depicted objects, such as the hookah in the foreground left of Ivan Milev’s painting, which we can think was provoked by the decoration in the hair presented by Nikolay Rainov.

Three years later, in 1925, Ivan Milev returned to the subject again, as a result of which the work presented here was born. This time Khan Asparuh’s wife is depicted frontally, and many details in the composition refer us to the literary source, or rather the text allows us to read and understand the image more clearly. „Into a great tent of motley skins,“ „queen Achinora bore a dagger in her hair-dresses, entwined with mother-of-pearl and precious bone beads,“ „into chambers adorned with motley boards he ushered me,“ „he adorned my face with a wreath of wild violets.“ , „warriors, chosen among thousands, carried me on iron spears – on sixteen crossed spears they carried me“, „I sprinkled smiles like a rose and sowed sores like a tigress wounded by hunters“ are only some of the verbal images that found embodiment in the picture of Ivan Milev. In it, the main emphasis seems to be on Achinora’s gaze – „when someone caught sight of me, his soul was lost in my eyes.“ Another important detail of the „portrait“ is the veiled smile of the legendary queen, who „sowed sores in hearts.“ Perhaps this should also explain the artist’s decision to cover her lips.

As with the first version of „Achinora“ from 1922, so with the one from 1925, we can say that the main compositional solution was borrowed. In 1924, Ivan Milev and Pencho Georgiev were part of the circle of friends of the father of the Bulgarian cartoon – Alexander Bozhinov, which is the reason why they were invited to participate with their original work in the gift-notebook being prepared by the Committee to celebrate the 25- the annual creative activity of the artist Alexander Bozhinov. In it, everyone congratulates the cartoonist with „a piece of his creative world“. In this artefact, today part of the collection of the National Gallery in Sofia, Pencho Georgiev presents himself with a small-format image, filled with tempera and bronze on paper – a woman’s face. The author’s gaze is lowered, thoughtful, somewhat sad even, and the lips are covered with a transparent veil (fig. 3).

Whether it is a matter of accidental compositional and conceptual similarities, we will hardly ever know, however, it is a fact that both versions of „Ahinora“, which came out from the brush of Ivan Milev, have prototypes that preceded them – both certainly known to him. Moreover, these are works, kind of keys, allowing us to come closer to revealing the creative method of the artist and to appreciate his development between 1922 and 1925.

The painting „Akhinora“ from 1925 is among the brightest works preserved in Kazanlak. On October 25 of the following year, just a few months before his untimely death, Ivan Milev himself will donate it to the Museum of Antiquities with an art collection in his hometown. Falling into the darkness of the museum, the painting will remain unknown to the public and researchers of the artist’s work for a long time. Its first public presentation known to us today was in 1969, when it was included in the author’s retrospective exhibition, organized in the Iskra Historical Museum. Thus, almost 40 years after its creation, „Ahinora“ began its public life to become one of Kazanlak’s emblems. In the next large posthumous exhibitions of the author, organized in Sofia and Kazanlak, the public will continue to meet her charming gaze. Despite its subject – a portrait of Khan Asparukh’s wife – „Queen Achinora“, despite its compositional qualities, and despite even the enigmatic nature of the image, the painting has never been the research focus of art historians. In 2022, on the initiative of the Kazanlak Art Gallery team, the first solo exhibition of Ivan Milev outside the country was organized – shown in Rome (Italy) and Vienna (Austria), in which the work occupies a central place.

Ivan Milev painted the image of Achinora on thin white cardboard with tempera paints and golden bronze. Even today, they have retained their rich and bright colors. It is believed that the painting was stored in a folder until 1969, when it was placed in a frame, which in the following decades was replaced several times. Judging by the preserved photo documentation, today’s violations in its integrity, such as the loss of the lower contour of the iris of the left eye, have been inherited since the 1960s. In 1976, the painting was restored for the first time. It is then duplicated on a phase plane. The last restoration activities, including cleaning and strengthening of the picturesque surface, were carried out in 2021 by the restorer Kristina Beleva. The work is mounted in a specially made outer frame with museum glass, which ensure its safe storage and display.

In artistic terms, the picture can be defined as one of the most enigmatic female images in the history of Bulgarian art. Achinora’s dominating gaze, the veiled female lips, the multitude of symbols, some of which remain unread, contribute to the aura of the work, defined by the public as the „Bulgarian Gioconda“. Even today, the picture provokes various questions, and the most logical among them is: Are the portrait characteristics of a specific woman from the artist’s personal world reflected in the image of Achinora? Over the years, two assumptions have been established that remain in the realm of speculation. According to the first of them, the painting is a portrait of Ivan Milev’s wife Katya Naumova. The other and more widespread thesis, which even became the reason for writing a novel, is that the portrait of Akhinora is actually a portrait of Anna Orozova, the wife of the rich rose merchant Alexander Orozov. This second assumption was born as early as the 1970s. Then the journalist Mikhail Topalov broadcasts a story about an adventurous love story between Ivan Milev and Anna Orozova. A story that would eventually, though disproved, pass down as a mind-blowing urban legend that many still want to believe to this day. And what is the truth – we will hardly ever know.

And this is how it should be.

The Place

The Ahinora Museum is housed in a building planned as a home for the family of Emanuil and Nina Stanchev, constructed at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s. The head of the family was a businessman and was connected with the development of the local Iskra Cultural Center. His wife, Nina Stancheva, was a nurse and pharmacist. Family lore conveys the history of this work by the artist Ivan Milev, which was given to the family from his first solo exhibition in Kazanlak. It was presented as a gesture of gratitude towards the family that had helped the artist procure the medications he needed to bolster his then poor health. After 1948, the greater part of the Stanchev family’s property was expropriated. They were left with only their house. Not until the early 1970s were they forced to also give that up, in an exchange, so that the property could be used as part of the town’s municipal administration. On the rainy day of January 3, 1971, the Stanchev family moved out their furnishings, and from then on, the building was municipal property. At the end of 2021, the idea was born to turn it into a museum space in which to house one of the most valuable works kept in the town of roses – Ivan Milev’s picture from 1925, which he gave to his native Kazanlak only a few months before his death – the painting Ahinora. The Municipality of Kazanlak undertook the repair of the building and carried out a full modernization of the entire square out front according to the plans of the architect Nikolay Nikolov. There are two exhibition halls in the new museum space – one planned as a permanent home for Ivan Milev’s painting, and the other, as a gallery for temporary exhibitions. The Ahinora Museum officially opened on 24 May 2023, as a branch of the Art Gallery – Kazanlak.