Bernhard A. Böhler speech

Böhler’s speech for the art exhibition on the occasion of 125 years since the birth of Ivan Milev at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Vienna, given on November 22, 2022.

Dear Director Koneva and dear Director Petrov,
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen!

Let us try for a moment to mentally return to Sofia of 1920 and recall the words of the expressionist poet, critic, and champion of Bulgarian modernism Geo Milev, who wrote at the time: “Ivan Milev, a self-taught young man who arrived from the provinces… Ivan Milev has, above all, an inner life, he has a feeling for the line and for colour—and if he is not, however, completely original in places, his age must surely be taken into account: he stands at the beginning of his development; at the end of this development, though, much could be expected. Because what the young artist gives us today is also extraordinary compared to the decorative Bulgarian painting of today.”

These enthusiastic words, from the pen of an influential critic, glorified Ivan Milev on the occasion of his first exhibition in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. But the young artist’s extraordinary talent would shine in the Bulgarian artistic sky only for a short time. He had less than ten years of artistic activity left before his untimely death in 1927, before he had even reached thirty. But clearly even this time was enough for him to become one of the most significant and unique phenomena of his time for Bulgarian art. It is therefore no accident that Ivan Milev is still highly revered today—he is the one depicted on the five-lev banknote.

Milev’s works tell of magical fairy-tale worlds with characters from folk and religious legends, such as Krali Marko and Saint George; of shepherds and musicians from the Balkan Mountain, of weeping brides and grieving mothers. His decisive line, bold colours, and geometric shapes depict the life and the past, the soul and the destiny, of the Bulgarian people, to whom Ivan Milev felt so strongly attached.

In modern art criticism, his work is often seen as a phenomenon. While his early works seem largely inspired by the Viennese Secession, his later paintings are infused with elements of Expressionism and Symbolism. Ivan Milev belonged to the generation that experienced both Balkan Wars, one World War, and the Communist uprising of 1923. It therefore seems quite natural that Milev’s art in the post-war years, for the most part, sought to assert the identity of his nationality. At the same time, however, it also expresses a certain sadness, which he saw as the foundation of what he himself considered as typically Bulgarian.

What is special about his art is based above all on the creative treatment of different models and stylistic influences. On the one hand, his paintings show a fascination with folklore, fairy tales, myths, and history, but on the other hand, also with social issues, such as the common villager’s relationship with the land or rural virtues—themes that were central to the question of national identity in the 1920s. Milev’s men and women often look sad and worried, pensive and vulnerable—exactly as he saw them through his own eyes.

In terms of formality, his works also retain some oriental characteristics, namely a tendency towards schematization, typification, rich ornamentation, broad planes, and a strong expressiveness of the face. They are all descended from the Orthodox icon. It is an inalienable part of the Bulgarian tradition. Thus, Milev’s art represents a kind of symbiosis of Western and Eastern forms, into which he enlists the foreign in an original study of the national character.

The inspiration originating in the Viennese Secession and Gustav Klimt can be recognized in the clear contour of the figure, especially in the fluidity of its outline, the geometric stylization, the emphasis on flatness, the richness of ornamentation, and the lively use of colour. At the same time, some of these features are also characteristic of the Orthodox Christian icon, and their influence on Milev is particularly noticeable in the pose of the figure, its elongated arms, and the general lack of colour modelling for volume. In Milev’s representation of the figures, there is both an assimilation of local roots and traditions and a search for new forms.

This synthesis seems so unusual for Bulgaria in the 1920s that today, Milev is considered the founder of the Bulgarian Secession. At that time, most artists in the country aspired to a complete rejection of everything Eastern and wanted to look completely “European.” But Milev developed a Bulgarian modernism in his work, which combines basic national ethnographic elements with new forms of symbolism, Secession, and Expressionism.

His imagery is fundamentally influenced by artistic currents already exhausted in Western and Central Europe, at a time when they were fully assimilated in Bulgaria. This can be explained mainly by the fact that Bulgaria was proclaimed a sovereign state only in 1878, after it was freed from almost five hundred years of Ottoman slavery. Therefore, the artistic pursuits after the Liberation were aimed at the assimilation of Western trends and the liberation of Bulgarian art from all oriental influences. It is clear, however, that currents in art such as Impressionism and Secession, which in the West were the result of long socio-cultural processes, could not be assimilated so quickly on Bulgarian soil. In this way, Milev’s belated Modernism goes beyond the chronology of European Modernism, as he overflows the borders between Symbolism, Secession, and Expressionism precisely because he himself appeared late on the artistic scene.

Ivan Milev’s personal life began in 1897 in Kazanlak, on the southern foot of the Balkan Mountains, where he was born the son of a shepherd. His childhood and adolescence were defined by the village environment, the sense of aesthetics carefully nurtured by his mother, and Bulgarian folk tales and myths. Until Milev enrolled at the Art Academy in Sofia in 1920, it was his mother who encouraged him most in the development of his artistic talent. His first landscapes from 1916 show the environs of Kazanlak. From 1917 to 1918, Milev was a soldier in the First World War on the Bulgarian Northern Front. During this time, when he faced death and suffering on a daily basis, he wrote Symbolist prose and texts about Bulgarian art. At the same time, he also painted watercolours. From his diary entries, it is clear that at that time, he had not yet decided whether he wanted to be an artist or a writer.

In the end, he chose painting, and from 1920 to 1925, he studied at the Art Academy in Sofia. By the time he was a student, he was already a “formed” artist. He learned everything that guided his style on his own. During his studies, he travelled to Turkey, Greece, and Italy, and a stay in Vienna was also documented in 1925. After that, he worked for a short time as a decorator at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, but he would also work as a freelance artist and illustrator. When a severe influenza epidemic raged in January 1927, he fell seriously ill, and he died in Sofia shortly before his thirtieth birthday.

Despite his early death, Milev is often called the most Bulgarian of all Bulgarian artists. In summary, it can be said that Milev’s notion of the cultural essence of Bulgaria could only be achieved through the interweaving of Western form and Eastern content. In a certain way, with Milev, the Orthodox icon fulfils the role of a mediator, helping to connect the native and the foreign, and thus to reveal one through the other. Although his contemporaries tried to break away from Bulgaria’s oriental past, in Milev’s mind, this past was inextricably linked to the national identity. This view would make his work forever characteristic of Bulgaria’s cultural identity.

Since today’s exhibition also marks the 125th anniversary of the artist’s birth, I would like to sincerely thank you, dear director Koneva, for inviting me to this celebration in your home—the Haus Wittgenstein Bulgarian Cultural Institute. With this opportunity, it is a pleasure to recall my earlier cultural contacts with Bulgaria—for example, the exhibition Fire and Spirit – 1000 Years of Bulgarian Icons (2007/2008), which I organized in the Vienna Cathedral, or the exhibition in the National Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Austria and Bulgaria (2004). I would like to give you the catalogue of the exhibition from that time as a souvenir and to conclude my speech with gratitude by saying: Bulgaria, old love, thank you for the lovely time.