‘And the hardest thing is watching human corpses fall, while in the Sofia locales easy music plays to entertain the gallant rear guard’, wrote Ivan Milev in a 1917 letter to his friend from the front Angel Georgiev. For Ivan Milev, 1917 was a period of a particular coming of age. Having reached his twentieth birthday, he would arrange his first exhibition which, as he himself pointed out, ‘lasted only two days.’ This is also the year in which he would encounter for the first time Nikolay Rainov’s text Tsaritsa Ahinora (Queen Ahinora), which was printed on 13 April in the magazine Otechestvo (Fatherland). In July he officially left the Kazanlak Pedagogical School and headed for the Front. The horror of the battlefield and its inhuman images hit him, even taking over his dreams – ‘Thousands of shells rained down over my head and pieces fell at my feet. I could hear their roar and I was hiding in a nook from where I could see many bodies writhing in the smoke.’ In an attempt to cope with the fear of what he saw, he painted, sang his favourite songs and smoked. He smoked a lot, as if to dissolve his terror, his frustrations, his reality in a cloud of haze. He smoked and wrote. He wrote his Letters from the Steppe.
Ivan Milev’s literary experiments, abandoned by him as early as 1919, are today part of the artist’s archival legacy, which is mostly preserved at Art Gallery Kazanlak. It has not been the subject of general research interest, and its publication in its entirety is forthcoming. In 1947, only three years after the archive was donated by Ivan Milev’s mother and brother to the Iskra Community Centre, and later became part of the collection of the Kazanlak Gallery, the first person to focus on it was Lyuben Belmustakov. He inspected fragments of the artist’s diary, which was started just after the completion of the manuscript Letters from the Steppe. In the catalogue printed in 1997 to accompany the Ivan Milev exhibition hung in the halls of the National Gallery of Art in Sofia, Ruzha Marinska and Anelia Nikolaeva, without any commentary, also published parts of this legacy. Among them is the transcipted manuscript of Letters from the Steppe, to which, for reasons that are not clear, the authors of the publication also appended several earlier texts. After more than two years of work with Ivan Milev’s archive, the team at Art Gallery Kazanlak is preparing a cycle of exhibitions in which the public will have the opportunity to encounter the author’s literary heritage in its entirety for the first time. The first of them is Letters from the Steppe.
Letters from the Steppe is a literary piece in verse and prose, written between 5 and 7 October 1917, when Ivan Milev was on the Dobrudja Front and the Romanian campaign had reached a military position which ended only a few months later with the Armistice of Focșani of 9 December. Ivan Milev had been here several times since the autumn of 1916. On this posting, however, in addition to his beloved brush and watercolors, he would also devote time to his literary pursuits. Although uneven, derivative and blighted by a string of weaknesses, these literary attempts, left unpublished – as if ‘abandoned’ – by their author, as Prof. Valeri Stefanov noted, are ‘another glimpse at the soul of this great Bulgarian artist’. Alongside the manuscript of Letters from the Steppe, in the exhibition the public has the opportunity to come face to face with the artistic images bequeathed to us by Ivan Milev, dating too from 1917, all of them part of the gallery’s collection in his hometown.