Nenko Balkanski. Encounters with the mirror

Nenko Balkanski House Museum

25.8.2023 — 8.10.2023

Plamen V. Petrov
Graphic designer
Georgi Sharov
Technical assistant
Milen Alagenski
Technical assistant
Katya Hristova
Catalogue data
Zarina Ivanova
Lora Sultanova
Traci Speed

The topic of the self-portrait in Bulgarian art, even if broached, remains underexplored, even less as it is reflected in the work of various artists in Bulgaria. The exhibition Encounters with the Mirror is an attempt to examine the presence of the genre in the legacy of the artist Nenko Balkanski that is preserved in the collection of the Art Gallery – Kazanlak. And this is no coincidence, because Nenko Balkanski is among those artists of ours who not only repeatedly and systematically face the mirror in order to depict themselves, but even when he was alive, he himself persistently displayed his self-portrait images in group and solo exhibitions. What’s more – his self-portraits known to us today allow us to think about him as a Bulgarian artist for whom the self-portrait was a leading creative direction. Even his emblematic canvases Working-Class Family (1937), The Worker’s Family (1938), and Third Class (1938), today part of the collection of the National Gallery in Sofia, all preserve his image. In April of 1977, only a few months before his death on 19 September, he said in an interview, “It can be said that Working-Class Family is an autobiographical picture. The woman painted was my first wife [Dora], who died, the baby is my older son [Dimitar], and the worker is actually me. If you don’t know, besides being a poster painter, a part-time teacher, and whatever else, I also made a living as a street sweeper in Sofia.”

In spite of his joyless development as an artist and his personality weaknesses, or perhaps precisely because of this, for Nenko Balkanski, the self-portrait as a genre became a constant creative motivation, and the exhibition Encounters with the Mirror perfectly attests to this. Presented in the exhibition are the artist’s painted creative endeavours revealing his image not only in different stages of his life path, preserving the accumulated marks of time – of his woes, fatigue, and embitterment – but also the diversity of the genre of self-portraiture. Of the self-portrait as a physical and psychological projection, as a testament to his own presence, in which the mirror is an irreplaceable companion; through the self-portrait as a part of the biographical narrative including him in the world of others, but also showing what distinguishes him from it; through the interior of the studio – the intimate territory in which the artist bares his every weakness and reveals his artistic abilities; through the self-portrait as a painting within a painting, to the self-portrait carried out to metaphor, to an objective image recalling/marking the physical presence of the artist even in his absence. In other words – this is an exhibition in which, as in the work of no other Bulgarian artist, we can trace the art of the self-portrait in almost all of its sub-genre realizations known to us from the history of art.

This insight into the bequeathed images of Nenko Balkanski is also an approach to getting to know him. A belated, long-delayed meeting with the author, to whom the Bulgarian art historian continues to be indebted. Acquaintance bringing us closer to the truth about the artist. And as the art critic Max Friedländer points out, “the more we know about the fate of the master, the richer material of testimonies we have collected, the more the circle of probabilities and errors narrows, the more calmly and resolutely we classify and build.” On the other hand, the exhibition “Encounters with the Mirror” is an approach to the personality of the artist and logically brings to the fore the simple but at the same time fundamental question: “Why does he look at himself?”. The answers certainly meander through the meanders of conjecture, and each particular work suggests an individual reading. However, the fact is that it is always about the artist himself – about his attempt to prove to himself that he is alive, he is there, he is here. To know himself, and when he shares with the public his own image immortalized in his painting, to share himself – with an exhibitionist delight in baring his emotions; with a child’s anxiety to reveal aging; with a narcissistic skill and with the Demiurge’s will to share his vision of the man who met himself in the mirror.