A look at unfinished works by the enigmatic Kazanlak artist

The forsaken.
120 years since
the birth of
Vasil Barakov

UBA, Sofia

6.12.2022 — 15.1.2023

Plamen V. Petrov

In 1927, not yet having been accepted into the State Academy of Art (today the National Academy of Art), Vasil Barakov took part in the student group exhibition. He was represented by his painting Man and Nature, about which he would say some time later: “I had high hopes for this painting. But I was hasty with it then and I destroyed it.” The future artist was 25 years old. How many times he would undertake such destructive actions toward his artistic realizations as he later advanced towards his life’s end, we will likely never know. But both his own thoughts, confessed in interviews and in front of friends, and the body of work he bequeathed to us suggest that self-restraint, self-torture, and self-destruction were an organic part of Vasil Barakov’s nature.

In the dozens of pictures by the painter, completed works signed by his own hand and that have found their worthy place in the history of Bulgarian art, in museums and private collections, we discover reflected the territories of melancholy, which remain inaccessible for many people. A kind of reified evidence of his personal encounters with nature, industrial landscapes, and still life. Essentially meaningful associations, marked by depth, judgment, and a sensitivity that probably dozens would discard because of its unbearable weight, its insurmountable pain, its indelible scars. But not Vasil Barakov, who seemed to transform his chronic aggravation at reality – not through the emotional, but seemingly exclusively through reason – into his only true creative strategy. We will glimpse it embodied in each of his paintings carried out to the end, with a signature carefully placed in one of its corners.

Along with his destroyed and completed works, Vasil Barakov has bequeathed us hundreds of his attempts – studies, quick sketches, and painting sketches on paper, cardboard, and fibreboard. A pile of intentions awaiting their materialization, about which the author himself, at the end of his days, would write anxiously: “I have many works abandoned this way, set aside in my studio – some of them supposedly lack just a little, while others have an immense way to go. Some that were begun on cardboard have a kind of quality, but they need to be reworked on canvas. Which to do first? And the years are already reaching their crest… And I feel bad, I feel angry – what more can I say? This is the very truth, as cruel as it may be. This is the closed circle of my life.” Dozens of abandoned quests – quickly caught encounters, sorrows, and worries.

The phenomenon of the abandoned/unfinished work runs through Vasil Barakov’s entire artistic career – from his first self-portrait painted in oil on canvas in 1934, “abandoned” on the back of his completed composition with St. Jerome writing (Museum Collection of the National Academy of Art, inv. № 335), through the dozens of people’s faces he immortalized, through the visual travel notes from his wanderings through nature, in Chepelare, Romania, Rudozem, and Vitosha, to his last still life. The exhibition The Forsaken is dedicated to them – to the ones found in the two folders of the artist that reached us after having survived the collapse of his house and studio in Dragalevtsi. Brimming with melancholy, they lead us not simply along the muddy tracks of solitude, but towards the artist’s sensual essence. To his attitude toward the line, the daub, colour and composition, but also to the humanity within him. To the anatomy of his work.

Having refused to follow the path of normative aesthetics that was systematically, unyieldingly, and aggressively imposed after 1944, Vasil Barakov devoted his days to the development of Bulgarian Cyrillic fonts and the design of book covers. In fact, his entire existence was permeated by “the letters.” When he was still a school pupil, and later as a student, and even after his graduation, when he would be appointed as an assistant artist at the Plovdiv Drama Theatre, his efforts in the field of applied graphics and typefaces stand out in his creative comfort zone, a territory insusceptible to ideological interference. He devoted himself to it entirely, which systematically pulled him away from his painting activities. What always gave him hope that a return to it would be possible once again was his favourite music. That was precisely what seemed to remind him of the trajectory of his unfinished artistic path, his goal, his time limit. And the more the years progressed, the more he clung to the musical refinement of Bach, Handel, and Beethoven, while his return to those “forsaken” works became more and more unattainable.

Plamen V. Petrov