Horsepower Is Not Spiritual Power

Dear Reader,

The above pearl of wisdom was one of the many takeaways from the exhibition presenting the comprehensive works of Bulgarian painter Vera Nedkova (1906-1996), or Вера Недкова, which I visited on January 7 at the National Gallery, housed by the Bulgarian Royal Palace of the pre-Communism days.

Vera Nedkova (1906-1996). That’s class for you. I admire the penetrating gaze and the minimalist black clothing. Tons of things to learn from this photo, I find. Source: Click here.
Memories of Vera Nedkova to set the mood…

Taking advantage of the half-empty city, and in an effort to forget the trouble I had with a frozen cold water pipe in my kitchen (it was -13 at noon!), I paid a visit to a lingerie shop close to the Russian Monument (Руски паметник) and then to Nedkova’s exhibition, in an exquisite conclusion to a wonderfully contemplative day. 

We have a monument exactly like that just opposite the House of Parliament. Winter in Moscow, end of the 1950s, oil on canvas by Yurii Pimenov (1903-1977). Pimenov has a poster-like style which I adore. Source: Museum of Russian Impressionism Catalogue, National Art Gallery Sofia, 2016.
Lajos Kossuth Street, named after a 19th-century Hungarian lawyer, journalist and politician who supported Bulgaria’s liberation cause. I love the cobblestones and the old buildings, although they are very beat-up.  Similarly to Ella Fitzgerald’s feelings for Paris, I too love Sofia when it drizzles, and though it’s really hard for me, I love her when it sizzles too.

As additional reading, and if you care to take a look at a very comprehensive coverage of Bulgarian realist painters, please take a look at the wonderful and carefully annotated book, and blog, of Scottish social scientist Ronald Young, whom I admire for his deep and loving involvement with Bulgaria. 

The main entrance to a pre-Communism residential building. Time can’t erase beauty, that’s what I think. Beauty, like goodness, is unsolicited and out there, waiting quietly for a receptive heart.
An ornament of the frame of a huge mirror of the tsar times, currently located at the National Gallery ticket office at the former palace.
The top central ornament of the same frame. Gallery officers keeping an eye on the exhibition halls are sitting on modern chairs, but are placing their papers on the most beautiful tsar-time sideboard tables. I find this negligent and disrespectful. In addition, I think they should not read gossipy papers, it is somehow not in keeping with their location and office. Read thoughtful prose or least a romance novel bound in leather, for God’s sake!
Vera Nedkova, Life in Dates. To my utter dismay, this exhibition does not have a catalogue, and one is not planned to be published. The museum ladies frowned a bit but eventually allowed me to take pictures provided I didn’t use a flash. I consented and tried not to abuse their patience.
Oh, look at this floor. This used to be a winter garden, and now it is one of the exhibition rooms.
I like the vampy look of this girl, the olive skintone, the pout, and the hair. And the defined waistline too. Girl, ca. 1938, oil on canvas. Continuing the discourse that started with a bag here and here, if there is one good thing about the fashion of today, it is that there is no centralised authority to say what is in good taste and what isn’t. Anything goes, provided it is done properly. So if you care to replicate this look, I know of a Bulgarian clothing establishment that is currently selling just the right blouse … Of course it looks bland in the picture, because it is not livened up by the personality and aura of the wearer. You see, these two pictures juxtaposed, are an excellent illustration of the maxim that is not about what you wear, but how you wear it.
Roofs, 1934, watercolour on paper. This is Sofia and the cityscape has obviously not changed one bit over the past 80 or so years, because roofs in the centre of today look just the same. Same means generally low-rise buildings and the occasional four/five-storey co-operative house or съпритежателски дом, as these small blocks were called.
Nocturnal cityscape of Sofia of the 1960s, oil on canvas. This also looks similar to the streets I have photographed here.
A delightful Winter Landscape, late 1930s, oil on canvas. The style of Vera Nedkova went through many transformations during her long life. She has painted not just with oil paint, but also with charcoal, pencils, pastels and felt-tip pens. Looking at the comprehensive works of her lifetime was like taking a stroll through her mind, and through art history of all those years too.
Winter, ca. 1991, oil on cardboard. Painted toward the end of Nedkova’s life, I find this tree very sophisticated and a bit bitter. Also, it has reminded me of the works of Jackson Pollock…
Source: Click here.
Parisian Quay, 1971, mixed media on paper.
Parisian Houses, 1969, oil on fibreboard.

Throughout her artistic life, Vera Nedkova painted a lot of self-portraits and portraits of her sister, mother and brother. The self-portraits are particularly interesting to examine because, apart from keeping track of time, they’re like self-study etudes, transmitting something of the mood and the personality traits of the artists themselves. 

Self-Portrait, 1946, oil on cardboard.
Self Portrait with Hat, 1943, oil on canvas.
Self-Portrait with Mask, 1956-58, oil on canvas on plywood.

I was a bit bewildered by this self-portrait, but a possible key to understanding it is a sentence from an exquisite book called Time & Beauty, Art Nouveau in the Bulgarian Cities, a 2014 publication edited by Vittore Collina and graphically designed by Ayumi Higuchi:

“The mascaron, or mask, usually depicting a female face, is a distinguished decorative motif [on building facades] that contains a wide range of messages encoded in the deep symbolism of the style. It embodies the powerful feminine origin – beauty and love, life and fertility. In a deeper semantic sense, the mask is a link between love and death (between Eros and Tanatos).”

Interestingly, the same semantic sense of the feminine origin can be observed at the cover of a Communism-time book on beauty and style I have discovered as an early teenager. It is really ridiculous in places, but still, I have learned a lot from it. It mainly deals with the outer manifestations of style, elegance and poise, such as grooming, good clothes and good posture. It says almost nothing on substance. People had to queue and plead with booksellers to get quality books during communism, and knowledge on any subject was generally mystified, so substance was a hard thing to get one’s hands on. I rather believe it’s the same today, though for different reasons. 

Beautiful Every Day. A promising title.
A portrait of Nadia, Vera Nedkova’s sister. Late 1920s. Charcoal on paper.
A portrait of Vera Nedkova’s mother, 1923, watercolour on paper. I like this portrait and the 3/4 angle of the drawing a lot. The cast-down eyes too. It looks like such an intimate picture. I think a lot of love had gone into that painting…
Time & Beauty. What a lovely book. I admire its authors for the dedication and the effort.
Yard, the 1950s. Oil on canvas on plywood. …I don’t really believe that anyone with Vera Nedkova’s background would feel particularly inspired by this subject… Frankly, this looks like a commission for some party officer’s study. And I dislike the composition too. Too linear with too many parallel lines somehow.
Village Landscape, 1949, oil on canvas. This speaks to me a lot more. The composition, with the houses and shrubs in the centre is more pleasing to my eye too.
The ceiling in this ballroom of the former palace has been treated shamefully – all painted white without gilding of the decorative elements, but still, it is a breathtakingly beautiful room.
Something naughty for goodbye…I fell in love with these door and handle which, incidentally, belong to the royal palace power room as seen from the inside. 🙂
Yet another self-portrait. Source: Click here.

A lot to learn from Vera Nedkova on style and substance,

PS. An old-time Russian waltz for you. Or something more playful, if you’re in the mood. C’est si bon…

Occupied. Or busy. Or taken. I always wonder.