Bulgaria’s missing diaspora /Economist – in English/

Ex-Comunist Europe

EASTERN APROACHES

The Economist newspaper, June 18, 2010

JULIA KRISTEVA in literary criticism, Christo in art, Dimitar Berbatov in football: all are Bulgarians. All have little to do with their homeland. This thoughtful and rather sad piece from Transitions Online asks

why Bulgaria imports downmarket foreign “stars” while its brighjtest and best head abroad, often severing their connections with home. /you must read this full article – see below !!!/

When emotions run high, few notice small details – and sometimes they matter most. Yes, Christo does not want to speak Bulgarian, but his English is clumsy as well. He does not refer to Bulgaria often, yet he does not claim any other motherland, either. Rather, he does not have any motherland at all. He is a strange kind of person from an entirely different world. He refers to his late wife in the present tense, as if she were still alive. Being a real artist, he does not care about comfort and money. Such people can hardly be judged by ordinary standards.

Even if unavoidable, painful quests of identity will not solve the vital issues of Bulgarian art. If Bulgarians want to cover themselves in cultural glory, they have at least to build some cultural infrastructure and find ways to finance culture. But the financial crisis has hit hard, and the government faces the fact that there are too many operas and theaters here. Some of them may not survive.

Author Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

The Motherland’s Talented but Prodigal Children

Bulgaria has given the world a huge pool of artists, writers, and other creative folk. But why do they all have to leave the country?

June 17, 2010

Hristo's emotions were invested much more in art and his French wife, Jeanne-Claude, who famously shared his birthday and died in November 2009, than in the native land. In his rare encounters with Bulgarian journalists, Christo spoke English.

SOFIA | Christo turned 75 on 13 June, and Bulgaria celebrated him with two documentaries, many newspaper articles, and a lot of pride, to which he paid little attention.

All that jazz is justified: Christo is the most prominent Bulgarian artist in the world, and for a small country, that matters. The only problem is that nobody knows he’s Bulgarian – and he doesn’t seem to care much.

The artist, born Hristo Yavashev in Gabrovo, has not returned to his home country since he departed for Prague upon completing his studies in 1956. The following year he fled the communist camp altogether, stowing away on a train to Vienna. For this the then-Bulgarian authorities put him on the list of so-called “non-returnees,” a term used to distinguish émigrés the regime did not tolerate from those it did.

Thus, Christo would not be invited home for a visit or an interview. As his worldwide fame grew, his highly publicized projects (the Valley Curtain in Colorado, the “wrappings” of the coast of Little Bay in Australia and the Pont-Neuf in Paris) were under-reported for Bulgarian audiences, if mentioned at all.

Yavashev's works include the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin (on the picture) and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, the 24-mile-long artwork called Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park.

1989 put an end to the regime, but not to Christo’s problems with his homeland. Some of his family’s properties in Gabrovo were restituted, then retaken by the state, following the paradoxes of the murky legal procedures of transition. On the other side, many Bulgarians were irritated by the artist’s indifference to Bulgaria. He did not want to pay homage, let alone to exhibit there. His emotions were invested much more in art and his French wife, Jeanne-Claude, who famously shared his birthday and died in November, than in the native land. In his rare encounters with Bulgarian journalists, Christo spoke English.

It is a complicated story of love, pride, and frustration.

Generations of Bulgarian schoolchildren were taught that an artist’s ultimate goal is to bring fame to the motherland. That might sound laughable, but a small country has no other way than to guard its champions jealously. American art history can live without Christo; Bulgarian cannot. The problem is that the champions’ destiny is to leave their nests in a search of higher flight, a wider audience, and, yes, a bigger market.

Bulgarians abroad.

That could be an entire category of European art. Julia Krasteva and Tsvetan Todorov made a name in French philosophy and literary criticism, writing in French; Todorov came back just once after 1963 with Francois Mitterrand, just before the changes. In an interview with me, Italian philosopher Umberto Eco recalled a third one, Andrey Bukureshtliev. “My first publication in French was translated by this Bulgarian intellectual,” Eco said. “He used to say, ‘Il n’y a pas de place pour trois Bulgares à Paris.’ ”

Elias Canetti (Bulgarian, 25 July 1905–14 August 1994) was a Bulgarian-born novelist and non-fiction writer of Sephardi Jewish ancestry who wrote in German. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981.

Well, there were some more, typical  étrangers, torn between different cultures and worlds. George Papazov was among the first surrealists in Paris. One of his friends was the artist Jules Pascin, a Bulgarian Jew from the Danube. Another Bulgarian Jew from the Danube was the writer Elias Canetti, the only Nobel laureate with a connection to Bulgaria.

Then, enter the Bulgarian Germans. Singer Asparuh (Ari) Leschnikow made a name with the band the Comedian Harmonists, dubbed by some The Beatles of the 30s. More recently, writers Dimitre Dinev in Austria and Iliya Troyanov in Germany won fame by writing novels in German. Of the two, Troyanov more closely shares Christo’s complicated relationship with Bulgaria. Although he has returned many times, he remains highly critical of present-day Bulgaria, which he sees usurped by the evil shadows of the communist past.

Less ideological art has always had it easier. The famous opera singers in Italy Gena Dimitrova, Rayna Kabaivanska was only one invited from the family of Luciano Pavarotti to sing on his funeral  (interview in Bulgarian: Големият творец винаги се съмнява в себе си …), Nikolay Gyaurov, Nikola Ghiuzelev, and Boris Hristov did not have to distance themselves openly from the regime before 1989, although some were highly critical. Maybe that nonpartisanship was why, in a recent public-television-sponsored campaign to choose Bulgaria’s top event of the 20th century, the audience chose “the miracle of Bulgarian opera voices.” Bulgarians like to associate themselves with art but prefer it ideology-free.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VljD7VCGJaY

With Christo, the problem is much bigger than ideology. To begin with, is he a part of Bulgarian culture at all? Two documentaries about him, made by the journalists Evgenia Atanassova and Toma Tomov, did not aim to answer that question. But commenting on the first documentary on TV, poet and journalist Roumen Leonidov said, “Yes, Christo is part of Bulgarian culture. We have to view it more widely. All of those Bulgarians abroad, from Dinev and Troyanov to Krasteva and Todorov, are part of Bulgarian culture, even if they do not live in Bulgaria or do not write in Bulgarian.”

Tomov disagreed. In the Trud newspaper, he wrote, “Christo is not part of Bulgarian culture. There are 25 cities in the world where you can do something that matters to civilization. So if you have big plans, you’d better go to one of them.”

But those views don’t necessarily clash. They share the premise that local talent must go global to succeed. Sometimes, on the way to success, talent has to overcome the local environment. That can be a difficult truth to swallow.

Dimitar Berbatov, the gifted and sensitive soccer player of Manchester United who uses his free time for drawing, quit Bulgaria’s national team. His explanations were emotional and sophisticated, but one could not miss his disappointment with some Bulgarians’ envy and backbiting. The other Bulgarian football star from the recent past, Hristo Stoichkov, criticized Bulgaria several times, defying his critics. “The world acknowledges me. Only the small souls at home do not,” he once said. The gestures of both players were greeted with anger and outrage: “Who are they to repudiate the motherland? Where do they come from?”

When emotions run high, few notice small details – and sometimes they matter most. Yes, Christo does not want to speak Bulgarian, but his English is clumsy as well. He does not refer to Bulgaria often, yet he does not claim any other motherland, either. Rather, he does not have any motherland at all. He is a strange kind of person from an entirely different world. He refers to his late wife in the present tense, as if she were still alive. Being a real artist, he does not care about comfort and money. Such people can hardly be judged by ordinary standards.

Even if unavoidable, painful quests of identity will not solve the vital issues of Bulgarian art. If Bulgarians want to cover themselves in cultural glory, they have at least to build some cultural infrastructure and find ways to finance culture. But the financial crisis has hit hard, and the government faces the fact that there are too many operas and theaters here. Some of them may not survive.

Yet this government is not short of big ideas. Culture Minister and sculptor Vezhdi Rashidov vows to build a Bulgarian Louvre, a huge exhibit hall in Sofia’s city center. And if that sounds too big, consider an event that took place on 11 June. On the eve of Christo’s birthday, a Bulgarian businessman invited famous Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi to open an exhibition near the future Louvre. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (who, curiously, was also born on 13 June, like Christo and Jeanne-Claude) attended, together

with foreign celebrities like model Elle McPherson, designer Tommy Hilfiger, and singer Bryan Ferry. The event was meant to precede the Art Basel exhibition, taking place now in Switzerland, and was covered by the international media.

Geniuses are leaving the country; foreign stars are entering.

The motherland should not worry but continue to nurture new talent.

To parcel out the glory, after all, is the easy part.

Transitions Online (TOL) is a media development organization and online journal covering news and events in the 29 post-Comunist countries from 1999

The Economist is authoritative weekly newspaper focusing on international politics and business news and opinion

1 comment for “Bulgaria’s missing diaspora /Economist – in English/

  1. 2010/10/17 at 12:22 PM

    I am very familiar with Chrusto’s work and his biograpglhy. He may not be judged, nor ctiticized, because few have had the insight to penertrate the depth of his Art.  Those who have, will forever be his fans, yours truly included. His concepts will turn on a light bulb for the open mind. I am not surprised of his disassociaton with Bulgaria. Remarkable individuals like Christo, with cosmopolitan background, have a homeland- the World. The scale of his ideas can only be appreciated only by the World at large. The scale of a small country, very often dictates the scale of the  predominant thinking. The first thing a person from a smal controlledl environment ( country) experiences, when exposed to the World scene- is the vastness of the world outside this environment and the possibilities. They call it a culture schock- but it is a lot more than that. In order to survive in this new environment, with vast possibilities and difficult to comprehend dynamics- one must first dissacociate for a period of time from the controlled restrictive environment they grew up in. There is no way around it. People who try to be both- usually do not go very far. They wastefully spend their energy cobstantly comparing and criticizing.  You say a lot of prominent Bulgariabs are ‘critical’ of Bulgaria. Maybe they were criticized too much in Bulgaria, while they were there. A big person finds a solution to it by leaving. The sad thing is , Bulgaria is mostly criticised and put down by its own citizens! The desperation has turned into a  predominant negativity and dissatisfactii, which now starts to take the color of  national character. Despite all difficulties, there is a crust of positive movers and shakers, enthusiastic musicians, artist, entrepreneurs , who apparently rise above the petty thinkers so prevalent in Bulgaria. It is not easy to think big in a tiny country. (Bulgaria ‘s population is five  times smaller than California  and twice smaller than Los Angeles.) But if we think of tiny beautiful Bulgaria as a part if the big World and the smaller Euopean Community- it may get easier. Because to embrace the World as your home and Bulgaria as your native land, acknowledging both the history and the present- does take some serious effort in mind conditioning – to reach  intellectual and spiritual freedom, to be a successful cosmopolitan citizen, with Bulgarian heritage. Freedom, that comes from within ourselves – freedom that allows us to embrace the new world, while acknowledging  one’s land of origin, but not confined by its limitations.
     Why ctiticize Christo?  As an Artist, is he a product of Bulgaria? No. Where did he develop as an extreme contemporary  Artist? Paris. Who were his influences- Jasper Jones, Alexander Calder among others.  As a matter of fact- when he was for a brief time in the Art Academy in Bulgaria, he was turned off by the Proffessor’s lack of interest in his students( unless, of course they were pretty girls!….From  Christo’s biography). So, in all fairness- no one has the right to criticize Christo for his dissasiciation with  Bulgaria. His artistic path defines him-not his nationality. We are proud that he has a Bulgarian heritage, but more proud what he achieved as an independent thinker and Conceptual Artist. The World raised Christo in the giant he is todayv- Bulgaria expelled him!  
    Perhaps, if Bulgaria nurtures its talent, by offering them wordly opportunuties inside  the country – they will stay. To do so, the country has to embrace the world at large as a partner in Art, Music, Science, Business. 
    Geniuses, born in Bulgaria work  and flourish abroad. So what!