In Sofia on Saturday, I went to the Boyana Church and the Museum of Socialist Art.
The Boyana Church is a World Heritage Site the size of a hotel room, but covered with fabulous murals, whose photos you can’t take, and whose post cards offered for sale do not include the best images. The paintings were commissioned by Sebastocrator Kaloyan in 1259. They are much in the medieval Byzantine style, but about a third of the faces are realistic and individuated in a way you seldom see in that school. Some people on Wikipedia say that these depictions represent the birth of the Renaissance. The other two thirds don’t represent that, including those of Jesus, and the Jesus paintings are the ones on the post cards at the gift shop. In those days, long before Monty Python, nobody seemed curious to depict in art what it must be like to be Jesus.
The picture of Mrs. Kaloyan does appear on post cards, and it’s one of the better ones. I think she looks a little like my cousin Meg. You would have no trouble spotting these people on the street. If the Sanhedrin had had anything besides medieval representations of Jesus to look at, they could have saved their money.
The Boyana Church has also in common with more modern pieces, such as Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” show, that you can only enter eight people at a time and stay for ten minutes. The crowd between the ticket office and the front door piles up. GO EARLY.
The Museum of Socialist Art is a triumph of conflicted curating. Collected here are the propaganda pictures and videos — you must look at the videos — of the Bulgarian government from 1945-1990. It is, of course, schlock. But the artists were real artists, and they went to real art schools and they were not locked up in a stylistic box the way that, say, the Albanian artists were during the Hoxha era, as you can see on the dedicated floor of the National Art Gallery in Tirana. What you see here in Sofia, is a history of mid-20th century styles, as used in the unironic depiction of workers, partisan warriors, and politicians.
Imagine, real artists sculpting workers! Who did they think they were, Thomas Hart Benton?
Lenin, like Jesus, never gets shown with any internal structure.
The analogy of Lenin with Jesus goes far. There is a severe parallel between Orthodox religious art and Bulgarian socialist art, in that the socialist paintings concentrate heavily on scenes of betrayal, interrogation, trial, execution, and mothers mourning their fallen sons. There are not scenes of anyone sticking his hand into the wound in the side of a fallen soldier to see if it was him. The Communists would not have approved of doubt.
But, say “schlock”. The Socialist Art Museum is a branch of the National Gallery here in Sofia, and I feel that in another century, these paintings and statues will be displayed next to the — I want to say, “secular” — art of 20th century Bulgaria, and not seen as a side-trip into an aesthetic purgatory.
Then I went to the airport, and, blessed by Lenin and Jesus, did not get hassled by Ryanair, whose flight left on time, had the seat belt sign on about half the way, and arrived early in Berlin Schönefeld. My luck ran out in Schönefeld. The S-Bahn ticket machine wouldn’t take my credit card, I got hassled by a relatively scary hustler who would not let me alone, to where I actually felt I had to go back into the terminal out of fear for my personal safety, and I didn’t get to the hotel until after midnight. Dave met me at the last tram stop.
I must mention, that when I filled up the car with gas for the last time before turning it in, the gas jockey washed my windshield — disappeared before a chance to tip him. That doesn’t even happen in Oregon.
It’s Easter now, just freezing, and lightly snowing. The Germans, with their genius agglutinative Geist, call it “Schneeregen”.