A Johnny Depp of Bulgarian art history goes partying


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It could be safely said that I have known Alexander Kuyumdjiev since the last months of the previous millennium, when my work as a researcher began at the Institute of Art Studies. Though younger than me, he was already enjoying star status: getting recently his PhD, he had published seminal texts and was working at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Crypt Icon Museum. With the coming of the new millennium he received the Award for Best Young Researcher in Soft Sciences of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The next years were devoted to hard collective work on such projects as Corpus of Bulgarian Iconographers, Greek Icon-painters in Bulgaria after 1453, Corpus of the Seventeenth-century Murals in Bulgaria, etc. We travelled a lot and though cash-strapped, we ‘styled’ ourselves pages in service of the group of professors Ivanka Gergova, Elena Popova and Elena Genova, ‘pages’ for our role of drivers and negotiators with sextons and priests, lighting technicians and photographers, while our habilitated colleagues recorded their observations about the visited monuments. At the time we listened to U2 dreaming of independence and the time, when we’d travel the length and breadth of the country to build on the work of Asen Vassiliev and Atanas Bozhkov. We wanted to work like them on Mt Athos. What happened in the meanwhile, however, was—life.


I continued to travel further and further from Bulgaria and Alexander cloistered himself in his study and libraries and was engrossed in his areas of research interest, adding to his exploration of the Rila Monastery the work of Metrophanes the Iconographer, Hierarchs in the Concelebration composition; owing to his unfailing ability to attribute unsigned artworks he made a major contribution to the publishing of the multi-authored Greek Icon-painters in Bulgaria after 1453 (2008). The latter would have been unfeasible without his support. In 2011, Alexander published his monograph on the Church of St Nicholas in the town of Elena. In the meanwhile we co-authored two studies on the dating of the church at Orlitsa Metochion and the connection of the icons and murals at the diocese of the Metropolis of Xanthi with the art processes in the Bulgarian lands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the following years his interests broadened to lead him to disproving some of the hypotheses about the Church of the Holy Archangels, Monastery of Bachkovo, as well as proving all the suggested by researchers dates at the Monasteries of Kilifarevo and Kurilo completely wrong. Still, his work on the Rila Monastery did not fade into oblivion, as is usually the case with our dissertational works. In 2015, his monolithic Murals at the Catholicon of the Rila Monastery came out to sum up all observations about the iconography of the Late Medieval Period, causing a sensation in Bulgaria’s editorial practice. His endeavours were not slow to gain recognition. Alexander received the Science Book Pythagoras Prize in 2016. I remember with relief that I succeeded in talking him into attending the awards ceremony to receive his prize from the Minister of Education… His outstanding achievements and recognition came at a price: engrossed in the problematics and sources, he switched off his mobile almost for good, communicating with the rest of the world via his email to eventually defy any and all authorities and conventions in his manner. Alexander became the rock star of Bulgarian art studies and just when we all thought it impossible to publish a thicker and more comprehensive book than that about the catholicon of the Rila Monastery, his idea of the project Corpus of the Church Mural Painting in Bulgaria of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century was conceived. Our eminent colleagues holders of higher degrees were sceptical about even commencing any research at the time, but I stood firm for him and the grant by Bulgarian National Scientific Fund let us start working. In organising fieldwork, providing material, coordinating the big team Alexander showed his proverbial affinity for details, never losing sight of a panoramic view of the whole, with hyper protectiveness, consideration and patience, owing to which the Institute of Art Studies succeeded in publishing in 2018 an even more impressive and thorough in terms of its content volume. The Ministry knew better than go against their self-preservation instinct and at this year’s awards ceremony there was no such category as Science Book Pythagoras Prize any more. Besides his monumental research, Alexander Kuyumdjiev succeeds in teaching National Revival Art at the National Academy of Art, providing expert advice and support to everyone who needs them.

With all the exhaustion of the implementation of the large-scale research project about the murals of the first half of the nineteenth century, Alexander Kuyumdjiev finds the strength to surprise us. Recently, he proved convincingly that some of the significant artworks at the Metropolitan Church in Samokov, previously ascribed to Hristo Dimitrov from the nascent Art School of Samokov, belonged in fact to Nicephorus from Karpenisi. His latest proposals show that he is about to radically shake up the idea about Bulgarian art of the National Revival Period and I shouldn’t be surprised if he proved that there was no such thing at all… Kuyumdjiev has all the makings! For he is a unique fate’s creation: son of an artist; student, doctoral student supervised by Prof. Corr. Mem. Elka Bakalova, being her teacher’s pet; an art historian with experience at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Crypt Icon Museum, where he acquired his almost unsurpassed in this country knack for attribution; an eminent specialist in iconography, whose spouse, a supportive and understanding colleague, readily does the everyday chores for him; a member of the staff of an institution that lets him behave like a Johnny Depp of Bulgarian art history. The payroll shows that Alexander Kuyumdjiev is to turn 50 in 2019. Only predictable people grow old. Alexander Kuyumdjiev never grew up. Youths just go partying.

Never fail to surprise us, Sasho! Enjoy good health, success and be well liked!

A Johnny Depp of Bulgarian art history goes partying

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