The Romantic Image of Faith. 150th Anniversary of the Artist’s Birth
The exhibition is held within the framework of the Restoration of Memory program of the Vaska Emanouilova Gallery. Launched in 2012, the program aims to restore the memory of unknown or forgotten Bulgarian artists. Milyo Baltov is an early 20th century artist unknown to the public, whose work is an intriguing contribution to the genre of academic church art. His works combine seemingly incompatible features such as religious veneration and academic precision. They are the subject of contemporary interdisciplinary research exploring them from sociological, cultural and anthropological standpoint to reveal new aspects of the history of Bulgarian art.
Artist and community leader Milyo Baltov has remained an indelible part of the cultural history of the town of Strelcha not only because of his illustrious family and his mandate as town mayor. His name has also been kept alive through the icons and murals admired to this day at the St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral, as well as through the museum collection of the Strelcha Museum of History featuring some thirty works by the artist. Plenty of decorative and iconographic works kept at temples throughout the Pazardzhik region also bear his signature. His voluminous work as an artist and decorator matches the rise in temple-building activity after the Liberation of Bulgaria prompted by the attempt to make each of the newly-built churches look as presentable as possible. Many of the chapels and churches decorated by Milyo Baltov are dedicated to Archangel Michael commemorating to this day the fallen of wars. Many of the icons painted by the artist feature the images of historical figures, while others have attained the status of miracle-working icons.
Milyo Baltov was admitted to the School of Drawing in 1897, in the latter’s second class, to study under Prof. Yaroslav Veshin. Lessons learned from the professor can be traced in the portraits and icons by the artist who stuck to them regardless of the twists of fate and his social responsibilities: attention to line expressiveness, building three-dimensionality, interest in plasticity and volume, search for befitting lighting, effort for sophisticated classical composition and pose, attempt to attain solid compelling colourfulness, efficient use of chiaroscuro and tonal values, etc.
Milyo Baltov decorated temples in the region of his hometown while he was still studying at the State School of Drawing. Sometimes he would work as a part of a team including other artists, namely Gospodin Zhelyazkov, Stefan Ivanov, Haralampi Tachev, etc. Such was the case with St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral in the town of Strelcha, where he worked together with Gospodin Zhelyazkov, a fellow student from the first class of the State School of Drawing. In 1903, he was still studying, so the ornamental friezes in the aforementioned church were probably the first big mural and decorative assignment he was given. Icons at the church altar were also painted by him, yet during different time periods. The latest one is a representation of Archangel Michael. It is believed that Tsvetana Kafedzhieva, a teacher, posed for the image, while the icon was donated to the church by her family. After completing his studies in iconography at the State School of Drawing in 1907, Milyo Baltov started work as an art teacher at an elementary school in the city of Pazardzhik, and in 1911 he started teaching at the newly opened All-girls School of Crafts in the same city, which was among the first specialized vocational training schools in the country. In 1907, Baltov restored (with varying degrees of success) old and damaged icons in the SS. Constantine and Elena Church in the city of Pazardzhik, creating several new ones for the same church. Several years later, he painted two large icons for the church’s iconostasis. Meanwhile, in 1912 and 1914, he participated in the first exhibitions of the Society of South Bulgarian Artists. His name is on the list the society’s founding members. During the First Balkan War, he was mobilized to serve in the 27th Infantry Regiment deployed to the East Thrace front. The three landscapes dated and signed by the artist kept to this day at the Strelcha Museum of History represent a view of Sivri Tepe near the city of Edrine and reveal the artist’s flair for depicting natural scenery.
Portrait painting is another genre Baltov was prolific in. He painted members of his family, distinguished community leaders of the town of Strelcha such as Barbalov, a prominent teacher, etc., whose portraits can be seen at the Strelcha Museum of History and the Pazardzhik City Art Gallery. Some images bear the signs of ‘transference’ and continuity, like the images in the portraits of his daughters Dena and Nevena that seem generic as they bear a strong resemblance to the faces featured in icons, while others are a realistic representation of the people that were portrayed.
In 1923, Milyo Baltov took over as the mayor of the town of Strelcha for a brief period. The artist kept working in the field of church decoration throughout the region, painting the images of Bulgarian saints featured in murals together with Peter Dhamdzhiev in the St. Nedelya Church, Plovdiv, during the period 1929-1930. These monumental images have so far been the only reason why Bulgarian art historians have mentioned artist Milyo Baltov and his place in the history of Bulgarian art. His contribution to art is an example of the how 1920’s Bulgarian artists revitalized the iconographic tradition through images, scenes or figures representative of Bulgarian culture and national identity. Later on, Baltov completed the mural at the St. Michael the Archangel Church in the town of Perustitsa, as well as the composition The Last Supper at the Holy Ascension Church in the village of Kadievo, Plovdiv Region. Baltov participated actively in the cultural life of his hometown, Strelcha, designing stage decorations and offering scenographic solutions for theatrical performances. Unfortunately, no sources of evidence for the latter have been preserved.
Today, thanks to research done by the Strelcha Museum of History, we may add the name of artist Milyo Baltov to the list of prominent representatives of an intriguing period of transition in the history of Bulgarian art. The future comprehensive study of his life will seek to collect and systematize as large a part of Milyo Baltov’s work as it is possible by tracking down icons, murals and decorations completed outside his home region, as well as by making a clearer outline of the complex turns taken by ideas in visual art.