Restoration of Memory. The Dimensions of Heroism and the sculptor Mihail Mihaylov


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Vaska Emanouilova Gallery

24 June – 8 August 2021

Although Mihail Mihaylov’s name did not gain the popularity he deserved for one reason or another, he was among the most important pre-1944 artists and his work is an important stage in the development of the Bulgarian sculptural tradition. His works have served as inspiration for generations of artists and those interested in Bulgarian sculpture are well acquainted with the emblematic figure of a lion, located in front of the building of the Ministry of Interior in Shesti Septemvri St in the capital city. He worked in the field of portraiture, figurative composition, monumental sculpture, and nude, and the exhibition at Vaska Emanouilova Gallery is the first attempt at a fuller presentation.

G. S. Rakovski, 1935, Military Club, Sofia

Mihail Mihaylov Hristov was born on May 12, 1900, in Pazardzhik to the family of Mihail and Franca as the eldest of three children. The family archives keep a story about the impressive snow figure created by the pupil Mihail of a mother with a child, which once became the attraction of the town during the winter holidays. The young man’s path seemed to have been preordained and he headed to the capital to continue his art studies. Although the family could not support him, the young artist decided to join the Academy and at the same time support himself. At the Academy of Arts, Mihail Mihaylov studied under professors Marin Vasilev and Zheko Spiridonov, the two foremost representatives of naturalism. During his studies, he was commissioned orders by the Military Academy, was awarded a bursary and provided with premises to set up an atelier. In 1926, he completed his studies together with Yordan Krachmarov and Kipro Nikolov. The exhibition on the occasion of their graduation was also reported in the newspapers. Mihaylov’s works were located in the third hall and included the bas-reliefs Labour and Ploughman which made a big impression on the audience. The journal La Bulgarie published a photo of the wood-made portal Cyril and Methodius, Slave Woman, Head of a Girl, etc. The portal with the images of Cyril and Methodius was some kind of attempt to transfer the tradition of wood-carved doors and iconostases, but it is not known whether the artist continued his pursuits in this direction.[1]

In 1927, Mihaylov won the annual competition of the Ministry of Education, and the work for which he was awarded – Portrait of a Woman, made in marble, was bought by the Plovdiv Museum and is now housed in the Art Gallery there. In the years that followed, Mihaylov participated in the General Art Exhibitions and his works received flattering reviews (Mother).

Monument of the miner, Pernik, 1938

After 1928, Mihail Mihaylov worked as an artist at the National Theatre in Sofia, but left after winning a scholarship to specialise abroad. After arriving in Paris in the early 1930s, Mihail Mihaylov first sought to fill his knowledge of art history and embarked on a tour of the major museums. The same year he enrolled as a student at the School of Applied Arts under Prof. Henry Arnold. Founded in 1864, the School of Applied Arts at the time consisted of two separate schools that taught men and women alike. The pedagogical programme, whose founder was an important figure among women’s rights activists, aimed to offer training that was modern in all respects and promoted all-round development, general knowledge, the development of creative and artistic, as well as the purely technical skills and literacy of students. Prof. Arnold himself was a remarkable figure. In addition to later being chairman of the sculptors’ syndicate, Arnold became famous for his 1935 book Initiation à la sculpture and the bas-relief Oceanids (1937) on the façade of Palais de Chaillot. After completing his training, Mihaylov worked in a “sculpture company”, where he made portraits and busts from nature.[2]

After returning from Paris in 1931, Mihail Mihaylov continued his work for the military by creating a gallery of portraits such as that of artist G. Stoychev, currently property of the National Gallery. The Memorial to the soldiers fallen in the First Balkan, Second Balkan and the First World Wars from the First Infantry Sofia Regiment (also known as Shopski or the Iron Regiment) and the 6th Infantry Tarnovo Regiment was erected in 1934–1936 and its composition centre was a lion figure created by Mihail Mihaylov. It used to be located in the yard of the barracks of the 1st Infantry Regiment in Sofia. The architectural project was done by Alexander Obretenov and this is the only known work completed by him. The memorial lists the names of more than 3,000 people who died during the wars. It was damaged during the bombing, and in 1979 was permanently removed when the barracks were moved due to the upcoming construction of the National Palace of Culture.

A Lion, 1938, Ministry of Interior, Sofia

In addition to a significant gallery of sculpted images, during these years Mihaylov also created the lion figure, known as one of the best in the Bulgarian monumental sculpture, which stands in front of the Ministry of Interior today. It was crafted in 1938 as an integral part of the overall programme for decoration of the building. The author of the innovative concept for that time was arch. Georgi Ovcharov. The building was completed in 1940 and despite the vastly changed urban environment today, its main design can still be detected – the profile of the building was conceived as a stone-carved monumental sculpture, developed in harmony with its surroundings, a continuation of the walk line and gracefully fitting into the landscape background – the relief of Vitosha Mountain. The building is an example of the implementation of the concept of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “organic architecture”, in which the layout of the façade also plays a role. In addition to the uniquely designed volumetric solutions, part of which was the placement of the lion in front of the western façade, the modern appearance of the building also included murals and was one of the emblematic examples of a spatial solution in which a single suggestion of the heroic was achieved. In addition to Mihaylov, Lyuben Dimitrov also participated in the sculptural decoration by producing elements on the façade and the internal staircase. Mihail Mihaylov’s granite lion is placed on a low stone wall, which serves both to separate the two levels of the terrain, and as a pedestal, and thus introduces the almost avant-garde function of sculpture in Bulgaria as a mediator in the dialogue with urban culture. The purpose of the figure was to combine the street space with the courtyard when, according to the initial projects, the western façade was opened on the ground floor. The sculptural decoration in the interior and on the facades is organically connected to the whole and participates in the composition with the murals. The background of the granite lion figure consisted of the decorative compositions Labour and Meeting – murals on the western façade, performed by Dechko Uzunov in casein paint on the white cladding stone.

Monument of the Bomber. Junkers Ceremonial March, 1943, National Museum of Military History Archive

Today, the National Museum of Military History keeps nearly 20 sculptural busts of prominent Bulgarian army men – Maj-Gen Konstantin Zhostov, Maj-Gen Hristo Burmov, Lt-Gen Dimitar Geshov, compositions on historical themes such as The Battle at Eagle’s Nest, sculptures and relief images of Bulgarian soldiers, etc. His work also includes the relief portrait of G. S. Rakovski, which can now be seen on the western façade of the Military Club in Sofia, the Miner’s monument in the centre of Pernik, a monument to the fallen soldiers in Negovan, a monument in Kubrat, the portraits of the philanthropists Elena and Nikola K. Ivanovi in front of the Home for Disabled Soldiers in Bankya, to name but a few. In 1940, Mihail Mihaylov participated in the General Art Exhibition with a portrait of Georgi Lichev and a woman’s portrait which today are part of the collection of the Sofia City Art Gallery. However, the list of lost works by Mihail Mihaylov remains long: the relief portrait of Maestro Georgi Atanasov in Knyaz Boris’ Garden has not been recovered, the busts of Boris III and Queen Joanna, which he created in 1935, are also missing.

Guard in front of the monument of the First and Sixth Infantry Regiment. National Museum of Military History Archive

Thanks to his accumulated experience and his extensive European culture, his loyalty to realism, the numerous academically consistent compositions – a good example of combining tradition and modernity in the spirit of the modern attempts at a new modernist stylisation of the classic principles of beauty, the achievement of a style recognisable with its moderation and restrained “classic archaism”, except as a military sculptor Mihail Mihaylov managed to establish himself as a lecturer. In 1940, a competition for a professor of sculpture was held amid unusual public interest, at the Art Academy, where he competed with Lyubomir Dalchev, Ivan Funev, Marko Markov, Mina Ivanov, Stefan Peychev and Yordan Krachmarov. The keen public attention to this event was due to the sensitivity to the civil responsibility of academic training and the active role of the artist. At the same time, questions were raised again about the form and its correct understanding not as a means that can be achieved only by applying learned technical methods, but to achieve it in the way of artistic suggestion and sculptural persuasiveness. The competition was won by Mihail Mihaylov because the works submitted by him were rated as the most convincing and “academically solid”. The competing artwork – Bathing Woman, with which Mihaylov proved his academic qualification, was later installed in Kaylaka park in Pleven and in Narechenski Bani.

Head of a Man (G. Lichev), ca. 1940, patinated plaster, 48x20x17 cm, 1941, Sofia City Art Gallery

A sudden deterioration in Mihail Mihaylov’s health condition in the difficult post-war years led to his death at an age that should mark the beginning of maturity of any artist.

Mihail Mihaylov authored some remarkable works in Bulgarian art which rank him among the innovative and original artists from the first half of the 20th century, for whom there are no monographs and whose work is scattered, such as Yordan Krachmarov, Georgi Kotsev, etc. His works are an illustration of the attempts to create a new national style which were especially consistent shortly before World War II. This modern national concept of form complied with the contemporary sensitivity without losing touch with nature. Influenced by the French masters of modern sculpture such as Antoine Bourdelle, Aristide Maillol, etc., Mikhail Mihaylov will remain in the history of Bulgarian art with the fulfilled stylistic synthesis of the forms in an internal sculptural rhythm and the modernisation of the academic sculptural concept while at the same time keeping at bay pathos and mannerism. Moreover, the interest in his work from today’s perspective raises many relevant questions which for the time being remain open.

A Girl’s Head, ca. 1940, patinated plaster, 44х42х24 cm, Sofia City Art Gallery

The exhibition has been arranged in association with the National Gallery, National Museum of Military History, Art Gallery – Pazardzhik and the author’s family.

Galina Dekova

Галерия Васка Емануилова, филиал на СГХГ

Vaska Emanouilova Gallery, branch of the Sofia City Art Gallery

бул. „Янко Сакъзов“ 15, София

15, Yanko Sakazov, Blvd., Sofia

+359 2 944 11 75, +359 885 836 600,

[1] La Bulgarie, No 902, 17 July 1926 and No 897 of 10 July 1926

[2] According to the artist’s biography, unpublished manuscript, archive of the family.

Restoration of Memory. The Dimensions of Heroism and the sculptor Mihail Mihaylov

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