Exhibition: Iva Milanova at the Bulgarian Embassy

(June 2003)

My God is dark
and woven as a cloth ...

Iva Milanova, born in Sofia, is an artist whose work reveals a profound relationship to iconic imagery. At the same time, the artist surprises us with her creative renewal of Eastern attitudes in the traditions of Western culture.

Every artist's work bears a part of his or her individual personality. The concept of the artist, however, was developed from the Greek concept of techne, meaning craftsmanship. The painters of icons still see themselves as craftsmen. For them, the icon itself is more important than their own artistic skill, so that icons are never signed.

Some of Iva Milanova's works are self-portraits. Although in the dyptichon "Idylle" (Idyll, 80 x 90 + 80x 90 cm) the picture of the proud traveller woman bears only an indirect resemblance to the artist, Iva Milanova nevertheless identifies herself with this portrait of a resolute stranger. "Originally I wanted to paint a black woman, as a self-portrait" the artist commented. The origins of the early Christian church of the Coptics, a church widely adhered to in Bulgaria, go back to ancient Egypt. The name "Copt" comes from the Greek "aigyptoi" via the Arabic name "al Qipt", and means "Egyptian". "Coptic" is thus in itself a reference to Egyptian Christanity. "Idylle" shows a couple fully at home in the present; but the name "traveller" is nevertheless appropriate.

In contrast, the work named ‘’ La Petite’’ (40 x 50 cm) is a self-portrait and shows a face which is a mere sketch. The different colours of the eyes - white and blue - represent the emotional and the rational aspects respectively; the figure is torn, in conflict with itself, but nonetheless determined to confront the question of time with honesty. In the work "Zukunft" (Future, 90 x 80 cm) the artist has continued the colour motive for the eyes. The gaze, modelled in blue and white, gives the viewer the sensation of recognition. We are confused and fascinated by the pictures; we sense that the artist has faced the challenges of a life that no longer offers any structures which would reassure us of our humanity. Can we show an equal courage, confronted by such challenges?

She was offered a place at the Humboldt University in Berlin where she studied art history with Professor Bredekamp and added classical archaeology (with Professor Rößler) to her subjects. Iva Milanova began her career as an artist while still at school. During her university degree, she worked in the traditions and styles of significant artists as a method of developing her own artistic form. This is a method practised in the canon of the Orthodox tradition, which requires the use of an already existing picture to legitimise pictorial representation.

In her work "Die Erleuchtung" (The Revelation, 90 x 80 cm), she uses the image of the "Christos Pantokrator" (Christ the omnipotent ruler) which is found in Greek icons of the 14th century. In the Christian-Neoplatonist interpretation, Christos Pantokrator is the origin of all light and all energeia. Where the medieval icons are two-dimensional in effect, however, Milanova uses a thick layer of colour to create spatial depth, allowing the viewer to feel that he or she can sense the body of the visionary. At the same time, through its fixed, staring gaze, the figure deliberately maintains the distance between ruler and ruled, refusing any attempt at personal intimacy.

Iva Milanova has entitled her picture of the Mother of God "Madonna" (90 x 80 cm). Like the "Revelation", it is painted in oil on canvas. The Orthodox church distinguishes between worship (latreia) which as a response is appropriate only towards God, and adoration (proskynesis), which may be offered to the icon. The adoration offered to the icon of God's mother, however, is also accepted by God Himself in an act of grace extended to all believers. According to Orthodox teaching, moreover, the believer adores the icons not because they themselves are holy, but because they are vessels of godly energy and it was God's will that the salvation of the faithful might be achieved in and through them.

It could be said that Milanova's painting of the Madonna is in this tradition. Through her physical position in the painting, she is given a majestic stature, while the head is gently bowed in a gesture of obedience and mercy. Here, Milanova works with techniques developed in pointillism. The brushstrokes which form the background have a consistent size, adapted to the picture format. Spatial depth is created by a rhythmic constellation and differentiation through the use of smaller units of colour and tone. The size and setting of the golden brushstrokes reminds the viewer of the mosaics to be found in Byzantine basilica and gives the Madonna a sense of distance seeming to stretch back over centuries.

The watercolours of fish could seem to be placed deliberately beside the Madonna. Although they are exhibited under the description "No title" (73 x 85 cm), they hint at the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in St. Mark's Gospel.

... woven from a hundred roots, drinking in silence,
yet still, I am nourished at his warmth ...

Iva Milanova was silent for many years, during the period where she was moving from one culture to another, where the German language was foreign to her and everyday life had no relevance to the reality she knew. Some of her works express this distance. The figures portrayed seem sad and numb to the world around them. The fresh blue in the background of "Zweifel" (Doubt, 100 x 80 cm) has a Mediterranean feel. "Dandy" (90 x 80 cm), another picture from the cycle, refers in its title to the ways in which human beings try to make themselves unapproachable. The outward appearance may be deceptive - a moral and emotional emptiness lies at their heart.

In a similar way, in the picture "Die Pariserin" (Parisian Woman, 90 x 80 cm), with its complementary colours of red and green, the woman seems remote, waiting in a frozen eternity. However, language returns to the cycle with the picture "Erinnerung" (Memory, 90 x 80 cm).

The style of these pictures follows the tradition of the German expressionists. Through the powerfully drawn lines of the faces, which have the appearance of naive, spontaneous outlines, the paintings resemble sketches. The eyes like black crescent moons keep the light of the contemplative soul hidden within the body.

"Alter" (Age, 80 x 70 cm) is a work which might be thought to form part of the cycle described above. There are several significant features, however, which place it in a different context. Here too, Milanova works through gestures of simple geometric forms and a powerful ductus. However, while in the above pictures the attention of the viewer is drawn to a point outside the picture itself, here vertical brushstrokes keep the gaze of the viewer focussed on the centre of the picture. Perhaps it's a candle which illuminates the woman's face and gives her such dignity. Light, a sign of hope, gives these pictures a sense of temporal and spatial intimacy, of warmth and safety.

Milanova's memories of life on the land in Bulgaria are particularly important to her. Dirndls and other traditional clothing, which for the Western viewer are mainly associated with nostalgia and folklore, are for her a sign of everyday work in the fields. Pears, apples and grapes take on a symbolic character in her work, in paintings such as "Mädchen mit Birnen" (Girl with Pears, 80 x 60 cm), "Zwischen den Äpfeln" (Among the Apples, 100 x 80 cm) and "Bulgarische Madonna" (Bulgarian Madonna, 180 x 110 cm). In this last title, Milanova reveals an aspect of her culture which has become meaningless for many in the 21st century: the woman's role within the family, especially in the peasant tradition. The close integration in family structures, which can be a survival strategy for a population, is mirrored in Ivanova's work through her use of wild, joyous colour. The silent gaze of the peasant women seems to be a silent consent to their traditional way of life.

In "Die Hochzeit" (The Wedding, 90 x 80 cm), a sense of lightness and harmony is created through colour. The white bridal dress dominates the left half of the picture, while the groom is given increased significance through the emphasis on the vertical lines of the jacket collar. In solemn anticipation the bridal couple awaits the blessing, ready to take on whatever storms and stresses life might have in store for them.

In another cycle, the artist concentrates on men and women from her own country. They look proud, handsome and remote. In one work, "Der Mann" (The Man, 100 x 90 cm), Milanova uses technical methods from icon painting in a playful and creative way. While in the picture "Revelation" she deliberately works from the Classical model, the use of the model here seems almost accidental. If we compare the features and the form of the eyes, which seem to fix the gaze of the viewer without seeing him or her, we recognise the ancient image of the Pantokrator, the omnipotent ruler. The shape of the flower in his buttonhole reminds us of the emblem of an Insignie... The colour of the clothes are slightly changed, the blue of the coat here giving way to a dark violet and the reddish-yellow colour of the simple shirt referring to the holy colours of his omnipotence. Does the framework of the window stand symbolically for the rays of a halo?

Another work, "Frauen" (Women, 80 x 80 cm) represents a scene from Biblical history. Three women crouch next to each other. The central woman, painted in a thick red with stark lines, sits between her companion on the left, incarnated in blue, and a woman on the right, who is leaning against her and hints, through the abstract forms and the green-red movement of colour in which she is painted, at an order which exists beyond the external appearances of the world. St. Mark's Gospel ends with the discovery of the empty tomb by women on Easter Day.

... I know no more than this, for all my branches
are at rest, moving only with the wind ..
from «The Book of the Cloistered Life» (1899) Rainer Maria Rilke