Chavdar Mutafov is the first Bulgarian writer to conceptualize how 20th-century spirituality was transformed by the mechanization of human life. His vision of the new epoch in the development of European civilization is ambiguous, however. In his essays and public lectures on fine arts and dance and on the new-born arts of cinema, poster design, and caricature, he appreciates the economic plenitude and the inevitable changes imposed on European culture by mass production. At the same time, Mutafov’s works of fiction suggest that he was very aware that this new phenomenon would have dangerous side effects on humanity.
Mutafov’s pioneer position as an advocate of Modernism in interwar Bulgaria resulted to a great extent from the circumstances of his life. During his studies in Munich (engineering 1908–14, and architecture 1923–25) he was fascinated with the avant-garde.
Afterwards, in Bulgaria, he combined his work as a professional architect and writer with a genuine and enduring interest in the implications of the impetuous development of technology.
Mutafov considered promoting avant-garde ideas among Bulgarian intellectuals and a mass audience as an important cultural mission. The numerous talks on modern art, cinema, music, and industrial design that he gave throughout the country honed his expositional skills for his essays (published mainly in the popular interwar Bulgarian literary-cultural monthly Zlatorog [Goldenhorn]). Mutafov realized that, if his essays were to be read by a general audience, they had first and foremost to inform, and to persuade not by means of mere rhetoric, but by objective representation and analysis of factual data. Thus he usually begins by locating the topic in its natural Western European environment, and only then proceeds to discuss its Bulgarian analogues. “Peizazhut I nashite khudozhnitsi” (1920; Landscape painting and our painters) is schematically typical: Mutafov starts with general statements on the relation between the world of art and the real world, goes on to reflect on the function of the soul as a mediator between the two worlds, and finally presents the cultural phenomenon—landscape painting—as an expression of man’s philosophical relation to existence, a kind of “metaphysics of art.”
Only after this setting is completed does he portray a few then popular Bulgarian painters and inquires into Bulgarian Modernist art as an organic part of European Modernism. “Peizazhut i nashite khudozhnitsi” is also representative of Mutafov’s holistic approach to whatever phenomenon of culture he analyzes, but “Liniiata v izobrazitelnoto izkustvo” (1920; Line in visual art) and “Plakatut” (1921; Poster) are exemplary in this respect. These essays are concerned with the phenomena Bulgarians were to become aware of much later. The former presents a brief history of visual art through the development of the symbolism of line; the latter is devoted to the idiosyncrasy of the perception of the poster as a kind of decorative art, a combination of the banal and the artful which becomes possible only in an urban environment. In both cases Mutafov is concerned with the unique new features of the objects under scrutiny, analyzing them comprehensively. Both essays reveal a writer who has mastered succinctness to perfection.
Compared to that of other Bulgarian essay writers, Mutafov’s style seems strikingly objective and condensed, sometimes even elliptical, and by the same token dry and alien to the Bulgarian rhetorical tradition. Perhaps the only exception is his essay “Zeleniiat kon” (1920; The green horse), a passionate manifesto and defense of expressionism and of what Kandinskii calls “inner necessity” in art.
During the 1920s Mutafov was one of the most interesting and ambiguous figures in Bulgarian cultural life. Although not always appreciated by his audience, which was in principle suspicious of the “anti-realistic” Western fashions, Mutafov managed to popularize his “ultramodern absurdities and eccentricities,” as his all-encompassing vision of the modern times was called by some homespun critics (Hiperion, 1928).
Mutafov’s works of fiction—expressionistic short stories, grotesques, and “impressions,” and the “decorative novel” Diletant (1926; Dilettante)—greatly complicate this vision.
They testify to his awareness of the dehumanizing side of mass production and disclose the limitations of Modernism in its search for entirely new artistic expression; consequently, they were even less understood by the public.
Mutafov might have been a leading figure among Bulgarian expressionists were it not for their central concern with social issues, which interested Mutafov only through the prism of the ultimate existential questions. Despite his pro-Western orientation, he did not become a leader of the pro-Western trend in Bulgarian cultural life either. While adherents of the West stated that Romantic subjectivism should set the vectors for the Europeanization of Bulgarian literature and art, Mutafov was convinced that the time for the objectification of the self had come. He remained a “dangerously premature pioneer in a sleepy culture,” as Dimitur Avramov summarized Mutafov’s position in Bulgarian intellectual life (“Podraniliiat modernist” [1972.; The premature Modernist]).
Under communism the ideology of “socialist realism,” the only officially permitted critical approach, excluded Mutafov, along with other “ideologically incorrect writers,” from the group of published authors, as well as from the surveys and textbooks on Bulgarian literature and art. In fact, Mutafov was the only Bulgarian writer to be officially designated as an author with a fascist orientation (Rechnik na Bulgarskata literatura [1970; Dictionary of Bulgarian literature]), without any supporting evidence. In the 1990s the interest in Mutafov’s output has grown, and in 1993 a selection of his essays was published for the first time.
Even without taking into consideration Mutafov’s courage to publicize ideas from the urbane culture of Western Europe in a basically agrarian Bulgaria, his vision of modern spirituality impresses us with its integrity and potential. Mutafov realized that no matter how backward his native country was after World War I, its culture could not remain unaffected by the birth of technological civilization in Western Europe. In this respect he clearly differed from both those who maintained the idea of “unique native art” (rodno izkustvo) and those who believed that Bulgarian culture should be open only to the classical models of Western literature and art.
Born 19 September 1899 in Sevlievo. Studied civil engineering, 1908–14, and architecture, 1923–25, in Munich. Worked as a professional architect. Contributor to various journals, including Vezni (Libra), Zlatorog, and Demokraticheski pregled (Democratic review). Associated with the pro-West group Strelets (Archer), which included Konstantin Gulabov, Atanas Dalchev, Ivan Mirchev, and other poets and artists: editor of its journals Iztok (East) and Strelets. Married Fani Popova-Mutafova. Under communism, unpublished and subject to censorship. Died in Sofia, 10 March 1954.
Other writings: the novel Diletant (1926), short stories, and grotesques.
Avramov, Dimitur, “Podraniliiat modernist” and “Buntât na ekspresionizma,” in his Dialog mezhdu dve izkustva, Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel, 1993
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