Interview conducted by Emily Tallo
Anastas Konstantinov speaks through an interpreter, so his words arrive slowly and thoughtfully from his home country of Bulgaria to the breezy recesses of an upstairs room of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I am. This is the twenty first century: a Skype call across continents. Yet I feel as if I could have conducted this interview a hundred years prior, since Anastas’ thoughts on everything from art to his own Bulgarian heritage are so timeless and transcendent. His beliefs are powerful, distinctive, spiritual—so I cannot help feeling some of the same emotions that I feel when I contemplate his art. I am beginning to find that Anastas is not merely a painter, but a force of life as well. Read on to hear the words of the Bulgarian artist to whom this website is dedicated.
What was it like growing up as a child under the communist regime?
There is a section at the beginning of the retrospective catalogue about my childhood that was written in stream-of-consciousness technique without any verbs. It demonstrates my memories of childhood. A child is a child whether he is raised under communism or democracy. Children are not very conscious of communism, so what I can tell you about my childhood was that it was a very, very happy childhood. Without living through this childhood in Bulgaria I probably wouldn’t have become a painter.
Why is that?
Plovdiv is very ancient. It was proven that people lived in the location of [Anastas Gallery] over 8,000 years ago. Plovdiv is unlike any city in Bulgaria and unlike any city in the world. It is more ancient than Rome itself. I can feel the spirit of this land.
Did you know you were going to be an artist growing up? If not, when did you know and how did you go about that?
When I was a young boy, I began appreciating the females around me. I started drawing their portraits and one day I understood that I was going to become an artist. When I was a teenager, I enrolled in an art school and when I finished that there was a mandatory military service here in Bulgaria that every young man had to endure. This was a privilege for me because I had a crazy general who loved art and let me do my art instead of military service. So, for the two years when I was supposed to be doing military service I was making art. It’s a very long story and it might sound funny but that’s the truth. After the military service I was admitted to another university and I went to study there. I ended up with a degree in painting. I took classes with one of the greatest communist professors in the university, so he made me redo my paintings all the time, and I always ended up with two paintings: one made out of my own criteria, and one made out of his criteria. I was making twice as much as the other students at the university, so I would hear them say things like, “Leave this crazy man who is painting all the time.” I was considered the insane guy because I was only painting.
How do you think living under communist rule influenced your artistic development?
I am very lucky because I didn’t just watch communism in the movies. I lived it. This is an advantage when compared to other artists in the world because I had the privilege to live through the two systems: communism and democracy. This gives an advantage to my works of art because this is the ultimate experience. If you survive through communist rule, you end up a gladiator. There is nothing that can scare you or even become an obstacle for you in life anymore. There is one thing I believe about art: a scared person cannot amaze the world.
Tell me about the 1986 exhibition that was shut down and your reaction to that.
They shut down this exhibition, calling it ideological diversion and religious propaganda. I was thirty minutes late to my own exhibition because I met a friend on the street who stopped me to chat for a while, and in this way God saved me. When I got to where the exhibition was, the curator there was white as a canvas. She was shaking and wouldn’t tell me what happened. Some of my works of art were on the floor broken into pieces. This was a conceptual installation. At that time installations were quite rare. I would not be surprised if this was the first installation ever done in Bulgaria. But I was a blessed man because Gorbachev came into power just a year before. If this exhibition had taken place just a year or two earlier, I would probably have been thrown into a concentration camp. I was called several times to the police to give explanations. My colleagues expelled me from the Bulgarian Union of Artists. By that time there was a radio station that was called “Free Europe” that was broadcasting from Germany. It was forbidden here in Bulgaria, but there were some ways you could listen to this. They called me and requested to interview me. When I delivered this interview, I became somewhat famous among the freethinking people here in Bulgaria. Someone from the secret services visited me to warn me that I already had a file with them and that I was being spied on all that time. When he told me this, I had the courage to tell him that the more he rang the [proverbial] bell, the more my voice would be heard throughout Europe and the world. We know a producer who might be interested in a movie on this part of my life.
What impact did the fall of the Iron Curtain have on your art?
I read the interview with Ken Robbins, and this man, whom I greatly admire, had some great insight. I was using art as a weapon, and I was hoping that through my art and other goodwill, we would be able to abolish this communist regime. This is why I started laughing when I was walking through the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, because he had the liberty to create while I was fighting for this liberty, fighting with my heart to eliminate this regime. Andy Warhol is a great product of this American system because he shook up art. He was a great artist in my opinion, at a time when Russian socialists couldn’t produce one great artist. I painted at that time anti-socialist artwork. I was hoping that my art, my spirit, and God’s Will would abolish the communist regime. [When the communist regime ended,] I started creating a different kind of art, although I was still a gladiator. But the paintings at that time were painted by a free spirit.
What are your goals now in your artistic career? Do you feel you’ve had success?
Real artists don’t have concrete goals. People appreciate my art. Usually special doors open in their consciousness and these doors open into their souls. They start discovering sensitivity that they do not realize lies within them. So the connection between the making of art and the public is very important. The community has given me so much, so I consider it a goal of my art to give something to the community. Success can be defined only by liberty. If I have liberty, success will come shortly. When I don’t have freedom, it means that I am constrained and my art won’t reach that significant goal of conveying meaning. The artist must also neglect his ego, and in doing so he allows the spirit to give meaning to the public through his art. The artist himself is not that important, the spirit is the important part. That is why I believe art and God love each other in some way; they have some special relationship. Michelangelo was here one evening. He went to my studio and brought out a blank canvas. He asked me what do you think of this white canvas? I answered that this was a very serious task he was giving me. He asked me why. I told him because you need to step into the shoes of the Creator; just like God, you need to create something out of nothing. Of course, an artist cannot be God, I realize that. But the talents of the artist are given by God in order to make a contribution to the community.
What does commercial success mean to you?
Commercial success is essential for professional artists, precisely because when a person is living on art, he needs to have resources to cover canvases, paints, and other materials. This is the cost of being an artist. But the primary aim of the artist can never be money. Money is a necessity that gives liberty to the artist, the liberty not to be dependent on the fluctuations in the market. There is a very bad trend in the world created by galleries because galleries are trying to impose on the artist how to paint, what to paint, because they would like to have some more money, and this is something which kills art. The artist should make art for art’s sake, not necessarily to sell it. The main goal of art is to display the spirit. What is the meaning of art if it does not give birth to at least one sacred thought?
What is the ultimate goal of the US Project to you?
It would be good to respond in one sentence: what is the ultimate aim of a life? Of course, for the artist the ultimate aim of such a process is that his or her art would reach a greater audience, but this cannot occur at any cost. For example, the liberty because of money that I was talking about earlier. We can take, for example, Van Gogh, who sold only one painting throughout his life. He only had liberty because of his brother Theo, who gave him money to survive. That’s why when you are reading the letters between Theo and Van Gogh, you can see they are elaborating on two topics really: one is God, and the other is money.
I do believe that Michelangelo and I have one and the same ultimate goal for the US Project, and this is to get become a top artist in America. I’m sure this is quite possible. Michelangelo believes in this as well. During my life under the communist regime, I had a few very dramatic moments with my exhibitions, as you know. They were threatening me with a concentration camp. They were asking me what my art is about. But fortunately they could not break down my spirit. Ultimately the US Project is about bringing happiness and success to Michelangelo and me. Such success and happiness would provide us with the ultimate liberty we are striving for: to be able to experiment and create something even greater than what we have now. This is why Michelangelo and I would gladly invite anyone who is willing to push the rock to the top of the mountain with us.
Moving onto your art: critics and friends have said that your art has a spiritual quality to it. How much of this is intentional?
The world that appears in my paintings I consider more real than the physical world that I live in. That is the reason art should live longer than the artist. I am not conscious about everything in this world of paintings, and if I put it into words, it would lose its meaning. If I felt I had to explain it to the people, I should have become a writer, not an artist. I’m not trying to tell stories. The things should be intuitive. This is my language to speak to and touch people, and hopefully it can open a door in their consciousness. They can look inward at themselves and find an undiscovered sensitivity that they carry within. This is the goal of art: to provoke people to discover something that they didn’t know they carried within.
What about the symbols that occur in your paintings? Are these intentionally placed into the painting?
I never plan. Everything that I create is the fruit of my subconscious and my experience.
Some of the really important paintings of my career are laden with symbols. I have no idea what some of these symbols mean. For example, the painting of the Holy Mother: when I completed the painting, I read the story of Mary. It was just then that I could understand the meaning of some of the symbols that are in that painting. So the painter receives this information not from literature or from words or from life; there is another connection between the artist and what he creates. There is a lot of new symbolism in many of my paintings that is not easy to explain. But when some of the people who are collecting or reviewing my art look at my paintings, they find symbols that I had never thought I was painting.
A more particular question simply because I am curious: what is the meaning of the fish symbol that recurs in your art?
I have a lot of symbols in my works of art, and the fish is one that is recurrent. During the Roman Empire, Christians were chased down and killed because of their religion. The fish was their symbol. In 313 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother decreed [in the Edict of Milan] that Christianity would be a valid religion within the Roman Empire. This symbol is also connected to my surname, because my fish symbol is often seems as though it is being resurrected. My name, Anastas, means resurrection, so this fish means so much to me. My fish has twelve fingers, which symbolize the twelve Disciples of Christ. But my art is not symbolism. I use symbolism, but some of my paintings are completely symbol-free.
You mentioned the Thracians earlier. How does your Bulgarian heritage influence your artwork?
I was highly impressed by the so-called Thracian mounds. These were small hills that were made out of sand. When I was a child they were taller than me and people told me there were people and treasures buried in these mounds. This was highly nutritious for my imagination, because I didn’t know anything about them but something about them attracted me. Later I was admitted to study at the art school, and I started to realize what it was all about. I started seeing the golden treasures of these mounds in the museums. There is still a lot of gold in these mounds throughout Bulgaria, but it is not precious because it is a precious metal, but because of its artistic quality.
So, when I went to art school, very strange images of animals and people began to appear in my paintings, which I created without ever seeing firsthand. Years after, when I had the chance to see the collections of some people, I could see how my art imitated what the Thracians created thousands of years ago. Ancient Greece recruited artists from Thrace—they were very gifted and had incredible talent. This Thracian heritage enriched my art. To me and some of my collectors it was really amazing to discover how it was possible to receive that information from thousands of years ago and to put it on the canvas without ever seeing it. The figures in my art are not living, but they are created in the context of contemporary art. This is why I use this phrase, which I heard from a collector of mine, he told me, “You are resurrecting the spirit of our ancestors through your art and sending it through to the future.”
Thanks for the interview, Anastas!