The Consulate General of Bulgaria in Los Angeles put up a plaque commemorating the eminent Bulgarian sculptor Atanas Katchamakoff and his wife Alexandra at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.
The talented family bequeathed half their property to the educational institution and, to this day, it awards two scholarships in their name to gifted students.
At the time of the installation of the commemorative plaque on 19.12.2022, Consul General Boyko Hristov and the leadership of the Faculty of Arts and Design at La Sierra University agreed on conducting joint initiatives, such as exhibitions of Bulgarian artists in the faculty’s gallery, reciprocal American exhibitions in Bulgaria, as well as other ideas for cooperation.
The artist’s personality is more than intriguing, but unfortunately almost unknown in Bulgaria. Atanas Simov Katchamakoff (1898–1988) was a Bulgarian sculptor who lived and carved out a successful career in the USA. He was born in Lyaskovets and studied Sculpture at the Academy of Arts in Sofia, under Prof. Ivan Lazarov. Together with his wife Alexandra, a ceramic artist, he left for Paris and then, in 1924, settled in New York, where his sculpture, ‘Indian Woman and Child’, was included in a prestigious exhibition, winning him First Prize. (Katchamakoff donated variants of the figure to the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund, adding a valuable asset to the Fund’s treasury. In the 1930s, Rosenthal Selb-Bavaria, the famous German porcelain manufacturer, made a copy of the sculpture.—Ed.)
In the USA, the artist held exhibitions in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.
In the early 1980s, Katchamakoff visited Bulgaria and held a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Sofia. He donated the works shown there to his native Lyaskovets. At the same time, the thirty drawings accompanied by the authorial texts from the ‘Our Daily Bread’ exhibition became the property of NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria through a generous gesture on the part of the artist. After that… they disappeared.
How did they reappear? Who discovered them for the world? The answers to these questions, as well as more details about Atanas Katchamakoff as a personality, are provided by Kin Stoyanov, a former director of the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund (1992–1995 and 1997–2005).
KIN STOYANOV: The reappearance of Atanas Katchamakoff’s 30 drawings from the ‘Our Daily Bread’ cycle is connected with a concurrence of interlinked circumstances—even with an element of scandal! Let us begin with the fact that, today, we would not have Kvadrat 500 but instead a Turkish hotel erected in its place if, in 2004, Bisera Yosifova had not publicised the intention of the then Minister of Culture, Bozhidar Abrashev, to transform the gallery into a hotel. There was Turkish investor interest. As Deputy Minister of Culture, Bisera countered and was dismissed by the Saxe-Coburg government.
We, the people who know her, appreciated both her civic position and her qualities, and were in full solidarity with her. As the director of NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’, I offered her a fixed-term contract to conduct an inspection of the works of art donated to the Fund.
There is one more thing I should like to point out, here. After 2005, the Fund’s official establishment was backdated twice. NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ was founded as a state public organisation by Decree No. 56 of the Council of Ministers on 20.12.1980. Those who doubt this fact can look up that issue of the State Gazette.
In 2004, Arch. Emma Moskova was no longer Minister of Culture, but, according to the law in force at the time, her mandate as chair of the Fund’s Management Council had not expired. She and I launched a programme to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’.
Professor Ivan Gazdov designed the logo. And in order to present the Fund to the Bulgarian public in the best way possible, I assigned the review of absolutely all assets connected with donated works of art to Bisera Yosifova.
I always argued that the ‘13 Centuries’ Fund, from the point of view of the donations it had received, exceeded the value of Bulgaria’s foreign debt when we entered the transition [period]. Bisera started with what was kept in the building donated by Prof. Vasil Gerov—the organisation’s administration centre. During the mandate of the then Management Council, we succeeded in convincing Sofia Municipality to name the square connecting Acacia and Rozova Dolina Streets after our donor, Prof. Vasil Gerov.
One day, extremely excited, Bisera entered my office, exclaiming: ‘You’ll never guess what I found under a cast iron tub on the fourth floor, beneath the roof!’ Here, I mention in parenthesis that, after 1990, due to the restitution [of property], the Fund had to move out of the building at 17, Moskovska Street. The director at the time decided that the house donated by Professor Vasil Gerov was convenient for accommodating the headquarters; and perhaps they scrambled out too hastily.
But, either way, Bisera Yosifova had come across Atanas Katchamakoff’s drawings and his authorial text in three languages. Fate once again played its extraordinary tricks. For it transpired that the artist, as an immigrant to the United States and a person well represented in the cultural circles of California, involved in film productions and Hollywood, maintained a correspondence with the Bulgarian legation. At that time, Simeon Radev was the extraordinary and plenipotentiary minister, while the chancellor at the legation was Bisera’s husband’s grandfather. She is married to the famous Bulgarian artist, Atanas Andasarov, whose grandfather, Konstadin Popatanasov, was the legation’s chancellor in Washington and, later, the consul in New York. He was one of Katchamakoff’s closest friends. Despite the then level of telecommunications across that vast country, they were in constant contact.
Of all Bulgarian art historians, the most appropriate person to discover Atanas Katchamakoff’s drawings turned out to be Bisera Yosifova, who was very closely acquainted with the archives and correspondence of her husband’s grandfather.
During my time as director, the sculptor’s personal copy of his award-winning work, ‘Indian Woman and Child’, greeted visitors at the Fund’s entrance.
If we were to delve into the matter purely from an accounting perspective, we should see that Atanas Katchamakoff was one of the most generous donors to NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’. This discovery motivated us to publish the remarkable find in a book and to mount an exhibition. Before the publication of ‘Our Daily Bread’, another of the Fund’s magnanimous donors, Ivan Gazdov, designed a calendar with his ‘graphicatour’ on the cover, also for the 25th anniversary.
I do not have the self-confidence to comment on the considerable significance of Atanas Katchamakoff in the field of contemporary art on an international scale, as Bisera Yosifova has written an incredible foreword to the book. Anything I might add would seem ignorant. However, from a purely culturological point of view, I may say that Katchamakoff and his wife Alexandra fitted into something that was only beginning to emerge in global culture between the two world wars. And this was the emphasis on the ethnic theme. In its present form, we have even grown a little tired of it; it has developed into the term, ‘multi-culti’.
‘Indian Woman and Child’ won a prestigious award in New York, where the Rockefeller Foundation was also involved. And Katchamakoff’s cycle, ‘Our Daily Bread’? In practice, wheat is the main crop of Western civilisation, just as rice reigns in the East. There are archetypal associations, extremely important and valued.
This is not to mention that nostalgia for his homeland had made Atanas Katchamakoff too silver-tongued. Obviously, in addition to his work in major Hollywood super-productions (‘Ben-Hur’, ‘The King of Kings’, ‘Helen of Troy’, and ‘Noah’s Ark’—Ed.), his circle of friends was composed of intellectuals who encouraged his writing, while journalist Monica Shannon practically ‘midwifed’ the creation of the children’s novel ‘Dobry’ that recounted the life of a Bulgarian peasant boy—a novel that became a bestseller in the USA.
(There, it underwent 13 reprints, and in 1935, it won the John Newbury Gold Medal—the first and most prestigious award for children’s literature, established by the American Library Association, with President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, on the jury. Thanks to NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’, the novel ‘Dobry’ was published in Bulgarian in 2021 and distributed free of charge to Bulgarian schools around the world—Ed.)
The original copies of ‘Dobry’ from the 1930s are kept in Bisera Yosifova’s personal archive.
In the preface to the NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ publication of ‘Our Daily Bread’, Bisera Yosifova quoted extracts from the correspondence between Atanas Katchamakoff and the diplomat Konstantin Popatanasov, her husband’s grandfather.
At the end of 2004, we published the book, magnificently designed by Ivelina Velinova, one of the most worthy of Atanas Neykov’s students, and prepared the exhibition. The most logical place to present it was in the heart of Dobrudzha, in Silistra—no matter that Katchamakoff was born in Lyaskovets!
I shall never forget—the winter at the beginning of 2005 was extremely bitter. At that time, NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ had a strong structure in Silistra, led by our colleague Tsvetana Tsanova, an incredible patriot of the Fund, and a serious, socially active person on a regional scale. Despite snowdrifts and heavy snowfall, we opened the exhibition in Silistra at the beginning of January. After that, it travelled all over Bulgaria.
It was on three main pillars that the marking of the Fund’s 25th anniversary rested. These were Atanas Katchamakoff’s book, ‘Our Daily Bread’, and the exhibition of the same name; the exhibition of books that had been published with the Fund’s support; and the third, again, was to the credit of Bisera Yosifova. She arranged a most remarkable exhibition of masterpieces of Bulgarian art donated to NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’, which toured those places where there were such works: to Tryavna and Kazanlak with the paintings of Dechko Uzunov and Nenko Balkanski, and other works donated by classic practitioners of Bulgarian art.
I must also emphasise the Fund’s close cooperation with the St Kliment Ohridski Sofia University publishing house. NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ bought a high-quality printing machine, on which their books are still published to this day. But we did not provide it free of charge; we set the condition that the Fund should receive print production worth USD40,000 for a period of 15 years. And thus, we secured our publishing programme.
All applications submitted by the publishing houses for support from NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ were examined by an editorial board of authoritative standing, chaired by Academician Vera Mutafchieva. Once approved, publishers were given the opportunity to print the approved title free of charge at the University Press, but we had linked the Fund’s publishing programme to market principles. In this way, the Savremennik [Contemporary] magazine was published for many years. Unfortunately, after 2005, the Fund offered support only within the framework of its state subsidy.
Speaking of printing, it would be good to republish Katchamakoff’s ‘Our Daily Bread’. Moreover, modern printing allows for smaller print runs according to demand.
Now, NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ has a newly appointed executive director in the person of Bisera Yosifova, and a new Managing Council. They are the ones to implement policy. Of course, if they were to ask me, I would tell them; but that’s another story. For more than 10 years, I was the director of NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’. At that time, I was unfaithful to my journalistic profession, but, like a deceived wife, it forgave me and accepted me back again. At the moment, I am a husband true to my profession, but I could still be of assistance.
For people who dabble in mysticism or Kabbalah, I shall digress a little: whatever trouble NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ has been through, the document with which it was founded was issued on 20 December. This is Ignazhden [St Ignatius’ Day], and there is no power that can terminate it.
But let’s go back to Atanas Katchamakoff. The news is that, at La Sierra University in California, with the assistance of the Bulgarian Consulate in Los Angeles, a commemorative plaque was put up in his honour.
The Fund could put into action many more initiatives. I had the opportunity of working in Gotse Delchev at the Institute for the History of Bulgarian Emigration in North America, a unique body founded by another of our emigrants, Dr Ivan Gadzhev. The archives also held material on Atanas Katchamakoff. The Bulgarian diaspora is currently showing a truly lively interest and, sooner or later, the Bulgarian state will also show some interest in what Dr Ivan Gadzhev has achieved. And after the Rodna Stryaha [Native Roof] House was destroyed, an institute for the history of Bulgarian emigration around the world should be established, at the very least. No matter that it is in Gotse Delchev—we are the Europe of the Regions, aren’t we? Atanas Katchamakoff could become a unifying stimulus.
Who knows? Perhaps in the future, ‘Our Daily Bread’ will provide bread for successful work with Bulgarians abroad, something that would present the Fund in a favourable light.