Christo Stefanoff, Sea landscape, 1960, oil, canvas
Foto: Tsvetan Ignatovski
Christo Stefanoff, Sea landscape, 1960, oil, canvas
Foto: Tsvetan Ignatovski
Text: Magdalena Gigova
The construction entrepreneur and philanthropist, Ignat Kaneff, donated to the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund an oil painting by Professor Christo Stefanoff from Canada, an artist not known to anyone in Bulgaria.
Today, the painting of the surging sea hangs in a prominent position at the Fund’s headquarters, and visitors instinctively stare at the breaking waves. Who is the artist? How did he end up in Canada? The answers come mainly from the website http://christostefanoff.com/, dedicated to the Bulgarian creator, and from various sources of the country of the maple leaf.
The life of the artist, born on 6 April 1898 in Kazanlak, is like a complete screenplay for a film. Revealing his gift as an artist at an early age, he effusively recreated the beautiful nature of his native place. His secondary school teacher in Ruschuk persuaded him to apply to the drawing school, the predecessor of the Academy of Arts. The demanding professor, Ivan Mrkvička, appreciated his talent and took him under his wing.
With his help, the newly graduated Christo Stefanoff was commissioned to paint the ‘Panorama of the Battles near Stara Zagora, 1877–78’. The ministers of education and war, as well as Tsar Boris III himself, were fascinated by his gift and awarded him the title of ‘Professor’.
Along with recognition, his travels around the world began: Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, Trieste… During a stay in Vienna, the Bulgarian began to paint, adopting a new method by using a palette knife instead of a brush, a technique that gave a three-dimensional appearance to the painting. This incredible manner of applying the paint imparted a unique individuality to his works. The effect of the mass of paint dominates and evokes a feeling of grandeur, brilliance and splendour. The painting, owned by the NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’, was executed with this same technique.
In 1927, he found himself in Budapest, in the studio of Philip de László, one of the most well-known portraitists in the world. Miklós Horthy, Regent of Hungary, bought one of Stefanoff’s paintings. The Bulgarian was already among the most famous artists in Europe. Mussolini posed for a portrait; King Victor Emmanuel of Italy owned a canvas by him. Stefanoff held exhibitions in Venice, Rome, Naples, Madrid, Barcelona, Warsaw, Morocco, Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris, Lyon, Casablanca, Damascus, Baghdad, Ankara, Amsterdam, and Monte Carlo.
His reputation as a portraitist was growing. The artist painted the Spanish President Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, Swiss President Giuseppe Motta, and the Nobel Prize-winner, Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. Imperial clients, such as Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, considered it an honour to have works of his in their personal collections.
Christo Stefanoff’s European fame flew across the ocean and, in 1931, his exhibition in Chicago won stunning success. It inevitably took him to Hollywood, where he painted portraits of the film stars Greta Garbo and Conrad Veidt. His wanderings around the world continued, his exhibitions multiplied. In 1934, the landscapes of Poland fascinated him, and he decided to settle there. The following year, he devoted an entire Impressionistic exhibition to the history of his new homeland. It was in the Slavic state that Christo also found love. He married Irena Płudowska and adopted Polish citizenship. They established themselves in Zakopane, a popular ski resort in the Tatra Mountains, where Stefanoff created numerous winter landscapes. Leading critics wrote about the artist: ‘unsurpassed colourist’, ‘life gushes from his paintings and they are a delight for all the senses’.
On 1 September 1939, their idyll ended. Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. The Second World War began, inevitably translating itself into the glow of his paintings. The Bulgarian heart of the artist was compassionate: he became a member of Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews in Poland. But the Gestapo was on his tail. In July 1941, he was arrested, and imprisoned and tortured in an underground cell for two months. He was then transferred to a Nazi prison in Berlin. He was released for a short time and Christo managed to escape with his wife. They hid in the Tatras near Zakopane. Despite all difficulties, he found the strength to paint. Not long after, Stefanoff was arrested with his wife in Lemberg. According to some sources, also with them was their five-year-old son, who later died in a concentration camp. The Hitlerites separated the artist from his partner. The creator became simply No. 93494 in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and No. 111706 in Nordhausen-Dora. He spent the last months of the war in the Bergen-Belsen death camp.
In April 1945, the tortured artist was released, but knew nothing about his wife, who was in the women’s ward. The British military governor, moved by Stefanoff’s love, helped him find her. A deeply touching meeting ensued. The couple took refuge, along with other surviving compatriots, in West Germany. Stefanoff went back to painting. His first assignment was a triptych for the Netherlandish city of Breda. He decided to donate the finished painting, created with paints and materials provided by the liberators. The canvas was hung in the town hall.
A year later, in 1946, he held his first exhibition after the war, also in Breda. It was described as ‘one of the greatest events in the Netherlands’ in the post-war period. His painting of the Battle of Monte Cassino, where nearly 1,000 Poles died for the liberation of the Netherlands, was bought for 3,000 guilders. Christo Stefanoff also produced one of the best portraits of Juliana, Queen of the Netherlands.
Christo Stefanoff and Irena decided to emigrate to Canada to shake off the memories that, despite the success of his exhibitions, Europe invoked. The artistic circles in Montreal welcomed him cordially and he held an exhibition, about which the local La Presse newspaper wrote on 25 March 1952: ‘Bulgarian-born Christo Stefanoff, considered one of the most popular people of art in Europe, chose Canada to show his paintings’. The subject matter comprised mostly portraits and landscapes, but there were also canvases with religious themes or memories of the horrors of war.
Three years later, he and his wife became Canadian citizens. The Bulgarian conceived the idea of a Stefanoff Art Centre. But the owner of ‘Cyclorama of Jerusalem’, George Blouin, after months of interviews and an extensive search among renowned artists, asked Stefanoff to restore the famous 19th-century masterpiece. Over the next few years, after intensive work and efforts, Professor Stefanoff gave a new look to the ‘Cyclorama of Jerusalem’.
The owner was evidently pleased with the result. He wrote: ‘I hereby declare that Professor Christo Stefanoff is among the most celebrated panoramic artists in the world today, with international fame.’
After restoring the painting, the artist returned to his dream of a Stefanoff Art Centre. By 6 June 1961, he had acquired all the official permits to establish a foundation. His designs for this centre were to include a museum, a library, a church, a school of fine arts and ballet, an amphitheatre and student dormitories.
Probably, his efforts in the realisation of the project were too much to handle. In early December 1965, Christo Stefanoff suffered a brain haemorrhage. On 8 March 1966, he departed this life. His funeral service was held in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, one of the many churches he had restored.
His widow, despite the high prices offered to her, guards his works jealously. Most of them are kept in the Stefanoff Museum in Val-David, Quebec, which has been closed for over 30 years. Irena’s nephew, Robert Płudowski, said: ‘We must do everything possible for him to be remembered.’ That is why he created the website, http://christostefanoff.com.
He has also hired a lawyer to track down works by Christo Stefanoff.
Всички фотографии са публикувани на: http://christostefanoff.com/