A Touch of Lace: The History of Women’s Ceramic Artwork in Bulgaria
In modern Bulgaria, ceramic works stand out with their fine appearance due to the female influence in clay artworks. With sensibility embracing the artist’s handcraft, one can unmistakably recognize ceramic articles created by a woman. The inscrutable female spirit strokes with tenderness in both color variations and textures. Aesthetics, grace, spirituality, and love distinguish the clay works.
Female artists have claimed the ceramic field since prehistoric times. In many tribal cultures, female artists have been part of the ceramic tradition with artwork symbolizing family rituals protecting the home.
In Bulgaria, clay work was traditionally done by men – those who had the opportunity to become artisan craftsmen and make pottery. Historical evidence suggests that pottery used to be a male only field, with no substantial female presence. Perhaps the reasons were in the laborious process of clay work, the closed patriarchal society, and the social perceptions of male and female roles. The division of roles prevented women from developing their potential in clay arts, redirecting them instead toward the creation of textiles, embroideries, and laces. The textile tradition is evident in women’s modern-day clay handcrafts, with embroidery and lace intertwined in the design of clay mugs, jugs, and bowls.
The first information about Bulgarian female clay artists emerged with the introduction of a clay arts major at the state art school (1896), which later grew into the National Academy of Arts (NAA). Professor Stefan Dimitrov was the first ceramist art professor who used a variety of modern techniques. In particular, he introduced the overglazing of porcelain using decorative details typical of the Bulgarian female textile tradition in order to popularize porcelain, which had previously been unknown in Bulgaria. During this period, photographic material showed for the first time female artists in ceramic’s decoration studios. (Figure 1), (Figure2)
Figura 2. NAA students – department of ceramic
Female artists entered the ceramic art in the early 20th century. The Vienna studios and Bauhaus are some examples of this trend in Europe. In Bulgaria, female decorators of fine ceramic artworks (e.g., Emilia Panayotova – ceramist, Spassuna Ilieva – decorator) emerged with the establishment of the Izida factory. The Kitka factory in the town of Novi Pazar, as well as the factories in Razgrad and Vidin provided new opportunities to female decorators and artists in mass production of ceramic articles. (Figura 3.), (Figura 4.).
Figure 3. A team of female decorators at the Kitka factory
(archive of E. Panayotova), (1956)
Figure 4. Emilia Panayotova decorates vessels and a series of figurines inspired by “The Spring of the Belonoga”. (Archives of E. Panayotova), (1961)
Female ceramic artists thrived in (1970 – 1990) when the objectives of clay art evolved beyond the typical utilitarian functions. New genres emerged, such as ceramic still-life and interior and exterior monumental panels. Female artists developed both new genres and new fine aesthetics. The first professional clay artist group “Conus” was created and welcomed female artists.
Docent Violeta Vasilchina who was one of the most distinguished Bulgarian researchers of clay art worked during that period. Some of the most prominent female ceramic artists during that period were: Lina Kancheva, Milka Stoyanova, Nadezhda Vassileva, Sasha Baleva, Antonina Konzova, Pepa Daskalova, Yova Raevska, Emilia Panayotova, Bozana Atanasova, Elena Robert Vasileva, Ekaterina Zolotova, Ivana Eneva, Dima Karamandieva, Yoanna Kemileva, Rossitsa Trendafilova, Ivona Stoianova, Yulia Stoyanova, Greta Grigorova, Zlatka Panova, Nelly Hristova, Elena Bonova, Sylvia and Elena Chaneva, Margit Tzenkova, Yanina Stoyanova, Brigitte Bernar, Margarita Tomova, Ekaterina Genova, Lyudmila Chankova, Zorina Milkovska, Petrina Harizanova, Valeria Georgieva, Elena Tanova. In parallel, independent artists emerged with specific ceramic art such as Eli Nedelcheva, Rosa Vasileva and Totka Marinova. Bulgarian female clay artists educated abroad also introduced new aesthetics, influenced by fine ceramic techniques.
Bulgarian female ceramist artists started participating in international competitions, winning distinguished awards. One such international cultural event was the Faenza Biennial. Among the winners were Julia Stoyanova (1974) and Zlatka Panova (1978). In 1990, “Who Is Who” of Professional and Business Women, nominated Prof. Ivana Eneva as Woman of the Year, the first woman in a distinctively male field.
In 1994, I. Eneva was the first female teacher in department of ceramic. In 2004, she is the first female professor, in this department at the NAA. As her student, I had the opportunity to defend the first PhD in ceramic art at the NAA, which was an incredible opportunity and honor for me. My future research endeavors will take a fresh look at the overall female presence in Bulgarian clay art and the aesthetic influence of female artists in ceramics.