Socialist art museum opens, quietly

I didn’t know quite what do with myself this morning at Bulgaria’s new Museum of Socialist Art.

I arrived around 12:30 – about an hour after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had been scheduled to cut the ribbon. By the time I got there, the media scrum had mostly departed. A few stragglers gulped down a bit of wine and cheese under tents that had been set up near the bust of Che Guevara.

Out in the sculpture garden, too, things were largely quiet amid the statuary of this country’s 40 years under communist rule. An elderly couple were in the midst of a heated discussion in Bulgarian. A television reporter finished a report seated  – I’m not making this up – in Vladimir Lenin’s lap.

Some have argued against this museum’s creation or taken issue with the last-minute change of the museum’s name, in which the word “totalitarian” was dropped. And, certainly, the place is loaded with propaganda pieces.

Still, I found the paintings — many of them shipped out from the National Gallery of Art — compelling and evocative. A sprawling canvas by Bulgarian master Zlatyu Boyadzhiev, “Cooperative Farm,” depicts agrarian life with all of the color and motion of a Broadway musical. “After the Shift,” by Lyuben Gaydarov, shows a miner dispassionately reading the newspaper. There’s room for some independent thought here.

Over in the cafe, I found a bust of Stalin and a group portrait of Soviet luminaries standing guard over empty tables. They were entirely alone, except for a journalist pecking out a story. No refreshments today, a worker explained.

And what was Stalin doing here in the cafe?

“Waiting for coffee?” she suggested, delighted with the irony.

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