Olga Bulgakova began painting in the seventies, helping to found the surrealist/ symbolist resurgence in Russia. Her work has continued to evolve, staying consistently cutting-edge and thought-provoking throughout the eighties, nineties and into the 21st century. Today she’s still one of the most influential contemporary Russian artists. Early in her career, in 1975 she won the Grand Prize of the International Competition of Young Artists in Sofia, Bulgaria. More recently, in 2003 she received a Silver Medal from the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. In 2007 she was made an associate member of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.
Over the course of her prodigious career she has displayed a master’s attention to fine detail and an innate sense for visual meanings. Perhaps as a side effect of her deep understanding of the codes and hidden messages of the visual world, Bulgakova’s work has continued to take her to new levels of symbology. She began in the seventies and eighties with several cycles depicting the dramatic and literary arts. For these studies, she delved deep into the language of visual codes, endeavoring to represent a literary feeling on canvas. In the nineties her works became more heavily symbolist and intentionally dream-like. For these works, she employed geometric shapes, overlapping images and common dream symbols in order to represent meaning. Since the turn of the millennium she has used geometric shapes and abstraction much more extensively. Her recent series “Angels” and “Biblical Sketches” (2007-11) have notably utilized religious language and symbols as a vehicle for meaning.
Bulgakova was born to a family of artists in Moscow in 1951. Her parents, Vasily Ivanovich Bulgakov and Matilda Mihailovna Bulgakova,were both painters in their own right. Vasily and Matilda both trained at the Moscow Institute of Art and at the Moscow State Academic Art Institute named after V.I. Surikov. When the Soviet Union entered World War II, Vasily fought at the front while Matilda worked as a tutor in Karaidel (Bashkiria) children’s home. They were both members of the Moscow Association of Artists and the Moscow Union of Artists. Olga, born in Moscow in 1951, followed in the footsteps of both parents and attended courses at the Surikov Art Institute, from which she graduated in 1975. The following year she became a member of the Moscow Union of Artists as well.
By the time Olga and her contemporaries began to produce their own art in the 1970s, the art world of their parents had changed. The artistic movements which arose around this era were influenced by artistic movements from abroad, which had begun filtering into Russia by fits and starts. Of at least equal importance were the young artists of the era who had grown up after Stalin’s death in 1953. Bulgakova and the rest of the syemidesyatniki (artists of the seventies) had enjoyed relatively greater freedoms of expression, increased knowledge of their avant-garde forebears and more opportunities for international artistic exchange than had the previous generation. Though the seventies are remembered for being largely artistically stagnant due to the unpredictable political climate concerning art, several rich schools of thought emerged in Russian artistic expression. This includes the symbolist and surrealist movements in which Bulgakova was involved.
In the seventies and eighties she created series with a focus on theatrical and literary personalities and in particular the mythos of the ‘artist.’ She began the cycles “Theatre” and “Transformation” in 1975 and worked on them through 1985. In her Gogol series, from 1978 to 1985, Bulgakova sought to capture on canvas the drama and myth surrounding the creative genius. She also sought to reinterpret his literary language in a visual form with a complex system of visual symbols to mimic his style. For instance, Gogol’s writing evoked great emotional reactions with seemingly banal dialogue. Bulgakova succeeded in evoking that Gogolian feeling of “magical chaos” by creating elusive sparks of interest, as in off-side whispers. She also expressed Gogol’s nightmareish take on the world by utilizing dark and gloomy elements. There is a sense of something supernatural in the resultant works, as if one is having an out-of-body or otherworldly experience.
By breaking down Gogol’s prose into emotional components to be displayed visually, Bulgakova ultimately began to explore the landscape of visual language itself. At times, Bulgakova also sought to capture the creative process itself – a slow unraveling of reality and a glimpse at the abyss.
Bulgakova’s work continued to evolve. Over the eighties and nineties, her artwork had become very concerned with the task of translating from the literary to the visual. In the nineties, she extended that logic into an exploration of the basic components of visual language. Her work began to play more expansively with the language of symbols, either from dreams, history, or daily life. Bulgakova’s true subjects in these pieces are read through a combination of visual messages.
It is interesting to note that because of Bulgakova’s increased usage of symbols, her paintings’ central messages or subjects were correspondingly deconstructed into their component parts. Her works from this period consequently create a powerful emotional tension. The heavy compartmentalization inherent in the pieces means that one’s artistic enlightenment comes at the price of comfort. The world is split open in segments, like puzzle pieces, and the viewer is deprived of his or her knee-jerk attachment to the notion of a cohesive and harmonious universe.
At the end of the nineties, Bulgakova’s work underwent another change. Most notable has been the disappearance of figurative reference points within her paintings. The same code which before lent itself to a symbolic and metaphoric artistic language suddenly became more concerned with abstract and geometric imagery. In a recent series, the viewer is no longer given the task of reading an emotional state through a complex language of symbols. A prime example of Bulgakov’s turn towards abstraction is her 2002-2004 series “Archaisms,” which features overlapping geometric shapes. The nostalgia-value of the pieces evokes thoughts of the hard-won struggle for expression.
Some of her new series, however, such as “Nomina,” (2005-2006) “Matriarchy” (2007) and “Biblical Sketches” (2007-2011) feature concrete subjects as seen through an abstract lens. So far, these abstracted subjects tend to have an allegorical or religious value. These works include “Return of the Prodigal Son” and “The Sacrifice of Abraham” (seen at the end of the hall in the photo below.) She has also done a series of abstracted, life-size angels. As before, Bulgakova continues to play with the language of symbols, now utilizing allegory, geometric shapes and nostalgic reminders.
Throughout her career, Bulgakova has worked closely with and has frequently exhibited alongside fellow artist Alexander Sitnikov. Their works were shown together at The State Tretyakov Gallery in 2007 and at The Radishevsky Museum in 2008. Beginning in the 1970s, her work has been exhibited widely both within Russia and abroad. Exhibitions have been held in England, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, France, Slovenia, the USA and Monaco.
Source Material From:
The Quest for Self-Expression: Painting in Moscow and Leningrad 1965-1990 Ed. Roberts, Norma, 1990.