It has been 26 years since Rayko Alexiev’s work was last exhibited, so it is time to revisit his art. Is he just the name of an art gallery in Sofia, or an emblematic figure having played a prominent role in the tragic events that took place in the autumn of 1944?
He was born in 1893 in Pazardzhik to parents who were teachers from the city of Panagyuriste. The family moved from place to place until they settled down in the city of Vratsa where the artist drew his first cartoons and graduated from high school. He earned a degree in literature at the University of Sofia and attended classes at the Paining School. He was barely 18 when he started contributing to the Baraban magazine, and a year later he became an editor and main cartoonist of humor magazine Lyudokos.
In 1914, he contributed to the Smyah [laughter] magazine alongside the father of cartoon art in Bulgaria, Alexander Bozhinov, developed The Week in Cartoons section of the immensely popular illustrated magazine Az znam vsichko [I know everything], and had his first solo exhibition in the city of Vratsa. In the next year, he traveled around Macedonia turning his impressions into drawings which provided material for an exhibition at the Permanent Gallery of Art, Sofia. Regardless of the negative reviews by Boris Vazov and Constantine Starkelov in the Mir newspaper, the artist managed to sell almost all of the paintings and sketches included in the exhibition. Among those who purchased his works were prominent Bulgarian industrial entrepreneurs, high-profile families based in the capital city, Queen Evdokia, and the People’s Museum.
By the time of World War I, when he contributed sharply critical cartoons to leading magazines such as Balgaran and Baraban, Rayko Alexiev had already become more prominent a cartoonist than the doyen Alexander Bozhinov. He published two collections of his works entitled Soul-saving Little Book and Beetle respectively.
After the war, he had his third solo exhibition, and participated in the establishment of House of the Arts. In the years of dramatic events such as the Coup of 9 June, the September Uprising, the St Nedelya Church Assault, and the violent response to them, the artist remained aloof from the battlefield of cartoon art.
His stay in Germany and travels around Italy happened during a period of his life hardly anything is known about. In 1925, the artist directed the comedy Scheming Princess Turandot in which he played the lead, initiated the documentary Bulgaria in Pictures, and also illustrated and compiled (together with Dimitar Podvarzachov and Marin Vlaykov) textbooks for beginning readers. Newspaper Zora is where his characters Gunyo Gaskov and Father Taraponti made their debut, which is also where his Humorous History of the Bulgarian People was published for the first time.
His marriage to young actress Vesela Grancharova was probably the main reason behind his adventurous endeavor to start a humor newspaper of his own whose first issue came out at the end of 1932, to the delight of the residents of the capital city, to be published through the end of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom. His vigorous involvement in the preparation of the Sturets weekly did not preclude Rayko Alexiev from performing other activities to the benefit of society, namely his functions as the chair of the Union of Associations of Artists. During his four terms of office he opened the art gallery at 125 Rakovski St, which is now named after him, organized fund-raisers in support of members of the Union, acted as an advocate for artists who identified as communists persecuted by the authorities.
After 9 September 1944, he was the only one of all detained cartoonists, namely Alexander Bozhinov, Alexander Dobrinov, and Constantine Kamenov, who was severely beaten for longer than a month (which resulted in no written testimony) until he was damaged beyond recognition. He passed away at the hospital of the Red Cross.
People of Radoy Ralin’s generation who were eagerly awaiting every new issue of the artist’s weekly Sturets are no longer around. We the people of today shall ask ourselves whether we know our own history as narrated not only by the chronology of events, but also by the emotions of previous generations having lived in the turbulent times of the first half of the twentieth century. Are his works able to move today’s viewers or make them laugh? Is the artist just one of our most prominent cartoonists, or is he a painter whose works are a valuable contribution to the history of Bulgarian art?
The exhibition at the Sofia City Art Gallery provides us with an opportunity to try and find answers to these questions.
Curator: Krasimir Iliev