Emil Stoychev: Artists should be free

If they become snobs and limit themselves to chasing fame, they are done

Photo: Neyka Krasteva

My job is to go in the direction in which fate pushes me. Whether I am recognised or revered is of no importance to me, says painter Emil Stoychev in an interview to Europost.

Mr Stoychev, most children draw but not all of them grow up to become artists. What was your path, and when did you pick up a brush for the first time?

I think I have always wanted to be what I am today. I was about 14-15 years old when I started dabbling in painting. Now that I look at my first attempts, they were not bad at all.

Who or what drew you to the world of painting?

You can find icon-painters in my family tree - this is where the story starts. My parents used to tell me a lot about them, but I am not really sure if that was what sparked my interest in the first place. I just wanted to show the world what I carried in me.

It comes from the inside then?

Sometimes it comes from the inside and other times I have to nudge things a little. Not everything is all inspiration. Back in the day, I applied for the National Academy of Arts, but I was not accepted. My father advised me not to humiliate myself by knocking on that same door twice. A lot of my favourite artists had no official training - Rembrandt, Goya, Verdi. The entire modern art trend in France is fuelled by people who never attended an academy. Such an educational institution instils certain standards and principles, and I have always been a little offbeat kind of an artist.

Is theatre your other great love?

I have worked as a scene-painter for a short period. I just had to make money somehow. But I quickly realised it was not for me and left.

Today, you are world-renowned. What does that status bring you?

By no means do I view myself in that way. My job is to go in the direction in which fate pushes me. Whether I am recognised or revered is of no importance to me. I am free that way. I am not limited by fame. Artists should be free. If they become snobs, they are done.

Do you remember the first painting you ever sold and how you felt afterwards?

I have no recollection. Back in the day, the Union of Bulgarian Artists used to decide who would participate in exhibitions. It has never turned down any of my works. My first public presentation was in 1962 and it was not particularly successful. But I am not complaining. Everyone goes through struggles in life. I even think that getting reality checks from time to time is healthy. Not everyone liked me. I created pieces that were outside the box. It was my own little world. I like what I do and that is enough for me.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

It is a complex mechanism that is hard to put into words. There are times when something appears in the smallest facets of life. Then some time passes and it starts speaking to me again, nagging. Standing before the blank canvas is a sublime moment. You have to create something out of nothing. I still have no idea how it really happens and I want to learn. Actually, it is better if I do not. All it would do is create a beaten path and I prefer to wade into unchartered territory. There is this moment when you feel something taking shape. That is when building the composition, perspective, colour palette starts - that magic called the art of painting; a picture a la Stoychev.

What is your take on contemporary art, the more modern pieces that often remain incomprehensible to the viewer?

We cannot be held hostage by the narrative. We should not be guided by what the audience thinks. I have a healthy respect for it but it can overstep its bounds. Art is a field that one should not approach without some preparation. Whenever I go to a concert, I always research the programme in advance. Generally speaking, people feel competent enough to speak about politics and paintings, but not about surgery, for example, because things are on a much different plane there. I have come to terms with that dynamic. Everyone is free to have their own opinion, as long as they respect my own rights in that regard. Historically, the audience has been responsible for many a drama and even tragic deaths involving artists.

Where do you think is the place of masterpieces - in museums, where they can be enjoyed by the general public, or in private collections?

It is both, or at least that has been the tradition for thousands of years. An artist's dream is to see their works hung in the museum, but it is also nice to have people who appreciate you and have a relationship with you. Collectors have a noble role because artists would struggle to survive without them.

Do new technologies bring us closer to or further away from art? Nowadays, people can enjoy art in the comfort of their own home.

This is like watching a delicious apple through a glass - not being able to touch it, sense its aroma. By visiting a museum, a person has the opportunity to observe the masterful brushstroke and, in the case of more discerning viewers, even some defects. I prefer going to the museum. I have been to the Louvre thousands of times and nothing can compare to the live interaction with a painting.

Do you have a favourite artist or painting? Which of the great masters do you admire?

I treat an artist's work with great respect because I know what it is like to pour everything you have into something without knowing what will become of it - it might be a complete disaster or something good. It is a human feat. And who determines what is a masterpiece and what is not, anyways? It is normal for an artist to have ups and downs; it is part of the job. Looking back on some of my earlier works, I wonder how I created them. My system is very recognisable. I am the only European artist who ventured into magical realism as early as the 1960s. I think it is a good road.

Do you paint for your own fulfilment or do you have a message to the audience?

Of course I have something to share. Every painting has its own message. I do not consider myself a wise man whose symbols should constantly be examined by people. I stay in my own lane and I know I am really good in what I do. That is extremely important to me. It does not matter if people like me or not. Everyone has the right to choose.

Have you ever painted in a state of anger?

I never get angry. In addition to being intellectual, painting is also an emotional activity. To me, creating a good painting is about hearing its messages and making it hear my own. It is a peculiar dialogue. Words cannot explain a painting. You can describe the blues and the greens or point to a depicted table, a chair, but the magic of a painting is in its mystery.

You are often compared to Picasso and Goya. Is that flattering to you?

I am indifferent to it. I like walking in the streets without much fanfare. Do not get me wrong, I am not being too modest here. I know who I am, I know my worth, but I am not demonstrative about it. Besides, I am very ambitious - I pursue my ideas until I realise them.


Emil Stoychev was born on 26 June 1935 in Sofia, Bulgaria. He has been living and working in Paris, France, since 1991. He is the only Bulgarian artist to have represented Eastern Europe in a Drouot Auction House catalogue. In the 1990s Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris at the time, invited him to present a solo exhibition at Chateau de Bagatelle. Characterised by a distinctive modernism, his style is compared to those of Picasso, Goya, Tanguy and Miro. In April 2010 he was awarded the title honoris causa by the Bulgarian National Academy of Arts, without having graduated from it.

Emil Stoychev has staged an impressive number of art exhibitions in Bulgaria, France, Japan, USA, Germany, Belgium, etc. Proud owners of his paintings are the National Art Gallery, famous public galleries and private collections across Europe, America and Asia.

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