Between East and West, Albena Vatcheva

Between East and West, Albena Vatcheva


Last year, for the first time, I visited two countries on the fringes of the former Soviet Union, Armenia and Georgia.  

We have so many of our own stereotypes about places we have not seen, and I was no exception.  Yet, what I discovered there amazed me.  So much of our Western civilization circles around Western Europe's history.  The Roman Empire, Greek antiquity, Italian Renaissance, Victorian architecture, German Bauhaus, French Art Nouveau and many others.  It would be hard to find an art history student who is not familiar with these periods and countries' art.

Yet there's a world out there that lies just East of Western Europe, and it is a bit different.  

Map of the Byzantine Empire

The antiquity of Armenia, the first country that adopted Christianity.  The ancient winemaking culture of Georgia that has unique grape varieties not found anywhere in the world.  The Byzantine ornaments of Bulgaria.

That world was left behind somewhere, and it seems to have been forgotten.  Like an iceberg floating in the ocean, just a small tip of this world can be seen on the surface.  Yet, if one dives just below the surface, we discover a new world. 

Albena Vatcheva.  French Bulgarian Artist

I went on my own personal journey of discovering this world, especially the artistic side of it, between these two civilizations, the West and the East.  And somewhere along the way, I stumbled across the art of Albena Vatcheva.  

Albena was born in Bulgaria, a small Eastern European country most of us probably can't point out on a map.  Yet, Bulgaria is right between Greece and Turkey.  The Greek Orthodox Christian church had such a significant impact on Western civilization and its art.  The Muslim Turkey that at one point in history stretched from the Atlantic shores of North Africa to Arabia and Persia.  It is between these two that Bulgaria is situated.

Ancient Bulgarians gave us Saints Cyril and Methodius, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet that Russians use to this day.  Several ancient revered Christian sites are also here, and it had a major impact on Ancient Greece and its culture.

Albena Vatcheva.  Bulgarian.  Bulgarian art.  French female artist

At the same time, being at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, its culture has been influenced by its neighbors.  Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, Ancient Greece, the Russian Empire, and even cosmopolitan Austria-Hungary have influenced modern Bulgaria.

Eastern Orthodox Church in Bulgaria

Eastern Orthodox Church.  The view inside.

It is here where Albena Vatcheva was born. It is this rich culture that is shining through her work.  

Richness, sensuality, and romanticism. Sometimes, she is painting an episode from the Arabian nights.  Sometimes, it is the delicate Islamic or Turkish patterns that are completing her painting.  Sometimes, it is the richness, the expressiveness, the colors of Byzantine art that I notice in her work.  Sometimes, it is Marc Chagall's inspired lovers flying over an Eastern European shtetl.  

Albena Vatcheva. Ensemble.  Oil on canvas

Albena Vatcheva. Ensemble.  Oil on canvas. 2019

And then, another interesting detail in her work.  Take a look at her elaborate headdresses and then compare them with traditional Bulgarian costumes.  Are there any parallels between them too?  

Bright red colors, substantive forms, a mix of geometric patterns and ornamental flowers, red lipstick and even black eyeliner.

Traditional Bulgarian headdresses

Traditional Bulgarian headdresses

 And here's an example from Albena's work:

Albena Vatcheva.  India Dreams

 Albena Vatcheva. Ensemble, detail of the artwork.  Oil on canvas. 2019

And then, we also notice how much attention Albena is paying to human eyes.  Her eyes are very distinctive.  They are her trademark.  There's something strange about them, something mystical.

My theory is that, maybe, she is influenced by the ancient tradition of Eastern Orthodox Iconography.  

Theotokos Tenderness (Rila Monastery), Bulgarian Icon

 Theotokos Tenderness (Rila Monastery), Bulgarian Orthodox Icon

Compare it with Albena's portraits: the shape of eyes, the hands and fingers, the nose, the headscarf.  The eyes, looking straight at us.  The red lips and mouth.  Even the eyebrows.  That ancient tradition is shining through her work.

Albena Vatcheva.  Ensemble

Albena Vatcheva. Ensemble.  Oil on canvas. 2019

Yet, the subjects of her art are not saints or Bible stories.  Her subjects are regular people who have ascended to those heights - through love, through devotion, through dedication, through the purity of their souls.  

Albena Vatcheva.  You and Me.

Albena Vatcheva.  You and Me.  Oil on Canvas. 2018



  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, Egypt’s role in the Byzantine Empire
  2. Golden Books presents Bulgarian icons
  3. Theotokos Tenderness (Rila Monastery)
  4. Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk


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