“Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which nature herself is animated. It is the joy of the intellect which sees clearly into the Universe and which recreates it, with conscientious vision. Art is the most sublime mission of man, since it is the expression of thought seeking to understand the world and to make it understood.”Auguste Rodin
Childhood and high school in Plovdiv
I woke up and looked out the window. It was snowing outside and the silence was deafening. It’s January 31st… Memories hit me.
On January 31, 1935, in the village of Tserovo, Pazardzhik region, in the home of Hristo and Pelagia Todorov, my father Viktor Hristov Todorov was born. My grandfather was a secretary in the village hall, and my grandmother was a housewife. Viktor was the second child in the family, he had an older sister, my aunt Margarita Todorova, who was born in 1932.
My grandfather Hristo Todorov had two master degrees, philosophy and finance – that’s why he worked in the village hall. He was one of the founders of the choir at the Musical Theater in Sofia. He had a wonderful singing voice, but also a wild temper. He was sued in 1925 as an “anarcho-communist”, and after September 9, 1944, he was sued again, this time by the People’s Court, on vague charges, and spent 15 years in prison…
A curious detail is that my grandmother Pelagia Todorova has a maiden name of Laskaridi – a Sozopol family whose descendants currently manage the Laskaridi art gallery in the city of Sozopol. However, my grandmother ran away and married my grandfather for love, because of that she lost her inheritance rights, as often happened in the past.
Further back in our family history, memories reach my father’s grandfather – Pavel Todorov. He was a pobornik (supporter of the revolutionary fights for freedom in Bulgaria in the 19-th century A.D.) and made bullets for the rebels of the April Uprising. His wife Petkana Todorova (my father’s grandmother) was an extremely hard-working woman and helped raise the grandchildren (although she had her right arm amputated after falling from a tree). Our family was extremely close to that of the opera prima Elena Nikolay, the greatest mezzo-soprano of the 20th century, also born in the village of Tserovo – my great-grandmother assisted her birth. My aunt Margarita remembers her grandmother: “She raised us both with your father, she was very hardworking.”
Little Viktor grew up in such a dynamic and turbulent environment. His first encounters with fine art were through the so-called street artists – itinerant artists who during holidays go around and offer their works of dubious artistic value and subjects addressed to the mass taste (drawings of Christmas trees and palm trees). Regardless of the souvenir and art-like value of those works, access to information was useful to the young artist in the years before World War II.
After 09.09.1944, little Viktor, then 9 years old, encountered the adversities of life in post-war Bulgaria. He was left without a father figure by his side – my grandfather, Hristo Todorov, was thrown into prison – a fate that unfortunately befell many intellectuals and Bulgarian families in those years. My grandmother Pelagia was forced to go to Plovdiv, to live with relatives and work shifts at the “Maritsa” textile factory. Viktor became a student at the Alexander I Male High School (later renamed “Dimitar Blagoev”, and now the Humanitarian High School “St. St. Cyril and Methodius”).
The high school in Plovdiv has great traditions, it is the oldest on the territory of today’s Bulgaria, founded as a diocesan school “St. Cyril and Methodius” in 1850 by Nayden Gerov and educated over the years prominent personalities such as Vasil Levski, Ivan Vazov, Peyo Yavorov, Pencho Slaveykov, Dimcho Debelyanov, maestro Georgi Atanasov, Panayot Pipkov, Ivan Evstatiev Geshov, Konstantin Stoilov, Prof. Asen Zlatarov , academics Lyubomir Chakalov and Boyan Petkanchin.
The environment and education in the high school in Plovdiv predetermined my father’s future destiny. Sometimes life gives us signs and opportunities, but it’s up to us whether we use them. The big chance that beckons Viktor at school comes from two sides. The first one is his fine arts teacher at the time – the sculptor Ivan Topalov. The second is the general school environment – most of the children came from bourgeois and wealthy families, with traditions and attitude towards culture, foreign languages, literature and art.
From the distance of time, we can only guess what kind of cultural illumination and emotion struck little Viktor in Plovdiv. He has seen reproductions of paintings, but he has yet to get acquainted with sculptures, plaster heads, busts and all sorts of casts of classical models and details. Viktor was obsessed with the idea and magic that you can sculpt thoughts, feelings and moods out of clay. To breathe life into inanimate matter and for it not only to acquire an impactful form, but also to open a dialogue with the audience. This magical process that we call art.
The library and drawing studio of his art teacher, the sculptor Ivan Topalov, were like treasure land. There was a collection featuring all kinds of literature on fine arts, elite editions of the time – magazines, books, reproductions and articles.
“Read, get informed, don’t stay ignorant”, repeated teacher Ivan Topalov. And little Viktor reads, examines, absorbs repeatedly and with great curiosity reproductions, editions such as “Zlatorog” by Vladimir Vasilev, “Flame” by Geo Milev, the 12-volume “History of plastic arts” by Nikolay Raynov. And more – “History of Civilization ” by Winkelmann, “History of Arts” by Alpatov, the big series of “Skyra” publishing house and many more.
French and literature teachers Madame Satrakyan and Mrs. Dudova also had a creative approach and always connected the lesson topics with examples from fine arts, music and literature. So in this mini academy, students quickly gain knowledge and develop skills.
At that time, a large painting and sculpture circle was formed, including Ivan Andonov, Hari Kesijyan, Zhoro Slona, Kirkor Papazian, the future poet Atanas Velyanov, Hristo Yavashev (Christo), Boris Dochev and many others participated. Classes were several times a week, but most children were there every day. Because of their fascination and obsession with arts, some kids got bad results at school. Mityo Kirov, for example, did not get a diploma because of the math teacher. However, every year several students from Plovdiv were accepted at the Academy of Arts in Sofia.
“He was very alert and proactive as a student. He organized classmates and friends to go to the markets, where they had the opportunity to observe and draw animals. But then there was a paper shortage. The Evangelical Church provided a great help at that moment – cardboard was secured so the students could practice.”Margarita Todorova, sister of Viktor Todorov, interview, February 2023.
Another important drawing class in Plovdiv was found by the art collective “Repin”. Teachers there were Angel Tomov, Dimitar Pavlov, Panayot Popov, Mihail Lyutov, Luchka Maleeva. The poet Yordan Ruskov, who at that time was in charge of cultural affairs for the municipality, played an important role in financing the drawing courses at “Repin”.
Viktor also showed a natural singing talent, clearly inherited from my grandfather Hristo Todorov. The music teacher at First Male High School, Nikola Kenov, predicted a brilliant singing career after listening to him sing the solo parts in the school choir, but Viktor is apparently so captured and carried away by the world of fine arts that he left this talent in the background.
His passion for fine arts led to the fact that he discontinued his highschool education at the end of 10th grade and began preparations for the Art Academy in Sofia. At that time, Viktor also started working to support himself. The cessation of my father’s highschool education was not a whim, but was due to the decree issued at the time which allowed prospective students who did not have a high school diploma, but who were highly gifted, to be eligible to apply. However, an important rule for entering the Academy under this decree was that the candidate must obtain the highest grade on the entrance exam.