Published on 3/4/2020
by Desislava Pancheva

Stefan Artamontzev is the third Bulgarian participant approved in last year’s sessions within the i-Portunus programme. In 2019, he and his team received funding, thanks to which they all managed to visit four European destinations and create documentary videos about one of the forgotten Bulgarian intellectuals. Thus, Stefan managed to unveil the story of the personality and build on his own project dedicated to Stefan Gechev.

Introduce yourself briefly. What are you dedicated to right now?

I’m 30 years old, I majored in Advertising Design at the National Art Academy. I grew up in a family of artists, which contributed greatly to my interest in art in all its forms. When I was a teenager, I became involved in music, and later I turned to producing electronic music. My professional path is closely linked to my interests and education, and over the last few years, I have devoted myself to setting up a team with which I develop a variety of audiovisual concepts.

I am currently focusing on building an online platform dedicated to the art and life of my uncle and godfather Stefan Gechev. He contributed enormously to Bulgarian-Greek diplomatic relations in the 20th century. An influence evident to this day. He is perceived by the Greek cultural elite as a symbol of diplomacy between the two countries, and it is no coincidence that a hall in the Greek Embassy in Sofia is named after him.

I want to promote the platform, and very soon, in cooperation with several foundations and cultural operators, I am also planning to organise an exhibition dedicated to him.

How did you decide to apply?

I had started studying my uncle’s life. The more information I gathered about him, the more I realized I needed to meet the people who knew him to learn more about his personal life and his original work. It turned out that most of his friends who are still alive are scattered all over Europe. So I decided to look for a program to help me travel.

“Seek inspiration beyond the borders of countries…”

What is the project like? How did you build the concept?

The concept of the project took shape gradually. In the beginning, I had started creating a website about Stefan Gechev with content in two languages – Bulgarian and Greek, and I also had the idea to create a documentary. In preparing my application for i-Portunus, I realised that I could combine the two ideas and bring together partners to develop a cultural platform with works, a biography and video testimonies about his life and work available online in four languages – Bulgarian, Greek, French, and English.

Years ago, my aunt had begun to select texts from his various works and to type them on a computer. This has helped me greatly in selecting the materials to be published on the platform.

Soon I will feature interviews with his friends in the “Videos” section of the page. Presently, the team and I have almost completed four of them and continue filming his relatives in Sofia. I also created the “Notebook +” section, which allows visitors to become familiar with some of his works. My wish is that this section becomes the core of the platform in the future. I will keep publishing works translated into the four languages, as well as notices about upcoming cultural events and future translation competitions.

This is a project that takes care, in a sense, of the “memory”. Why do you think it’s important to look for and rediscover such individuals as Mr. Gechev?

Yes, it is a project that ensures that we do not forget those who have been victims of censorship in the past, such as my uncle, and have not been properly recognised for their contribution to Bulgarian literature. In my opinion, it is important to preserve in our memory the personality of Stefan Gechev, because he is a symbol of Greek-Bulgarian diplomatic friendship and of the unification of the two peoples. During his translation career at the Bulgarian Embassy in Athens, he established contacts with Odysseas Elytis, Georgios Seferis, and many others. Thus, he contributed to the introduction of the Bulgarian reader to Greek contemporary poetry and received the Golden Cross of the Legion of Honour for this. In 1999, the Greek Society of Translators awarded him a gold medal for his entire translation work – a contribution to the new Greek literature and culture.

Tell us a little bit about him.

In 1928, Stefan Gechev graduated from Louis Le Grand High School in Paris, where Robespierre and Victor Hugo have studied. While residing there, his uncle Nikolay Raynov introduced him to French artists and writers, followers of the Dadaism and Surrealism movements modern at the time. It helped him perfect his French language and ignited his imagination.

In 1968, he made the first Bulgarian translation of “Through the Looking-Glass”. In 1998, he was awarded the Order of the Chevalier of Arts and Culture by the French Government for his translation work, including the anthology of French surrealists (1992), as well as the work of other authors, such as the poet Lautreamont (1965).

Stefan Gechev contributed to the diversity of Bulgarian culture, and I believe that providing free online access to his works and biography is an opportunity for everyone to experience his cosmopolitan spirit.

Which financing opportunity did you take within the contest? How did you adapt the needs of your project to the requirements of the contest?

I took the opportunity to take a group trip because my project involved videotaping interviews. This activity requires a larger team – operator, sound technician, drone operator, and director. When I started developing the project, I focused on design, not videos, which are actually one of the end products of the project. So I came up with the idea to apply with a concept for the digital web platform, which is an excellent basis for upgrading. The requirements of the contest helped me clarify the idea of applying with a project for the design of an online cultural platform dedicated to Stefan Gechev’s creative work and life path. I named my project “Following in the footsteps of Stefan Gechev”, because I decided to travel to places where he studied and lived, and interview his friends in their own homes. I selected four cities in Europe where I met friends of Stefan Gechev who helped me translate the text from the platform and translate the publications from or for it.

From left to right: Alexander Poplilov – Director, Julian Ibrishimov – Drone Operator, Stefan Artamontzev – Producer, Mihail Chakarov – Sound mixer and sound design, Rashko Rakov – Cameraman and Photographer

“i-Portunus is the necessary tool to experience our common European history, culture, and future in person, and recreate them in your own way through your art.”

How did you go about filling out the paperwork?

I first read in detail the application guidelines given on the site. Then I started preparing the required documents – group CV, portfolio, and invitations from partners. In my case, the “partners” were Mr. Gechev’s friends who agreed to cooperate and give interviews. They sent me invitations right away. When the time came to fill out the form (which happened literally the day before the submission deadline), one of my team members, Alexander Poplilov, who studied in the United States and taught English at private schools in Sofia, helped me, and we managed within a few hours without major difficulties.

Tell us briefly about the places you visited and what happened during your travels?  

We visited Athens, Athos, Paris, and Brussels – each of our trips took five days. We were able to make the most of it. On the one hand, we tried to really follow in Stefan Gechev’s footsteps by visiting places that he wrote about in his autobiographical texts from about 50 years ago. On the other hand, we made wonderful contacts with very interesting people.

In Athens, we met Mrs. Zdravka Mihaylova, who works at the embassy. She sent us one of the invitations required by the programme regulations. We chose to travel there because she’s a close friend of my uncle’s. He was the one who advised her to learn Greek, as a result of which she began working for the Bulgarian Embassy in Athens as an interpreter. Mrs. Mihaylova introduced us to Andia Frandzi – a poet, university teacher and philologist. She gave us an interview, too.

A few weeks later, we arrived at Athos. There, we walked from monastery to monastery, which was quite difficult, because it was raining heavily and it was cold, but this way we tested our spirit and our strength. We visited the monastery of St Panteleimon and the Zograf Monastery. We slept in public rooms with 30-40 people, outside visitors like ourselves, and ate at specific hours. There, Stefan Gechev wrote his doctoral thesis titled “Physiologist”, in which he studied an Old Bulgarian text translated into Greek. Bibliography led him to the monasteries of Mount Athos. The people we met gave us access to the manuscripts he used to write his thesis.

In Paris, we met Professor Lora Trubetskoy, who, in the course of two interviews – the first at the library of Louis Le Grand High School in Paris and the second at her home – told us about her friendship with Stefan Gechev and his poetry translated into French. During our stay in Paris, we also visited the Paul Eluard Museum, where we made good contacts with the curator of the museum.

In Brussels, we visited Vassilis Maragos, a Greek translator of Stefan Gechev’s poetry and an official of the European Commission. The interview took place at his home, where I was extremely impressed by the large number of Bulgarian books, photographs, icons, and artefacts in his possession. Vassilis Maragos not only partnered with us for the translation of a number of materials on the platform from Bulgarian into Greek, but also shared emotional memories of Stefan Gechev in front of our camera.

Many of the locations have changed radically since Stefan Gechev lived throughout almost the entire 20th century (1911-2000), but we were really surprised to find that some of them not only still exist, but also bear the same names as those in his books. Such an example is the “Les deux maggots” café in Paris, where Gechev and Jean Effel met.

What’s the biggest benefit of your trip?

I think for the team and for me, the greatest benefit was our intellectual growth through the interesting contacts that we were able to create. Following in the footsteps of this man who seems unique to me, we were transported back in time into a highly intellectual society which, in the difficult years of global conflicts, ideological and political tensions, was involved in Surrealism and Dadaism. What we had studied in school about the years of World War II and the subsequent division of the East and the West came to life before our very eyes. Walking through Paris, the streets he walked on, I noticed for the first time the bullet marks which to this day remain on the façades of downtown buildings. I would not describe this as a pleasant surprise, but as an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.

The confrontation with reality on the Athos Peninsula in the Athos area left lasting memories in me. Because of a severe thunderstorm, there were neither ships nor cars to take us from the Monastery of St Panteleimon to the Zograf Monastery. We couldn’t stay in the first monastery for more days, and we found ourselves forced to walk with all our luggage and equipment for about 10 kilometres of mountain road, which was quite a test in that weather. We reached the Zograf Monastery after almost an entire day of walking. The monks offered us shelter and accommodated us for a few days. We really hadn’t expected this kind of experience. It was very exciting because we were transported into a reality where there are almost no roads, and the only buildings and lights are from the several monasteries on the vast mountain peninsula.

How would you explain i-Portunus in your own words?

i-Portunus is a great opportunity to travel in Europe for artists who are interested in international cultural exchange. i-Portunus is the necessary tool to experience our common European history, culture, and future in person, and recreate them in your own way through your art.

What guidance would you give to people who have not applied, who doubt that they will succeed or who are sceptical of such opportunities?

Try it without thinking too much. We live in a time when everything is a click away from us, yet personal contact is irreplaceable. Going to see for yourself and meeting in person will always be the more sustainable and more productive way to do things. Seek inspiration beyond the borders of countries…