For me the creative process is nothing but the pursuit of perfection … Great emotional and physical effort, energy and persistence are required. However, if tapestry art becomes one’s destiny, it requires one’s whole existence. —Maryn Varbanov (1932-1989)
Maryn Varbanov was one of the most influential figures in the history of Chinese and international contemporary art, but today almost nobody knows his name. Yet his works achieved a remarkable feat of artistic liberation, taking tapestry off the wall and moving it into the space commanded by sculpture.
Varbanov was born in Bulgaria where the tradition of tapestry runs deep, and it was there that he first took textile art into three dimensions. But it was in China in the 1980s that he created his greatest works, and here too that he founded a tapestry workshop which helped guide a generation of aspiring artists, including Gu Wenda, Liang Shaoji and Shi Hui to find their own paths into the avant-garde.
Leafing through Varbanov’s project books from the 1980s—old photo albums with spiral binding and sticky plastic holding sheets—is an awe-inspiring experience. Here one can see his mind at play, imagining ever-bolder sculptural forms. The drawings are done with ordinary felt-tip or ballpoint pens on sheets of low-grade paper, and yet each of these sketches for possible projects is itself a work of art. Looking at these sketches, one soon stops asking which were actually realized, wondering instead at the mind that produced them and at a hand that could convey the textures of fibers and the volumes of both monumental and modest forms using only a store-bought pen. Remarkably, each drawing contains a single human figure placed within the work, as if to anchor the project it describes to the audience’s reality. For all his conceptual musings, Varbanov never forgot the importance of human scale.
It was a strange trajectory that took Maryn Varbanov from his birthplace on the banks of the Danube to his death in the summer of 1989 in the Xiehe Hospital in Beijing. Between the two, he lived in Sofia, Paris, and even Sydney but in the end he settled in China, where he had met the love of his life at the age of 21.
It is impossible to talk about Varbanov without talking about his wife Song Huai-Kuei whom he met when he arrived as an exchange student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1954. She was then just eighteen, a studious girl who acted as a secretary to her writer father. Song Huai-Kuei would grow up to become the glamorous figure known universally as Madame Song, the creator of Maxim’s of Beijing in the 1980s. But in 1954, with her neat appearance and prim hairdo, she was a trusted daughter of the new China to whom the authorities had no hesitation in assigning the task of caring for a group of young Eastern Bloc students.
Song immediately focused on the painfully shy Varbanov. Soon they were arranging secret meetings, Song using her seemingly innocent braids as a signal. If she appeared with her hair in a single plait Varbanov knew they could meet that day; two braids meant no. Finally, in what would seem like a plot twist in a romance novel if it were not true, the relationship was discovered: from a summer holiday camp, Song had written a dutiful daughter’s letter to her father and a passionate “wish you were here” missive to Varbanov. But she mixed up the envelopes, and the secret was out. The forbidden entanglement soon became a diplomatic incident.
Undeterred, Song wrote a direct appeal to Foreign Min-ister Zhou Enlai. After an anxious four-month wait Zhou replied that there was no law preventing mixed marriage, but he counseled Song to consider whether she was really prepared to accept another’s culture. She was, and the couple were married in December 1956 at a ceremony presided over by the President of CAFA. It was the first “mixed marriage” since Liberation.
Varbanov had come to China with the idea of working as a tapestry artist. His homeland of Bulgaria, located on the Black Sea, was heir to both the Hellenic and the Slavic traditions of weaving and to the rug-making traditions of the Ottoman Turks. At CAFA he was able to compare Bulgaria’s weaving traditions with those of China, where weaving materials ranged from the roughest of unspun wool to the finest silk thread. During this period Varbanov became aware of the work of Jean Lurçat (1892-1966), a contemporary and colleague of Matisse, Picasso and Braque who was one of the first artists to re-imagine tapestry as a contemporary art form. Varbanov wrote of Lurçat that he “revived the art of the weaving loom and freed it from the shackles of painting and from the banality of meaningless illustration.”
Reflecting on his own development as an artist, Varbanov acknowledged his artistic debt to his homeland, while confidently asserting the need to transcend it. “We Bulgarians” he wrote “are proud of the traditions of our weaving art because it originates in remote antiquity.” But it was just this sense of indebtedness that he believed called on modern tapestry artists “to profoundly and creatively re-examine [tradition] and to give new meaning to it”.
Varbanov and Song stayed on at CAFA for a while but by 1958 they had moved with their infant daughter Boriana to the Bulgarian capital Sofia. This was the period of his early major woven works. He began experimenting with “soft sculpture,” by rigging his loom to allow him to create pieces that did not have to hang on the wall and could move into the space where people walk and live. He began to think of tapestry as a partner not just to sculpture, but to architecture.
The breakthrough came with a piece that he and Song created in 1969. Futuristically entitled Composition 2001, the work hung from the ceiling in a woven spiral that expressed both solidity and fluidity. Composition 2001 had a huge impact at Lausanne’s Biennale of Textile Art. Like so many of Varbanov’s works, it has since been lost: Boriana recalls it hanging in the entrance of their apartment when she was a child but has no idea what happened to it after they left Sofia.
This was the period in which Varbanov saw clearly that he needed to master traditional technique with the sole purpose of moving beyond it. He later wrote:
“During this time I had enthralling encounters with the established truths of folk art. However, I should also mention the disappointments … because there I discovered other more essential truths. The disappointment often originated in the conflict between the routines of tradition on the one hand and the real challenges and spirit of our time on the other … the urge to master tradition must grow into a new drive for individual creative realization.”
In 1974 Varbanov held a major exhibition in Sofia, featuring thirty works he had made since 1960. The show created a sensation and led directly to Varbanov being invited to take up residence in Paris at the Cité International des Arts. He moved there in 1975 with Song and Boriana and her younger brother Phoenix who was born in 1962. Paris was to be his home for the next eight years.
In 1979, Varbanov held a major exhibition at the Grand Palais and then at the FIAC art fair in Paris in 1980. It was at FIAC that the now established sculptor met Pierre Car-din, who loved his work and was equally captivated by Song Huai-Kuei. As it happened, Cardin was looking for a way into the China market: it was the early days of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy and the canny Frenchman saw a business opportunity. He looked to the elegant Madame Song to help him find a way in. By the winter of 1980 it was agreed that she would return to China to run his business for him, and by 1983 the whole family was back in Beijing.
Madame Song worked ceaselessly to bring Cardin’s business to life. Central to this was her work as chief designer of Cardin’s restaurant Maxim’s de Paris à Pékin, which opened inside the Chongwen Hotel in downtown Beijing in 1983. Its glittering clientele and ravishing Art Nouveau interior electrified the city, and a night out at Maxim’s was to remain the acme of Beijing style for many years to come.
Meanwhile, Varbanov was exploring a Beijing transformed from the city that he had known as a student. These were the early years of the Chinese avant-garde. The capital was bubbling over with ideas and Varbanov plunged in. He discovered a disused carpet factory in what was then rural land in Sanlitun near where the Great Wall Sheraton now stands. He gathered a group of young art students around him and started on a series of monumental works.
In his leisure time, he would retire to the small lobby café of the Beijing Hotel to sketch and think. This was one of the few places in Beijing where Chinese and foreigners could meet, and it was there that he encountered the young critic Hou Hanru. Together they hatched a plan for Varbanov to show his new works in the hallowed National Art Museum of China. Varbanov’s 1985 NAMOC exhibition was a sensation. Robert Rauschenberg, who was staging his seminal show in Beijing at the same time, remarked that the best exhibition in the capital was not his, but Varbanov’s. The effect of both events was explosive, as young Chinese artists flocked to see work from beyond the edge of their own imaginations.
In 1985 the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou gave Varbanov the opportunity to do something he had wanted to do for thirty years: found a tapestry school. It was his work establishing this school (which still exists today) that secured Varbanov’s second legacy—his profound influence on students and colleagues who would join a new generation of Chinese artists.
Amongst these was the now internationally acclaimed artist Gu Wenda. When Varbanov arrived in Hangzhou, Gu was teaching traditional ink painting at the Academy by day, while being totally swept up in the avant-garde currents of what critic Gao Minglu later dubbed the ’85 New Wave. “Varbanov inspired me to go beyond ink painting,” Gu recalls today, while explaining how Varbanov guided him towards what would be his “breakthrough” work – two freestanding tapestries incorporating ink painting with woven materials. Gu Wenda credits Varbanov with pushing him to create what Gu describes as “the first ever 3D Chinese ink work.” (It was the exhibition of this work at the 1988 Lausanne Biennale that launched Gu Wenda’s international career)
“At that time,” Gu recalls, “most Chinese artists just wanted to embrace Western techniques and styles. But Varbanov knew that you can have modern materials and modern techniques but you also need to find your own unique Chinese vocabulary.” He continues, “today it’s normal for artists to talk about bridging East and West and cultural exchange, but for many avant-garde artists the key point was to embrace the West and throw out the traditional. But he saw something different. He could see both sides. He was a pioneer.”
Varbanov’s notebooks and papers from the period show how his twin dreams—his art and his school—filled his creative life to the point of exhaustion. The books are crowded with sketches for projects that were never realized, and some that perhaps were never meant to be, but which sprang from his pen all the same, like his idea for a woven island floating in Hangzhou’s famed West Lake. Gazing at it today, one can imagine it as a project of lights or lasers, where the labor of creation would be avoided and the world it created would fade as the new day breaks.
In his final months Varbanov labored on one great work—Mouvement Perpetuel (Perpetual Motion). The piece was a giant net, which Varbanov pulled up time and again, casting it like a fisherman and drawing it in to create new shapes and patterns. Photographs show Mouvement Perpetuel in at least seven configurations. As the work moves into its final iterations it seems to lose some of its fluidity and drama and become increasingly worn. In Mouvement Perpetuel No. VII, he introduces a chain into the net as if to show it weighed down by the world.
One night in the spring of 1989 he climbed to a high place in his studio for one more cast of the net, looking for the perfect fluid landing. Instead he fell. In hospital in Beijing an x-ray found a shadow on his lungs. The next months were agonizing for his family, as they gathered around his bedside in the Xiehe Hospital while outside a hot spring turned to a sweltering summer. On July 10, 1989, Maryn Varbanov died at the age of 56. His daughter Boriana recalls the almost unbearable months after his death, as the family grieved while other events sank China into a period of isolation from the world at large.
Varbanov’s colleagues in Hangzhou ensured that his school continued. The atelier he created there continues to encourage student experimentation with textile forms to this day, headed by his former pupil Shi Hui, wife of Academy director Xu Jiang. Last year the China Academy of Art mounted the first complete retrospective of Varbanov’s work since his death. A book based on that retrospective is now being readied for publication.
Song Huai-Kuei was an important influence on Varbanov’s work. They shared a love of textiles which Song pursued in her own work, firstly in making Maxim’s into a showcase of style and later in creating a marvelous collection of reproduction Chinese costumes embodying the styles of five dynasties of Chinese history. This was her personal paean to the textile arts of her own country, eventually forming the basis for a show that toured around the world. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, a stream of visitors including Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino, and John Galliano called on Song at Maxim’s where she sat at the corner of the bar in her impeccable Cardin couture almost up until the day of her death in 2007.
As for Varbanov’s work, opportunities to see it remain frustratingly few. His family have donated a small number of pieces to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and a small show of his drawings and minor works was recently curated by the director of Factory 798’s HT Gallery, Han Tsungwoo. A few of those works are now on display at the O Gallery in Beijing and will be until the end of this summer.
Varbanov died trying to seek truth by reaching beyond the physical limits of his chosen medium. He once wrote: “When the technical effects of the realization of an artistic creation get control of the author, then the circle of his creative development closes. And that is why I believe that in creative work, the artist’s quest is always to find himself: it is the unit of measure of his next step.” It was a quest that filled his brief life to the very end, and lives on to this day in the work of those he inspired.