The several museums in Sofia belonging to the National Gallery of Bulgaria have been reorganised in recent times. Of these, the largest by far is Kvadrat 500, resulting from the combination in 2014 of the former Gallery of Foreign Art (a beautiful Neoclassical building in central Sofia, facing the St Alexander Nevski cathedral) and the adjacent building previously belonging to the Technical University.
Kvadrat 500 is a huge museum mainly displaying Bulgarian and European painting and sculpture from the mid-1800s onwards, with a group of older European works. Each of the four levels of the building is in itself the size of a small museum. My friends in Bulgaria tell me that the Kvadrat 500 project was heavily criticised on grounds of cost, but to my mind the collection presented here is consistently of a very high quality and provides a great introduction to Bulgarian art from the last 150 years.
It is interesting to note that there are very few purely abstract works here, maybe because, as I understand it, the prevailing official line in Eastern European Communist countries discouraged abstraction. By contrast, every conceivable experiment in figurative painting up to the 1990s seems to be documented here. Besides portraiture and traditional painting genres, Bulgarian painters felt the influence of Impressionism and early Modernists like Paris-based George Papazov (1894-1972) experimented with abstraction. Nationalist painters of the 1920s and 30s like Vladimir Dimitrov 'The Master' (1882-1960) used bold figurative codes with the life of the ordinary Bulgarian people as their subject matter. From then on, in the decades before and after the start of the Communist era in 1944, figurative artists explored every possible avenue and trend.
My one criticism of the museum is that not enough guidance is provided to follow the intentions of the artists represented here. The A4-size information sheets (one per room, in Bulgarian and English) are helpful but information could be presented in a more engaging and visitor-friendly way. The visit is generally in chronological order but, often, work from different tendencies or separated by decades is found in the same room. One is left with a huge ensemble of very high-quality works which perhaps have not been made sufficiently accessible.
Separately, the museum also houses an extensive (and very interesting) collection of traditional sculpture, arts and crafts from Africa, India, Japan, SE Asia and the Americas acquired in the last decades of the 20th century.
A highly recommended visit if you're in Sofia and a great chance to get acquainted with the work of first-rate artists whom you may not encounter anywhere else.