Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko’s fantastic visions have captivated the world – here are 3 key facts about her life and work
“I bow to the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian,” said Pablo Picasso upon seeing the works of Maria Prymachenko at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937. Marc Chagall was another admirer, calling his own images of fantastical creatures “Cousins of Maria Prymachenko’s Strange Beasts”.
A self-taught artist (1909-1997) born of modest means, Prymachenko became known during her lifetime for her dazzlingly colorful and wildly inventive animal scenes – lions, birds, horses and other beasts – covered in patterns almost psychedelic with vibrant colors. She might just be Ukraine’s most beloved artist; his likeness has appeared on stamps and even on the country’s currency.
Recently, his work has caught the world’s attention for a darker reason. On February 28, the Kyiv Independent reported that a Russian attack hit the Ivankiv History and Local History Museum, which houses more than 20 of Prymachenko’s fantastic paintings. According to Maria Prymachenko Family Foundationwhich is operated by his great-granddaughter Anastasiia Prymachenko, a local man was able to save at least part of the works from destruction.
While much art history research on Maria Prymachenko has yet to be translated and digitized, here are three facts about her wonderful creations.
1) His works are inspired by the Ukrainian tradition
“Naïve art” is a term used to describe works by self-taught artists, perhaps most famously in the case of French artist Henri Rousseau. Prymachenko certainly ranks among the artists of the naïve style, but that does not mean that his works are not informed by a deep knowledge of a rich cultural tradition.
Born into a peasant family near Chernobyl, the artist suffered from poliomyelitis as a child, an illness that left her bedridden for much of her childhood (later surgery would allow her to walk independently). During these years, the artist’s mother taught him embroidery, a tradition deeply linked to Ukrainian culture. She also learned the art of pysanka, the intricate Ukrainian style of decorating Easter eggs.
During the 1930s, Prymachenko was part of the Ivankiv Cooperative Embroidery Association, where she gained a reputation for her synthesis of traditional Ukrainian designs with her own imaginative designs. These vivid embroideries were in turn discovered in a street market by Kyiv-based artist Tetiana Floru, who invited the young Prymachenko to the Central Experimental Workshop of the Ukrainian Art Museum in Kyiv, a studio where a team of artists worked for the first republican. Folk Art Exhibition, which was first held in kyiv in 1936.
Although Prymachenko’s later paintings may at first glance seem whimsical, if not downright silly, they follow his embroidery work in quietly affirming the uniqueness of Ukrainian culture and identity. In a table, Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko arrives from exile in flourishing Ukraine (1968), the artist depicts beloved Ukrainian poet, writer, folklorist and nationalist Taras Shevchenko returning from imposed exile to promote Ukrainian independence.
In another book, a decade later, Our army Our protectors (1978), Prymachenko imagines Ukrainian soldiers not as soldiers, but as ordinary men and women, dressed in traditional Ukrainian clothes, standing amid tall flowers.
Even the story of the artist’s first creative impulse literally connects her to the earth beneath her feet. “Once, as a young girl, I looked after a flock of geese,” Prymachenko recalled of his early drawings. “When I came with them to a sandy beach by the river, after crossing a field strewn with wild flowers, I began to draw real and imaginary flowers with a stick on the sand… More later I decided to paint the walls of my house with natural pigments, after that I never stopped drawing and painting.
2) Prymachenko’s paintings called for peace
The traumas of war deeply and directly affected Prymachenko’s life. Shortly after meeting his partner Vasyl Marynchuk, in 1941, the artist will give birth to a son, Fedor. But the young family would soon be broken up. A soldier, Marynchuk was sent to the front of the Second World War and lost his life there. Prymachenko’s brother, too, would be shot by the Nazis.
Prymachenko will stop making art for about twenty years, returning to creation in the 1960s, first with embroidery then gouache and watercolor. While she still approached the folkloric subjects of her early work, her works were now inspired by her dreams.
Sometimes his dreams evoked strange scenes such as his work Corn cob horse in outer space Where Four drunks riding a bird. Other times, however, his paintings pit good against evil. You see it in his work The threat of war (1986) and Damn this nuclear war (1978). A message of world peace ran throughout these later works, including Can I give this Ukrainian bread to all the inhabitants of this wide world (1982).
Today, artists are again using his work to call for peace in the current war between Ukraine and Russia. american artist Maria Carmen Knecht recently represented Prymachenko’s work A dove has spread its wings and asks for peace as a mural in St. Louis, Missouri, and soon after the the work could be seen popping up at anti-war protests around the world.
3) She did her works as gifts, not for money
Some have noted that over the years Prymachenko’s works have become brighter and larger. Although at some level a compositional decision, these changes were also enabled by the increased availability of certain pigments. In 1966, Prymachenko was awarded the Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine, one of the highest honors in the country, and in the last decades of his life admirers provided Prymachenko with materials to create larger format works.
That said, its materials have remained simple and consistent. She worked with factory-made brushes, painted in gouache and watercolor, and worked on Whatman paper. Despite his popularity, Prymachenko never sold his works for money, instead offering them to friends and neighbors. She created thousands of works during her lifetime. The National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Arts in kyiv alone houses around 650 works by the artist.
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