Last week during an invasion of Ukraine, the Russians burned down The Museum of Local History in the town of Ivankiv, Kyiv region, resulting in a heart-breaking cultural loss of 25 works by the country’s best-loved folk artist, Maria Prymachenko. Some, however, were saved, according to a social media post by journalist Tanya Goncharova and an interview with Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter, Anastasiia Prymachenko, in The Times. Even though I’m embarrassed it’s taken a war for me to discover her work, today, I’m finding out everything I can about the Ukrainian folk artist, Maria Prymachenko.
Maria was born in 1909 to a carpenter and craftsman and was brought up simply and rurally, in a small village near Ivankiv, 19 miles from Chornobyl, where she lived for most of her life. She suffered polio at an early age and lived with disabilities, an experience that inevitably influenced her art and outlook on life. Nevertheless, she spent the next 60 years as an artist, drawing inspiration from the Ukrainian countryside, to create distinctive mythological-style scenes. I read that many of her ideas came to her in her dreams. She also drew from local mythology and folklore and was known for her depictions of fantastic beasts, which Marc Chagall is quoted as saying he copied.
When she was young, Maria’s mother taught her embroidery, and by the late 1920s, she became a member of the renowned Ivankiv Cooperative Embroidery Association. Soon, an artist called Tetiana Floru recognised her talents and in 1935, invited her to work at the Central Experimental Workshop of the Kyiv Museum of Ukrainian Art.
It was also during the 1930s, Maria swapped embroidery for painting. Initially, she created works on white backgrounds, becoming bolder and more expressive as time went on, and using traditional Ukrainian motifs in new ways. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s, she began using more vibrant colours and colourful backgrounds and would add short phrases or proverbs to the backs of paintings.
Her work reflects the most horrible events in our history and at the same time, she gives us hope for our brilliant future. Her paintings are timeless and more relevant today than ever before. Through her art our Ukrainian voice is strong,” Anastasiia Prymachenko, 26, the great-granddaughter of the artist, and director of the Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation, The Times.
Her work was first exhibited in 1936 at the First Republican Exhibition of Folk Art, which travelled around Moscow, Leningrad and Warsaw. It was when her work was shown in Paris the following year, Picasso saw it and is reported to have said: “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian,” while fellow Eastern European artist Marc Chagall, depicted realistic and fantastical animals in his paintings, which he called “the cousins of the strange beasts of Maria Prymachenko.” Since then, Maria Prymachenko has been a symbol of Ukraine for many years.
Thankfully, her works are spread among Ukrainian museums and private collections. The largest part of her legacy, nearly 650 works, dating from 1936 to 1987, is kept in the collection of the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art in Kyiv which so far survives. Although how long for. Who knows.