Ukrainian Naїve, Fantastic Beasts And Long Museum Lines: The Big Comeback Of Maria Prymachenko


January 2022 marked the 114 anniversary of Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), one of the most famous Ukrainian naïve artists. Self-taught, Prymachenko is most known for her fantastic beasts and heartwarming scenes of rural life in Ukraine.

Back in the 1930s, her works made a great impression on European audiences at The Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques in Paris (International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology). And now, 2022 became the year Prymachenko's name returned to the international art scene, making an even bigger splash. 

A man looks at Prymachenko’s fantastic beasts in the exhibition "Mariya Prymacheko: this is my gift to Ukraine!» at Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum. July 2022, Lviv, Ukraine. Photograph: Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum

2022 was a burdensome and tragic year for war-torn Ukraine. Art has always reacted fast and on point to the most dramatic historical events - wars, deportations, genocide, uprisings, and mass refugee crises. That may be why many world-famous artists flocked to Ukraine in 2022 to reflect on Europe's biggest war since World War 2. Banksy created a series of murals in small towns around Kyiv, which suffered the horrors of Russian occupation. Damien Hirst paid homage to the Ukrainian national flag in his new art piece that he later presented at the 59th La Biennale di Venezia. French street artist JR spread his giant art installation on the central square of Lviv, Western Ukraine. Later, the drone photo of this artwork landed on the cover of Times magazine. On Christmas Eve, Swiss artists Gerry Hofstetter "wrapped" Kyiv's most known historical and architectural sites in his whimsical light projections, transforming them into spectacular works of contemporary art. 

This celebrity guest list can go on and on; however, despite all the big names, for many Ukrainians, the title "The artist of the year" would go to Maria Prymachenko. A self-taught painter, she created artworks that fascinated audiences far beyond the so-called soviet "iron curtain." The soviet press described Prymachenko as "a young farmer slash amateur artist from sunny and happy Ukraine," which was such an understatement of the depth and genuine meanings of her works. 

Young Maria Prymachenko Photo: Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation

Young Maria Prymachenko

Photo: Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation

On February 27th, 2022, when the battle for Kyiv was in its hottest phase, many people in horror watched the video footage from the small town of Ivankiv near the Ukrainian capital, on which the local Historical Museum stood bombed and ablaze. That Museum was famous for its carefully curated collection of Prymachenko's paintings. But from the video, it was evident that the art pieces inside the premises didn't stand a chance to survive. Three days later, Ukrainians were crying again, but those were tears of happiness this time. It turned out that the collection had miraculously survived: the Museum's employees managed to evacuate the majority of artworks from the burning premises and hid them at their homes. 

In spring 2022, thousands of visitors to La Biennale di Venezia swarmed Scuola Grande della Misericordia to see, among other Ukrainian art, Prymachenko's paintings presented as part of the "This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom" project brought to Venice by Pinchuk Art Center. People marveled at "Ancient Wolf" and "Boxer Bears," two gouache paintings by Maria Prymachenko loaned especially for the Biennale by Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv. 

Prymachenko's paintings «Ancient Wolf» and «Boxer Bears» presented as part of the «This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom» project brought to Venice Biennale by Pinchuk Art Center, April 2022. Photo: Pinchuk Art Center

During the summer, people queued for hours to visit the "Mariya Prymacheko: this is my gift to Ukraine" exhibition at the above-mentioned Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv. Despite the raging war, Eduard Dymshyts, a Ukrainian art collector and critic, decided to exhibit his vast private collection of nearly 100 pieces by Prymachenko in relatively safe Lviv. The whole project was prepared in harsh war conditions. Museum staff had to take unprecedented steps to ensure visitors would enjoy Prymachenko's art safely yet comfortably. 

Visitors looking at Prymachenko’s paintings at the exhibition «Mariya Prymacheko: this is my gift to Ukraine!» at Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum. July 2022, Lviv, Ukraine. Photograph: Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum

In September 2022, it was Kyiv's turn to witness "ques to Prymachenko." This time people were waiting in lines that seemed to take hours to get to the National Center "Ukrainian House" in the heart of Ukraine's capital. Here Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation exhibited a dozen of Prymachenko's works miraculously saved from Ivankiv Historical Museum. 

people were waiting in line to get to the National Center "Ukrainian House», where Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation exhibited a dozen of Prymachenko's works that were saved from Ivankiv Historical Museum, September 2022. Photo: National Center "Ukrainian House»

Throughout 2022 Prymachenko's paintings were a hot commodity at international and local auctions. Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation donated the painting "My house, my rules" (1989) to the auction house de Pury for the annual Venice Biennale charity auction. It was sold for 110,000 EUR, with all the money going to nonprofits supporting museums and cultural institutions in Ukraine. Later in the year, another of Prymachenko's paintings was sold at a charity auction organized by Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation and private collectors Ihor Ponamarchuk and Daria Dobriyan. Finally, after a spectacular online bidding battle that set a new auction record for Ukraine, the gouache painting "Flowers have blossomed by the fourth unit" (meaning the unit of the nuclear power plant, probably in Chornobyl) was sold for 500,000 EUR. All the raised funds were spent on trucks and drones for Ukrainian Armed Forces. The anonymous buyer handed the painting to the National Art Museum in Kyiv for safekeeping. It was also announced that after the war ends, the art piece will be on loan to the Museum and on show as part of its permanent exhibition.

Prymachenko’s painting "My house, my rules" (1989) was sold for 110,000 EUR at the Venice Biennale charity auction held by de PURY. Photo: de PURY

The whimsical creatures that Maria Prymachenko is most well known for inspired many other artists and designers. Her magical beasts appeared on clothes, accessories, interior pieces, postcards, stamps, and souvenirs in Ukraine and abroad. 

Prymachenko may be the key figure of Ukrainian naїve art, but many other Ukrainian artists worked in this genre. After Prymachenko's works sparked great interest among art enthusiasts abroad, other artists' names also began to pop up. In January 2023, The Ukrainian Museum in New York unveiled a special exhibit dedicated to showcasing the captivating works of Lemko (the region in the Carpathian mountains) artist Nikifor (1895-1968), considered one of the world's finest outsider artists of his time.

Unnamed painting by Nikifor, Ukrainian Museum in New York collection. Photo: Ukrainian Museum in New York

In December 2022, after almost a year's delay, the picturesque village of Kryvorivnia in the Carpathian highlands celebrated the opening of a new museum. It's dedicated to the life and work of Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit (1927-1998), a Hutsul artist, folklorist, ethnographer, philosopher, and photographer. Plytka-Horytsvit lived in Kryvorivnia for almost all her life except for 10 years, when she was sent to a labor camp by Soviet authorities in 1945. She became a cultural symbol for both Kryvorivnia and the entire Hutsul region.

Ukrainian naїve art is all about sincerity, wisdom, childlike simplicity, and frankness with just a fair bit of humor. All those features help Ukrainians to survive the gloomy war-time reality. Perhaps that is why Maria Prymachenko's art became something of a talisman for Ukrainians in 2022, that defends them against evil and brings a strong belief in a victorious future. 


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