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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Maria Prymachenko: “Because I love people...”

100th anniversary of Prymachenko’s birth reveals the depths of the Ukrainian soul
18 November, 2008 - 00:00

“Imagine a great field where there is practically nothing, except for one big branchy tree. It is not a poplar tree but a large apple tree with apple-laden branches. And the boundless void of the field is so smooth...

“There is an impression that there exists society-Soviet or, tentatively, Ukrainian society — but in fact there is none. Maria Pry­machenko sat in her house with her bad leg propped up, patching sacks,” says Liudmyla Lysenko, an art historian and a TV-culture critic, told The Day, in an attempt to pack in a few sentences her 30-year-long experience of knowing Prymachenko. She is Pry­ma­chen­ko according to her passport, but she referred to herself and signed as Pryi­ma­chen­ko. The question about how to write her name continues is still the subject of debate in artistic circles.

“She produced her first works on the bank of the Bolotianka River. She would clear some space in the marsh and would draw with a little stick: a new wave would come and a new drawing would appear.

Another wave would be followed with yet another drawing. The clouds floating in the skies are also a drawing; the wind is material, just as the flowers and everything.

She was an amazingly beautiful woman of the Renaissance period. Her soul combined tremendous power, exquisite tenderness, and helplessness. A most innocent word or even a look could move her to tears; she could lament over the sunset or an unfortunate sunflower plant in the kitchen garden. Pry­ma­chenko painted with her left hand-the one that is closer to the heart, and she picked out images immediately.

She would put light colors at first, then the darker ones — in a way that a pysanka is made. She said it suited her best. Pry­ma­chenko was very prolific. There in no painter either in folk or in professional art who would have thousands of works. She brea­thed — and she painted. This was her way of living.

When Prymachenko was drawing a lion it was all from her imagination — she had never seen one. She was told that the lion is like a big cat with a mane. She guessed shapes owing to her most powerful artistic imagination.


Prymachenko was born in 1908. Her art is variously called naive, primitive, or “the art of a holy heart.” She spent nearly all her life in the village of Bolotnia in Kyiv oblast. She was very sick since she was a child and drawing became a great comfort for her. Here is what she said about the beginnings of her work: “One day I was grazing geese on a flower-covered meadow. I drew the flowers I saw on the sand. Then I noticed some bluish clay. I took some home with me and painted our house.”

Natalka Samruk cites these words of Prymachenko in her foreword to the catalogue dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the painter’s birth.

Tetiana Flora was the one who discovered Prymachenko in 1936 when preparing a folk art exhibition. After that she was invited to an experimental studio attached to the Kyiv State Museum. In the late 1930s her works spread throughout Europe. In 1937 Prymachenko received a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. When Pablo Picasso saw her works, he said he bowed his head before this work of genius produced by the Ukrainian painter.

Later on her works were put on display in Italy, Austria, the USA, Canada, Sweden, Japan, Chi­na, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hun­gary, Poland, Denmark, Por­tu­gal, Check Republic, Germany, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Lat­via, Lithuania, Estonia, Uz­be­kis­tan, Kazakhstan, and other countries.

Prymachenko went back from Kyiv to Bolotnia after the Second World War broke out. Her husband went missing during the war and never saw their son Fedir, but she remained faithful to her husband until the end of her life. The rest of her life Prymachenko spent in her native village of Bolotnia. In the 1960s she was ”rediscovered” — first by Hrygoriy Mestechkin, an art historian and a film writer, and then by Yuri Rost, a journalist from Moscow, who published photos of her in Komsomolskaya Pravda. In 1966 Prymachenko received the Shevchenko State Prize and later the titles of the Honored Art Worker and People’s Artist. One of her works was used for the cover of the World Encyclopedia of Naive Art (Belgrade, 1966).

Nina Velyhotska, a re­sear­cher of Prymachenko’s works, says that in addition to painting, she did embroidering (she is said to have worn only the shirts she herself had embroidered) and ceramics. She even illustrated books that were published by the Veselka Publishing House in the early 1970s.

Prymachenko’s descendants continued the painting tradition — son Fedir, who died in August 2008, as well as two grandsons also became painters.


The Year of Maria Prymachenko initiated by the president and dedicated to the 100th anniversary of her birth opened with the All-Ukraine Competition ”Prymachenko and I. A Parade of Art Events.” Creative fantasies of young Uk­rainian painters, such as clothes with Prymachenko’s patterns, mugs, postcards, posters, and fonts-all of this is actually an ‘extract’ of Prymachenko’s works adapted to the needs of mo­dern society. Hopefully, Uk­raine will get more joy and warmth from it.

A catalogue of Pry­machenko’s works has already been published on the ocassion of her 100th anniversary by the joint efforts of several galleries (”Rodovid”, ”Ya Galereia”, and ”Lavra”) and the Mi­nistry of Culture and Tou­rism of Ukraine. However, it re­pre­sents only the works from the Zaporizhia Art Museum’s museum collection ”I am Giving You the Sun.”.

The people who were lucky to know Prymachenko gathered in Kyiv’s gallery ”Lavra”. They knew her mostly through her art. The Minister of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine Vasyl Vovkun is among the lucky ones.

”It happened in the early 1990s when Maria was very old. She could hardly walk and that is why she usually lay and drew in this position,” says the minister. ”We came to visit her in winter, on her birthday. She celebrated it on the Eve of the Epiphany (Shchedryi vechir). We came with the vertep characters of the Nativity scene. Sure thing, Maria was agnry at us for coming without a warning, but was glad to see us anyway. We killed a goat, dug out moonshine, which was buried in the ground, while Maria was making varenyky. That’s how we had fun together.”

”I dream about creating a museum (in the foreword to the already mentioned catalogue Vovkun mentions it as his personal debt to Prymachenko. - The Day) and install a monument. I guess it is only a question of time and, no doubt, it will be solved because Maria is a Ukrainian and also a worldwide phenomenon. Do you know that some of her pictures are in a Japanese ABC book? Children in Japan learn color combinations and develop their imagination. Maria is not an authentic naive painter, but rather a peasant woman an image with a creative genius of modern times.”

Having declared that the next year will be the year when Maria’s genius will be acknowledged worldwide, Vovkun specifies:

”Our plans are collosal. I put this matter in the care of several people: the director Serhiy Proskurnya and Pavlo Hudimov and Lida Lyhach, who will be responsible for exhibitions. Prymachenko’s works will tour all regions of Ukraine and will also be displayed abroad. We set the goal of making it a non-traditional presentation. We want her works to be everywhere starting from children toys, cups, and clothes to some general images. Everyone can come to us with his own idea. If we find it interesting, we’ll consider it and incorporate in the project. These days a great exhibition of her works will be opened on the territory of the Kyiv Cave Monastery. Moreover, I have just signed a letter to the director of the State Tretyakov Gallery, which means a great collection of her works will be displayed in Moscow. It seems to me that Maria is becoming more and more popular these days.”

One of the streets in Kyiv in the Dniprovskyi rayon was named after Maria Pry­ma­chenko. It is especially interesting because before it used to bear Lenin’s name. The Day found out about this fact from Olha Levchenko, vice-president and director of the Maria Pry­machenko All-Ukrainian Cha­rity Fund. The Fund was launched in 1994. At that time its task was to popularize Prymachenko’s art, whereas its plans are have a more global nature.

”The most important thing is that people in Ukraine and abroad could understand that there are people of extraordinary genius in Ukraine,” says Levchenko. ”We want to create the Naive Ukrainian Art Museum. The president has just issued a decree to this effect. We have already discussed this with the mayor of Kyiv and he has personally promised, in the presence of the president, to support us in this undertaking. There already exists a street named after Maria Pry­machenko. There will also be a silver coin bearing one of her works and a portrait of her, as well as an envelope.”

At the presentation of the project ”Prymachenko and I” there was an exhibit of some well-known photos by Yuri Rost-the photographer who captured Prymachenko in his photos in her lifetime. He knew the painter well and speaks of his connection with her as ”divine.” He does not like the idea of this kind of re-interpretation of Prymachenko’s art as was suggested by the organizers.

”I haven’t seen all this but I already dislike it all,” he snaps.

The filmmaker Oles Sanin has the same skeptical attitude to the idea.

”On Moliere’s grave his best friend, who was the literary director of what is now the Moliere Theater, said: ‘Now there is nothing needed for Moliere’s glory; rather we need him for ours.” Images may be combined in different ways using Photoshop-this is called designing. But the essence of Maria’s art is a dialogue with God; the essence of her life is what you create and how you breathe, as well as the fact that you don’t compromise with customers or anyone else... That is what we need to take as an example from her,” says Sanin.

”They need Prymachenko now for their own glory. This is my [gut] feeling as an artist. The world today is commercialized. I don’t know it, nor do I read it. Prymachenko is not Coca-Cola-this I know for sure; she is the very essence of art itself.”

On the other hand, the fairy-tales author Sashko Lirnyk, who assures that he sees the world exactly the way Prymachenko did (”my fairy tales are the same as her paintings-chimerical and multifaceted”), thinks that this kind of art should reach masses.

”This kind of art has to reach out to people from prints on T-shirts, balls, and signs. It imprints itself on your subconsciousness and her paintings have an incredible power which awakens subconscious things and the person’s own strengths.”

Maybe this is the reason why Prymachenko gave many of her paintings as presents. In his 1998 article for The Day the director Serhiy Proskurnia recollects: ”Prymachenko gave so many of her paintings as presents. But it was not an act of scattering masterpieces. This was a long-lasting act of fertilizing a great space, an act of sowing kindness and harmony, and sharing her feelings through color and images.”

Apparently, this event can be aptly called the ”fertilization of a great space” with Pry­ma­chenko’s art. It looks like the organizers made a conscious choice to go this ”massive” way. However, this does not mean that we can really partake of her art only by wearing a T-shirt with a sample of her works. It is only a hint or an incentive to the real understanding. And it is a good thing it is works.

Prymachenko is perceived, above all, as a visual artist. Nonetheless, those who ”feel through words,” so to speak, value her just as much. The verbal expression of her nature, captured in titles of her paintings and interviews given to journalists, is amazing. In the foreword to the above-mentioned catalogue Halyna Bo­ry­sova, director of the Zaporizhia Art Museum, cites Pry­ma­chenko’s words: ”I make sunny flowers just because I love people, I work for joy and happiness so that all peoples could love each other and live like flowers on this Earth.” Can this be expressed in a simpler and, at the same time, more powerful way? Just one phrase-”because I love people”-is a global and universal motif. These four words, not to mention Prymachenko’s art itself, are disarming. They are greater than hundreds and thousands of flowery monologues and speeches.

By Masha TOMAK, The Day