The Ukrainian artist admired by Picasso After being saved from a Russian-bombed museum, Maria Prymachenko’s paintings caught the world’s attention — and not for the first time
On February 26, Russian troops shelled the village of Ivankiv in Ukraine’s Kyiv region, destroying a local museum that contained works by Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko. Local residents managed to save 12 paintings, and Prymachenko’s art was soon being admired all over the world; the paintings have gone for hundreds of thousands of dollars at art auctions and become a symbol of Ukraine's fight for peace. Meduza tells the story of Maria Prymachenko and her bright, surreal artwork.
The local history museum in Ivankiv, a village near Kyiv, came under fire on February 26, just a days after Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine. It was located on the outskirts of the village, next to a residential neighborhood, a river, and a park. Though Museum watchman Anatoly Kharitonenko and Ivankiv resident Igor Nikolaenko didn’t hear the explosions, they did notice the smoke rising over the museum, Nikolaenko later told BBC.
The two men, along with a third one whose name Nikolaenko didn’t catch, made it their mission to save the paintings of one of Ukraine’s most famous artists, Maria Prymachenko. Kharitonenko didn’t have keys, but other village residents who were nearby managed to break the bars on the windows and shatter the glass. They rescued 12 of Prymachenko’s paintings from the fire.
When the museum’s ceiling later collapsed, numerous works of art were still trapped inside; they were all destroyed. When the fire was finally put out, all that remained were the museum walls. According to Nadezhda Biryuk, head of the village council’s Tourism, Youth, and Recreation Department, an anonymous philanthropist has already volunteered to rebuild the museum.
Still, according to Maria Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter, Anastasia, who manages the artist's foundation, all of Prymachenko’s works being held in the museum were saved. The foundation hasn’t revealed where the paintings are currently being stored, but the painting “Scarecrow” was recently displayed at the Venice Biennale. Anastasia didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
Who was Maria Prymachenko?
Maria Prymachenko was born in 1908 in the village of Bolotnia in Ukraine’s Kyiv region. Her father, Avksenty Prymachenko, was considered a carpentry virtuoso, decorating the fences he made with ancient Slavic patterns. Her mother, Praskovya, was an embroiderer, and passed the skill down to Maria, who wore shirts she’d sewn and decorated herself throughout her life.
By her own account, Primachenko made her first art in the sand when she was a child. When she discovered some blue clay in the ground, she used it to draw pictures on the walls of her home. After that, she “never stopped drawing.” As a teenager, she painted designs on her neighbors’ building, earning her an award, her acquaintances recounted. The cash prize helped her family survive a later famine.
In 1925, Prymachenko began studying artistic sewing in Ivankiv, and in 1936, Kyiv artist Tatiana Flor invited her to take experimental masterclasses at the Ukrainian Decorative Art Museum in Kyiv, where she studied embroidery and ceramics.
Her bright and strange artworks, full of Ukrainian folk motifs, were displayed at the Ukrainian Republic-wide Folk Art Exhibition before being sent to Paris for the 1937 World’s Fair. There, they caught the attention of Pablo Picasso, who reportedly said he was “in awe of this genius Ukrainian woman’s talent.” Marc Chagall later remarked on her talent as well.
In the 1960s, Prymachenko’s work underwent another surge of popularity thanks to an article in Komsomolskaya Pravda by journalist Yury Rost, who visited Bolotnya and wrote a profile of Prymachenko. He later continued to help her, even arranging an exhibit of her work in Moscow (Rost didn’t return Meduza’s calls). In 1966, Prymachenko was awarded the Taras Shevchenko
Prize, and in 1970, she was named an Honored Artist of the Ukrainian SSR. In 1988, she became a People’s Artist.
Despite the wide acclaim her works garnered, Prymachenko had no desire to leave the village where she grew up; she spent her entire life “in a rural cottage under a thatched roof,” raising pigs, goats, and geese. She didn’t like to sell her paintings, so she gave them as gifts to friends and neighbors (Rost has said that after exhibitions, her pieces were often not returned to her).
In addition to their fanciful subject matter and cheerful color schemes, Prymachenko’s artworks contained serious social commentary; she took some of the key issues of her time and ratched up their absurdity up to surreal levels.
Her pre-war works include “The Court of Beasts,” which shows a monkey sitting at a table and filling out a legal report while two wolves stand in front on tiptoe. Many of of her paintings feature war (her husband died in the Second World War) or the Chernobyl disaster (Bolotnya, Prymachenko’s home village, is only about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, away from the Exclusion Zone; she is believed to have refused to evacuate after the accident).
These violent themes feature in “The Threat of War” (1986), “May Nuclear War Be Cursed!” (1978), “May I Give This Ukrainian Bread to All People in This Big Wide World” (1982), and many others. One of her most famous works about Chernobyl is “An old man was letting his cow graze near Unit 4 dressed in Kapron bags to stay healthy. And it is eating the grass and not listening to him” (1987). The painting shows a cow with cellophane bags on its feet to keep it from touching the radioactive ground.
Other series include Prymachenko's 1960s “corn series” and her “outer space series.” She said herself that she was inspired by the flora and fauna of her home village, but the dogs, bulls, and magpies, that populate her works exist alongside animals she’d never seen before (she never went to a zoo) such as crocodiles and elephants, as well as fictional animals whose names she came up with herself, including the "horbotrus" and the "volezakha." As a rule, Prymachenko’s earlier works contain more realistic elements, while after the war and the Chernobyl disaster, her subject matter became more fantastical and her colors brighter.
In 1968, Prymachenko began illustrating children’s books, sometimes writing the texts herself.
When she died in 1997, Prymachenko left behind 2,000 paintings, many of which are kept in Ukrainian museums; The Ukrainian Folk Decorative Art Museum in Kyiv, for example, contains about 600 of her works.
Kyiv, Brovary, and Kramatorsk all have streets and boulevards named after Prymachenko. Her work has been featured on Ukrainian stamps and coins, and in 1998, an asteroid was named in her honor. Despite her massive popularity and influence on Ukrainian painting in the 20th century, though, Prymachenko never formed her own art school; her only student and stylistic heir is her son, Fyodor.
To mark the 100th anniversary of her birth, UNESCO declared 2009 the Year of Prymachenko in Ukraine. In recent years, her paintings have been displayed everywhere from Iceland to Thailand, and art critics have devoted entire sections to her in magazines on naive art. In August 2021, a playground featuring a sculpture of one of Prymachenko’s animals was opened outside of the Ukrainian President’s Office.
‘A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace’
The news that the Ivaniv Local History Museum had been bombed, possibly destroying Prymachenko’s works, spread rapidly around the world; activists quickly began posting pictures of her art on social media in a show of solidarity.
One painting in particular became an especially widespread symbol of support for Ukraine: “A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace” (1982). Though the painting wasn’t one of the ones in the destroyed museum, it was recreated on a street in St. Louis, Missouri; projected onto a building in California; and drawn by over 100 anti-war protesters outside of a train station in San Francisco.
In early May, Prymachenko’s painting “Flowers grew near the fourth power unit” (1990) sold for $500,000 at an auction in support of the Ukrainian armed forces (the starting price was $5,000), setting a record for Prymachenko’s works; at the Wannenes Art Auctions last year, one of her works was estimated to be worth between two and three thousand dollars. After the start of the war, her work “My Home, My Truth” (1989) sold for 110,000 euros at the Benefit for Ukraine’s People & Culture charity auction.
Ukrainian TV host Serhiy Prytula spent the proceeds from “Flowers grew near the fourth power unit” on military buses. He vowed to donate the first seven to the soldiers defending Mykolaiv, while the second batch was sent further east. All of the vehicles are decorated with Prymachenko’s art.
Translation by Sam Breazeale