Amid the intense battles that broke out approximately 50 miles northwest of Kyiv on February 25 during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum was burned, according to The Kyiv Independent. “Another one of the irreparable losses of the historical-cultural authority of Ukraine is the destruction of the Ivankiv Historical-Cultural Museum by the aggressor in these hellish days for our country,” wrote the museum’s director in a message on Facebook. As a result, the Ukrainian Minister of Culture, Olexandr Tkachenko, requested that Russia lose its UNESCO membership.
It is not yet confirmed how many pieces in the museum’s holdings survive, but the destroyed artifacts reportedly include roughly 25 works by the celebrated Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, who died in 1997 at the age of 88. Beloved for her saturated gouaches and watercolors on paper, Prymachenko was known to transform cultural motifs (yellow suns and graphic, stencil-like flowers) into vivid and wildly imagined narratives, in which elephants longed to be sailors, horses traveled to outer space, and villagers hijacked giant serpents. Today, nearly 650 of her works, dating from 1936 to 1987, are also held by the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art, in nearby Kyiv. Whether or not the Ivankiv museum was targeted intentionally, its loss is pointedly a blow to Ukraine’s cultural history, its collective spirit, its artistic soul.
Maria Prymachenko was born in 1908 close to Ivaniv, in the village of Bolotyna. Her father was a craftsman and carpenter; from her mother and grandmother, she learned Ukrainian arts of embroidery and hand-painting Easter eggs. From an early age, with no formal fine art training, Prymachenko began to create a way of working that stemmed from her encounters in forests and wildflower fields, surrounded by animals. It is easy to imagine her like a fairy-tale character following breadcrumbs, like one of her own invented animals undergoing a dark or brilliantly colored journey in the woods. Later in life, she would tell the story of how one day, while shepherding a gaggle of geese, she followed her cohorts to a little beach where she began to draw in the sand, discovering a layer of blue clay below the surface. Instinctively, she scooped up handfuls and brought it home, using it as a pigment to paint flowers on the interior walls.
Around 1936, Tetiana Floru, an artist from Kyiv, saw Prymachenko’s embroideries for sale in the Ivankiv market and invited her to join the Central Experimental Workshop of the Kyiv Museum of Ukrainian Art, an assembly of folk artists from all over the country. It was life-changing for Prymachenko, who in Kyiv underwent surgeries for complications from childhood polio that finally allowed her to walk. In 1936, her works were included in the First Republican Folk Art Exhibition in Kyiv, which later traveled to Moscow and Leningrad, and the following year some of her drawings were presented in the International Exhibition in Paris, where she received a gold medal and the blurb of a lifetime from Pablo Picasso.
“I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.” —Pablo Picasso
“I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian,” Picasso reportedly said, visiting her exhibit in the same year he painted Guernica. Another admirer, Marc Chagall, also fell under the spell of her paintings: When he began to paint animals into his own magic realist scenes in his native Belarus, he called his creatures “the cousins of the strange beasts of Maria Prymachenko.” Other relatives in this imaginary zoo: the animal renderings of Henri Rousseau, Niki de Saint Phalle.
Back in Kyiv, Prymachenko met her fiancé, Vasyl Marynchuk, before he went to war, never to return. Her brother was shot dead by the Nazis. Prymachenko returned to Ivankiv as a single mother, working on a collective farm. She embroidered flowers against a black backdrop of a tablecloth and did not pick up her paintbrushes again until the late 1940s.
In the last decades of her life, as her work took a narrative turn, Prymachenko’s works were exhibited and published internationally. Reproductions of her paintings adorned Ukrainian stamps, and her headscarved likeness was featured on the Ukrainian silver coin. In 1966, she received the Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine, and in 1970, she was recognized as the People’s Artist of Ukraine, the country’s highest cultural honor. Her paintings also got progressively weirder. In addition to her lions, tigers, bulls, she painted villagers in full traditional dress standing at the well or carrying a harvest of turnips, maidens strumming lutes and pining for their beloved, old women yearning for lost years, drunks clustered around what at first glance appears to be a table, except the painting is titled Four Drunks Riding a Bird. Many of her works were inspired by dreams.
She signed her initials on the front of her paintings and inscribed the back side with enigmatic text that suggested greater stories in the realm of the new and surreal (Corncob Horse in Outer Space) and in the language of the locals (A Coward Went A-Hunting, Ivan Gave the Landlord a Ride In His Gig and Fell Inside). Like the revered 19-century artist, poet, and national cultural hero Taras Shevchenko, she summoned the language of the people and a deep love for their places, which she embedded with mystery. In her painting of Taras Shevchenko, the poet is depicted on his return from exile after being convicted for promoting his country’s independence and writing, in its language, how he longed to be buried “in my beloved Ukraine...amid the boundless steppes.” Prymachenko painted him heavily mustachioed, looking a little stunned, and surrounded by flowers.
Prymachenko’s works are not exclusively political, but she did create paintings of resistance, particularly a stretch in the late seventies Brezhnev years. Our Army Our Protectors, from1978, prefigures a war in which ordinary citizens are taking up arms, in which parents are making Molotov cocktails with their children and fortifying their windows with books and newspapers. Also in 1978, she painted a heavily ornamented pink lion whose tongue is a double-forked bright green serpent—May That Nuclear War Be Cursed! In her 1982 work May I Give This Ukrainian Bread to All People In this Big Wide World, a woman in ornamental dress stands at center, holdilng out a basket, as giant sunflowers appear to spring from her head, radiating outward into a brilliant blue background.
This week, David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker, “Putin’s assault on a sovereign state has not only helped to unify the West against him; it has helped to unify Ukraine itself.” If an attack on the Ivankiv museum was carried out by intent—if it was meant to eradicate cultural memory and weaken its identity—it has had the opposite effect. Since news of the blast spread, images of Prymachenko’s works are proliferating everywhere, like so much Ukrainian bread scattered out into the big wide world.
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