Who is Maria?

Maria Prymachenko's life is the stuff of legend: her art is magic and she herself is steeped in mystery and enigma.

So, let's revise the facts – Prymachenko was born in 1909 in the small township of Bolotnya where she spent most of her life. Prymachenko's native township is the very representation of her artistic picture of the world. In the Polissia region in the north of Ukraine Prymachenko was effortlessly introduced to her first native crafts like embroidery, traditional Easter egg decoration and other artistic techniques deeply steeped in the Ukrainian folk culture.

From an early age Prymachenko has greatly suffered from the effects of poliomyelitis which completely wracked her body but it spared her soul. Her soul found salvation in art. Prymachenko recalls how in her teen years she decorates house walls, creates embroidered wall tapestries, and dabbles in fashion design. She quickly attracted attention from the Kyiv community of folk artists. Soon Prymachenko was invited to join the Central Experimental Workshops under the Kyiv State Folk Arts and Crafts Museum. From now on Prymachenko is a "professional artist" – she paints on paper and decorates ceramics. Prymachenko found fame in the capital, her exhibitions are popular with a wide audience and she is recognised by the professional community.

Together with budding celebrity Prymachenko finds love. She and her future husband Vasyl Marynchuk also a native of Bolotnya meet in Kyiv and go back to their native township, a place of strength where she first realised her artistic potential. This is where she will go through some of the most trying years as she survives the horrors of WW2 under the Nazi occupation together with her young son Fedir, as her beloved husband is killed in the war, and she goes through the following post-war struggles. Prymachenko does not paint for almost a decade but she cannot escape the artistic pull and starts to design embroidery and slowly progresses to drawing in store bought sketch-books.

In the 1960's Prymachenko enters her most productive and exciting period. In Communist Ukraine folk art has always balanced between trying not to fall under the rigid Soviet censorship and becoming kitsch. Prymachenko is in inspired by her native lands and stays true to her artistic principles as she creates art which appeals to a wider audience and art for its aesthetic value. Prymachenko does not appreciate the officialdom associated with the Communist art. Instead, she sets up an art school for children in her native Bolotnya. Prymachenko was awarded a prestigious Shevchenko prize for the To the Joy of the People series. The artist enjoys her celebrity as she is awarded an honorary title of a merited artist. However, in a larger context Prymachenko's art is more important for the development of the artists active in the Sixtiers movement and the Ukrainian underground art – in this respect her impact was absolutely tremendous.

Prymachenko bravely and eagerly championed her signature style through the perilous 20th century. She lived to see Ukraine proclaim independence and continued to create art till the very end. Prymachenko has had an absolutely tremendous impact on Ukrainian art, she continues to inspire generations of artists and draws awe-stricken visitors into her magic universe. Her life story is undeniably inspirational, it serves as a reminder that the artistic endeavour goes beyond creation and serves as an important component of our daily lives from which to draw strength and hope.

What does Maria paint?

Prymachenko's artistic legacy has been narrowly categorised as folk art or naïve art. But the original ideas she has developed, her vital artistic expression, and the multitude of meanings she has created place her in line with such prominent artists of the 20th and 21st century as Yayoi Kusama.

Prymachenko's natural talent stems from the original Ukrainian folk art and poetic tradition, which inspired her to develop her signature visual code. Prymachenko absolutely towers over the universe she has created. From the very start her artwork begins to include elaborate animal motifs, like beasts and birds together with flowers from the rolling fields of her native Polissia region and from the artist's own imagination. Together with the magic beasts which have now become the most recognised feature of the Prymachenko signature style, the artist also specialises in painting floral panels and panels with depictions of daily life. The panel scenes are filled with metaphor and symbols which could be deciphered by the Polissia folk traditions and popular imagination which stems back many generations. The artist starts to add short verses as a means to decipher her paintings, Prymachenko's unintentional technique is also widely used in conceptual art. The verses tell us that the fantastic beasts are endowed with typically human attributes. They are either humanised animals or bestialised humans. The weird and wonderful animals live ordinary human lives, go to work, meet with friends, and have fun. Some animals portray negative human qualities like greed, lack of empathy, anger, and sloth. In her art Prymachenko uses metaphorical language to playfully critique those negative human qualities and they disappear as a result of her folk magic. The artist uses the same technique to deal with her personal trauma, like the war and the Chernobyl disaster. Her verses are a heartfelt poetic tribute to the fallen and a cautionary message for the coming generations.

Also, Prymachenko explores joyful poetic themes. Often, she just illustrates traditional folk themes or paints songbirds which in Ukrainian folklore is a symbol of song. Prymachenko's illustrated music is about love, family, and happiness.

Prymachenko's paintings are dominated by luscious blooming flowers and living things. All is in bloom: the magic lions and monkeys are covered in flowers, the earth and sky are blooming, even the ubiquitous garden tomatoes and peas are in bloom! Sometimes, the flowers look back in wonder at the astonished viewers. Prymachenko makes the world bloom. "– Where's the war? - There's no war when the chestnut trees bloom over the Dnipro," – the artist adds her own verse to a Ukrainian folk song. When the world around looks like the garden of Eden, all the pain and suffering are gone.

Prymachenko's art is upbeat and full of life, but it is also elegantly pensive and philosophical, it cannot be described in words and accessible only at a sensory level. This unimaginable depth of feeling makes her art great.
How does Maria paint?

Prymachenko does not have any professional training as an artist as a result she's developed her own style of painting. The artist successfully utilises painting and graphics, both techniques were used in illustrating medieval manuscripts and bestiaries. Her lines are sharply defined, the background colours are prominent, a combination of which makes her art unique.

Prymachenko is truly free in her composition design, scale, and colour combinations. She is not bound by the academic dogma; she is a true follower of folk art and she is free to alter and change the traditional folk art principles as she sees fit in relation to her own artistic needs.

"I love our way of life, and that's it. Because it stems from Ukraine's age-old traditions…. All is decorated with embroidery design, and it's truly unique to our people," – comments Maria Prymachenko.

Perhaps, Prymachenko's style could be defined as a fusion of all types of folk art. The artist makes direct references in her art to national Ukrainian painted wall decoration, traditional ginger bread design in the shape of fantastic beasts, and ancient embroidery patterns for vyshyvankas. Unsurprisingly, Prymachenko was first recognised not as a painter but a master embroider with her embroidered white rushnyk, a traditional Ukrainian ritual cloth.

Prymachenko explores the traditional Ukrainian rushnyk design, decorative patterns on table cloth, and decorative rugs – she methodically fills the white background which she calls "dormant" with long decorative patterns. Prymachenko does not copy the traditional folk designs but creates her own, as a true artist she uses only basic principles as guidelines. Only the artwork's background, that is the cloth itself is free of decoration. Prymachenko paints the background in bright and bold colours and her work becomes epic and monumental. For Prymachenko colour is king.

In her paintings the artist used gouache and watercolour. But with time Prymachenko moves away from the delicate and translucent watercolours to bright and thick gouache paints – sometimes preliminary drawings in pencil are visible through a layer of paint.

Prymachenko design her compositions depending on the theme – the paintings depicting scenes from the daily life with a developing narrative are usually horizontal and epic monumental paintings are generally vertical.

Also, Prymachenko has an interesting way of painting her signature fantastic beasts. Initially she painted the beasts in profile but in time the artist began to paint the animal faces face-forward with the rest of the body sideways. This double take is typical for archaic art.

It has been noted that Prymachenko draws inspiration in the medieval artistic tradition but her visual language goes back in time much further than that. She explores the ancient folk traditions, much like Picasso did during his African art period. With the key difference that Picasso interactions with the African masks and statuettes mostly occurred in the museum setting and Prymachenko had direct access to the rich ancient traditions of pagan Ukraine which continue to live on in the folklore culture and artistic tradition of the Polissia region.

Why does Maria paint?

Prymachenko answers the question herself and does it with remarkable simplicity: "I paint sun-lit flowers, because I love people, I want them to be happy - for my flowers to be like the lives of the people, for the people to thrive like the flowers bloom all over the land." The quote is a manifestation of Prymachenko's humanist outlook and her decorative wall panels seem to support it.

Picasso, a great champion of Prymachenko's talent, once said: "I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian." Indeed, Prymachenko's artwork has a truly magnificent effect on the audience, as it is left in absolute astonishment. And her talent has magic origins, it is intimately connected to the time and place, where she lived and worked for almost a century in the very heart of Ukraine.

But for Ukraine these were the turbulent times. In her artwork Prymachenko includes direct references only to the damaging effects of the Chernobyl disaster, but sometimes she criticised the social inequality prevalent during the soviet times – some experts say that her book of beasts includes bestialised portraits of the communist leaders. However, Prymachenko's style if much different from the more typical critical approach in art – she does not judge and without a hint of sarcasm she makes a wholehearted attempt to change the corrupt world and make it shine. Naturally, the artist lived and worked in a particular historical period but her work is beyond time which is typical for archaic art. Prymachenko creates paintings and through that act of creation flowers will forever bloom over the graves of the anonymous fallen heroes and the horrors of war will soon be over.

But Prymachenko's hopes were dashed – they disappeared in the misty morning air as the Ukrainian air defence systems shot down the first Russian cruise missiles launched on the 24th of February, 2022.

With the start of the hot phase of the Russia-Ukraine war, Prymachenko's artwork has only grown in relevance. During the darkest months of 2022 the Sheptitsky National Museum in Lviv launched a project titled A Gift to Ukraine and the Ukrainian House hosted the Salvaged exhibition which featured Prymachenko's works saved from the burning Ivankiv local history museum. These events became a symbol of Ukraine's resilience.

Prymachenko continues her work through time and regardless of the circumstances and we should find inspiration in her life's work. Her art is endowed with the natural vitality which guides it through the darkest times and gives it strength to grow and flourish at the time adversity. The faintest glimmer of light and colour is visible only to those artists who have tremendous passion for life. And Prymachenko's art is absolutely brimming with life.

Tetiana Voloshina, curator
Two birds-sisters. 1990. Paper, gouache
In the art world Maria Prymachenko is perhaps the very embodiment of Ukrainian culture. She is bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of the Ukrainian nation. And her talent is immense. Often Prymachenko is compared to such world renowned primitivists like Henri Rousseau (France), Niko Pirosmani (Georgia), and Ivan Generalić (Croatia). I personally see Prymachenko in a different class of artists, and perhaps will be able to offer an alternative take on the situation. Prymachenko's art reminds me of the works by Pieter Bruegel, a Northern Renaissance artist sometimes referred to as "Peasant Bruegel". Both artists deal with the universal subject matter, still they show genuine interest in the lives and concerns of the ordinary people – it comes as easy as breathing. Prymachenko and Bruegel both rely heavily on allegory in portraying human nature.

Look carefully at the Prymachenko paintings – there is always a message about the human condition, which includes life stories and people behaving badly and not just in the artist's depictions of the daily lives, the majestic beasts also have something to say. On the one hand Prymachenko paints positive characters she has met in real life – they work the land, take care of each other, and raise children. And alongside them exist disreputable characters: slothful busybodies with a love for drink. But Prymachenko keeps her positive outlook on people. The Prymachenko family house in the Bolotnya township was always full of people, especially by the end of the artist's life. The visitors came from around Ukraine and other soviet republics, as well as from overseas. Prymachenko freely gifted her works, such items usually include a gift massage on the back and I came across many of them.

Prymachenko also designed special gifts for the professionals who daily risk their lives in the service of the general public, like army officers, Chernobyl first responders, and astronauts. These pictures usually depict flowers and have a relevant message on the back.

Also, Prymachenko's poetic legacy is underexplored, she was an unassuming peasant woman with limited formal education but her verses deserve to be studied academically. The messages on the back of the paintings include deep philosophical thoughts about the human condition, life and death, and meaning of existence. The artist often contemplated on human experiences and expressed her thoughts in a concise and precise form without any professional training.

Prymachenko's art places special value on good human relations and in real life the artist followed the same principle. She was not someone to be swayed by her celebrity status. I recall when Fedir and Kateryna, Prymachenko's son and daughter-in-law shared with me a story about how the local authorities decided to build a modern road to the Prymachenko family home because she was visited by many high-ranking dignitaries and it was "unbecoming" for them to travel on a dirt beat up path. The other time the authorities negotiated with Prymachenko to install heating in her house using locally produced pipes from a state-controlled factory. In both cases her response was no. "Build modern roads across the township" and "Install heating in all of the Bolotnya houses" – this is exactly what she said.

What in my opinion makes Prymachenko's art special? It's not just the subject matter, the artist's opulent imagination, and her careful observations. She also creates incredibly harmonious compositions. Throughout her career Prymachenko grew as an artist and developed her own expressive style of painting. The artist's compositions are sturdy, balanced, and organic. Seems like we are looking at a brick building, designed to withstand the test of time. And the colours are simply amazing! They are well balanced and delicate, and their brightness does not interfere with these characteristics. Prymachenko's art is first of all visually appealing. Also, the artist creates wonderful images. Her fantastic beasts are in a class of their own. It is said that, Prymachenko created these wonderful animals solely from imagination, and it was her only source of reference. But I beg to disagree. The fantastic beasts and flowers lived independently in Prymachenko's imaginary world. Sadly, the real life is not as bright and colourful. But the artist's imaginary world was filled with sunshine and happiness which she so much wanted. Keep in mind that Prymachenko was the one who developed this visual language and images and before her there was none. Prymachenko, an unassuming woman from a small village in Ukraine undertook this feat.

Today, we can say that Prymachenko is an authentic Ukrainian brand. Other artists emulate her artistic style and apply some of her visual elements in other complimentary fields, such as commercial design, fashion, ceramics, and many more. And Prymachenko's fantastic beasts are with us on the streets, they are gazing at us from billboards. They are taking over the world, even though not everybody knows where they originally came from.

Prymachenko's magic touch turned everything into an art object. She was a master embroider, knew how to decorate garden fences and walls of buildings – she never stopped her experiments with different art techniques. Prymachenko largely painted with paint and used watercolour but undoubtedly preferred gouache. Many of her friends recall supplying Prymachenko with paints and paper which were hard to come by in a rural area. This abundant supply was enough to last a lifetime, during which Prymachenko created thousands of works in her native Bolotnya.

For some time, an art school founded by Prymachenko functioned in the Bolotnya township, where Prymachenko taught small children. Her son Fedir is a talented artist in his own right, Prymachenko's grandchildren – Ivan and Petro are also artists. The family tradition lives on.

In Ukraine Prymachenko is a household name, her original paintings and abundant reproductions are practically everywhere. During her lifetime Prymachenko extensively exhibited abroad. The artist's international exhibitions continue even today. But her Ukrainian exhibitions are always special and it includes the exhibition Maria's Paints. 100 pictures by Prymachenko hosted by the Ukrainian House. It's a wonderful opportunity to become intimately connected with Maria Prymachenko's art because after all her life's purpose was to paint with great love for the people.

Eduard Dymshyts, member of the National Academy of Arts, merited master of the arts of Ukraine