Maria Prymachenko’s paintings were almost destroyed by Russian forces. Now they become global symbols of peace


Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Not only is Maria Prymachenko one of the great self-taught artists of the 20th century, but she is an icon of Ukrainian national identity. His fantastic paintings, praised during his lifetime by Pablo Picasso, are now in some of the most important museums in the country. His work has also been featured on postage stamps and his likeness is immortalized on commemorative coins.

But 25 years after his death, the Russian invasion threatens Prymachenko’s legacy. Last week, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry noted that several of the artist’s paintings were among those destroyed in a museum in his native region of Ivankiv, about 80 km northwest of the capital Kiev, following an attack by Russian forces.
A video widely shared online appears to show flames engulfing the one-story institution, which had previously described Prymachenko’s work as the “pride of the museum”. His brightly colored, almost childish depictions of flora and fauna – as well as farmers tending crops and plowing the fields – were among the objects originally thought to have been lost.

Maria Prymachenko’s work is a famous example of “naive art”, a term used to describe the work of artists without formal training. Credit: Prymachenko Family Foundation

But reports have since emerged suggesting an act of bravery could have saved more than a dozen of his works from the fire. In fact, the Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation, which maintains the artist’s catalog and is run by her great-granddaughter Anastasiia, believes that all of Prymachenko’s paintings in the museum were rescued from the building by a local resident.

“A heroic man managed to keep the paintings away from the fire,” lawyer Natalia Gnatiuk, one of the foundation’s partners, said by phone from western Ukraine, where she took refuge. “There are 14 of them, but they are still not safe.” (Two ceramic works are said to have been destroyed, however.)

CNN was unable to independently corroborate this account. And while Gnatiuk said his foundation had been in regular contact with the man, they have since lost contact as fighting continues in the northern suburbs of Kyiv. She declined to name him or comment on the possible whereabouts of the art, fearing for the safety of both.

“After this war is over, this is the first heroic story we will tell,” she added.

“They hate our culture”

Prymachenko’s paintings are considered a leading example of European “naive art”, a term used to describe the work of artists without formal training. Born into poverty in 1908, the painter had humble beginnings to earn the prestigious title of People’s Artist of Ukraine in 1970, when the country was under Soviet control.

Although best known in his home country, Prymachenko’s work has been shown in cities across Europe during his nearly six-decade career. In 1936, after visiting an exhibition of his paintings in Paris, Pablo Picasso is said to have declared: “I bow before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian”.

Paintings by Prymachenko on display at the Mystetsky Arsenal art gallery in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2016.

Paintings by Prymachenko on display at the Mystetsky Arsenal art gallery in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2016. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

But while Prymachenko attracted significant international attention, his work was firmly rooted in Ukrainian aesthetics. Having learned folk arts like embroidery and Easter egg decorating before starting to paint canvases in the 1930s, she was heavily influenced by Ukrainian craft traditions, as well as its folklore, wildlife and traditional designs. .

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent assertions that the country is historically and culturally part of Russia – a pretext for last month’s unprovoked invasion – have raised concerns that his army is seeking to destroy examples of Russia’s unique artistic traditions. Ukraine. For this reason, Gnatiuk believes the Ivankiv Museum was a direct target, not a victim of collateral damage.

“I’m sure it was intentional,” she said. “It was the first building (destroyed in Ivankiv) and the task of the occupants is to destroy our Ukrainian roots, to destroy our Ukrainian culture – they hate it. And Maria Prymachenko is not only the symbol of Ivankiv… and not only the symbol of Ukraine, but a symbol of the whole world today. I’m sure that was on purpose.

According to Gnatiuk, about a third of the 3,000 paintings Prymachenko produced during his lifetime are in Ukrainian museums, with the rest mostly held in private collections in the country. The National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Arts in Kyiv has more than 600 of his creations among its collection of 80,000 pieces.
Prymachenko's work was influenced by Ukrainian folklore, traditional fauna and motifs, as well as religious iconography.

Prymachenko’s work was influenced by Ukrainian folklore, traditional fauna and motifs, as well as religious iconography. Credit: Prymachenko Family Foundation

Speaking via Facebook, staff at the Kyiv museum told CNN they are “doing their best to save our collection.” The International Council of Museums meanwhile called on the Ukrainian public to help protect cultural heritage, saying in a statement that it “invites members of civil society to reach out to their local museums for assistance, if possible. , with the ways and means of protecting their buildings and their collections.”

symbol of hope

As news of the Ivankiv museum attack spread rapidly around the world last week, activists and arts organizations abroad sought to publicize Prymachenko’s work as an act of solidarity. In particular, his 1982 painting “A Dove Has Spread Its Wings and Asks for Peace” – although not part of the collection of the unfortunate museum – is gaining traction as a symbol of hope for the country.

In St. Louis, Missouri, artist Maria Carmen Knecht recreated the image as a street mural. A group called Justice Murals, meanwhile, projected an image of the painting, among a selection of other works by Prymachenko, onto the side of a building in Oakland, California.

At a rally in San Francisco on Sunday, six artists and more than 100 attendees recreated the image as a 23-foot-wide floor mural outside the city’s Ferry Building. The message “Stop the war on Ukraine” was painted in blue just above.

In San Francisco, artists and activists have produced a mural based on Prymachenko's work

In San Francisco, artists and activists produced a mural based on Prymachenko’s “A Dove Has Spread Its Wings and Asks for Peace.” Credit: David Solnit

“The Russian war in Ukraine is trying to destroy the culture, so what we could do is make it bigger and global,” said arts organizer David Solnit, who helped coordinate this latest initiative, during a talk. ‘a telephone interview. “They may burn the museum down, but we’re going to expand it and come back. It’s a desire to show some love and solidarity with Ukraine.”

Depicting a white dove against a vibrant floral background, the painting communicates both a universally recognized symbol and a message specific to Prymachenko’s country of origin, Solnit added.

“It’s a global sign of peace, not war, but very much in the traditional Ukrainian style,” he said. “The beauty of Ukrainian traditional arts has captivated many people here.”

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