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Maria Prymachenko. The most outstanding representative of Ukrainian naïve art of the 20th century

Maria Prymachenko. The most outstanding representative of Ukrainian naïve art of the 20th century

Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997) is the most outstanding representative of Ukrainian naïve art of the 20th century. The creativity of her works is a fascinating phenomenon that has captivated attention for over 100 years and is an endless source of inspiration for emerging artists to this day. Despite  receiving well-deserved high titles during her career, Prymachenko did not live a life of luxury — she spent her lifetime in her native village without any special benefits. Maria Prymachenko created nearly 800 paintings during her lifetime.


Maria Prymachenko was born in 1909 in the village of Bolotnia, Kyiv oblast. Paraska Vasylivna, Maria’s mother, was a skilled embroiderer. She most likely provided the future artist with a sense of shape and color together with wonderufl embroidery skills. Maria embroidered all of her garments herself until she was old. Her father — Oksentii Hryhorovych — was an artist as well. He was a carpenter who also added some art to his work — he decorated the wooden yard fences he made with head figures.

Her last name is Pryimachenko, as Maria said, and Prymachenko is a fused version of it. She signed all her paintings as Prymachenko or M. P. for short. The correct spelling of the surname, according to the pension certificate, death certificate, and certificate of the right to inheritance under the law on hereditary property, is Prymachenko. Since 1994, it has been written as Pryimachenko in official documents including those of the President of Ukraine.

She had a case of  poliomyelitis when she was a child. Maria Prymachenko was certain that her illness was caused as a result of someone’s casting of evil eye on her. She was in pain for three days before her father drove her to a local healer. As a result of her illness, one of her legs was affected and became shorter. She had to walk with crutches or a cane for the rest of her life.

Artistic path

Maria Pryimachenko first embarked on her artistic journey by painting her own house. When she was a little girl, she was herding geese when she noticed a strange bird that dropped feathers from its wings. The ground had bright stripes where the feathers had fallen. It was blue clay. She gathered it and used it to paint blue flowers on the house’s walls. A boy living next door was blown away by the beauty of the drawings and refused to go until he was given a flower. Neighbors invited the girl to paint their houses. People came from nearby villages to see these drawings.

In the 1930s, Maria Prymachenko  joined the Central Experimental Workshops of the Museum of Ukrainian Folk Art located on the territory of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. It is here that her creativity flourished. She experimented a lot with shape and color, “relegating” traditional Ukrainian flowers to the background (“pots” remain). Fantastic beasts appeared in Maria Prymachenko’s work as a result of her interactions  with the artistic community in Kyiv. Craftsmen were assembled to prepare the First Republican Exhibition of Ukrainian Folk Art (opened on February 12, 1936, in the State Museum of Ukrainian Art).

The works by Prymachenko were shown in Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw, Paris, Sofia, Montreal, and Prague. Maria Prymachenko was given a diploma in Ukraine and a gold medal in an international exhibition in Paris in 1937, although she was never received the latter. Because Prymachenko was in her native village at the time of the exhibition, the medal was sent to the address of Ukrainian artist and sculptor Ivan Honchar, who also participated in the exhibition – and lost. In her works from the late 1950s, she evoked visions of rural and collective farm life  and incorporated folk motifs in her distinct style. The artist adopted a plot that is charming in its naivety in the late genre work “The summers of my childhood…” from 1987: Prymachenko’s young years are depicted in the image of eight girls in wreaths, standing on a bridge over water, which symbolizes time. The author portrays herself as a young woman in a shawl, observing summer youth from a ledge near the hut.

Relations with the Soviet authorities

When socialist realism and Soviet power did not interfere with creativity, the result was naive art. The State Museum of Ukrainian Art purchased Prymachenko’s first 200 works in the 1930s. She was invited to a convention of artists in Moscow and was awarded several  titles – among them, the Honored Worker of Culture award, the People’s Artist of Ukraine award, and the Shevchenko Prize in 1966. Since 1936, the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Art has hosted 95 exhibitions featuring Prymachenko’s art. This museum now holds the largest collection of her works — over 650 out of 1,000. The collection is enhanced with the artist’s early works and ceramics.

The most widely known works

Despite her fascinating and often innocent-looking vision, the artist did not escape serious issues. She created an artwork titled “Beast Court” in 1936, where a black monkey is writing a protocol at a table, while  two wolves are standing on their tiptoes in front of it, observing — the reference to the Soviet repressions of the time is obvious. In one of her 1930s paintings, she drew an elephant-like creature and captioned it, writing: “That beast goes and takes a nap, looks for food, sometimes clothing is not on his mind — when he wants to eat, he doesn’t want anything”  — might this be a reminder of the Holodomor?

After the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear power plant tragedy took place, Prymachenko created a “Chornobyl Bestiary” series of paintings.  The event touched her personally – Maria’s native village of Bolotnia is 10 kilometers from the evacuation zone, and it has a long history with Chornobyl, even being part of the Chornobyl district for many years.  Through her works, the artist intended to draw attention to the dying environment of the region as result of the accident while retaining her consistent inclusion of folk imagery, drawing on the lost region’s folk art traditions. 

Maria Prymachenko created nearly 800 paintings during her lifetime.

The historic significance of the personality

Maria Prymachenko experienced many difficulties during her life, exemplary of  the fate that fell upon mostUkrainian women during the Soviet regime. Compulsory labor on a collective farm, losing family members in WWII (her brother and spouse), and the Chornobyl tragedy that affected the entirety of her home country and cut many people’s lives short. Despite all of these upheavals, she managed to maintain her sense of humor and a curious mind, and leave a legacy for posterity that represents an enchanting and dreamlike future.


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