First published: Winter 2014
Bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.
– Pablo Picasso, 1936 World Exhibition, Paris
This miracle of colour and invention had her bast shoes planted firmly on the soil of her native land. Maria Aksentievna Primachenko (1908–1997) was a Ukrainian peasant. Her astonishingly fertile picture plane was located in the flat limitless horizon of the Ukrainian steppe.
The Threat Of War, 1986, gouache, 14.4 x 33.5 ins., 63.5 x 85 cm, courtesy of National Museum of Decorative Folk Art (Senior Researcher Elena Shestakova), Kiev, Ukraine
Primachenko’s mother and grandmother were highly skilled embroiderers and she absorbed the inter-generational Slavic tradition of needlework, of which Ukrainian embroidery is a superlative example. It encodes an ancient symbolism, fusing both pagan and Christian, where flower heads morph into eternal sun wheels, birds become messengers of peace, horses protect from the evil eye. This inherited world of signs would saturate Maria’s later work. When we encounter these forms and symbols on the decorated pottery of the adult artist, the initial impression is one of timelessness. Are they Bronze Age? Contemporary?
Lion, Primachenko, 1947
Primachenko lived her life in the village of Bolotnya in the Kiev region. She contracted polio as a child. Her already empathetic character became heightened into a profound sense of universality that in earlier times might have been seen as almost pantheistic. In the Ukraine of the immediate post-Revolutionary period this would, of necessity, find more nuanced modes of expression.