Work of illiterate, self-taught artist who became global sensation explored in thoughtful new exhibition
A major retrospective exhibition of works by Nikifor, one of the world’s most famous naïve painters, has opened at Warsaw’s National Museum of Ethnography.
Born in 1895 and underappreciated for much of his life until just before his death in 1968, Nikifor is remembered today among the world’s best naïve or primitive painters, the name given to painters who were self-taught and received no formal artistic education.
Painting and drawing over 40,000 pictures over the course of his lifetime, it is not known when he started to paint, only that his ambition was to become as well known as the famous Polish artist Matejko and become a Matejko of the south of Poland, sometimes even signing his works with the name ‘Matejko’.
Associated for much of his life with Poland’s largest spa town of Krynica whose panoramas were often a subject of his work, he was considered a loner and often shunned by society as a result of his speech impediment which made it difficult for him to communicate, which was compounded by the fact that he was largely illiterate and lived in poverty.
Born Epifaniusz Drowniak, Nikifor was ethnically a Lemko through his mother, with Lemkos being an ethnic group with their own language, who descend from a region of the Carpathian Mountains and foothills of Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine.
As a result of his ethnicity, he was twice resettled from Krynica under Operation Vistula (Akcja Wisła) in 1947, a forced deportation of Ukrainian minorities including the Lemkos from the south-east of Poland to recovered territories in the west of Poland carried out by the post-war Polish communist authorities, but each time he returned and was eventually allowed to stay.
The main subjects of his work were landscapes, sacred architecture, city architecture, railway stations and portraits. The majority of his paintings were inspired by his beloved Krynica and its landscapes spa buildings, stylized villas and churches and today there is a monument as well as a museum dedicated to him in the town.
The majority of his works are small, as his poverty meant he would paint on anything he could get hold of, sometimes sheets from sketchbooks, but also items such as cigarette packets and wrapping paper.
Painted mostly in watercolour, the characteristic style of his paintings is their colourfulness and sensitivity to capturing the most subtle shades, as well as their abstract, child-like and dream-like quality, while at the same time remaining representations of the reality around him.
Another distinguishing feature was that all objects in his paintings were outlined with a thin black line.
His work was first noticed by Ukrainian painter Roman Turyn in 1930 who was the first collector of Nikifor’s watercolours and bought almost 200 of them. Through him, Nikifor’s work was introduced to the Paris Committee, who were so impressed that they wanted to hold a solo exhibition of his works in Paris.
Though that exhibition didn’t take place, his works were shown as part of a group exhibition in Lviv (at the time Lwów) in 1931 and as part of another group exhibition in Paris in 1932.
Despite the first publication about Nikifor being written by Jerzy Woolf in 1938, Nikifor still struggled to sell his paintings and was largely unknown until he was re-discovered in the 1950s-60s by couple Ella and Andrzej Banach.
They elevated his artistic reputation by presenting him as an artistic genius and organising his exhibitions and through Andrzej Banach’s 1957 book ‘Nikifor, the Master from Krynica’.
Nikifor has since become an inspiration for other artists, perhaps most notably Edward Dwurnik, who was already an established artist when he first encountered Nikifor’s works and was so impressed by Nikifor’s style that he began using his characteristic black outline in his own artworks.
Dwurnik’s appreciation of Nikifor and his art is perhaps the best public testimony to the once underappreciated artist: “I have never experienced stronger emotions than those aroused by his paintings when seen in person.
“I first saw them…in 1965..He was a consummate, great, profound painter, and he approached painting like the Renaissance masters – in a classical, honest way…Everything he painted was something he had SEEN. What he had seen was then reshuffled around by his memory and imagination.
“He was perfect at freeing himself from the constraints of reality and created a vision, a world, his own structure. He told his story, and he painted his universe”.
Entitled ‘Nikifor. Painter above Painters’, the exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography brings together 130 of Nikifor’s works from the museum’s deposits as well as rarely displayed works from a private collection and presents a full cross-section of the artist’s works across all subjects he painted.
The exhibition is open from 16 November 2021– 27 February 2022.