Art can fulfill many functions in one’s life. For the artist called Nikifor, it was a means to communicate and relate to the world around him. It provided sustenance and comfort, but in the end was also tinged with unhappiness.
The story of Nikifor is clouded with mystery, contradictions, and tales that have become almost legendary. His work is widely known in Poland and Eastern Europe, as he is a Polish artist of Carpatho-Ruthenian descent, but in the West he is much more anonymous. Illiterate and impoverished for much of his life, there are few documents or records of correspondence that survive. There are resources such as gallery catalogs, books and other items available, but many are in Polish or Russian, and have not been translated into English.
Nikifor was born on May 21, 1895 in Krynica Wies, in the region of Podkarpacie. It is unknown who his father was, and his mother, according to various reports, may have been a domestic servant, washerwoman, a prostitute, or a beggar woman, depending on which source is consulted. She may have also been deaf and mute. It has been said that Nikifor was similarly afflicted, but this is contradicted by stories indicating he was stricken with severe speech impediments, which gave rise to this notion. It is unclear when his mother died, and it is said that he eventually forgot her name, though this story may have resulted from the mysterious circumstances surrounding his early life. Some even claim that he forgot his own name, Epifan Drowniak, and adopted ‘Nikifor’, though others may have given him that name. Nikifor did take the surname ‘Matejko’, referencing a famous Polish painter, and used it on the stamp he placed on back of paintings. Other stamps he used read ‘Painted by: Nikifor’, ‘Artist: Nikifor’, or ‘Souvenir from Krynica’. There is no doubt that he strongly identified himself as an artist, and the appropriation of the surname Matejko also indicates some familiarity with the formal art culture of his country. Late in his life, he was given the legal surname of Krynicki by the Polish government.
After the death of his mother when he was still young, he took to wandering the streets, and was looked after to some extent by the townspeople of Krynica, a resort spa that became his home. He began to draw as early as age 13 using whatever materials he could find. Since fine art paper was not available to him, he used bits of wrapping paper, notebook pages, even flattened cigarette boxes, which is why the size of many of his works is quite small or some are irregularly shaped.
The town of Krynica attracted many visitors during the warm summer months. Nikifor relied on this tourist trade for the sale of his paintings in addition to selling them to residents or giving them to people who helped him. Author Mykhailo Slaboshpytskiy relates a story describing an early artistic triumph of Nikifor:
“Probably his first “formal” award came during the First World War, according to Lemko Hryhorii Pyzh. At that time the Austrian army was stationed in Krynytsia. While a local commander, perched on his elegant horse, shouted orders to his soldiers, young Nykyfor quietly sketched and painted the Austrian officer’s portrait, and later approached him with the finished painting. The officer studied the painting carefully, and then reached into his pocket, dropping five coins into Nykyfor’s hand. The townspeople were impressed: the gentlemanly Austrian officer had recognized Nykyfor as an artist.”(1)
Nikifor’s painting gained the attention of other Polish artists in the 1930s, and they brought his work to other areas of Europe. The fact that his work was suddenly being shown in some of the great capitals of Europe left Nikifor unaffected. With the turmoil of World War II, his art faded from the public consciousness, but there was a resurgence in interest in the years after. His art was again shown across Europe, and even traveled to America. Nikifor was able to enjoy some material comforts due to these new successes, but the notoriety didn’t agree with him, and drawing became a burdensome activity. In 1968, the artist died in Krynica.
Nikifor is considered to be one of the world’s finest naïve painters. As he traveled through the Polish countryside, observing small hamlets, churches, and cities, he made pictures documenting these places, selling them to earn money. Some accounts estimate the number of drawings he made to be in the thousands. Nikifor often included his own likeness in his compositions, showing himself in the guise of a bishop, judge, or saint. He sometimes referred to himself as “St. Nikifor”. According to Oto Bihalji-Merin and Nebojsa-Bato Tomasevic in the World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art, he was very religious and his convictions were greatly influenced by the orthodox churches he saw. Discussing recurring subjects in his art, Bihalji-Merin and Tomasevic write,
“Some themes he kept coming back to, such as the “Painters Feast”, for he believed that in the other world painters would sit down at the table of the Lord because they were better than other people in the sense that they could not only copy the world but shape it to fit their own will and imaginations.”(2)
Inscriptions appear on many of his drawings. Nikifor was trying to disguise his illiteracy by including words or phrases on his pictures, notwithstanding they were frequently misspelled or bore no relation to the image.
From his pictures, it is apparent that Nikifor was keenly aware of the world around him, and eventually the world came to appreciate his art. Though he was able to enjoy the last years of his life in relative comfort, this success paradoxically sapped his creative energy. Nikifor is still well known in his native country, even to the extent that in 1998, four of his paintings were presented in a series of postage stamps issued by the Polish Post, commemorating the work of great artists. The timeless, jewel-like images created by Nikifor continue to be admired today, both in Poland and internationally.
(2) Bihalji-Merin Tomasevic (1984) pg. 453
Bihalji-Merin, Oto and Nebojša-Bato Tomaševic. World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art. London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1984.
Petullo, Anthony J. Self-taught and Outsider Art: The Anthony Petullo Collection. Introduction by Jane Kallir; selected bibliography by Margaret Andera. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
Tell us which artists’ work spoke to you the most.
Your email address is strictly confidential and will not be given out or sold to anyone else.