The Artist Formally Known as Nikifor
(unedited version)
This article appeared in Raw Vision Magazine in Spring 2008

Gary Monroe documents the rise of one of Poland’s greatest self-taught painters.

Nikifor was born on May 21, 1895 in Krynica, Poland, where his mother, who worked as a domestic at the resort spas in the region, had begged and found refuge in the homes of townspeople. It is not known who his father was, but Nikifor was probably born Epifan Drowniak, and he seemed to have forgotten his birth name. It is not clear whether the name Nikifor was given to him by others or (as is likely) by himself.

Nikifor’s mother died while he was still young. Illiterate and impoverished, he wandered the streets, and by the age of thirteen he had begun painting. He often relied on the kindness of others, as he was unable to sell enough of his pictures to sustain himself.

During the course of his long creative life Nikifor painted thousands of images – perhaps well in excess of 10,000 – ranging from religious iconography to scenes of the Polish countryside. He sold his works as ‘souvenirs’ and saw himself as an artist. But at home he was regarded as more a curiosity than a citizen, and certainly as less than an artist. Marginalised by a severe speech impediment, he was not recognised for his achievements until late in lifeå, but today he is Poland’s premier self-taught artist.

When he first started painting, Nikifor used discarded pieces of paper, including the inside of cigarette packs. This practice continued, so his works are generally small and on scraps that may be irregularly shaped, and even pieced together. Using mainly watercolours, gouache, crayon and, later, pencil, Nikifor found refuge in his art, and an emotional release that perhaps countered his alienation from his home town and from society at large.

Focusing his attention on the surrounding area, Nikifor travelled on foot and by train, often being ejected at the next station once the conductor learned that he had not purchased a ticket. This worked to his advantage: he simply enjoyed his point of arrival and sketched its environs.

Although it can be said that Nikifor documented the architecture and landscapes of Poland, it may be more accurate to suggest that he reconstructed these places in fantastical depictions. He elevated edifices by giving an otherwise bland description of fact a ceremonial presence. Eastern-rite churches acquire hyper-ethereal atmospheres, while railway stations become reverential. Despite his primitive style, everything Nikifor painted is in the realm of the palatial. Another order seeps into Nikifor’s views: he defied the laws of physics while embellishing to the point of the surreal.

Nikifor stopped short of adding unnecessarily, though, and thus he achieved what Andrzej Oseka states in the introduction to Zbigniew Wolanin’s book Nikifor: ‘Diagonal lines, parallel lines, arched lines, crossing each other at diverse angles, thick and thin lines, alternatively sparsely and densely distributed along a plane, so very accurately reproduce the nature of buildings, row of windows, arrangement of roofs, drip-pipes, curtains, balustrades, trees along a drive, staircases, bends in a railway track or along a road.’ Geometry, not formulaic composition, is the structure of Nikifor’s art, while surfaces are completed with a near-obsessive attention to detail. The artist’s cool palette of muted blues and greens creates a world that he would have liked to live in, while the paintings otherwise provided solace for him in the one which he did inhabit, and which he observed passionately.

Nikifor wrote along the bottom edges of his paintings in an attempt to conceal his illiteracy and perhaps add to the aura of his art’s importance. The inscriptions, usually bearing some semblance to the places depicted, trail off into nonsensical plays of letters. ‘Many words do have a meaning: wies translates as “village” and powiat as “district”, etc.,’ explains Nico van der Endt of Galerie Hamer in Amsterdam. Grazyna Halsa, a curator at Poznan’s Museum Narodow, sees Nikifor’s writing as ‘moving’ and as a plea for normalcy, ‘to be on a higher level socially’.

Oto Bihalji-Merin and Nebojsa-Bato Tomasevic, in the World Encyclopedia of Naive Art, suggest that Nikifor believed that ‘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.’ Nikifor often portrayed himself as a bishop, judge, wise man and saint, and as an artist with the trusty wooden case that held his meagre supplies, which he would set up anywhere.

Warsaw’s National Ethnographic Museum historian Jacek Szecegejd refers to Nikifor as a ‘hidden man’, invisible in the mainstream yet undeterred in his mission. So, while awaiting the life that eluded him on Earth, Nikifor further confirmed his importance with seals he had made, with which he stamped the backs of his paintings. Some of these read ‘Souvenir from Krynica’, ‘Painter: Nikifor’, ‘Artist: Nikifor’, and ‘Nikifor-Matejko’. This last stamp indicates Nikifor’s view of himself (if not his destiny): Jan Matejko (1838–1893) is Poland’s most revered artist, and his historical scenes are executed in the ‘official style’, a grand academic manner.

Nikifor was given the identity Nikifor Krynicki (note that in Polish the name Krynicki indicates ‘from Krynica’), in the passport which, despite tight restrictions by the communist government, his friend and caretaker Marian Wlosinski managed to arrange for him to obtain in 1962 for his only trip abroad, at a time when his art was finally receiving some of the attention he knew it warranted.

A group of Polish painters discovered Nikifor during the 1930s and promoted his art throughout Europe. But with the Nazi campaign under way he was denied the opportunity of enjoying even fifteen minutes of fame. Unaffected by having his pictures exhibited (and maybe unaware of the exposure), he continued his visual journeys. Another close brush with fame in 1948 brought more exhibitions but little adoration.

Then, in 1959, through the efforts of Ella and Andrzej Banach, came international exhibitions. Nikifor’s paintings were shown in Paris and other European venues. ‘From then on his star was really rising both at home and abroad,’ points out van der Endt. But the star burned out prematurely. Not only was Nikifor recognised at home last, but he was not celebrated there, because he was a Lemko (Ukrainian) and therefore not truly Polish. Nevertheless, a retrospective at Warsaw’s Zacheta Museum in 1967, Poland’s premier art institution, brought deserved attention – both for Nikifor and for Poland.

Nikifor died on October 10, 1968 in Folusz, and he was buried in Krynica. His name was to have an enduring presence in Polish and European art communities.

The Nikifor Museum in Krynica opened on January 31, 1995. If that were not redemption enough, remaining a convincing tribute to the artist’s greatness, perhaps Nikifor’s own words hold the key.

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