Monroe documents the rise of one of Poland’s greatest
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.