April 17, 2021

Nikifor - reflections on Nikifor Krynicki (Epifaniusz Drowniak)

Bogdan Karski



I like the painter from Krynica.


I like his captivating, sometimes sloppy, charming or even dramatic paintings. For years now I have known a peculiar phenomenon called Nikifor. I perceive the phenomenon on two levels, two elements - the element of human life and the element of creative passion on an unusual scale. We cannot choose the time and place of birth. We come into the world unaware whether the world will accept us or be friendly to us. We do not know whether our parents will make an effort to educate us and bring us into adulthood. Since birth, Nikifor has been deprived of everything. He is a bastard, the second illegitimate child. A mute mother, busy with productive work, will not teach her son the correct speech, nor will she convey skills useful in everyday life. Nikifor's mother dies early, leaving him to fate and at the mercy of relatives and people of good will. He trusts the name Nikifor, which was given outside his birth certificate, meaning "the victorious". Like his mother, Nikifor is speech impaired. While babbling, he cannot properly communicate with the world around him. He will remain isolated and lonely among people.


The element of creative passion embraces the future artist early on. Nikifor's filigree stature is not suitable for any physical activity. Contract work is an attribute of most of the local Lemko community. However, there is something that distinguishes it. From an early age, Nikifor would "scribble" pictures on random scraps of paper. I would love to see works from this creative period. Primal art becomes so important to Nikifor that he decides to devote his life to it. An act of courage and perhaps desperation in the face of the need to ensure one's existence. Nikifor did not receive any significant education. He mastered the elements of the spelling "grażdanka" and the Latin alphabet, some numbers. Despite some progress, he is viewed throughout his life as a illiterate.


The Self-Taught Man saves himself by drawing and later painting. Nikifor is an excellent draftsman and colorist. He changes between the colors of paints like a skilled pianist with his fingers on the keyboard - as a painter he remains clumsy. The sum of these values is positive, resulting in brilliant, engaging images. Early, pencil-drawn studies of the churches delight with their composition, arouse envy with the sense of guessed proportions of wooden buildings, sophisticated perception of detail, and a perceptible skeleton of the structure under the shingle mantle. He retains these skills until the end of his creative life. Over time, they gradually disappear into a caricature of far-reaching simplifications. A debilitating disease and deteriorating eyesight contribute to this.



In painting, Nikifor tries oil and watercolor techniques, choosing the latter - he remains faithful to drawing with a pencil, and later with a crayon. Almost every artist's work in the watercolor technique has a pencil sketch under the painting layer. Technically, Nikifor does not paint correctly with either oil paints or watercolors. He uses his own technique. This is honest, especially as it achieves interesting effects in the watercolor technique. With time, lasered, luminous watercolors give way to heavier, opaque gouache, the composition simplifies, the colors become bright, and the refined detail decreases. Watercolors and gouache are increasingly being replaced by colored pencils.

Regardless of the time of creation, subject, quality, Nikifor's paintings and drawings do not bore me. Nikifor made a great effort not to let me get bored. I study the artist's work in the context of examining the authenticity of the images attributed to him and I would like to be able to say "closed catalog" and everything that appears is a counterfeit or a copy. It's not possible. I doubt we will ever reach a such comfortable situation. The number of paintings, drawings and other works created by the artist goes into tens of thousands. Some say even over forty thousand. Most of the works have been lost and it will not be possible to fully evaluate the value of Nikifor's painting. Incidentally appearing atypical images testify to the inability to evaluate entire creative or thematic cycles. The situation is perfect for all authors who continue Nikifor's art - for me, an interesting confrontation.


Nikifor did not copy himself when creating his paintings. We will not find two identical images. It is true that he worked on his favorite topics many times. Some series of paintings are similar to each other. However, they differ in the composition, colors and often the format. As long as he did not copy himself, he learned from others, committing a kind of plagiarism. He used postcards, advertisements, photographs and many materials available or made available to him, including well-known French modern architecture magazines. We can find more borrowings in Nikifors work. Their most durable and basic foundation is church painting (icons, feretrons). It is an early time, the time of study, so a young adept in painting needs to improve his technique and looks for inspiration. This fact is easy to prove and not blameworthy. Students of the academy have always been practicing painting by copying valuable works of bygone eras.


"May you live in interesting times" - this saying has contradictory connotations, creating a field for interpretation and extreme, often fierce judgments. Nikifor could not have assumed that his nationality or ethnicity would be disputed and that court trials would restore his real name and surname. He will remain Nikifor Krynicki for the art world. He lived in his own world, absorbed by the vision of becoming a Matejko. He treated the entire envelope of events and people as an act of God, consciously accepting situations and events which he could not have a significant influence on. The main goal was painting and physical survival. A peculiar opportunism in life, varied with begging to improve the material situation, or maybe only as an expression of so needed contact with people.


He is born as a subject of His Majesty the Austrian Emperor. Poland is not on the world maps, and Krynica is located in the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. With Poland regaining independence, Nikifor, more or less consciously, becomes a citizen of the new state. He is twenty-three years old, but I doubt that he would opt for a certain nationality or feel Polish. He came from and was associated with the Greek Catholic Lemko community - he was himself. We will not find many traces of great, world events in the artist's work. The Great War or the German occupation are almost non-existent except for incidental military watercolors and "hakenkreuz" of Nazi flags.

The frontline events happily bypass Krynica, and Nikifor is confronted with the reality of the new order of the Polish People's Republic. The beginnings are terrible, but it is also the time of kind people. People striving for the artists recognition and for ensuring a decent existence. It is also a time of struggle for the health of an artist consumed with tuberculosis. After all, these are the times of vernissages and exhibitions, both domestic and foreign. It is a time of acceptance, popularity, overflow of orders and relative prosperity. For Nikifor, it is a victorious time, a fulfilling prophecy of the name given to him by his mother. He works until the end of his days. Sensing the impending death, he places his last drawing on the glass of the hospital window - "Nikifor goes to heaven". He was a man of deep faith.



Nikifor dies, leaving behind a significant but scattered artistic legacy.


Most of the amateurs of his work have a straightforward view of his paintings. The painting is nice, early, late, rare, before or after Wolff, artistically valuable, more and more often an "investment", fantastic in content, the ultimate "souvenir from Krynica", and even magical. There are more of these adjectives / spells. They serve us, contemporaries, to justify the acquisition of a given painting. These qualities have the common feature that they leave out Nikifor, as a man with his dreams, frustrations, poverty, serious illness, indolence, loneliness, indifference of the environment, and sometimes contempt towards him, i.e. the prose of the artist's everyday life. There is no magic here. A feature of many early paintings is Nikifor's participation in various events, which he documents with an added self-portrait, sometimes an additional ineffective, explanatory note. In his own way, he communicates and comments on events around him, looking for understanding and a place for himself. A superficial reception of the content of such an image is not enough. I interpret these images in the context of time, the exposed place, the shown events and people. I am trying to read the artist's message - his dreams, ambitions, intentions, thanks, fears or complaint. The passage of time causes that less and less "telling" images are created. Eventually Nikifor gives up trying to communicate with the "outside" world, which does not want to hear and understand him. He devotes himself entirely to creating new souvenirs from Krynica.


Nikifor a phenomenon? Of course. I did not have the time to meet Nikifor, even though I had come across his art while the artist was still alive. I see a need to modernize the concept of a "phenomenon". Adjustments to the realities of our accelerated times. Being passionate about the life and work of the extraordinary figure Nikifor has become, I see and analyze them against the background of the tangled history of southern Poland - pages very close to me personally. I accept the created stereotype of the Nikifor as a person and as an artist only for the critical information. I don't see tha rtist as a primitive. This term in the Polish language has a pejorative connotation. He is a self-taught painter, representative of naive realism. I am sure of the greater complexity of almost everything related to the artist. The whole life and work of Nikifor from Krynica is not only a peculiar phenomenon. For me, it is a kind of a three-dimensional "matrix", Rubik's cube or a jigsaw puzzle, where a single move changes the whole situation, and the hidden mechanism of connections remains a secret to be unraveled. I try to get to know this mechanism without destroying the whole.


Bogdan Karski, a substantive expert in the field of painting by Nikifor Krynicki, author of articles and lectures on the falsification of the artist's works and various aspects of his art, collector of non-professional art. For decades, he has been independently researching Nikifor's painting legacy, verifying and expanding the state of knowledge about the artist's workshop and his biography.