The Artist Who Sailed With Saints

Nikifor, “Nikifor Walks Through Town Like a Saint”

On the second floor of the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village, visitors are transported to the distinctive landscape of the Carpathian Mountains through more than 100 watercolors and sketches by the self-taught artist Nikifor (1895–1968). Born with a speech impediment that made him unintelligible to many people, Nikifor turned to drawing as a means of communication. He almost obsessively depicted the world around him, creating anywhere from a dozen to 100 sketches and paintings a day. Orphaned and born into poverty, he would sketch on whatever paper he could find: discarded packaging, old posterboard, used administrative forms, and other scrap paper. To call him prolific is an understatement: he produced an estimated 30,000 works in his lifetime. The pieces on view at the Ukrainian Museum represent just a tiny fraction of Nikifor’s output, but with The Ultimate Outsider curator Myroslava Mudrak has grouped them into five sections that provide a compelling introduction to the artist, who is largely unknown in the United States despite being one of Central Europe’s most famous outsider artists. 

The subject of the majority of Nikifor’s output is Krynica, a town in southern Poland, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire when the artist was born. Krynica was and remains the region’s most famous spa town, known for its therapeutic mineral waters and beautiful rolling foothills. Every day, the artist would sit outside in the touristy town and sketch his surroundings, sometimes selling his works to visitors or exchanging them for food. Nikifor was fascinated by the area’s diverse architecture and often focused on the region’s churches: the exhibition’s main wall — a section titled “Ecclesiastic Structures” — is filled with renderings of the onion-shaped domes of Orthodox churches and the steeples of Catholic ones, and feels almost like a guide to the area’s ecclesiastical architecture.

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The section that initially seems the most tenuous curatorial link — “Naïve but Still Modern” — turns out to be the strongest. Mudrak compares Nikifor’s emphasis on line and segmented compositions to the work of Paul Klee, while paralleling his explorations of the geometric compositions of architecture to those of the Bauhaus. While these comparisons may at first seem gratuitous, the visual connections become unmissable after being provided with this lens. This framing also encourages viewers to admire Nikifor’s meticulous cross-hatching and the variance of his line-work — to appreciate his artistry and not just his commitment to documenting this uniquely culturally hybrid pocket of the world.

The exhibition’s title refers not only to being orphaned and nonverbal, but also to ethnicity: Nikifor was a Lemko artist, an ethnic minority inhabiting the Carpathian Mountains and foothills spanning what is today Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland. The Lemko people have been historically persecuted — Nikifor himself was forcefully displaced by the Polish Communist State three times — and have a complex past. The exhibition’s most moving works are a number of self-portraits notable for their departure from realism. In “A Dream about Fame” the artist pictures himself at the top of a monument in the middle of a town square; in “Nikifor and Saints on a Boat,” he floats down a river in the company of two haloed individuals. It is in these works — where we witness the “outsider” Nikifor both positioning himself in the world and dreaming about it — that his art-making becomes more powerful than most verbal communication. While the exhibition provides just a cursory look at Nikifor’s life and work, it offers tremendous insight into how vital the arts are for the preservation of one’s identity, especially in a part of the world with such a polemicized and complicated past.

Nikifor, “Village Church”
Nikifor, “View of Krynica”
Nikifor, “Railway Station in Nowy Sacz”

Nikifor: The Ultimate Outsider continues at the Ukrainian Museum (222 East 6th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through April 15. The exhibition was curated by Myroslava Mudrak.


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