Kateryna Lebedieva

Naïve and Folk Art

December 10, 2021

Today, researchers and collectors tend to understand naїve art as the  art style of self-taught countryside artisans — artists without special education. Petro Honchar's metaphorical term ‘pure art’ emphasises the art form’s independence and the fact that the creators themselves were  not limited to drawing skills. There are a wide range of terms to denote this and similar phenomena: naive, primitive, art brut, folk painting, amateur art, and kitsch.

The history of the term art naif (naїve art) dates back to the Paris exhibition Un siecle de peinture naive of 1933 where it appeared in the exhibition’s very title. Oto Bihalji-Merin, the researcher, collector, and compiler of The World Encyclopedia of Naive Art — he most important publication on this subject — , lists naїve art’s key features. These include its independence from professionals, an instinctive nature, and an explicit individual creative style marked by a fresh and joyful perception of the surrounding world. This encyclopedia features the names of some Ukrainian artists from the USSR: Maria Buriak, Oleksandr Vyshnyk, Olena Volkova, Ivan Lysenko, Elyzaveta Myronova, Maria Prymachenko, and Ivan Cherniakhovskyi.

Folk artists — having no special art education — borrowed images from the world around them that reflected certain archetypes, and then reproduced them. As time passes artists, techniques, and the environment changes, but some things remain the same. Modern tire swans that decorate yards in Kyiv and other cities are nothing more than the swans from idealistic landscapes that hung in country homes throughout the 20th century.

Serhii Makovskyi wrote in 1925 “Indeed, folk art is as far away from vulgarity as possible. It fascinates with its  nobility of shades and diversity in its canonical ossification. […] It combines collective skill with the uniqueness of original works, [it] is not individualised, in our urban understanding, and at the same time is marked by a personal accent. The most enduring rural ‘cliches’ do not exclude well-known artistic freedom. On the contrary, it is from freedom that unique beauty is born. The same thing, but a little different every time. Folk art […] is thrilling, with barely perceptible differences yet without becoming a handicraft copy, without degenerating into a soulless product: the craft remains an art”.

According to researcher Ksenia Bohemska, the creation of images that depict a happy life often involve  the auto-therapeutic practice of supporting oneself as a person. If you trace the fates of many famous naїve artists, you will find that most of them turned to drawing and painting while attempting to overcome severe stress, emotional distress, illness, separation, or the death of a loved one. In Bohemska’s interpretation, the joyful spirit of the paintings function as compensation for hard experiences. In particular, two stars of Ukrainian naїve art, Kateryna Bilokur and Maria Prymachenko, were seriously ill throughout their lives.

The concept of naїve art is more narrowly defined than folk art. Naїve art is often created by an identified artist, while folk art is produced anonymously. Folk paintings (or folk pictures) are closely connected with naїve art. They were created to entertain children, decorate homes, or to be given as gifts to relatives. They were purposely painted for sale at marketplaces as so-called market kitsch. According to researchers, the folk picture is emblematic of the principle of kitsch, but rural kitsch fell into the sphere of folk culture and was combined with tradition.

In their work, masters who produced folk pictures used various techniques, materials, and surfaces to create the image. Folk art also appears in such marginal mediums as, for example, woodcarving.

According to experts, Ukrainian folk painting began to develop in the 18th century. The most common image within the field ofUkrainian folk painting is ‘Kozak Mamai’. The painting depicts a Cossack sitting cross-legged (sometimes described as ‘Buddha pose’), with a horse, tree, pipe, and other accessories next to him.