He had many different names: painter Nikifor, Ivan Nikifor the poor, Nikifor Drowniak, Nikifor Krynicki. He called himself Nikifor Mateiko and often signed his watercolors and drawings, over 30,000 of which have been discovered by art researchers, with the name “artist NIKIFOR.”
During artist’s life neither his real name and last name nor the exact date of birth were identified. Nikifor did not know these facts and, in fact, the queer fellow from resort town of Krynica fascinated with painting had no need for it. These facts became known only in 1971 when a Lviv artist Roman Turyn, pioneer in Nikifor’s art research who spent many years studying his life and paintings, with the help of the fellow villagers of the self-taught painter discovered the official metrics issued by the Greek-Catholic Church of the village of Krynica for the name of Epifaniusz Drowniak, illegitimate child born on May 21, 1895. His mother was a deaf lady Eudokia Drowniak from the Lemko village of Povoroznyk, who worked as a maid in sanatorium “Three Roses” in Krynica. From her Nikifor inherited the disability and the talent of a painter he most likely inherited from his unknown father.
Roman Turyn noticed the artistic skills of the Lemko self-taught artist in 1932 while on vacation in Krynica, where his father served as administrator of the recreation centers “Solotvynianka” and “Vladyslava.” The artist took care of the original painter and since that time preserved four portraits of Nikifor, drawn in pencil and ink “on checkered paper of a notebook,” for the future generations.
According to some researchers of Nikifor’s creative work, at some point Epifaniusz Drowniak studied at the Art School in Bardejov, Slovakia. “It was a specialized school for the Lemko children who did not have parents, where orphans received artistic training and graduated with a certificate so that they would have at least some profession in their life.” Proof of this could be the several drawings where Nikifor portrayed himself in school uniform. And the fantastic landscapes remind the Bardejov neighborhood.
In subsequent years, the congenial physical defects rescued the young man from the front of the First World War.
Another interesting version of Nikifor’s stay in Krakow in the mid 1920s, where he was “kidnapped” for several years by teachers of Krakow Industrial School – architect Tadeusz Stryjenski and artist Jan Warchalowski because “someone” had to teach Epifaniusz the basics of drawing, composition, perspective, and introduce him to specimens of Gothic architecture, which the artist loved to paint, and to show him how a representative of artistic bohemia should dress and behave. Time will show if the two watercolor paintings Nikifor’s Trinity and Little Assembly, where the artist portrayed himself in a company of two other artists, will become the answer to this.
The year when Turyn gathered a considerable collection of Nikifor’s watercolor paintings, he presented it in the art galleries of Marseille and Paris along with the works of French, Italian, and Ukrainian artists. The other exhibition that featured 105 art works by the painter from Krynica was the “Exhibition of Self-Taught Artists” organized by the Association of Independent Ukrainian Artists (AIUA) in 1938 in Lviv. The overall review of these exhibitions can be characterized by the quote of Turyn: “The world of Nikifor is a special world, but it is so real and authentic on the outside and full of inexhaustible imagination in the depth of his artistic work that it makes the dialogue-contact with the audience so emotional and easy as contact with nature.” Perhaps at that time the artist visited Lviv at the invitation of Turyn and other members of the AIUA since there are a few paintings that depict the architecture of the city. However, “it is not possible to clearly state that they were really made from nature or rather from postcards.”
After World War II Polish researchers – poet Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski and art historian Andrzej Banach got interested in the creative work of the naive painter from Krynica. The first solo exhibition of Nikifor was held in January-February 1949 in Warsaw. The next expositions were arranged in the Dina Vierny Art Gallery (the most popular gallery of naive art) in Paris and the City Museum in Amsterdam in 1959. Later the exhibitions were held in Brussels, Vienna, Frankfurt am Main, Baden-Baden, Haifa, Chicago, and New York – the total of up to 100 exhibitions by 1968. European mass media wrote a lot about the success of the exhibitions of “Polish self-taught artist.”
The first art works of Nikifor are the original interpretations of the images of popular saints. Obviously, for the poor man from Carpathian solitary land the ecclesiastical art was the only available source for imitating the multifaceted artistic heritage of mankind. You can easily sense artist’s great inner need for creating his own “naive” world, his own vision of the world and his religion, different from Christian canons.
Artist’s portraits continue the Lemko icon tradition but are interpreted differently. The people depicted in these portraits always have big eyes, they are thoughtful and sad, and, at the same time, they are full of inner peace and balance. These are not just abstract human symbols, these are individuals with different features, different color characteristics of their face, different manners.
Child of the human world, Nikifor preferred to paint portrait and architecture rather than trees, grass, or animals. In his numerous watercolor landscapes we see streets of small towns, cottages, churches, railway stations, and only occasionally there are distant outlines of fields and forests around Krynica. But they are often portrayed as geometry figures, very conventionally, while houses are alive endowed with their own character. Nikifor’s sky amazes the audience: it is never the same, everywhere it is subtly woven into the general color of watercolor image: yellowish, orange, green-brown, purple-silver, or pink-emerald.
The self-taught artist drew many watercolors depicting fantastic architecture – he made up entire cities, streets and squares, churches and homes the way his imagination presented them. Thus, the watercolor painting Fantastic Hill resembles a multi-stored pyramid building with tunnels, railways, and electric poles, that are as if marching to another world, known only to the artist.
Looking at the artist’s paintings, you realize that some of them are not “primitive” delusions of the self-taught artist’s soul but are rather close to the trends of artistic avant-garde of the early 20th century – French Fauvism and German Expressionism. And if you pay closer attention to the painting Artist Nikifor on the Bridge, you wound notice its surrealistic character – behind the outline of the bridge there emerges a female figure that resembles artist’s mother.
An important element of the composition of Nikifor’s watercolors is the lace-inscription in Cyrillic or Latin alphabet, which, however, cannot always be accurately read. Text, located as a scrolling frame at the bottom of the composition or randomly scattered throughout the background, becomes a decorative addition of the creative design.
All paintings of the Lemko self-taught artist Epifaniusz Drowniak, who with the name of Nikifor entered the history of Ukrainian art of the 20th century at the junction of Ukrainian and Polish cultures with his icons, landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes are characterized with decorative expressiveness of pattern and color, naive interpretation of images, expressive imagination, and synthetic imaginative thinking that the artist carried throughout his difficult and, at the same time, emotional, as a flash of candle light, life that ended in 1968.
In 2005 a bronze figure of Nikifor (designed by Polish sculptor) was installed on the alley on the parapet where the artist often liked to sit. The monument presents the artist and his faithful companion a wandering dog sat for a moment to rest carefully watching the people passing nearby.