Maria Prymachenko Cultivated Whimsy as Resistance

WARSAW — Walking into A Tiger came into the Garden: Art of Maria Prymachenko at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw feels like entering a kaleidoscope. Hanging salon-style and on a circular display system designed specifically for the exhibition, the paintings — often depicting anthropomorphized animals — appear to be floating, encouraging us to wander in a dreamlike, nonlinear fashion. Curved benches with headrests arranged in the center of the room invite not only prolonged viewing but also rest, reflection, and play. During my visit, a mother breastfed her baby while children ambled nearby.

If not for the wall text, labels, and guided tours occasionally passing through in Polish, English, and Ukrainian, it would be easy to forget the exhibition is in a museum and not a play and rest area for children and adults alike. This is the first major show in Poland of the late Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, and its curation enhances her works through an environment that is designed to spark imagination and joy.

Prymachenko’s life was marked by adversity and grief: She suffered from polio throughout her childhood, lost close family during World War II, experienced poverty and famine on a kolkhoz, and lived in a region directly impacted by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In the midst of her hardship, she created bright works that are a testament to her tremendous imagination. Heavily inspired by the folk art of the Polesia region in Ukraine, where she spent most of her life, Prymachenko blended traditional embroidery patterns and designs with a surreal and almost childlike approach to depicting nature.

In A Tiger came into the Garden, winged and humpbacked horses fly around the Earth while clothed penguins visit Polesia to see how the young people there dance. While this unusual and otherworldly menagerie seems playful and festive, the works’ titles often reveal a more sinister story through which the artist’s anthropomorphized animals comment on or mock the absurdity and harmful consequences of human behavior. As such, a neon bird conversing amicably with a frog is titled “The partridge talks to the frog. The frog says, ‘Woe to us, We have nowhere to bathe: the water is polluted. We’re in trouble!’” (1994). Meanwhile, a wide-eyed leonine figure surrounded by snakes is titled “Nuclear War – May it be cursed! May people not know it, And shed no tears!” (1989).

While the Soviet Union’s and now Russia’s crimes against humanity are present throughout the titles and wall text — and in the stories of Ukrainians visiting the museum and now living in Warsaw — the curators have chosen to emphasize creativity and play. In addition to the unconventional hang and inviting benches, one of the walls is magnetized and children are encouraged to collage magnets of Prymachenko’s fantastical animals.

Despite being one of Ukraine’s best-known artists, Prymachenko only recently received international attention when a number of her paintings were destroyed in a fire at the Local History Museum in Ivankiv in 2022 during Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The attack not only amplified the strength of her work as a symbol of Ukraine’s national identity and cultural heritage, but also encouraged curators and viewers to consider what makes them so powerful. Displayed in a museum that has supported Ukrainian refugees and families, the exhibition’s curation emphasizes a central tenet of Prymachenko’s work: Play, humor, and creativity are crucial to survival, particularly in the darkest times. It’s hard to imagine a mightier form of resistance than that.

A Tiger came into the Garden: Art of Maria Prymachenko continues at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (Wybrzeże Kościuszkowskie 22, Warsaw, Poland) through July 14. The exhibition was curated by Szymon Maliborski and Eduard Dymshyts.

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