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An amazing work of art — Polina Rayko’s House
A friend of mine, Natalka Shymin, who is an art critic, once called me on the phone, and in a very disturbed voice told me that something urgent must be done “about it.” “About what?” She explained — the house of a remarkable artist, Polina Rayko, was put on sale by her relatives.
I went to the small town of Tsyuryupinsk in the Land of Khersonshchyna to have a look at the late artist’s house and try “to do something about it,” though I had no idea what actually I could do to prevent the house from being sold.
Polina Rayko was sixty-nine when she began painting, but not on paper or on canvas — first on the fence around her house, then on the walls and any other available surfaces of her house. So this
house is her major work of art, or actually her only work of art.
As word spread about the wonder house of “babusya Polina” (babusya is Ukrainian for ‘grandmother’ — tr.), tourists began coming to have a look at it. Art critics and art lovers expressed their admiration but did not think of helping the poor peasant woman financially — to buy paints and brushes, for example; foreign tourists, fascinated by what they saw, were more considerate and usually gave “the artist” some money; the Arts Academy “was collecting material” for articles and scholarly papers about “a remarkable artistic phenomenon.”
But when a year ago Polina Rayko died, her only monumental work of art came under threat of being destroyed. Her grandson who inherited the house, wanted to sell the house as soon as possible, to anybody who would pay six thousand dollars, not caring what would become of the art on its walls. Six thousand dollars was the top price for a small, brick house in such God-forgotten place as Tsyuryupinsk located in the middle of nowhere — in the unending steppes of Khersonshchyna.
In the times of old, chumaky (Ukrainian salt traders), who used to cross and recross the steppe, stopped at the settlement where Tsyuryupinsk is now located; in the same area the Cossacks clashed with the Turks; in more recent, soviet times, Tsyuryupinsk, named after a Russian Revolution commissar Tsyryupa, was a small, dusty, wretched provincial town — in fact, more a village than a town. The historic traditions were thoroughly forgotten; everyday life was — and is — hardly more than toil and drudgery; the only entertainment — television for all, and alcohol for many.
Such was the place where Polina Rayko lived and died. She was a hard-working, never-resting and never-tiring, meticulous Ukrainian woman. And very patient, like most Ukrainian women are. Her husband drank too much and died, killed by alcohol and frustration; her daughter died of an illness; her son found himself in prison.
Babusya Rayko kept her house very clean and neat, with traditional Ukrainian embroidered rushnyky (decorative towels) spread and hung in many places for decoration.
One day she felt as though something was lacking — and she painted white doves on the fence. Her painting seemed to come straight from her heart. She must have been greatly surprised by this sudden outburst of artistic inspiration that broke through the thick crust that seemed to have encapsulated her soul after years of so very little joy and of so much never-ending hard work. Once this crust was broken, the outpouring creative flow could not be stopped. Legions of images, some mythological, some from the world of reality, and some combining various sources of inspiration from Ukrainian traditional folk art to sacral art, emanated out of the “new-born” as though from the yaytse-raytse (in Ukrainian folklore and fairy tales — the magic egg from which all kinds of things come, the whole world included — tr.). The results were phenomenal — the ceiling, the walls, the doors, the door frames and the windowsills sprouted magic flowers blooming on them; all around the place there were fabulous animals walking in primordial forests, angels flying in the heavens, and churches gracing the land.
Rayko, having no art education, had no idea that the surfaces on which she painted should have been provided with an undercoat of paint, and she painted right on plaster or on the previous layer of oil paint. And it means that the paintings, lacking the proper primer, could be easily damaged or destroyed.
For her grandson, “all these funny pictures” had no value whatsoever, and all he wanted to do was to have the little house sold as soon as possible, and no matter to who, so long as the required sum would be paid. He did not care what would happen to the marvellous murals. When the art critic Natalka Shymin came to Tsyuryupinsk, she talked to Rayko’s grandson, trying to explain to him the importance of the paintings and their great artistic value. He listened to her, and then said, “See, I don’t care for all this art, I don’t understand it. I’m not going to live here, in this house, but I have to keep an eye on it all the time. And I have to go on business to Kherson once in a while, but the moment I leave, I’m sure somebody’ll come and steel the doors or anything else that can be carried away. That’s why I want to sell it as soon as possible.”
The first person to start doing something to save the paintings was Vyacheslav Mashnytsky, the curator of a private museum of modern art in Kherson and a great art enthusiast. He came over to Tsyuryupinsk and took photographs of every inch of Rayko’s paintings. He addressed friends, acquaintances and other art enthusiasts with a request to immediately start looking for patrons of art who would be able to help raise money for buying Rayko’s house and making a museum out of it. No official bodies, at all the levels, which were supposed to be directly involved in “preserving the national cultural legacy of Ukraine,” and to which Mashnytsky turned for help, showed any interest and remained indifferent to the fate of Rayko’s remarkable art.
The frantic search for money did not seem to bring any results — no rich people or businessmen in Kherson, Kyiv, Lviv and other major cities seemed to care either. “A small house painted over with na?ve pictures in a small provincial town in the steppe? You must be kidding!” was the typical response. The situation seemed hopeless. Then the Orange Revolution broke out, and who would remember of a little house with marvellous murals in a faraway town out in the boondocks in the whirl of momentous political events? But some people did — and sorrowed, thinking that a piece of wonderful art had been destroyed.
But it was not. Rayko’s house was bought by Olena Kosharna and Andryus Nemitskas, a North American couple who had been living in Ukraine in the past ten years. They gave the house to themselves as a wedding gift. It will be turned into a museum. A Polina Rayko fund will be established to collect money for maintaining the museum and restoring the paintings. I am inclined to think that God must love art, after all, and has interfered to save Rayko’s murals from inevitable destruction.
Polina Rayko’s art, in the terms of art history, can be put into the category of what is called “neo-primitive.” “Primitivus” in Latin means “something at the beginning, the very first.” Primitive art began to be appreciated in Europe only at the end of the nineteenth century, that is at the time when artists began to be looking for new sources of inspiration, and the attitude to what “art is” began to change. The age-old sources and origins of art were rediscovered. Some of the neo-primitive artists acquired international fame — the French artist Henri Rousseau (“Le Douanier Rousseau”), the Georgian artist Pirosmani, the Ukrainian artist Nykyfor.
Neo-Primitive art, (to differentiate it from the really primitive art forms of primitive societies) became a phenomenon studied by art critics and collected by art lovers and connoisseurs. To describe this phenomenon, Kandinsky coined the phrase, “the greater reality,” and a later critic spoke of “magic realism.” For the “na?ve” painters the pictures emanated from their imagination, was the natural, indisputable reality.
A number of other Ukrainian “na?ve” artists, Kateryna Bilokur and Mariya Priymachenko among them, received wide recognition. Now we have another name added to the list of the distinguished names of “neo-primitive” artists — Polina Rayko.
A peasant woman of no art education in a backwoods little town starts painting at the age of sixty-nine and comes up with extraordinary results — isn’t it a very convincing piece of evidence that the magic of art and talent will reveal themselves even under most unfavourable conditions?
Polina Rayko had a pure heart and the magic world she created in her art is full of light, bright colours and of carefree happiness that we experience in childhood.
By Nataliya Kosmolinska
Photos by Vyacheslav Mashynsky