Polina Rayko, artist from nowhere
This translation has been reviewed by the author, and is published here with his permission, and in agreement with Kultura Enter.
Polina Rayko - artist from nowhere
When Nikifor[i] from Krynica was shown an album of art, he always responded positively to the primitive paintings: "Oh, collegue!", he used to say. Without a doubt, if Nikifor(Epiphanius Drowniak) and Polina Rajko had lived in the same time and would have had a chance to meet, they would have understood each other.
Polina Rayko[ii] lived all her life in the community of Tsyuryupinsk in the region of Kherson. She never learned to paint, but this did not prevent her, at the age of 69, to take the brushes in hand and to cover all eligible surfaces in her house, and even some parts of the yard, with images.
Such a "conversion” as occured in her elderly life, has been caused by the radical changes that have happened in her personal life. Polina was on herself. In 1994, she tragically lost her daughter, Olena. Within a year after her husband Mykola died, in 2002 her son Serhiy died of cirrhosis of the liver caused by chronic alcoholism.
The publication devoted to the artist “The Road to Paradise" with texts by Olena Afanasieva and Serhiy Diachenko gives us the following information on the beginnings of her creative activity:
“The first works on the walls of the building appeared in the autumn of 1998. [...], when her son Serhiy was in a correctional facility. Polina, being alone, tried to arrange somehow her thoughts, bring the house to order" [iii]
The son, who lived in one part of the house, was a source of danger for her. It even went so far that he wounded his mother with a knife. His absence gave her the opportunity to finally take a breath after the dramatic turns of life.
It can happen that older women in Ukraine live in solitude, with problems of the old age or having problems with alcohol-dependent relatives, but most of them are trying to tie their life to religion, or by taking care of the house. Polina Rayko is unique since she took up the brushes and went painting (with normal enamel, that is usually used to paint on the windows, floors and fences), using the brushes in a different way than others would do. This activity was something that could easily be met with the bad judgement of the conservative town. It was also something risky, as all the money from her pension went into materials, and she could be left without means of subsistence.
Polina Rayko’s paintings today are considered to be a good example of work that was not influenced by knowledge of art, or other external factors: she did not have a TV, or regular access to newspapers. In such a situation, the only possible way is to create your own world.
Let us make a comparison with another Ukrainian painter, Mariya Pryymachenko whose work quite a long time enjoyed the interest of the art world. The period of her popularity lasted over half her life. In this case the term "primitive painting" is a bit strong, though I must admit that up to her last days, Mariya had not much to do with contemporary trends in her work.
Both artists believed that their work was dictated by the will of God. Polina Rayko, for example, saw her artistic activity as a gift from the Almighty "for all her pain and difficult life”. Just as in religion not everyone is a believer, in art not every artist creates valuable work. In the twentieth century art has known areas that are relatively strong eroded, so we can come across a lot of “dirty”, “black” spots.
Polina has been described by critics as a (lucky?) outsider, possibly the only one who did not contribute to the production of extra trash that our modern civilization is already full of.
The frenchman Jean Dubuffet said:
"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."[iv]
Another "eccentric" who would have been able to understand Polina for one hundred percent, lived in the community of Hauterives in southeastern France. Ferdinand Cheval was a mailman. Every day he walked tens of kilometers, and as he said: "What else can you do if you always walk the same route? Only dream. To control my thoughts somehow, I constructed an ideal palace “ [v]
However, this building did not remain merely a simple idea in his imagination. Every day, for thirty-three years, he brought stones to his garden, and pursued his dream.
A similar, insistent need to beautify her environment, is also characteristic of our artist. Although she did not build anything, she transformed her own environment. Decorating thirty-six walls, nine ceilings, and some other elements of the courtyard, she created her own palace.
In 2004 art experts from Kherson had discovered how Polina created some of her paintings.
Not having any skill of painting, she had to learn all the techniques from scratch. It happened that her eye fell on some printed image, and that she wanted to have that image on a wall. But before she began painting, she fairly copied it on a piece of paper (not so much to create a sketch, but more to just experience how to draw this or that figure), or she prepared as a separate sheet templates from cellophane [vi]
Polina found examples in a pack of “Chayka” chocolate, a pack with bottles of “Arktyka” mineral water, a few sketches of churches, religious postcards with a guardian angel protecting a boy and girl.
Gulls, transformed by the hand of the untrained artist, can be seen in many places in the building. A white bear from a label of a bottle is not difficult to recognize, even though the image of the icy mountains and the sunset has turned into something like chamomile, or fried eggs.
Polina wanted to paint a church, but because of the complexity of architectural form, she did not succeed for a long time. However, she worked hard to realize this dream. The prototype was found on a bottle of “Kagor” wine. In the summer kitchen we also find an image of the local church. It was painted from memory.
The painting of an angel protecting children contains a curiosity. Above its head a red star was placed, the symbol of bygone days of totalitarism (there are grounds to believe that her children are on the wall, Olenka and Serhiy, whom the artist lost recently).
In the house one can find many examples of such "irregularities". Those art experts who went to visit Polina when she was still alive, remember, for example, that her hand waved indulgently in bizarre shapes, painting black and red spots, saying that "it's just painting ornaments”, while in reality they were not very expertly painted butterflies [vii]
She made very nice cats. As a model served a cheap rug hung on the wall in the part of the house where her son once lived. They were large size and Polina did not call them cats, but leopards.
Paintings on the ceiling in two of the rooms of the cottage, seem to lack the characteristic density of Rayko’s ornamental motifs. Here, birds and flowers are spaced fairly far apart, which evokes a feeling of unfinished decorations. Now, no one is able to say how pleased an artist was with her paintings. Who knows, maybe Polina wanted to supplement them, or completely repaint some parts of the building? Currently, there is evidence that the artist changed a ready composition: in 2003 the Holy Trinity appeared in place of a pair of birds [viii].
As already mentioned, Soviet propaganda had an impact on the outlook of Polina Rayko. In addition to the above-cited case of the red star above the head of an angel, and a hammer and sickle image presented in two places, Polina painted a female army captain. The woman in military uniform (with stars of the corresponding rank, hence the name of the image) is on a pedestal with a gun in her hands. At the bottom there is a signature: "1941-1945", and the date of the day of the Soviet victory over Nazi troops, “9 May". A similar picture is in the bedroom. Shown there is a woman in a white gown with a bonnet on her head. Rayko baptized this as a "military medic”.
Nevertheless, the ideology of the old regime had little impact on the work of Polina, if you compare it with the influence of Christianity. In the same room where the window is and the female army captain, she made what is possibly in terms of size, the largest of her work. On the western wall and on the southern part were represented four sisters Soldatovy[ix] (Rayko's maiden name), with white wings, who were in heaven. They sit, surrounded by birds, two hearts and an immensity of beautiful flowers.
Thoughts about salvation of the soul did not leave the artist. On the door from the garage, after her death the phrase is found: "How to find a way to paradise ...".
What's with the legacy?
Polina was discovered by tourists, and the route to her house was very quickly found by painters, journalists, film directors. And not only from Ukraine.
In the last years of her life she experienced the interest of a wide range of people. She was always happy to greet the next guest, but she often talked about her hard life, rather than about her art. In the period 2003-2005 some fifty articles were published that hailed Tsyuryupinsk as a mecca, or a place one must go and see.
The Kherson Center of Youth Initiatives "Totem" gathered material to produce a book of 128 pages, "Road to Paradise", that was often quoted in this article, and Nadia Koshman made there a film entitled "Paradise".
After Polina Rayko passed away on 15 January 2004, the "ideal palace" was inherited by a grandson. He showed no sympathy for the "funny pictures" of his grandmother. Natalia Kosmolinska in one of her publications quoted Lviv painter Natalka Shymin who some time before had talked to the grandson. His words were as follows:
"You know what, I do not care about all this art, I do not understand it. I have to go to Kherson on business from time to time, and when I am not around here, I am convinced that someone will come in the cottage and steal the doors or anything else that can be carried away. I want to sell the house as soon as possible " [x].
The price for this "unfortunate" house in the godforgotten town was six thousand U.S. dollars. The grandson was ready to sell it to any buyer.
Local authorities, who should be responsible for protecting the cultural heritage of the region, proved to be extremely passive when it came to this matter. After the turmoil raised by members of the “Totem” center and the artist Viacheslav Mashnitskyy, private persons were found to buy the house and to transform it into a museum.
It was an american couple, Olena Kosharna and Andrius Nemickas, that since some years lived in Ukraine. During the short period of uncertainty, the danger of destruction has been exposed to many of the paintings, especially those that the artist painted on the outside.
According to Viacheslav Mashnitskyy, the painting "water nymph", on a fence that separated the yard from the garden, was affected by the wind, and the neighbour wanted to use the wood as firewood in the oven. Fortunately, the artist managed to stop him. Nowadays that paining, along with a selfportrait of Polina that was created on the backside, is a part of the collection in his private museum of contemporary art, and can easily be visited.
After 2005 the turmoil around the house quietened down a bit. And that's bad!
The paint used by Polina Rayko does not remain long on the walls. Today it can be noted that in some places there are damages,that lead to the slow destruction of the images. Paintings that are located in the porch, are not damp-proof. From time to time they are affected by raindrops. Soon paintings on the outer side of the building will be difficult to identify. It should be noted, however, that the majority of external exhibits (those on the summer kitchen door, the gate, the garage door) were hidden on the premises, what somehow reduces the speed of their destruction.
The house nowadays is inhabited by Nadia, a contemporary and relative of Polina, who likes to talk about herself as an overseer of the museum. She manages to protect the premises against spiders, dust and thieves, but without the consent of the owner, she can not do anything on the decline of Polina’s work.
The owners are in no hurry to resolve the problem of the preservation of the images in some way or to open a museum on a wider base for visitors.
Paradoxically, the question of whether the heritage of the artist Polina Rayko, is just as original as that of Mariya Pryymachenko, Nikifor/Epiphanius Drowniak or Ferdinand Cheval, has to be observed by future generations of art lovers. One can not give a clear confirmation today.
pictures by the author
(added to OEE-texts 2009)
[i] a polish folk and naive painter (hve)
[ii] original: Поліна Райко, in this translation Polina Rayko
[iii] Дорога до раю: Каталог робіт Introduction: О. Афанасьєва, С. Дяченко, trans. О. Маньковська, photos: М. Афанасьєв, О. Афанасьєва, С. Волязловський, ed. Тотем, Kherson 2005 - p. 6
[vi] Дорога до раю, p. 10
[vii] Дорога до раю, p. 47
[viii] Ibid, p. 44, 93
[ix] original: Солдатови
[x] Welcome to Ukraine, An amazing work of art - Polina Rayko's House, by Nataliya Kosmolinska http://www.wumag.kiev.ua/index2.php?param=pgs20051/84