After Tereus, King of Thrace, took his sister-in-law Philomela into the woods and raped her, he ordered her not to tell anyone. But she was defiant. She would talk. “My self, abandon’d, and devoid of shame, Thro’ the wide world your actions will proclaim; … My mournful voice the pitying rocks shall move, And my complainings echo thro’ the grove.” Furious, Tereus cut out her tongue, abandoned her, and told her sister Procne that she had died. But Philomela didn’t die, she wove the story of her rape into a tapestry and sent it to her sister. Speechless with anger, Philomela and Procne fed Tereus his own son. The gods saved them from his wrath by turning the sisters into a swallow and a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe. Now she couldn’t speak, but she could sing.
Arachne, a shepherd’s daughter, boasted about her skill as a weaver, angering the gods, and she responded to their wrath by creating tapestries portraying stories of gods abusing humans. And Penelope, in order to stay faithful to her long-absent husband Odysseus, held her suitors at bay by promising to choose a husband once she’d finished her weaving, and then undoing part of the weaving every night. In this same myth, Penelope’s son, Telemachus, silences his mother by saying, ‘Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”
From the very beginnings of recorded human history we have examples of powerful men silencing women, often in situations of violence, anger, or coercion. And the women have taken to their work, their “women’s work,” the humble and every day tasks of weaving fabric, to tell their stories more powerfully and enduringly than spoken words might have done. Because this work is beneath the notice of the powerful men, not seen in the same lofty light as their manly ambitions and achievements, the women find the freedom to tell their story as thoroughly, beautifully, and strangely they need–to process all of the anger and violence of the world around them, the horrors and abuse they experienced as it must have entered their visions and dreams.
The work of Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko has been labeled as “folk art, naive, primitive,” with all of the dismissive connotations those words imply. But her artwork–embroidery and paintings–is anything but simple or innocuous. It’s bright and colorful and full of beautiful birds and flowers, but walking among them are twisted beasts. These creatures are born of the violence, sadness, and thwarted hope that is inflicted by powerful men on the world around them, inflicted on the people they think of as less than human. These are the rough slouching beasts of myth and dreams and, sadly, of reality. And Prymachenko’s artwork, though biting and expressive and bold, is also strangely tender. Like the recurring dream of birthing a strange mutant creature, and fearing it, but caring for it anyway, nurturing and protecting it. We feel she loves these odd creatures, grotesque and terrifying though they are, and regards them with a compassion that feels profoundly generous and brave.
Prymachenko created possibly her most powerful art in the 30s, during Stalin’s great terror, when he famously purged Russia of intellectuals, free-thinkers, and dissenters, and when his paranoia caused him to kill on the slightest suspicion of criticism. And yet Prymachenko was allowed to live and work, because she was just a woman, just a peasant, just creating naive folk art, full of colorful patterns, beautiful birds and flowers. Stalin’s actions might have spawned the beasts, whether they represent senseless violence, or the twisted idea of living hopefully and happily in terrible times, but they were beneath his notice.
Prymachenko began her career as an artist by tracing figures in sand “Once, as a young girl, I was tending a gaggle of geese. When I got with them to a sandy beach, on the bank of the river, after crossing a field dotted with wild flowers, I began to draw real and imaginary flowers with a stick on the sand… Later, I decided to paint the walls of my house using natural pigments. After that I’ve never stopped drawing and painting.” Her mother taught her embroidery, and when her skill was recognized, she was invited to work at the Central Experimental Workshop of the Kyiv Museum of Ukrainian Art in 1935. She went on to draw and paint, first in clear thin water colors, but eventually in bold and tactile gouache.
Prymachenko lived from 1909 to 1997, and her life’s story reads as a remarkable account of the atrocities of the century she lived through. As a girl she developed polio, which left her impaired. She lived through the Holodomor, Stalin’s concerted effort to starve Ukrainian peasants, in a man-made famine that killed millions of people. People turned to cannibalism to survive, feeding on the corpses of the dead. Her partner, the father of her son, and her brother were killed in World War II. Hitler invaded Ukraine, and began his campaign of mass murder, dumping the bodies of more than 30,000 Kiev jews in a mass grave in a ravine outside the city. Of course this is also the history of Ukraine itself–the struggle to hold onto their spirit, their identity, and their lives, in the face of the ruthless reckless pressure of the ambitions of evil men.
Prymachenko went on to have a successful career as an artist. She was appreciated, her voice was heard. She was awarded the Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine. She became a symbol of national pride and identity. Picasso said of her work, “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.” But as the cycle of violence continues, during the current Russian invasion of Ukraine it is reported that a museum containing many of her works was burned to the ground. But it is also reported that a man risked his life to enter the burning building and save her paintings. The facts are blurred, frustrating, frightening, like so much news of the war.
When looking at the fantastical birds in Prymachenko’s paintings, I think of Philomela and Procne, transformed through violence and pain into a nightingale and a swallow. These paintings sing unflinchingly of the atrocities of evil men, with a terrible beauty and power. But they also resonate with an odd warmth, honesty, humanity, and hope.