Nykyfor Drovnjak - Famous Lemko Artist (1895-1968)

The following article, authored by Olena Duc, first appeared in Carpatho-Rusyn American, Volume 9 #2, 1987
copyright © 1987 and is used here with permission

The life of Nykyfor Drovnjak is truly the stuff of fairy tales.

From a foolish and outcast beggar there developed a world renowned artist whose name remains a source of pride among the people from whom he derived. Yet it is precisely here that the great absurdity begins.

Nykyfor, who did not even know how to speak Polish, who from beginning to end developed artistically under the influence of the wonder of eastern Christian icons, who was three times deported to western Poland, who returned three times to his native Lemko Region. who was isolated from foreign influences - It is this same Nykyfor whose works have had subjective and objective "Polishness" thrust upon them. Falsified (acts from his life, tendentious interpretations regarding his creative motivations, and a lack of feeling and understanding for the complicated psychology of this unfortunate artist all serve the cause of "proving" his ostensible Polishness. Despite the Polishness accredited to Nykyfor, one can detect the full gamut of Lemko life and symbolism both in his career and in his outstanding creative works.

Nykyfor Drovnjak was born on May 21, 1895 in the small town of Krynica (Nowy Sacz district) in what is today south-central Poland. His mother was Jevdokija Drovnjak, the daughter of Hryhorij and Tatjana Krenyc`kyj from the nearby village of Powroznik/Povoroznyk; his father was unknown. Baptized in the local Greek Catholic Church, he was given the name Jepyfan. This name was uncommon in the Lemko Region, although a priest would often give a child of an unwed mother a strange name which would by itself distinguish the child from others. The name Nykyfor, by which the artist from Krynica is so well known, is actually a nickname that is much more understandable and normal for Lemkos.

Nykyfor came into the world in particularly unfortunate circumstances. The question of his actual father was and remains uncertain. His mother, who until the end of her days was a servant. lived in poverty. The youngster never finished school and he did not even know how to write. At best he could scribe large printed letters, as is evident on his paintings. But in place of these shortcomings, nature endowed Nykyfor with a great talent. And despite a career clouded with legends created by people who never will be able to understand all the contradictions and conflicts of his life, there existed beyond the normal concept of happiness a solidly-founded existence directed by its own logic and creative power in a word, he lived in his own manner.

Nykyfor remained in his native Krynica among fellow Lemkos. His favorite spot was the wall near the health clinic, where he loved to sit the whole day and paint, and where he sold or gave away his paintings. Although from time to time he wandered throughout the Lemko Region, he soon returned to the spot along the wall where he felt best. Strongly tied to the atmosphere of the town of Krynica and the Lemko Region as a whole, Nykyfor considered his paintings to be something natural and obvious. He created for himself, because creativity was a part of his being - it was his very life.

In fact, in the paintings of Nykyfor we can touch the depths of an open, simple. and free spirit, who created with brush and color a world of his own. His paintings are described as naive and primitive in the positive sense of those words. The world which Nykyfor created in works which number about 30,000 has nothing to do with a realistic depiction of nature. Here it is the icon which is the source of the profound variety and particular characteristics or his paintings.

There is a great similarity in the creative principles of Nykyfor's works and the canon of Byzantine iconography. As in the icons, so too in Nykyfor's work is there magic. The icon is not only an image, it is a picture which directs one through pictorial form to the presence of God and itself embodies in part that presence. Similar are the paintings of Nykyfor. They not only reflect the world, they are in part the world they reflect. Even if that world should vanish, it will survive precisely there where Nykyfor created it - in his art.

Nykyfor depicted the Lemko Region - its wondrous, clear, and refreshing sun, its numerous churches, its brightly colored houses, its fairy tales and symbols. These were to remain forever. He also depicted himself as he wished he could be and how he would like to feel - young, distinguished, respected. He painted himself like the saints on icons, seen always with gigantic eyes, seriousness, and grandeur. He also rendered other people in the same way, if he felt they merited such treatment. All his paintings are in fact triumphal and solemn in which a strong internal force is ever present.

It is the power and greatness of Nykyfor's talent which today attracts the world's art critics. Yet while he was outstanding, he still remains a misunderstood phenomenon. This is because it is not possible to understand an individual without knowing the life of the people from whom he or she derived. Nykyfor lived and created as a Lemko, and first and foremost it is necessary to understand his work as an homage to the Lemko Region - a homage in which everything there would remain just as he saw and felt it.

Olena Duc - Uscie Gorlickie, Poland

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