Many will have been introduced to the work of the 20th century Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko for the first time in 2022, following the last minute inclusion of one of her paintings at the start of the Venice Biennale. As an augmentation of the typical US-centric main exhibition, and alongside the understated official Ukrainian representation (there was a larger unofficial contingent sponsored by the philanthropist Victor Pinchuk), this statement of solidarity rang rather hollow. And that is before you bring up the tone-deaf pacifist flags, reminiscent of what I was used to seeing from political cranks in Germany, which flew from almost every third Venetian window. Maybe it was just the sweltering heat.

Currently, there are incredible logistical hurdles standing in the way of presenting art from Ukraine internationally. The exhibition ‘In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s’ barely made it to Madrid without being destroyed by bombs last year, and the works by Maria Prymachenko currently being displayed at the Saatchi Gallery originally did not make it through customs to be shown as planned last years. Before that, 25 of the artist’s works were destroyed following an attack on a museum in Ivankiv, formerly home to a significant collection.

Saatchi Gallery’s exhibition of paintings by Maria Prymachenko, supported by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prymachenko Family Foundation, is instantly refreshing because it does not have to justify its existence by appealing to sympathy, and be viewed a token of good will. This does not mean that the struggle for for national independence is not an important themes for Prymachenko and in general, but that we are given an opportunity to discuss art from Ukraine as a contribution to art for art’s sake. This is in an environment where Western perceptions of Eastern European art history can still be dominated by myths of a supposed Imperial Russian cultural ‘genius’ spanning literature, music and fine art. In this context, her way of painting has often been labelled ‘naïve’ due to her lack of formal education and background as a peasant, and dismissed as un-intellectual ‘folk-art’. These are sentiments which I have always found rather patronising and unhelpful, not least because Picasso had been an admirer of her work as early as 1937.

Upon entering the exhibition, I am immediately drawn to a painting of what I later learn is the ‘Beast of Polissia’. The beast’s body is formed of a deep orange, covered in blue spots, and its head appears like that of a lion with strongly anthropomorphised characteristics. The painting’s frame, formed of dark red covered by a pattern of bright flowers, is also painted on the canvas. Anthropomorphised animals, more often than not fantastical, feature frequently in Prymachenko’s works. Sometimes they wear funny traditional hats, other times their facial expressions become more surreal and even grotesque. Interestingly, many of the works shown include a small narration written on their reverse; behind the Beast of Polissia, Prymachenko describes being awarded a diploma following an exhibition of her paintings across Europe in 1936. There is something comforting, yet strangely unnerving about these characters and the ways that her depiction of rural life plays with absurdities and the subconscious.

The last time Ukrainian artists came close to achieving the international attention that they are experiencing now was probably around 2014. While the last circa ten years have seen a significant development of Ukrainian contemporary art, there is still a frequent desire of some Western audiences for this diverse and complex scene to simply narrate current affairs, as important as this task may still be. If a Ukrainian artist paints a group of men fighting, they ‘predict’ violence in the country. The act of creating work during war is called resistance, while the works themselves are dismissed as overly emotional propaganda, of little independent value in the context of global art narratives.

A perhaps more sophisticated expression of this tendency has been to analyse some of the subtle thematic undercurrents of Prymachenko’s works, which have of course been given more time to mature than those of artists working today, and understand them as products of her country’s history of genocide and subjugation, about which there has recently been a welcome increase in recognition and interest. But her work is more than just a reaction to the past; it is intentionally subversive, both politically and aesthetically. Her way of depicting life, the fact that she rejects authority by dealing with the lives of ordinary people, and her embrace of abstraction and fantasy is both deeply meaningful and liberating in its own right, but also revolutionary in the face of the mindless kitsch of Soviet realism. This is why the frequent use of the word ‘naïve’ to describe her work is so ironic.