Selfportrait. Watercolor on paper. 26×16 cm.
Epifaniusz Drowniak (stage name: Nikifor or Nikifor Krynicki) was born in 1895 in Lemkowszyzna, an area inhabited by the Lemko people in southeastern Poland. His feeble-minded and crippled mother earned a living doing household chores for families and boarding houses in the spa town of Krynica Zdrój. Nikifor was hard of hearing, had a speech impediment, and spoke incoherently. Few could communicate with him properly. Although he attended school for some time, he was practically illiterate.
He was in poor health and was hospitalized several times during his childhood. During one of those stays an attending physician gave him a set of watercolors and a brush to give him something to do. Nikifor took to it enthusiastically and continued that activity after his discharge from the hospital. He painted on all the paper and cardboard he could get his hands on and offered his products for sale to tourists and visitors to the spas in Krynica. The oldest painting that has been preserved dates from his 13th year of life. If he didn’t earn enough, he went begging. At a later stage he also sold begging letters with a small painting in addition to the text. He had others write the letter, but the text was his own. It often started with “I am the famous painter Nikifor…”.
Begging letter 1935? Collage. 28 x 20 cm.
The open air functioned as a studio and sales place. Weather permitting, he pulled out, placed his wooden briefcase with watercolors, brushes, chalk, water bottles, and paper on a city bench or wall and began painting. He framed the front of the product with a border of colored paper or textile. The price was written on it in pencil. At last a stamp on the back with the text “Nikifor-malarz” or “Nikifor artysta”.
For decades Nikifor lived on the fringes of society. No one paid serious attention to his work. He was considered a vagabond or a curious sight rather than an artist. For his housing he depended on people who offered him shelter out of pity or in exchange for a painting. In later years, the municipality provided him with an extremely simple room without running water.
Blue mountain house. Watercolor on paper. 24×16 cm.
The quality of Nikifor’s artwork was first discovered by artists visiting Krynica in the 1930s. One of them was the Post-Impressionist painter Roman Turyn from Lwów. Thanks to his contacts, Nikifor’s work was shown in a group exhibition in Paris and received recognition for the first time, especially of the Polish-Parisian artist group ‘Kapisci’. In 1938 followed a long and praising article by the painter and art historian Jerzy Wolff in the trendy art magazine Arkady. The outbreak of the Second World War disrupted his definitive breakthrough in the world of the fine arts and a planned solo exhibition in Paris was canceled.
Little is known about how he survived during the war. It is assumed that he led a nomadic life and managed to survive as a street painter.
Town square. Watercolor on paper. 21,5 x 21,5 cm.
In 1947 Nikifor came into contact with the art historian Andrzej Banach and his wife Ella. They took on the day-to-day care of Nikifor and ensured a successful promotion with a well-received article and the monograph Historia o Nikiforze (1966). The couple’s efforts led to a definitive breakthrough. Nikifor’s work was exhibited in Poland (National Ethnographic Museum Warszawa, Krakow and Sopot), Paris 1961, Germany (Baden-Baden 1961/1969, Frankfurt 1961, Hanover 1961, Recklinghausen 1971/1973, Darmstadt 1974), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg 1964 ), Bratislava 1966/1969, Belgium (Brussels and Knokke 1958), the Netherlands (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 1959), Stockholm, Rome, Zagreb (1970/1973), Haifa 1960 and the United States.
Four books, hundreds of articles and some documentary films were devoted to him, he was interviewed by Polish television and appointed as an honorary member of the Polish Association of Visual Artists.
In a domestic circle. Watercolor on cardboard. 14 x 22 cm.
All the fuss seemed barely touching Nikifor. Financial problems had been resolved but his lifestyle showed no change. Every day he went out with his painting box to ‘work’ somewhere on the street. In 1962 the painter Marian Wlosinski and his wife took care of Nikifor. They took him into their home until his death and arranged medical and dental care.
Nikifor died of a lung disease in 1968, but his fame has outlived him given the ongoing series of exhibitions and the founding of the Nikifor Museum (1995). In 2004 the award-winning movie Mój Nikifor (full film on YouTube) was released about his last 8 years of life. The role of Nikifor was brilliantly played by the then 84-year-old actress Krystyna Feldman.