The creative work of Olexa Bakhmatiuk (1820—1882) is one of the brightest manifestations of 19th century Ukrainian folk art. This outstanding master craftsman lived all his life in Kosiv (near Ivano-Frankivsk). Due to not having an elementary school education, he always had difficulty in drawing the inscriptions, date of work, and even his signature, on the surface of vessels and decorative tiles.
He first became acquainted with pottery at the workshop of Ivan Baraniuk. The latter taught him the secrets of shaping traditional forms, of applying the rich ceramic ornamentation that stem from the Precarpathian folk art of herdsmen and peasants. However, he did not stop at mastering the art heritage and decorative designs but constantly perfected the existing system of painting, enriching it with new creative ideas and genre scenes that brought him world fame.
The works of Bakhmatiuk attracted the attention of art specialists during his lifetime. Even then, his works were acquired by the Lviv and Vienna museums as well as by art collectors. He participated in a number of ethnographic exhibitions. Today, his works are on show at museums in many countries. The individual features of Bakhmatiuk’s works are reflected in the forms and proportions of vessels such as dishes, mugs, jugs, candleholders, lamp-stands, platters and baskets — he could shape even these difficult objects from clay. They are well constructed from the viewpoint of utility and yet harmoniously combine individual elements with the beauty of the overall silhouette.
This master craftsman is distinguished for his refined taste and sense of restraint in decorative painting. His ornamental designs were made according to traditional Kosiv engraving technique: the patterns incised on the whitened damp crockery were subsequently filled in with brown engobes. After the first firing a green and yellow underglaze was applied, then the vessel was coated with a transparent lead glaze and fired a second time.
Bakhmatiuk’s talent was especially noted for his compositional paintings on tiles for stoves. A considerable number of dated items permit us to follow the development of the craftsman’s talent and establish all the stages of his creative work which reached its peak between 1860 and 1880.
Bakhmatiuk’s paintings harmoniously combine floral and geometric elements, the depiction of animals and various genre scenes. Restrained by a color palette ranging from brown to green, his decorative tiles reflect the life of mountain herdsmen, peasants and Kosiv middle classes in the mid-19th century. One can find scenes of wolf, deer, and rabbit hunting, pictures of mounted hunters, Hutsul-herdsmen, the people’s avengers — “Oprishki” dancing in taverns, gypsies with trained bears, bell-ringers, postmen, landlords in carriages, churches, saints, heraldic eagles, etc. All these pictures are actually folk motifs of the Precarpathians translated into the imitative arts — an illustrated chronicle not only of events but of the folk art of Bakhmatiuk’s time.
Besides scenes depicting man, Bakhmatiuk created rather original stylized deer, lions, cockerels and birds among an imaginative unreal flora, as well as various compositions representing flora and fauna born of the artist’s inexhaustible fantasy.
Bakhmatiuk’s value as a folk craftsman lies in the fact that he did not make his works to satisfy the common market demands with its Philistine tastes which even then were beginning to have a fatal influence on some master craftsmen. Bakhmatiuk seemed to accumulate the finest achievements of preceding generations of Kosiv artists in the sphere of engraved painting and greatly inspired its future development.