Maria Bartuszová at Tate Modern

After a long delay Tate Modern presents a retrospective of works by innovative Slovak sculptor Maria Bartuszová (1936-1996). The artist was born in Prague (back then the capital of Czechoslovakia), she lived in Košice (Slovakia) most of her life. In a relatively modest-sized exhibition the visitors can see Bartuszová’s works made from the 1960s to 1980s. Beginning with the artist’s earliest experiments with plaster-casts, through metal works made during her brief period with the Concretist Club, to the more mature and gravity-defying plaster sculptures, the rooms are filled with cutting-edge artworks. Defying the properties of the material, mostly plaster, her sculptures appear light, almost weightless. 

Photograph of the artist Maria Bartuszová in her studio surrounded by sculptures in the shapes of cracked egg shells and pillows. The woman is touching a large sculpture resembling an assemblage of egg shells suspended from the ceiling.
Maria Bartuszová in her studio with sculptures (1987)

In the 1960s the artist filled balloons and condoms with plaster, resulting in works that resembled water drops, wheat grains and other organic shapes. Bartuszová called her process ‘gravistimulated shaping’. By the 1980s she developed a different technique ‘pneumatic casting’, which required balloons to be filled with air and then plaster would be poured over the surface and the balloons would burst. Works produced using this technique can be described as negative sculptures, with hollow spaces inside, such as the egg shells. The artist used other processes too, balloons filled with plaster were bound with ropes or formed by touch, immersing in water, or pressing objects into them, like stone, or wood. 

The artist’s touch immortalised in sculpture

A white plaster sculpture resembling a sheet or tablecloth with imprints, as if someone has pressed their fingers into the fabric.
Maria Bartuszová – Untitled (1986, plaster)

Looks like it’s about to crack…

Round, egg-shaped sculpture with several hollows inside its walls.
Maria Bartuszová – Egg but not Columbus’s (1987, plaster)

One of my favourites is the Melting Snow I (1985). Inspired by Taoism and Zen Buddism, this poetic work is a sight to behold. Although the sculpture consists of a tree branch embedded in a plaster cast, it looks as if the branch has just fallen down on a soft pillow of snow. This impression would have been even stronger if the work was displayed horizontally on the ground, but instead it hangs on a white wall where it resembles a painting from a distance. 

Melting snow reveals a surprise…

A white plaster sculpture with a tree branch embedded in it hangs on a wall. The sculpture resembles a tree branch that fell on the ground covered in a thick layer of snow.
Maria Bartuszová – Melting Snow I (1985, plaster and wood)

The Concretist Club (Klub konkrétistů, established in 1967) which included Czech and Slovak artists, had its counterparts all-over the world. Concrete Art was an art movement that focused on geometrical abstraction. In contrast to the works of other members of the Concretist Club Bartuszová’s sculptures are rooted in the natural world. For instance in the Rain (1963, bronze and stone, first from the right on the photograph below) heavy raindrops appear frozen in time as they hit the ground. 

View of exhibition in a gallery. On the left is a silver metal sculpture hanging on the wall. Right and centre are two small metal sculptures resembling sprouting plant and large bronze raindrops hitting a stone base.
Maria Bartuszová – view of display

One way to look at Bartuszová’s abstract yet biomorphic works is to see it in the art-historical context. From the beginning of her art career in the 1960s art in Czechoslovakia and other countries in the Eastern and Central Europe was influenced by the policies originated in the Soviet Union. In the 1950s Socrealism or Socialist Realism was the only state-approved art form. This idealised realist art was a vehicle of communist propaganda. Many artists felt that the only way they could make a living and to get access to art materials was to produce art approved by the state. The appeal of abstract art can be seen as a reaction to this. Some artists felt it gave them more freedom. On one hand abstraction can be seen as ambiguous, perhaps even apolitical, but on the other, if an artwork’s subject is not immediately obvious, isn’t it also subversive? In the case of Bartuszová, she became a member of the artist’s union, which allowed her to secure commissions for many public sculptures in Košice, where new public art was needed for the ambitious mass housing programme in the city. Today many of her artworks can be seen in public spaces across Slovakia. The artist used her garden in her Košice house as the location for impressive art installations, which allowed her to display sculptures on her own terms and connect her works with nature. 

View of gallery exhibition, on the left a window in the wall with several round sculptures tied with ropes are suspended across the frame. On the right a white sculpture with a tree branch embedded in it hangs on a wall.
Maria Bartuszová – general view of exhibition display at Tate Modern.

Maria Bartuszová – exhibition at Tate Modern (20 September 2022 – 16 April 2023)

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