Maria Bartuszová: an artist of the fragile who was anything but | Art and design

THEat a time when the art world is attempting to rewrite a history that has largely benefited male artists, Tate Modern is staging a show of work by Slovak sculptor Maria Bartuszová (1936–1996). Her unique biomorphic casts touch on big themes such as belonging, growth and infinity. Bartuszová worked outside the traditional centers of contemporary art, yet her pieces are far from marginal. A retrospective at Tate Modern will offer a comprehensive take on her vision and resourcefulness.

The artist was born in Prague, but shortly after her studies, she moved to Slovakia. First, to her husband’s birthplace, a Hungarian-speaking village called Kamenín, and later to Košice, now Slovakia’s second largest city and back then a rapidly developing urban area in the country’s east.

Intensive construction in the region made Košice a good base for artists taking state commissions. Each construction ordained by the Czechoslovak state had to feature public art by law. This meant that not only government buildings but also schools, libraries, theaters and hotels were obliged to put aside 0.5 to 2% of the overall construction budget for “embellishments” that would complement the architecture. However, this progressive concept did have a downside: a state-run commission had to approve the artist’s proposal.

Maria Bartuszová … Untitled 1972–1974. Photograph: Michael Brzezinski/Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

Despite the tightening of the communist regime after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Bartuszová managed to remain apolitical throughout her career. Her public artworks range from majestic aluminum reliefs and bronze and rock constructions to spare, meticulously executed plaques. The true charm of her oeuvre lies in her uninhibited, often smaller works in plaster, which took shape in the safety of her studio in Košice. She developed her own techniques that included filling balloons with plaster and modeling objects by submerging them in water or blowing air into them.

This efficient method allowed her to combine childcare and making pieces to commission as well as her independent work. Resourcefulness was key in gathering props in a time of material scarcity: she cast her models in small rubber balloons, condoms or even car tires and weather-observation balloons. These shrewd techniques propelled Bartuszová closer to her desired “perfection of the form”, but also resulted in a series of haptic puzzles.

She shaped individual pieces of her multi-part sculptures one by one, pressing freshly mixed malleable plaster against hard, completed sections to create a tightly fitting arrangement. Some of these works resemble germinating seeds or raindrops hitting the surface of water. These spatial compositions were built to be touched, picked apart and reassembled. As such, they were used in workshops with blind and partially sighted children in eastern Slovakia. The endeavor was organized and beautifully documented by local curator Gabriel Kladek.

Bartuszová devised a series of objects in plaster as well as bronze and aluminum casts that the children used in classrooms as teaching aids, or relaxing games that stimulated their visual imagination. This aspect of Bartuszová’s practice shows that art at its best brings people together and offers space to learn and heal.

She led a modest life filled with artistic practice and inspired by nature. When she went on hikes with the family, she would bring back medicinal herbs for tisanes and curiously shaped boulders or branches for future artworks. In her wild garden, overgrown with nettles, plaster shells were heaped on an old plum tree.

In socialist Czechoslovakia, her work has rarely been recognized for its worth and even today’s democratic states of Czechia and Slovakia have yet to make amends. During her lifetime, Bartuszová had only a few solo exhibitions, in 1983 in Trenčín and 1988 in Košice. The Slovak National Gallery staged a retrospective in 2005. This year, Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová awarded Bartuszová posthumously with the Order of Ľudovít Štúr and a detailed monograph penned by curator Gabriela Garlatyová was published in Slovak and English.

Over the past 15 years, appreciation for Bartuszová’s work abroad has soared. After a group of her works were displayed at Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw hosted a large solo show in 2014. This year, a retrospective at Tate Modern and a feature at the Venice Biennale conclude an impressive tour of the most prestigious European art institutions. Bartuszová’s work is now well poised to shine even further afield.

Her family’s ambition lies closer to home, though. Bartuszová’s daughters Anna and Veronika, who have looked after her estate for the past 26 years, wish to build a small museum dedicated to their mother’s work in Košice. It will feature more intimate displays mimicking installation principles from a show that Bartuszová herself conceived in the 1980s. Her daughters are hoping to bring visitors closer to the delicate objects than the busy rooms of world-renowned institutions allow. Until then, the vitrines at Tate Modern are a great place to discover these treasures.

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