Zhosts and bones and eerie metamorphoses turn Maria Bartushova into an amazing discovery. This artist, born in Prague in 1936 and who spent most of her adult life in the now-defunct state of Czechoslovakia, made wildly experimental art under the noses of communist authorities, even receiving state support for her strange creations, but with no real connections to the Western art world. Even now she is a mystery – the catalog struggles to tell her life in any but the most superficial terms. But her sculpture is as disturbing as the stories of her Prague predecessor, Franz Kafka.
Most of the art in Bartushova’s Tate exhibition is made of plaster, something she could sculpt cheaply and easily when she was a young mother working from home in the 1960s. Having to balance making art with looking after her young children gave her an idea. She began using children’s party balloons to cast her sculptures. The stretchy shapes of the balloons unleashed new kinds of artistic forms—inflated and bulging, hollow and egg-like, fleshy and erotic: anything but geometric or perfect.
The results are strangely fascinating. You dream among layers and mazes of crushed shells that look like the nest left by the creature in Alien. There are landscapes of unbaked doughnuts, white misshapen planets hanging in the air. It is an enchanted, magical art that creates new worlds with subtle means. You’d like to be able to touch it, and in fact, Bartushova has created art to be touched: a series of black-and-white photographs depict workshops with blind and partially sighted children, for whom Bartushova created organic forms that she described as “grains of wheat, dewdrops and so on’, designed to be examined by hand. Children seem delighted and engrossed as they handle these unexpected objects.
Grains of Wheat and Drops of Dew – The Class for Visually Impaired Children is an insight into how she saw her art. Bartuszová’s curves, spots, spindles and splashes are meant to suggest the natural world. She admired early 20th century artists such as Brancusi, Miró and Henry Moore who transformed natural forms into abstract art. But this modern tradition of “biomorphic abstraction” undergoes a perverse, unbridled rebirth when it passes through its bubbles. Her organic forms are disordered and disorienting.
Some of her work wouldn’t be out of place in curiosities cabinets, those strange early museums that brought together exotic corals, ostrich eggs, coconuts and unicorn horns, all that her art had to offer. One of the most famous was created by the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II in Prague Castle. Bartuszová created a series of geological specimens in the 1980s using rock and plaster that would fit right into it. Stone pieces are spaced by extensive outcrops of white plaster. Like organic eruptions piercing the earth’s mineral fabric, these white forms fragment and segment the stone, their living forms such as worms and eggs fossilized within it.
These freaks of nature undermine the “scientific” Marxist outlook of the Soviet empire, which was in its last years when Bartushova shaped them. Nature in her art is unknowable, untamed, chaotic. Life explodes and shatters like a giant egg collapsing under its own weight. This unsettling yet life-affirming vision has much in common with such dissident Czechoslovak surrealists as director Jan Švankmeyer, who created his own cabinet of curiosities. Yet Bartushova did not become part of an overtly dissident or censored movement – which may be one reason why she is not better known in the West. After graduating from art college in Prague, she lived in Kosice in what is now eastern Slovakia and worked within the rules of communist society on public art for schools, playgrounds and a huge socialist non-religious crematorium.
A photo of her sculpture in front of the crematorium in Košice shows a desperate stance of art against death. The vast functional architecture of the crematorium rises like a square hood out of nowhere, engulfing people in its black void. In front is one of Bartushova’s whimsical forms, greatly enlarged: a smiling white fluffy creature. Called Metamorphosis – the title of Kafka’s most famous story about the mystery of existence – it is an image of elemental endurance. Our atoms go on, this colossal core suggests. And this great artist has survived the lost society in which she lived.