Maria Bartuszová (1936 – 1996) dedicated her artistic pursuit to exploring the relationships between people, nature, matter and form. Born in Prague, she defined sculpture on her own terms. From raindrops and eggs to the human body, Bartuszová drew inspiration from organic structures and cycles.
Bartuszová’s abstract castings use fleeting liquid processes to create simultaneously solid and delicate artworks. Her touch left traces, whether pressed by hand, poured and formed by gravity and water, or shaped by her breath using her radial technique with inflated balloons. Bartuszová drew on her personal experience and ideas of spirituality, interconnectedness, and the cycles of the seasons; creating a new vocabulary that focused on the continuous transformation of forms.
In the 60s and 70s Bartuszová repurposed small rubber balloons and condoms to cast her sculptures, often submerging the pieces in water while working. She called this process ‘gravistimulated shaping’. The early works from this method evoke natural living forms such as dew drops and wheat grains.
In the 80s she arrived at a new practice of plaster shaping, which she termed ‘pneumatic casting’. This involved blowing into large meterological balloons and pouring plaster over their surface, combining the effects of gravity, air pressure and touch in the process. This allowed her to create empty, negative volumes and ever more fragile, delicate shapes such as shells and eggs. Bartuszová later embraced destruction and impermanence through large shell-reliefs and ephemeral works in nature.
“Angular, sharp, inorganic shapes give the impression of coldness; rounded, organic shapes appear warm and, when touched, can create the feeling of a gentle caress – maybe even an erotic embrace.” The full and ample shapes of her early works from the 60s burst with life, sprouting multiple forms. She described them as “germination, cellular division, or cells touching.”
Bartuszová wanted to evoke emotional behaviours through her sculptures, guided by intuition, play, therapy, and meditation, she created multi-part objects to be touched and assembled as a puzzle or ‘folder’. They were used in expressive workshops for blind and partially-sighted children; small, palpable and tactile, they acted as prompts to develop aesthetic imagination. While Bartuszová’s primary medium was plaster, she re-cast some of them in either bronze or aluminium. For a short period, she also experimented with a more geometric language combined with organic forms in a series of aluminium reliefs.
From the 80s, Bartuszová would use her pneumatic shaping techniques to create solid casts of inflated rubber before allowing them to burst. The pressure of the balloons created disintegrated shell and egg-like structures. An outer shell frames an empty core, signalling a place of refuge and rebirth. Bartuszová placed these pieces within one another, layering them to create “endless eggs”, as an expression of living processes, spiritual growth, vulnerability, time and eternity.
Bartuszová further developed her ideas after moving to a house in Košice, complete with studio and hillside views. Her art opened up to nature and she used the surrounding space to install her objects in works such as Tree. For Bartuszová, her home studio was an on-going communion with life, and a spiritual and contemplative retreat.
As with many Czechoslovak artists living under a totalitarian regime in the 70s, she sought sanctuary in the mystery of her inner life. Her library contained books on Chinese and Japanese art and culture, east Asian philosophy including Taoism and Buddhism, and samizdats (a form of self-publishing used to circulate censored material in the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc countries) on Zen Buddhism. She took great interest in the relationships between scientific theories and ancient traditions, reading literature on psychoanalysis, social psychology and living systems.
From the end of the 70s, this reflective work became increasingly personal and focused on existential questions, particularly with regards to the emotional challenges within her marriage. Nature gave Bartuszová a setting for therapeutic and meditative breathing-space, which she found in the exploration of the senses.
This inspired her to create Melting Snow, into which she inserted living and inanimate natural substances, such as stones and tree branches. Certain works from this period take the shape of tied-up, bound and compressed forms. For Bartuszová, this symbolised the oppressive bonds and constraints of human relationships.
Every living organism forms relationships with its environment. Bartuszová expressed the ways in which personal and familial relationships were interconnected with nature, art and culture. “The constraints that limit the possibilities of living things – and the stresses that undermine what is alive and already restricted by its lifespan.”
She integrated social and ecological themes with her knowledge of science and philosophy. These expressed relationships as a trace of a moment, captured in matter, in a tactile format. Her work is not a rational reduction of natural forms, but a realisation of her thinking through sensual shapes, and extended research through sculptural practice.
Throughout the 80s she elaborated on her themes of binding and pressure, incorporating string, bronze, rubber and wood to form contrasts between dominant and submissive structures. Only a handful of exhibitions took place during her lifetime, and after being released from her dysfunctional marriage in 1984, she directed her energy and efforts into a solo exhibition in 1988. During this particularly active period she created some of her most poignant and technically complex works. These included bound and endless eggs, eggshell objects and reliefs, large minimalist reliefs and site-specific installations.
The ban on abstract art increased its importance. As well as inter-personal struggles, her pieces bore the influences of totalitarian anxieties and Cold War tensions. Bartuszová was able to work as a professional artist through her membership with the artists union. Although these artists were dependent on the state, Bartuszová worked on commissions even if they did not have an ideological purpose.
Bartuszová made significant commitments to public projects as a counterpoint to her studio practice. Throughout her career, she took on official state-funded commissions for buildings, monuments, playgrounds, fountains and sculptures in public spaces. These projects provided a vital source of income, but also the opportunity to realise her ideas on a monumental scale.