Ghosts and bones and sinister metamorphoses make Maria Bartuszová an astonishing discovery. This artist who was born in Prague in 1936 and spent most of her adult life in the now defunct state of Czechoslovakia, made wildly experimental art under the nose of the communist authorities, even getting state support for her freakish creations, but with no real links to the western art world. Even now she’s a mystery – the catalogue struggles to tell her life in any but the most perfunctory terms. But her sculpture is as disconcerting as the stories of her Prague forebear Franz Kafka.
Most of the art in Bartuszová’s Tate exhibition is made from 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 started using kids’ party balloons to cast her sculptures. The stretchy shapes of balloons released new kinds of artistic form – inflated and bulging, hollow and egg-like, fleshy and erotic: anything but geometrical or perfect.
The results are weirdly entrancing. You daydream among layers and labyrinths of shattered shells that look like the nest vacated by the creature in Alien. There are landscapes of unbaked doughnuts, white misshapen planets suspended in the air. This is an enchanted, magical art that makes new worlds from slender means. You wish you could touch it, and in fact Bartuszová did make art to be touched: a series of black and white photographs portray workshops with blind and partially sighted children for whom Bartuszová created organic forms that she described as “wheat grains, dew drops and so on”, designed to be explored by hand. The children seem delighted and engrossed as they handle these unexpected objects.
Wheat grains and dew drops – the class for visually impaired children is an insight into how she saw her art. Bartuszová’s curves, splats, spindles and plops are meant to suggest the natural world. She admired early 20th-century artists such as Brâncuşi, Miró and Henry Moore who transformed natural shapes into abstract art. But this modern tradition of “biomorphic abstraction” undergoes a perverse, unhinged rebirth when it’s passed through her balloons. Her organic shapes are disordered and disorientating.
Some of her works wouldn’t be out of place in cabinets of curiosities, those bizarre early museums that brought together exotic corals, ostrich eggs, coconuts and unicorn horns – all of which her art can suggest. One of the most famous was created by the Habsburg emperor Rudolf II at Prague Castle. Bartuszová created a series of geological specimens in the 1980s, using rock and plaster, that would fit right in it. Chunks of stone are pushed apart by expansive growths of white plaster. Like organic eruptions perforating the earth’s mineral fabric, these white forms splinter and segment the stone, their living shapes like worms and eggs fossilised within it.
These freaks of nature subvert the “scientific” Marxist outlook of the Soviet empire that was in its last years when Bartuszová shaped them. Nature in her art is unknowable, untameable, chaotic. Life erupts and shatters like a giant egg that cracks apart under its own weight. This disturbing yet life-affirming vision has a lot in common with such dissident Czechoslovak surrealists as film-maker Jan Švankmajer, who has created his own cabinet of curiosities. Yet Bartuszová didn’t become part of an explicitly dissident or censored movement – which may be one reason she is not more famous in the west. After graduating from art college in Prague she lived in Košice in what is now eastern Slovakia, and worked within the rules of communist society on public art for schools, playgrounds, and a vast socialist non-religious crematorium.
A photograph of her sculpture outside the Košice crematorium shows a desperate stand of art against death. The immense functional architecture of the crematorium looms like a square hood of nothingness swallowing people into its black void. In front is one of Bartuszová’s quirky shapes, hugely enlarged: a smiling white blobby being. Called Metamorphosis – the title of Kafka’s most famous story of the mystery of existence – it’s an image of elemental endurance. Our atoms go on, suggests this colossal nucleus. And this great artist has outlived the lost society in which she lived.