Art-historian Benedict Read reviews Women Sculptors: A Selection of Significant Czech and Slovak Sculptors at the Slovak National Gallery.
This was an excellent exhibition in virtually every way. It was informative because it was well displayed and well arranged. It was not simplistically chronological which it could have been, it managed to engage and stimulate the viewer through its superb handling of the considerable material involved.
The first gallery one entered concentrated on the portrait bust. The curators suggested this because it had always been thought from the beginning of the twentieth century this was all a woman sculptor was capable of handling, somehow a domestic, personalised work, almost like a dress one might make at home. There was an excellent array from throughout the century, Czech and Slovak, climaxing in a screen at the end containing ten busts by Vlasta Prachatická, born in 1929 and one of only two artists shown out of sixteen still alive (fig.1). She is a Czech artist, and this is the first exhibition, we are told, of her work in Slovakia. It is striking, varied – and does include a portrait bust of Francis Bacon (fig.2)!
A subsequent gallery contains a selection of coloured ceramics. It is very much suggested that this is a specifically female art, with handicrafts as hobbies traditionally understood as part of the world of women. One feels this is only partly true. There is a widespread, gender-free twentieth-century tradition in Central Europe of modelled and painted ceramics, and one need only walk into the centre of Bratislava to the Metske Museum’s Arthur Fleischmann Museum to find life-size non-domestic painted religious ceramic statuary of 1930.
An excellent feature of the exhibition was the way in which, particularly in the chronologically later thematic galleries where space or other reasons prevented the showing of public works archive photographs appeared either on the walls or in the superb catalogue. Clara Pataki’s Monument to the Victims of Fascism (1959-60) appeared both as bronze model in the exhibition and as whole page colour plate in the catalogue (p. 96, fig.3), with a double page colour spread of her studio two pages later.
Less fortunate was Eva Kmentovà’s group of 5 large egg shapes in marble and bronze. Originally located in the Courtyard of the International Union of Students in Prague, they are now recorded as ‘Missing’(fig.4). In conversation with local interested parties, it would appear Slovakia is in dire need not just of government sympathy for conservation of public art, but in particular for a Slovakian PMSA. I joke not – Slovakian public sculpture over the limited years since Czechoslovak and Slovak independence has reflected a huge diversity of political styles and so has inherited a potentially destructive minefield of tastes.
There were further defined stylisations in the exhibition, each with its separate section. One was labelled ‘Nature = Woman’, analogous to what one is familiar with elsewhere in Europe early in the twentieth century, essentially biomorphic forms, but not in the least simply pastiche, more variations of similar ideologies. The pioneering figure in this was Hana Wichterlová (1903-1990), described variously as ‘the first lady of Czech sculpture’ and ‘one of the most distinctive figures of the Czech interwar avant-garde’. Her work of the 1920s and 1930s, either illustrated or exhibited, can stand muster with Arp or Hepworth – see Torzo s vázou (Materstvo) 1928 or Pupen 1932. Jadro 1976 showed she was still at it forty years later.
It was a joy to meet the work of ‘The Iron Ladies’ of the 1960s! Erna Masarovičová (1926-2008), who spent most of her life in Bratislava, became a welder and there is a catalogue illustration of her substantial exterior piece Vtáci of 1965, as well as what look like sheet metal pieces of the same period (fig.5). There is a suggestion that during ‘Normalization’ such a style fell out of favour for women artists, but they seem to have adapted – Masarovičovà turning to a form of steel and aluminium tapestries. There is a fine maquette by Alina Ferdinandy for a monument to Ivan Kraska of 1965, labelled Nox et Solitudo II; the maquette consists of a gathering of abstract welded bronze and brass rods, with a photograph in the catalogue (p. 84) showing the artist looking very happy with a group of children next to the external substantial finished work.
The curator of the exhibition is Vladimíra Büngerová, who worked with architect Patrik Kovačovský on the installation. The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent 160 page catalogue edited by Büngerovà with the assistance L’uba Belohradská and Alexandra Kusá. It contains a full historical text by Büngerovà followed by brief illustrated sections on each of the 16 artists in the exhibition, biographical details on them and a discussion between Büngerová and the theoretical art historian L’uba Belohradskà. It has to be admitted only two of these pages are in English, with a brief summary of the exhibition’s aims. But the immense value of the published catalogue to the non-Slovak reader is the illustrations, not just of the works exhibited but an accompanying dazzling array of archival photography which make the volume a real tribute to the heroic artists involved as well as to Vladimíra Büngerovà the curator.
Main image: Klára Pataki modelling the statue for The Monument to the Victims of Nazi Atrocity in the Village of Nemecká, 1959 (photo: TASR, Bratislava)
Sochárky – výber osobností česko-slovenského sochárstva/Women Sculptors: A Selection of Significant Czech and Slovak Sculptors
Slovak National Gallery, Esterházy Palace, Bratislava, 10 April – 9 August 2015