Ján Mathé’s Sculptures
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd April, 2013
Ján Mathé can justifiably lay claim to be Slovakia’s preeminent modern sculptor, though his work is hardly known abroad. Indeed, until tonight he had never been the subject of a solo exhibition outside the borders of the former Czechoslovakia. Alas, he died last June, just days before his 90th birthday, but his widow, Eva, was present at the opening of the exhibition of a wide selection of his works in the impressive ground floor space of the Slovak Embassy in Kensington. Mathé was born in the East Slovakia town of Kosice, which is one of this year’s European Cities of Culture, about which I will soon be writing more. But even if the sculptor was rooted physically in his home location his influences came from the mainstream of European modernism, including Bracusi, Giacometti and Henry Moore. He looked up to the last-mentioned of these as a Master, and was thrilled to be able to visit Moore in his studio on Mathé’s short visit to London in 1977. Some of the finest work in the current exhibition is redolent of Moore’s perceptions of human figures, particularly of women and of family groups. One of Mathé’s most imposing works, Resting Family, sited in a square in Kosice that has been named after him, has echoes of Moore’s figures, such as Draped Seated Woman, or ‘Old Flo’ as we call her in London’s East End. Yet it would be wrong to think of Mathé’s work as purely imitative. He has a distinct artistic voice, in fact, several voices, and his recurring themes of gestation, birth, meditation and companionship are expressed in a clearly personal vocabulary, particularly effective in the medium of bronze. His ability to produce such works during the oppressive period of Communism in Czechoslovakia, when adopting the modes of Soviet Realism was de rigueur for anyone wanting to enjoy official patronage, is a testament to the artist’s fortitude. Nonetheless, it is interesting that during the Communist period, when soulless blocks of offices and flats were being constructed — and which still scar districts of Kosice and Bratislava — the authorities nonetheless insisted that a percentage of the budget for their construction be devoted to Art of some kind. That is no longer the case, but enough of Mathé’s work is on view for his reputation to be secure in his homeland. He deserves to be more widely known. The exhibition at the Slovak Embassy in London — which is open to the public during office hours — will run until 24 May.