Monster That I Am

In the midst of her largest retrospective to date, artist Zdenka Rusova talks about the singular question of her life and work.

Zdenka Rusova. Photo: Kristine Jakobsen.

On the southwest corner of the Alexander Kiellands plass intersection in Oslo sits a modest smorgasbord of international fast-cuisine imports: an Indian restaurant called Gutta fra Calcutta; a fried chicken joint, Dr. Crunchy; and an Italian restaurant, The Italian Job, which I notice as I approach the typical Oslovian red brick building from the thirties. I take a moment to mentally prepare for the potential lost-in-translation tête-à-tête which I have arranged with the august artist Zdenka Rusova, who hails from the Czech Republic (back when it was called Czechoslovakia), and who one could say is another import at Alexander Kiellands plass.

Though it is crude to speak of a woman’s age, it hangs present in my mind that Zdenka’s is almost exactly twice my own; she is eighty years old, a fact that is most likely important to no one except me. But one of the reasons I want to speak to her is to look outside of my own generational echo chamber. My interest was especially piqued by people’s reactions upon mention of her name: one friend’s eyebrows raised and he let out a little “oh” with several quick head nods, followed by a “she’s tough!”; another grew enthusiastic on mentally summoning the kismet encounter. Zdenka’s prolific artistic output spanning over fifty years; her status as an immigrant in notoriously immigrant-shy Norway; her rumoured strong character, which no doubt led her into the position of first female head of Kunstakademiet at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (then Statens Kunstakademi) – to name a few more reasons for my desire to speak to her.

To my delight and pleasure, Zdenka agreed to meet me. Though, as usual, I have gone and complicated things (slime that I am). My Norwegian is atrocious at best, and Zdenka prefers not to speak English. Understandable, considering she grew up under a communist regime that rejected Western influence. She does however speak Norwegian fluently, having immigrated to Norway in the early 70s, and has graciously agreed to speak to me through an interpreter of sorts, her friend Gunhild Varvin, who is also the Head of Marketing and Communications at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, home of Zdenka’s current retrospective.

We’re standing under the archway of Zdenka’s apartment – exactly across Dr. Crunchy – taking cover from the rain. It’s a wretched day, perfect for worms. I walk up to the buzzer panel while Gunhild picks lilacs from a nearby tree (all I brought were croissants). I spot the name “Zdenka/Calmeyer” on the door panel and buzz it. Seconds later, I hear an energetic throaty voice telling us to come in and to the right. We walk through an overhang that leads us to a garden with a natural-rock wall covered with overgrown plants and flowers, and enter a second door. I hear a sprightly tone cascading down the staircase, exclaiming for us to come up.

Her demeanour is warm but direct, her style deliberate and cool. I utter my greeting in Norwegian, and to my surprise she counters me with English. And pretty good at that. She gesticulates arms and finger tips, all involved as she speaks, telling us to come in and that I can keep my shoes on because I am American. She is more taken by the lilacs that need to be put in water than my remark on shoe-etiquette. In the hallway, there are framed photos sprinkled about: portraits of Zdenka, taken for different magazines, snapped during exhibition openings, or taken by friends. In one, she stands with the Norwegian Queen Sonja. I spot two in which she is elegantly and proudly smoking. She is always expressive and in motion, but she can also pull a mean pose with plenty gravitas.

Zdenka Rusovas apartment in Oslo. Photo: Kristine Jakobsen.

Zdenka’s apartment is filled with antiques, everything particularly chosen, walls covered in framed art – her own, and also friends’ – carved oak furniture, a large nineteenth-century textile, and a wall-to-wall bookshelf with everything from artist monographs, to antique bibles and dictionaries, to a Czech translation of the Poetic Edda, a book in which she has torn out and thrown away all of the illustrations, but whose stories she has cherished since childhood.

Her face is lively; rarely have I seen more expressive eyebrows. They are paired with deep brown eyes contrasted by a radiant natural complexion and uninterrupted luminous white hair pinned up in a low chignon. She wears an Issey Miyake-esque woven cotton grey blouse with matching pants – functional, relaxed, and chic. It’s a cool look, albeit, as she tells me later, fashion doesn’t interest her.

Drawn by her animated presence, I have completely forgotten to take out my notebook, which I don’t realise until about ten minutes into conversation. She takes us into her home studio where she has prepared some books for me to gander: exhibition catalogues from the 1970s and 1980s, carefully earmarked with torn pieces of paper delineating her favourite works and important texts. A large square table is covered in pencils, ink-splatter, quills, and photographs of her retrospective, titled Zdenka Rusova – A Norwegian Pioneer. Giant rolls of thick paper sit like columns against the wall. By the window is a boombox and a stack of CDs, mostly classical music, plus one that catches my eye called Nordic Angst.

Zdenka Rusova was born in 1939 in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. “I was born with Hitler and went to school with Stalin,” she says with the directness for which she is known. Her father, Zdeněk, was a “rich peasant,” a hunter and electrician who worked his way up to director of economy for a large electricity company in Prague, and to whom Zdenka likens herself in terms of her own looks and bullheadedness. She remembers him as clever and curious, and tells me of the time when he took apart and put back together their first TV set in the 1960s. She punctuates the image with a simple, “I am papa and papa is me.”

In the living room, where we have taken residence on some low black leather chairs, hangs a large nineteenth-century Austrian textile work which Zdenka tells me hung in her childhood home. Zdenka’s mother, Božena, came from an aristocratic family. She and Zdeněk met in a small village outside of Prague in 1934, fell in love and decided to get married. A few years later, they had Zdenka. Božena, who grew up in an intellectual and creative milieu, possessed her own artistic talents and was educated in pedagogy. During the Nazi occupation, however, she was forced to abandon her teaching, as it was forbidden for married women with children to have paid work outside the home. “She made big sculptures, water colours, and could sing,” Zdenka says, and hurries us into her bedroom to show us a sculpture her mother made, which hangs on the wall next to her bed. It is a tiny ceramic head, a portrait, which fits inside the palm of a hand. It is of her father, Zdeněk. Zdenka says that her mother made “only portrait busts,” and this suddenly compels me to think of the many busts Zdenka herself has made over the years –distorted, dismantled, decapitated.

Božena used to dream about having a girl, and when she did, that girl, around puberty, scared her. “My mother was a typical woman, dreamt of everything, but she did not expect a monster. I am a monster,” Zdenka says with mischief. “I was always treated like an equal, even when I was a child. My mother used to tell me, ‘here are my books, read anything you want, then come to me and let’s talk about it.’ So, from age six I read about everything from detective stories, to poetry, to sex, to politics – everything was available.” Božena encouraged Zdenka to always look for the why, and at around fourteen years of age, a fledgling erudite Zdenka realised that her mother could no longer meet her curiosity, and that she had become somewhat afraid of her daughter. Hence the “monster.”

And it is ultimately this insatiable monster that is at the root of who Zdenka is: an unencumbered curiosity for the why, what, and how, keenly applied to her own degree of self. Her entire oeuvre has been the visual outpouring of this inquiry.

We have moved into the kitchen, upon my request for some coffee. Yes, I know a guest should never impose by asking for libations. But in fear of running late that morning, I had foregone putting any kind of fuel in my body. My blunder, however, is forgiven because, you see, speaking with Zdenka, one becomes as enthused about talking as she is. And I am. We powwow, through Gunhild – with monofocus on the topic at hand at all times – and the three of us need refuelling. Zdenka is sparkling and passionate, and I want to follow her every word. At some point, I take notice that our age gap fades. We are two artists, two monsters, engrossing each other. At moments, I can reach her through my own clumsy English, but mostly through her willingness to communicate.

Zdenka studied art her whole life, which under communism meant classical schooling, including ten years of anatomy studies. Art was obliged to be “positive,” to depict the holy relation between the Land, the State, the Worker, and the Family; artists were not allowed to borrow visual languages from the West. Zdenka followed suit and created work with Socialist Realist motifs, floral still lifes, and nature.

Although her work was generally held in high esteem, when forced to follow such an aesthetic regime, she felt suffocated. Her questioning mind could not suppress the feeling that “everything is a lie, nothing is right.” She even felt unsupported by her own artist peers.

Zdenka Rusova, Trained Dog, 1967. Pen and watercolor, 52,5 × 36 cm. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.

Toward the mid-60s, Zdenka’s work changed. She began to create more abstract compositions in which figures distorted, and animals grew too many legs and defied the laws of nature. Zdenka walks me over to the living room and shows me an untitled work from 1964, a large black print depicting a catlike figure with “incorrect” anatomy, far too elephantine to be perched on a couple of tree branches. It is a perfect example of the period in which Zdenka began to break the rules – a break that would eventually lead to the complete dismantling of the figure: her own. She references the infamous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe, 1929) by René Magritte and says, “Art is not realism, not anatomy, not a pipe. Art is a lie, it is not a cat, it is me.” Abstraction can come from many places, but for Zdenka it was a manifestation of something occurring within herself, a pseudo-conscious act of self-expulsion from the oppressive environment in which she found herself.

As she continued to pursue “the lie of art,” she felt compounding pressure and realised that her work would never thrive in Czechoslovakia. Her art-school teachers encouraged her to leave. The reason, she tells me, was that they had not seen a woman as strong as she in the city “in twenty years.” Staying would mean to never understand “who is me?” As a child and young literate, Zdenka had read the Poetic Edda of Norse mythologies and heroes. Having always known that she would not stay in the place she was born, she began to dream of the place that had given her cherished fantasies during those most impressionable years, a place called Scandinavia.

In 1967, Zdenka’s long-time dream came true. It arrived in the form of a putative rescuer by the name of Ole Henrik Moe, then director of Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, who upon encountering her work was so impressed that he arranged for her to come to Norway on a three-month residency at the print workshop Atelier Nord. The two would not meet until years later.

This charmed event is not at all unique to Zdenka’s story. It seems that for her when the phone rings, opportunity rings with it. This was how she became Dean of the Art Academy of Oslo from 1989–1992, the first woman to hold such a position in all of Scandinavia. She did not apply for it, it was offered to her. Even in those first years in Norway, things sort of fell in her lap: finding an apartment in which to live, being offered exhibitions, and learning Norwegian. She tells me very matter-of-factly, “I realised that when I really want something, it comes.” A monster with a talent for manifestation.

In 1967, Zdenka did her three-month stint in Oslo, then a city of 485,000 and much more geographically peripheral than booming Prague. Regardless, she fell in love with both the city and the country. She continued to Stuttgart, where she studied and lived for three years, only to return to Norway as soon as it was possible. When, in 1970, she finally decided to move for good, she left Czechoslovakia with 300 kroner, a summer dress, and a small briefcase with all her diplomas and legal documents.

Zdenka Rusova, Figures, 1973. Mixed technique on paper, 76,5 × 80 cm. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.

There is now coffee and cookies on the kitchen table, much to the delight of my dwindling insulin levels. We are jumping around in chronology and topic. Zdenka suddenly stands up and with great spirit begins to tell us a story. It’s at the border when she was leaving Czechoslovakia by car, en route to Norway. Crossing borders in Eastern Europe at this time was a large issue. While waiting in line, she saw two Russian women on their way home with big suitcases – she stretches out her arms to show me how big. “The border police spent a lot of time looking through their things,” she says, “and they were harassing them, really giving them a hard time.” “Then it was my turn,” she grabs a paper napkin off the table and folds it in half, turning it into an imaginary passport. The officer let Zdenka through immediately without pause or hesitation. “Three months. Stamp, stamp, stamp,” she concludes her pantomime of the guy. We all laugh, bemused by her feisty recounting. She had chosen that line deliberately, anticipating that the officer would be tired and therefore lax. That was the moment, she reflects, that she knew she was smart and could use it to her advantage.

“I am here to stay here,” Zdenka says, remembering those early days and her determination to make Norway her home. She got by with a little money from her aunt in Germany, and by doing odd jobs like washing floors and sorting newspapers during the night at a printing facility. Through some connections established by Ole Henrik Moe, and other chance encounters, she was able to get an apartment in exchange for cleaning it, and she also began learning Norwegian at the University of Oslo, which she did backwards. Conversationalist that she is, and resolved to learn Norwegian, she enrolled in classes at Oslo University’s Slovak-Baltic department, which did not teach Norwegian language, but rather Slovak literature. Hence, she could read the texts, but not speak in class, as the discussions happened in Norwegian. For Zdenka, it was just a small speed bump on the way towards her larger goal.

“I am ego.” Zdenka, who has barely touched her coffee, begins to speak about herself as a young woman during the Czech years: “I was a woman, but not feminine, although I was pretty. I was egoistic without feelings. Me, me, me. I was a monster.” This later became the fundamental topic in her work, the uncompromising desire to know herself. All her work is she, everything from the amorphous, perched, and multi-limbed cats, to the free-floating breasts and lips, to the severe landscapes of recent years, to the busts with distorted profiles, and the heads floating off bodies, holding on merely by strings: they are all her. She says, “my work is not theoretical, it’s not ideas, it’s only form.”

She walks me to the living room where there is a framed print of a woman’s profile engulfed in red locks of hair that form a mountain-shaped silhouette composed against a mint-blue background. The hair has been compositionally cut, turning it into four chunky red blocks that reveal no internal substance; it is completely flat, only the background protrudes. Outside of the Eastern doctrine, Zdenka was free to cut into her form, to dissect, distort, deconstruct, and reconstruct. “There were no rules, in the North,” she tells me. “I could clip, clip, clip,” she says, making scissor-cutting motions with her hand, and affirms, “in Norway, I found Zdenka.”

Zdenka Rusova, Hair Cut in Two, 1967. Drypoint on paper, 74,5 × 54 cm. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.

So it happens that this summer Zdenka Rusova finds herself at an important milestone: the most comprehensive retrospective of her work to date is on view at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, curated by the museum’s Director Tone Hansen. It also marks her return to the institution that, through the initiative of Ole Henrik Moe, was responsible for her migration to Norway, and to which she has over the years donated a huge number of works.

On visiting the show, one can see the breadth of her work and trace the epochs of self-inquiry, discovery, denial, erasure, and reconciliation of both her person and the work – since the one is also the other. It’s an impressive show of artistic commitment, elegantly hung in chronological clusters. I was totally alone in the galleries when I saw it, one of those lucky instances when one can encounter works unencumbered. More than the landscapes – which Zdenka would say are also self-portraits – and her early figurative work, I liked the work made at the cusp of leaving Czechoslovakia, where the dissolution of the unified form is most clearly amplified. One wall contains a row of framed black-ink prints that are different variations of a woman’s profile with long black hair — the whole picture being mangled. One has a simple slice at the nape of the neck; another has grown a second nose that pokes out of the back of the head; another is almost sliced in two by a sharp blunt crevasse; yet another has a giant hole where the brain would be, only to reveal the off-white textured paper beneath. Her graphic technique of millions of mostly black crosshatch marks, which engage with a limited and deliberate colour palette here and there, is offset by a compositional tendency to interrupt a raw white background with a clear-cut silhouette.

Towards the end of our meeting, we hit a sweet spot. We talk about method and secrets. And, yes, I was hoping for a secret. I suspect that Zdenka, who has been focused on the singular question of her career – “who am I” – for fifty-plus years (longer than I am alive) might have learned something along the way. Slimy creature that I am, I want a shortcut. I am looking for a secret, and if she has one, I want her to tell me.

It comes while she speaks about the few public commissions she has done. An important part of an artist’s method, she says, is “to hone in on what keeps a work alive.” For her, artworks die in the planning stages; planning is a process for dead works. She goes on to say that when she works she just sits down and works, never plans, never sketches. “To sketch is to turn something dead.”

And then the good part comes: how to keep a work alive.

“An idea is something that exists on the surface of the forehead. As an artist, one must move it down into the body.” She tilts her head back slightly, opens her mouth, and with her hand mimes putting something down her throat and into the stomach. I nod. She then adds: “When we talk, when we have a conversation, we build a situation inside ourselves. From this, an inner image arrives. And it builds up. This is not an idea. It does not exist on the surface,” and points to her forehead. The task of an artist is to “get rid of the inner image, expunge it, shit it out.” She continues, “If I can’t get rid of it, I will become a criminal, I will kill.” It suddenly makes sense to me that Zdenka’s talkative personality, her chattiness, her ability for exchange through the uttered word, her skillful gesticulation, and willingness to express, are in themselves productive acts. Talking is productive, and part of her method. Skills and gifts, she tells me, are the ability to canalise these inner images into a picture, to transfer them, and to make room for something new. “Never work from what is already there, take things inside, and reproduce from inside, then it’s alive.”

Zdenka’s mood is still upbeat, her energy undeterred. It is apparent that Zdenka has found Zdenka, but it doesn’t mean the game is over. Perhaps now the aim has become to unfold what comes after the “who is me?”. She points to the washing machine sitting in a closet in the kitchen and says, “I am not a washing machine. Let it do it’s thing, I will do mine.” Zdenka, more than being a monster is just doing her thing.