Geta Brătescu

Camden Arts Centre, London, UK

Geta Brătescu regularly sets herself boundaries so that she can break them. Pictorial frames have been consistently challenged within her black and white drawings, collages, films and photographs of the late 1960s and ’70s, as well as in her more colourful and theatrical collages from the 1980s onwards.

‘The Studio: A Tireless, Ongoing Space’ is the Romanian nonagenarian’s first institutional solo exhibition in London. Its centrepiece, The Studio (1978), is a silent black and white film, shot by the artist’s collaborator Ion Grigorescu. It records Brătescu in her workspace as she wakes up, moves onto a white stage, draws a large frame around herself and undertakes a series of prop-aided actions and nonsensical games that concludes with her conversing with an imaginary friend-cum-folded stool. Her studio is a world of invention and an invented world: theatre, refuge, ally and proxy.

07_le_theatre_des_formes.jpg

Geta Brătescu , Le Théatre des Formes, 2011, collage on paper, 6 parts. Courtesy: the artist, Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and Barbara Weiss, Berlin; photograph: Stefan Sava 

Geta Brătescu , Le Theatre des Formes, 2011, collage on paper, 6 parts. Courtesy: the artist, Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and Barbara Weiss, Berlin; photograph: Stefan Sava 

Using games to structure task-based actions and performances was common in 1970s post-Judson circles; however, Brătescu was implementing these strategies in the far more restrictive and controlling realpolitik of communist Bucharest. Although there is no explicit reference to this context in the documentation on display, there is a pervasive sense here of the studio as an extension of Brătescu’s being: a space that (like her own body) is somehow always under threat of repossession. 

Towards White (1975) shows nine sequential photographs of Brătescu dressing herself and her studio in large sheets of white paper until, in the final shot, eyeing the camera, she whites-up with a paintbrush. There’s a Marcel Marceau styling in works of this period: accented face paint, androgynous clothing and overstated hand positions, which emphasize white female self-representation as a mode of performance.

Other works in this trio are displayed alongside. From Black to White (1976) begins as a white canvas leaning against the wall. Extending across the floor from its frame’s lower margin are several metres of carefully collaged grey fabric darkening to black. Nearby, hangs Self-Portrait Towards White (1975), seven shots of Brătescu’s face covered by a sheet of plastic and gradually obscured as light effects play over it. After a state-spoiled attempt at becoming an artist in the late 1940s, Brătescu worked as an editor and illustrator before returning to art education in the late 1960s, finding a studio and a peer group, in the Romanian Artists’ Union. These various gradations from black to white and white to black read as the articulation of a fear of erasure and the constant will to counteract that by persevering with her studio practice. 

10_vestiges.jpg

Geta Brătescu, Vestiges (Vestigii), 1978. Courtesy: Luisa Malzoni Strina Collection

Geta Brătescu, Vestiges (Vestigii), 1978. Courtesy: Luisa Malzoni Strina Collection

Anxiety permeates the standout Medea’s Ten Hypostases, No. IX (1980), labelled ‘coloured drawing with a sewing machine on textile’ – a work that deserves a place among the most tenebrous and affecting portraits of all time. Brătescu uses black thread to boldly contour a human head inside which coloured threads seem to represent the raging, complex and contradictory impulses that drove this mythological woman to kill her children in order to avenge her husband’s betrayal.

Pacing back and forth to understand Brătescu’s progress over time (despite Camden’s considered but sometimes frustratingly a-chronological hang), I was reminded of Maria Lassnig’s recent solo show at Hauser & Wirth. As in Lassnig’s painted portraits, here we witness the tussle between interior and exterior life as it is manifested in different phases of work: the body, at points, abandoned through abstraction or distorted within other anthropomorphic forms and, at other times, taken up wholly, figuratively and fully frontal. Brătescu understands the image not as a conduit or commodity but as a site of action, a space in which to play, drawing and defeating limits.

Main image: Geta Brătescu, Towards White (Către alb), 1975, black and white photographs. Courtesy: Collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art Bucharest 

Isobel Harbison is a critic and curator based in London.

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June – August 2017

Most Read

Remembering the pioneering composer, visionary thinker, multimedia artist and techno-utopian, who died in May
Jennifer Piejko's guide to the best current shows in LA
Ei Arakawa work stolen from Skulptur Projekte Münster; Richard Mosse arrested; three men charged over counterfeit...
Joyce Pensato, Landscape Mickey, 2017. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London
Lisson Gallery, London, UK
Coinciding with Refugee Week, and her film Hear Her Singing screening at the Southbank Centre, the artist shares some...
Gilda Williams visits the first edition of the ARoS Triennial in Aarhus, Denmark
The Haitian Revolution as a lesson in corporate leadership and meeting the 'prophet of the Anthropocene': what to read...
Creative Time launches series of protest flags; photographer Khadija Saye reported as a victim of London's Grenfell...
A recent retrospective at the Museo Ettore Fico in Turin establishes the overlooked importance of a ‘total artist’
The third edition of the London performance festival makes the case for collective action in an age of political...
A past winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize, Zoe Pilger on the books and experiences that have influenced her as a writer
A guide to the best projects included in Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017
For the first in a series of our editors’ initial impressions from documenta 14 Kassel, Pablo Larios on the Neue...
Art sees itself as facing a crisis of legitimation – can this account for claims to 'authenticity' being made in shows...

An interview with the late artist on the unique classification system he devised to organize his books
The independent curator on 25 years in the arts

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017