Camden Arts Centre, London, UK
Geta Brătescu regularly sets herself boundaries so that she can break them. Pictorial frames have been pushed within her black and white drawings, collages, film and photography of the late 1960s and ’70s, as well as the 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 her 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 sets about a series of prop-aided actions and nonsensical games that conclude 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.
Using games to structure task-based actions and performances was common within the post-Judson diaspora of the 1970s; 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, she eyes the camera, whiting-up with a paintbrush. There’s a Marcel Marceau styling in works of this period: accented face paint, androgynous clothing, 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 fade by persevering with studio practice.
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 darlings in order to seek revenge.
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, 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 play space to draw and defeat limits.
Main image: Geta Brătescu, Towards White (Către alb), 1975, black and white photographs. Courtesy: Collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art Bucharest