Geta Brătescu

Our feature on the Romanian pioneer representing her country at this year's Venice Biennale

By Helen Sumpter

Linia, 2014, HD video, 14'50 Self-Portrait in the Mirror, 1985, photography, wood, tempera on mirror, textiles, pins, 41 × 32 × 12 cm. Courtesy the artist and Ivan Gallery, Romania Geta Bratescu in her Bucharest studio, April 2015. Photo: Ștefan Sava The Studio, 1978, 8mm film transferred to dvd, b/w. Camera: Ion Grigorescu. Courtesy the artist and Ivan Gallery, Romania The Studio, 1978, 8mm film transferred to dvd, b/w. Camera: Ion Grigorescu. Courtesy the artist and Ivan Gallery, Romania Hypostasis of Medea IX, 1980. Hauser & Wirth Collection, Switzerland. Photo: Stefan Altenburger. Courtesy the artist and Ivan Gallery, Romania

It’s nearing the end of April, two weeks before Geta Brătescu’s eighty-ninth birthday, and the artist is sitting at a desk in her studio, a large room full of her books and artworks in her family house in Bucharest. It’s where she comes to work each day, surrounded by pots of pens and pencils, scissors, paper and glue. She’s showing me her latest small collages, each comprising two or three almost-abutting shapes, cut out freehand with scissors from thin pink or black card and placed on a white background. As she carefully lays six or seven of them down on the desk, as if dealing a hand of cards, the visual dialogue created by the elegant and precisely placed compositions of shapes and the high-contrast colours comes alive. They’re part of the artist’s ongoing series Jeu des Formes (Game of Forms), a body of works begun in 2009, in which the colours and shapes vary but the playful relationship between the elements is a continuous one.

The collages are to be part of an exhibition of Brătescu’s work that opens at the end of this month at Tate Liverpool: a selected showcase of drawings, collage, film, textiles and prints dating from 1960 to the present, and the Romanian artist’s first institutional UK solo show. Brătescu has exhibited throughout her career, including at Venice in 1960 and the São Paulo Bienal twice during the 1980s. It’s only relatively recently, however, that she has begun fully to be acknowledged internationally, not only as one of Romania’s foremost experimental postwar artists, but as a singular conceptual thinker, weaving mythical and literary references into creative expressive narrative and abstract works that also reflect aspects of everyday life. She had a solo show at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive last summer and an exhibition at Inhotim in Brazil last September. Alongside Ivan Gallery in Bucharest she also shows at Barbara Weiss in Berlin. Concurrent with the show at Tate she will have work in this year’s Vienna Biennale and a major show at the Hamburger Kunsthalle next spring. She created much of this work under Romania’s communist regime, when, especially during the 1980s and the latter more repressive half of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship (1965–89), documenting daily life and painting portraits of the leader were the only acceptable activities for artists.

she chose neither to be a political artist in resistance to the state or to submit to being a state artist painting homages to Ceaușescu, but found ways both to placate the state and to make her own work

Collage may be Brătescu’s current medium, but as the Tate show seeks to demonstrate, she has expressed her ideas just as effectively through performing in her own short films and photographs, through sculpture, etchings, textiles, tapestries, illustration, travel journals and writing about her thoughts and ideas. And underpinning all of her work is the very physical activity of drawing. “Drawing is about any movement, or a series of movements within a space. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s two- or three-dimensional space,” she says, via translation by her Bucharest gallerist and friend, Marian Ivan.

Brătescu has often placed herself in her work. In the absence of life models, she drew her own hands. In the 1977 film Hands (For the Eye, the Hand of My Body Draws My Portrait) (watch here), filmed by fellow artist Ion Grigorescu, Brătescu’s hands act as expressive characters in their own narratives. Her hands are just as expressive as she talks now. Although she collaborated on films with other artists, the family and the studio rather than her peers have been her support. Her husband Mihai was behind the camera in works such as Self-Portrait, Toward White (1975), in which the artist’s face is shown in a series of seven black-and-white photographs, in each image her features becoming increasingly faint and obscured by clear plastic, until they disappear completely. A transition from presence to absence, from black to white, is a repeated motif.

When Brătescu retires to another part of the house to rest – she’s been suffering from a cold and hasn’t yet fully recovered – I take the opportunity for a more focused look around her studio. The artist has worked here since the 1990s; before that, it was her mother’s bedroom. For her the studio is not only a place for current work and a repository for past works – sketchbooks are piled high, drawers are filled with works on paper and artist books, drawings and sculptural assemblages cover the walls – it’s also a space that is highly significant to her work, as subject, as private stage and often as an interchangeable stand-in for the artist herself. ‘The studio is myself’ is an oft-quoted statement of hers.

In 1978 (the 1970s being Brătescu’s most experimental decade), she made the short film Atelierul (The Studio), again with fellow artist Grigorescu behind the camera, which encompasses many of her interests – theatricality, narrative, performance as drawing and a certain slapstick sensibility. Storyboarded by Brătescu into three sequences, the film shows the artist becoming an actor; emerging from sleep, drawing a rectangle within the space, measured and scaled by the limits of her own body and interacting with various domestic objects and props, not only foregrounding the relationship between her physical space and her studio space but also creating a narrative within a domestic, imaginary interior world.

Brătescu was born in 1926 in the city of Ploiești, 60km north of Bucharest, to self-made middle-class parents (her father was a pharmacist) who encouraged their daughter’s talent for writing and drawing. She enrolled in both subjects, but her studies were cut short in 1949 when her drawings came under scrutiny from the authorities: she was expelled from art school under legislation that set out to ‘cleanse’ institutions of teachers and students whose background was deemed unsuitably bourgeois. Although she later completed her education (between 1969 and 71), one of the many things that makes Brătescu interesting is that she chose neither to be a political artist in resistance to the state or to submit to being a state artist painting homages to Ceaușescu, but found ways both to placate the state and to make her own work.

Being an artist means being a receptacle in which the chemistry that transforms experience into expression takes place

When she returns from her rest we pick up at this early point in her career during the 1950s when, after her studies were curtailed, she was combining her drawing skills and literary interests to work as an illustrator and a graphic designer, eventually becoming art director of cultural magazine Secolul 20 (Twentieth Century, now Secolul 21), an association that she maintains, as designer, to this day. Although the magazine was financed by the Ministry of Culture, the state’s more liberal desire at that time to showcase its culture to the world allowed for a certain amount of creative freedom, of which Brătescu took full advantage, producing expressive illustrations, including a series to accompany a translation of Goethe’s Faust (1808) – another important reference in her work. In 1957 she also became a member of the Union of Visual Artists (UAP), who oversaw the only officially sanctioned exhibition spaces, taking similar advantage of opportunities to study and learn when she was duly sent to document construction sites, factories and peasant workers. She shows me a book of these early drawings, skilful and expressive depictions of peasants at a wedding and workers feeding fuel into the round openings of furnaces. “It was a great experience, very interesting to be able to draw from life in these places,” she says. In later decades, that experience resurfaced in more conceptual work. During the 1980s the circular opening of the furnaces became a containing motif for several series of beautifully composed abstracts that combine textile, fabric and drawing, among them Vestigii (Vestiges, 1982), the second of two series with that title, and Regula cercului, regula jocului (The Rule of the Circle, the Rule of the Game, 1985).

Another subject that Brătescu has revisited many times is the Greek mythological character Medea, creating semiabstracted profile portraits in textile and lithographic print. Aesop, too, has been a focus in Brătescu’s work. I ask her why she’s attracted to mythological literary figures: “They interest me because they are very complex, and don’t fit into the romantic notion of what a good character should be.” She won’t be drawn on whether she sees anything of herself in that role, but when reminded that Aesop has a tragic end, she’s quick to reply, not without wry humour, that “all of us have a tragic destiny”.

Brătescu has always denied any political agenda, but it can be read in her work nevertheless, albeit in coded form: in the constraints of the circles, the containment of the studio and the erasure and masking of identity in the photographic and film works. She has similarly denied a feminist agenda. When asked about her use of textile scraps, many of which came from her mother’s fabric collection, she reminds me that most tailors are men, but in her interest in strong but conflicted female figures such as Medea, and the use of herself as the central character and performer in her work, a desire to reflect something of the female experience isn’t totally absent either.

Despite having travelled when she had the opportunity – among her published writings are the travel journal De la Veneţia la Veneţia (From Venice to Venice) (1970), the result of a trip to Italy in the mid-1960s, during which she soaked up and recorded her impressions of the country’s culture – Brătescu has lived only in Bucharest, drawing from and processing her own internal experiences within her immediate surroundings, as she continues to do to this day. As she has said in other writings (an activity that has also remained constant throughout her life, although only some of the results are currently available in translation): ‘But what does being an artist mean? Being an artist means being a receptacle in which the chemistry that transforms experience into expression takes place.’

Having been given a retrospective at Bucharest’s National Museum of Art in 1999 and the National Award for Visual Arts in 2008, Brătescu has been validated by the Romanian art establishment; still, I’m curious as to her standing among younger artists. My visit coincides with Bucharest’s annual White Night of the Galleries, when the city’s exhibition and project spaces stay open into the small hours. When I ask various twenty- and thirty-something artists about Brătescu, the responses are the same, that she’s a great and important artist. And I have to agree, not only for her ability to continually invent and adapt across different media but also in making work that can appear humble, playful or heroic but always expresses humanity.

Now that Brătescu seldom leaves the house, the central role of her studio is even more important. But with her cutout collages, just as in her earlier years, she has found a way to work with rather than against restrictions. I’m reminded, inevitably, of Matisse – someone Brătescu admires (there’s a postcard of a Matisse Blue Nude among the many images in her studio) – who also chose cutout collages as a medium when he was no longer able to paint, as much as I’m reminded of other singular female artists like Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama, who achieved their greatest recognition later in life.

When I ask Brătescu what the difference between being a young artist and an older one feels like for her, she considers the question carefully, but the answer, when it comes, is an emphatic one. “It’s much easier now. I have more freedom to simply enjoy the movement of the hand”, she says with a flourish, “and to be playful, like a dance.”

This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue.  

Geta Brătescu: Invocation of the Drawing continues through 5 December 2015 at Ivan Gallery, Bucharest