Of the three artists currently showing at Hauser & Wirth it is fair to assume that Geta Brătescu, the 92 year-old Romanian Conceptualist, is the least familiar to American audiences. Though her work has neither the heady bombast of Mark Bradford’s paintings nor the sinewy lyricism of Louise Bourgeois’ work, Brătescu brings her curiosity and playfulness to an encyclopedic body of work that spans seven decades. Her drawings, films, performances, animations, collages, and sculptures defy a single descriptor as they are based on her wide-ranging visual and literary interests and vary according to the medium but what Brătescu seeks to address in all of her work is the idea of transformation and multiplicity, especially in relationship to the role of the artist. While the exhibit will undoubtedly invite comparisons to Louise Bourgeois’ work because they were both active at the same time and because each gained recognition in a male dominated field, they have very different sensibilities. Where Bourgeois is so poetically expressive about her interior life through paintings, text and sculptures, Brătescu chooses conceptual and experimental genres to create imaginative narratives, her literary references and studio almost always present. Hauser & Wirth provides an opportunity to contrast both artists while introducing a new voice, albeit one that has flourished outside of our orbit for some time.
Brătescu was born in Romania in 1926 and studied literature and art in Bucharest. In 1950 the Communists expelled her from the Bucharest Academy of Fine Arts when it was deemed that her family’s fortunes were too bourgeois. Upon leaving the Academy she found work as a commercial artist, displaying perseverance during the repressive regime. From 1950 to 1970 she worked as an illustrator and designer until she was able to return to her studies. During her forced hiatus she was also artistic director of a well-known art and literary magazine, Secolul 20 (Twentieth Century), a position she maintained for many decades. In 1957 she was able to join the Romanian Artists’ Union that granted studios and allowed members to exhibit their work within the strict guidelines of the communist government. During this time Brătescu had some commissions through the union but she also used mythology and symbols in her own work as a way to circumvent censorship and politics. Playing with multiple interpretations allowed her the freedom to express herself, but it was a method that naturally suited her anyway.
Eu si pasărea Bird (Myself and the Bird Bird), details. © Geta Brătescu. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
In her writings Brătescu acknowledges many influences, from Camil Ressu, the noted draftsman in Romania who was her teacher at The Bucharest Academy of Fine Arts, to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, for the way he delineated form through precision and how his drawings inferred possibilities. Repeatedly she mentions her attraction to work that implies alternatives. Another influence she credits is Romanian textiles. Her beautiful “sewn” drawings made on fabrics with a sewing machine hark back to the familiar folk art. For Brătescu, drawing is everything. Her own drawings range in technique from loose and comic to graphic, depending on her subject but her lifelong attachment to drawing is apparent in both her works on paper and her films.
In The Leaps of Aesop, the drawings stand out as some of her most expressive work. Her figurative drawings are earthy, simple and whimsical. Using Aesop as her inspiration (she makes a distinction between the writer and the fables) Brătescu imagines the author as an irreverent trickster, someone that she not only identifies with but has also embodied throughout her artistic life. In Esop (Aesop) Drawings Book, made in 1967, twenty drawings created with black markers on tracing paper line up in two horizontal rows. The characters, mostly male and female, are rendered in simple, fluid outlines engaged in acrobatic, almost Dionysian activities but everything is open to interpretation. In style they call to mind the wire figures in Calder’s Circus, existing between line and form. She has said of the circus that it is the most complex form of art because of its movement, risk, expressiveness and humor. Her attraction to these elements perhaps explains her fascination with Aesop. A wall text by Brătescu at Hauser & Wirth describes her interest:
“Aesop does not abandon me, but with astonishing leaps he flusters my mind. I have great difficulties when it comes to myself. I cannot prevent myself from translating the Aesopian world into images, as well as into words, into music, and above all into dance. This scatteredness, although profitable up to a point, endangers work in my own material. The world of Aesop rejects limits, the boundaries between genres. It is a total world, perfectly free. It can be mistaken for nature; it is nature. I feel overwhelmed.
Detail images from Nastratin Hogea (Nasreddin Hodja). 1974. 3 of 21 parts. © Geta Brătescu. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Aesop slipped inside the studio; a leap, then another. He tumbles, advances, stumbles, straightens up, stretches, stomps, rises, quivers, vanishes –(drawing. Corporeal progress through space.) ”
Similar drawings include poetic texts and an additional series entitled, Desen cu ochii inchisi (Drawing with Eyes Closed) that appear like theatrical vignettes with players ranging from actors to acrobats. The figures, drawn without looking, are archetypal, even in their crude execution. Is Brătescu committing form to memory, or is it the other way around? Brătescu states, “To draw with the eyes closed means on the one hand to invite chance, and on the other, to challenge it. It is precisely this double relation to the haphazard that reinforces the playful nature of this experience.” Another drawing series, Ironisme de Atelier (Ironism of the Studio) and Elegii fizionomice- Desenete provoaca textul (Physiological Elegies-drawings with responsive poetic text), both made in 2004 wonderfully capture her cast of characters with minimal details, the only embellishments being her expressive line work and melancholy poetry.
Throughout Geta Brătescu’s life her studio played a prominent role in her artwork and was as important to her creativity as the act of drawing. Whether it was a studio at the Academy, a rented stage or the one at home in her mother’s former bedroom, she always found sanctuary in her studio. For one thing, it afforded privacy that allowed her to work. During Nicolae Ceausescu’s tenure it was a necessity because there were scant freedom for public expression. She could not perform in public, but she could film herself without an audience. In a conversation with Christophe Cherix in Bucharest in May 2012, she exclaims, “The studio is myself”. In her 1978 silent film, Atelierul (The Studio), filmed in 8mm by Ion Grigorescu, Brătescu features herself within the studio, drawing and dancing in her hallowed space. The studio is the subject as much as the location. The camera explores the studio until it locates the artist, asleep on a cot. She arises to draw, marking her height on paper to create an implied space based on her proportions. Within this drawn space she plays and performs, at one point hiding her head under her smock while she continues to perform without being able to see. She becomes a magician or a shaman and her rituals are really the act of creation.
Despite the exciting discovery of Brătescu’s talent, there is unevenness to The Leaps of Aesop. Partially this is due to the inclusion of recent work in Jocul Formelor (Game of Forms) that is less personal and engaging than her earlier work but the exhibit is also weakened by the installation. Her show suffers particularly next to the oversized paintings by Bradford and Bourgeois that amply activate their galleries. Brătescu’s work is intimate and mostly small scale and the works on paper that line the walls get lost in the large spaces. Most of these works are dwarfed and diluted by the “white box” and one has to make an effort to get the intimate connection Brătescu’s art proffers. Her film succeeds in comparison, as the viewer is enveloped in the darkness but one wishes to be enveloped in all her work equally.
In the end there is much delight to be discovered in the work of Geta Brătescu. She is an example of the tremendous resiliency of the artistic spirit and her art is a testament to her profound curiosity and respect for the creative process. In these highly charged politicized times, there is comfort in finding an artist who found a way to continually make her art despite the constraints politics imposed upon her. Looking inward but finding inspiration from Greek mythology to Charlie Chaplin, Geta Brătescu has forged a lifetime of creative pursuits that elevates the act of inquiry and play. If the stories that we tell define our lives she is an artist who has conjured up a fantastic tale and we are grateful she shared her imaginative world with us.
Featured Image: Eu si pasărea Bird (Myself and the Bird Bird). © Geta Brătescu. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Lorraine Heitzman is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written about the local arts community for ArtCricketLA and Armseye Magazine and is currently a regular contributor to Art and Cake. In addition to exhibiting her art, Ms. Heitzman has her own blog, countingknuckles.com, and her art can be seen on her website lorraineheitzman.com