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Issue 240

Unveiling Art History’s ‘Back Stages’

At Anca Poterasu Gallery, Bucharest, an exhibition dedicated to a little-known Romanian artist uses re-creation to comprehend those whose life stories are lost to history

BY Louisa Elderton in Exhibition Reviews | 22 NOV 23

One of my most treasured teenage memories is the nightly ritual my sister and I shared. I would lie in the bath, with Marina sitting next to me on a stool, talking of friendship, art, love and loss. These were distilled moments of sisterhood, bound by intimacy and endless curiosity.

Such inquisitive symbiosis also shapes the exhibition ‘Back Stages’, which uncovers the stories of little-known Romanian artist Irène Codréano and her sister Lizica, a dancer. They lived between Bucharest and Paris during the early 20th century, where Irène worked as an assistant to Constantin Brâncuși and Antoine Bourdelle. The show opens with a copy of her bronze sculpture Veșnicie (Eternity, 1937), which depicts the artist and her sister rising back-to-back from shallow water, bodies and hair entangled. Here, however, the replica is covered with a veil to symbolize art-history’s obfuscation of Codréano’s work and the refusal of the National Museum of Art of Romania (MNAR) to loan the original piece for the show.

‘Back Stages’, 2023–24, Anca Poterasu Gallery, Bucharest. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Aurora Király

Having scoured the archives of MNAR and the Centre Pompidou’s Kandinsky Library, the curator – Salzburger Kunstverein director Mirela Baciak, in collaboration with artists Aurora Király and Sophie Thun – found numerous reproductions of Codréano’s photographs, drawings, sketches and letters, but were denied access to the originals on conservation grounds. I. Codréano Archive Box (2023) documents this research, with images of the three women rifling through ring-bound folders, standing at locked gates and even restaging photographs of the sisters – an act of becoming that uses personification to reach for knowledge. Centring the women’s narratives by embodying them, they use re-creation as a strategy in lieu of details lost.

Mirela Baciak, Aurora Király, Sophie Thun, I. Codreano Archive Box, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and the curator; photograph: Aurora Király

Thun’s Backstages 2 (2023), for instance, restages a photograph in which Irène stands holding a black cloth behind Lizica, who is seated. The work speaks to the push and pull between revealing and concealing, to how history controls what is remembered and what is discarded. Backstage 3 (2023) collages images of various sizes, at the centre of which Thun’s silhouette envelops a bronze bust by Codréano. Thun’s process involves cutting negatives and making double or triple exposures in the darkroom; white silhouetted scissors appear alongside her hands, fingers splayed as knife-edges. Images show her lying atop her own body in bed, kneeling behind herself on all fours or sitting with herself in a tiled bath ­– reminiscent of photojournalist Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub, a mode of provocation through re-contextualisation. Yet, the libidinal overtones of such imbrication are rendered neutral as Thun gazes into the lens, this construct suggesting, instead, the pursuit of closeness, interiority and understanding.

‘Back Stages’, 2023–24, Anca Poterasu Gallery, Bucharest. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Aurora Király

Király’s HD video Larva, chrysalis, butterfly (2023) proposes another bodily transformation. It depicts Codréano’s works nestled in storage at MNAR, overlaid text describing ‘distinctive body segments, the transition from larva to chrysalis to butterfly’. Király wears a cape, onto which she has sketched Codréano’s sculptures and drawings: two women leaning against one another; a sphinx; reclining nudes; a mermaid; a bird in flight. Király flaps the cape’s wings, leaping into the air to activate Codréano’s oeuvre within the staid storage unit, inflecting energy and life into what is otherwise cloaked.

Mirela Baciak, Dear Irina, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the curator; photograph: Aurora Király

Such metamorphosis defines this show, which uses tactics of layering, restaging, uncovering and becoming to unveil what history has excluded. Baciak’s letter to Codréano, Dear Irena (2023), pinned to the wall as an unframed sheet of paper, says it best. ‘You paved our way,’ it reads, ‘[and] inspired us to see ourselves reflected in the mirror of your history.’ The relationality of sisterhood, and the intimacy of such relationships, becomes a methodology to navigate the muddy waters of both the self and of mislaid legacies: those obscured by institutions that limit the viable future of Codréano’s past.

‘Back Stages’ is on view at Anca Poterasu Gallery, Bucharest, until January 13, 2024

 Louisa Elderton is a Berlin-based writer and editor. She is currently the Managing Editor of ICI Berlin Press, and was formerly the Curatorial Editor at Gropius Bau and Editor-in-Chief of Side Magazine at Bergen Assembly.