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.
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.
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