In Geta Brătescu’s ‘The Leaps of Aesop’, the 91-year-old artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, the titular Greek storyteller appears in two of the earliest works, both from 1967: Aesop Drawings Book, a publication of 20 line drawings that cross surrealist automatism with archaic pictographs, and Aesop’s Walk, an enchanting hand-drawn animation illustrating scenes from the life of the legendary fabulist accompanied by a vitrine containing the artist’s original acetate cells. For Brătescu, who was the art director of the Romanian literary magazine Secolul 20 for decades, literature has been an important point of reference. In a quote on the wall above the Aesop drawings, Brătescu writes: ‘The world of Aesop rejects limits, the boundaries between genres. It is a total world, perfectly free.’
‘The Leaps of Aesop’ brings together some 50 works from the late 1960s to the present, intermingling different periods and mediums – including film, animation, sculpture, collage, photography and drawing – to highlight the central themes and motifs that have recurred over the artist’s six-decade career, many of them deeply layered with literary references. A 1974 suite of woodcuts illustrates the life of the medieval Sufi satirist Nasreddin Hodja, a major figure in Turkish folk literature. In the mixed-media work Ionesco – The Clown (1971), Brătescu collaged a photograph of the Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco in the guise of a clown. And in Faustus (1984), one of the exhibition’s most striking works, the profile silhouette of a naked man is split by a span of dark red, as if Goethe’s protagonist were in mid-bargain with an unseen Mephistopheles. Abstract orbs anchor the work at top and bottom while a scroll of chaotic line drawings spills out onto the floor below.
If Aesop serves as something like Brătescu’s roguish patron saint, her studio was where she brought his limitless world to life, transcending – if only temporarily – the realities of everyday life under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. In the 8mm films The Studio (1978) and The Hands (1977), the artist takes up the trickster role herself, turning the studio into a stage to deliver Chaplinesque performances for the camera. In the former, she draws a frame in black marker onto a white paper backdrop, delineating the space as a zone of self-determination, before playing around with various studio props. The latter focuses the camera on her hands as she manipulates the objects on her table. While the exhibition notes that the artist, in using Aesop as a conceptual template, mocks ‘authority and status’, much of the political context in which these works were created is dealt with only obliquely. Though Brătescu has refused politicized readings of her work, her insistence on the primacy of creative freedom – and the appeal of figures that disrupt normative order to invent new ways of being in the world – becomes clearer against the backdrop of late socialism, by which point any vestiges of revolutionary utopianism had congealed into forced routine.
During the socialist years, Brătescu learned to make do with whatever she had on hand: household objects, scraps of fabric, pen and paper, her own body. She continues to work primarily with humble materials. In her series ‘Game of Forms’ (2009–ongoing), Brătescu creates intricate geometric patterns with black marker and shapes cut from brightly coloured paper. Described by the artist as ‘drawing with scissors’, four examples (all from 2011) stand out in particular. Each is horizontal in format, with small coloured fragments that appear to dance over a field of lightly scribbled black lines. The ground is formed of a ream of inexpensive printer paper, with the perforated edges still attached, contrasting the bold dynamism of Brătescu’s compositions, reminiscent of constructivist graphics, with the mundane means she employs. As in her earliest experiments in the studio, these works, framed as a ‘game’, reflect the artist’s belief in art-making as a liberatory form of play.
Main image: 'The Leaps of Aesop', 2017, installation view, Hauser & Wirth, New York