Geta Brătescu: Towards White, 1975, black-and-white photomontage, 371/4 inches square; at Camden Arts Centre.

 

 

Geta Brătescu's short black-and-white film The Studio (1978) shows the Romanian artist carrying out a series of performative actions in her studio in Bucharest. First, we see her sleeping stretched out on a chair, immobile like one of the objects around her. Then she wakes up and measures the surrounding space using her body as a ruler; she creates a sort of stage using white sheets of paper and draws a large frame around herself, after which she performs playful, ludicrous actions, such as repeatedly folding and unfolding a chair. Screened in Brătescu's Camden Arts Centre exhibition—a career-spanning selection of her films, photographs, installations, collages, textiles, drawings, and prints—the work illustrated a central theme of the show: that the studio for Brătescu is an experimental site where the imagination can be freely unleashed.

Born in Ploieşti in 1926 and still active today, Brătescu developed her distinctive practice in Bucharest—where she has lived and worked since 1945—during the years of Nicolae Ceauşescu's totalitarian Communist regime (1965-89). Opposed to the official propagandist art of the time, the artist treated her studio as an autonomous zone outside any political influence and as a space of refuge. If the studio is Brătescu's preferred setting for her work, her body is the starting point. She has frequently performed in front of the camera as a means of questioning and defining her own position in the world and her role as a female artist in a repressive, patriarchal society.

In a handful of works, Brătescu plays with notions of visibility and identity. Towards White (1975) is a photomontage of nine images of the artist covering her studio and eventually herself with large sheets of white paper. Displayed nearby, Self-Portrait Towards White (1975) is a sequence of seven pictures of Brătescu's face progressively obscured by a sheet of plastic. A similar fusing of identity with a material item is found in the black-and-white photograph Lady Oliver in Her Travelling Costume (1980-2012), which shows Brătescu holding her mother's Oliver typewriter as if it were a prosthesis of her body, or perhaps vice versa. An interest in literature runs throughout Brătescu's work (and has been reflected in her professional life: after studying with the writer George Călinescu in Bucharest in the 1940s, she worked as an illustrator and artistic director for the Romanian literary journal Secolul 20). Considering drawing to be a form of writing, she has often talked about "the poetry of line." Literary and mythological figures ranging from Faust to Medea crop up repeatedly in her works, many of which have a narrative quality—particularly a selection of accordion-folded books the artist has populated with semi-figurative drawings and collages. 

"Medeic Callisthenic Moves" (1980-81) is a series of six textiles devoted to Medea that Brătescu calls "drawings with a sewing machine." Each piece depicts through abstract, circular shapes the tragic female figure, whom the artist sees as embodying the "territory of birth and death . . . the maternal ‘I' reflected terrifyingly, hysterically." Another textile-based series, "Vestiges" (1978), comprises collages of remnants of fabrics Brătescu inherited from her mother. Both these bodies of work possess a poetic, intimate quality and speak to the artist's fascination with the maternal and the feminine sphere.

Serving as a sort of epilogue to the show, the 7mm film Hands (For the Eye, the Hand of My Body Reconstitutes My Portrait), 1977, shows Brătescu's hands fighting with each other and playing with objects like necklaces and a drinking glass. The hand is the body part most strongly tied to creation and is here presented as a direct fleshy extension of the artist's mind—the work offering a fragmented, frenetic self-portrait. The setting, again, is the studio: that "room of one's own"—to quote Virginia Woolf—that for Brătescu is indeed the essential prerequisite for creation.