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Geta Brătescu “Apparitions” at Romanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale

by Daria Ghiu

 

“Venice is an empty space. Modern people with their simple garb and unselfconscious body language are out of place in this setting appropriate to brocade and ritual gestures,” writes the artist Geta Brătescu in one of her books, From Venice to Venice (1970). By describing a city never prepared for modern times, Brătescu shares a bit of her way of seeing the world: each space is secretly defined by its own traces and routes, which she mentally sees imbricated within the present one; each space has its own predefined memory, no matter its actual state.

But through our eyes, Venice is nothing but an eternally crowded place: during the Biennale, art also accumulates in a myriad of layers. The art of Geta Brătescu, a central figure of the Romanian contemporary art scene, unfolds in the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, and at the New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research. The show, curated by Magda Radu, is entitled Apparitions. Within Romanian history at the Biennale, this is the first solo dedicated to a female artist, in a long journey that has been mostly male-dominated. Apparitions, as the curator reveals, is the title of a series of works realized by the artist with her eyes partially closed. But “apparitions” is a word that possibly summarizes an artistic practice. For Bratescu, the artistic object is the result of a “mind dance”: the technique counts for less, what is important—the artist often says—is the “spirit” of the artwork, what the “mind and vision” claim. Apparitions also means absolute freedom, beyond any social and political constraint. But apparitions are also epiphanies—the artwork comes out through the transfiguration of simple plastic elements via expressions.

We meet Geta Brătescu in a retrospective show at the Venice Biennale, and we encounter her, at 91 years old, in her studio, every day, in Bucharest. A key Romanian intellectual figure, working incessantly since the 1960s, she studied both visual arts and literature. Parallel to her artistic work, she writes extensively, her volumes are at the margins between diary, short story and novel—in fact, all of her writings are ways of seeing the world, pure reflections on art. Magda Radu had the brilliant idea to dedicate the catalogue of the Venice show to a comprehensive selection of her writing. Brătescu’s thinking transposed in words uncovers her visual territory: “everything aggregates and reduces itself to the idea of a space traversed. This crossing is done through lines,” declares the artist in a recent interview. When analyzing Proust’s universe, in Continuos Studio, a book from 1985, Bra˘tescu talks about tactility, Proust’s world being one “full of forms and colors, not so much seen as traversed,” a world where space and objects are “experienced.” The experience of traversing space with the eyes and that of a “brain tactility,” as one can call it, is crucial for Bra˘tescu: the complex artist creates drawings, collages, engravings, tapestries, objects, photographs, experimental films, videos, performances; expressing herself in so many mediums, that can all be converted, she suggests, to drawing. In the pages of her diaries we encounter the obsession with a “clean line,” the sharpness and the futility of trying to describe through drawing, the necessity of inventing forms for certain conditions. In Geta Brătescu’s eyes, the social and political condition don’t reflect themselves in art: art has to manage to keep its autonomy, not interfering with politics. No matter the location, the artist has to have the ability to create a mental studio. The physical space of the studio, present almost obsessively in certain artworks, is in fusion with an interior space, which produces worlds in itself, mythologies. The same thing occurs with Bra˘tescu’s own physical presence in her art, which, when absent, creates alter-egos and complex feminine mythologies, maps and mental trips.

When dealing with such a complex artistic figure, curators need to get beyond restrictive discourses, beyond totalizing canons. When looking at an artist that has traversed — with her real and mental body—an inter-war childhood, the entirety of Romanian communism and the post-communist present, it is important to observe her way of transgressing artistic mediums, from one world to another, from the representable to the non-representable. And this is what the show at the Biennale manages to do: to create possible lines of reflection into a multitude of subjectivities, where the artist is present, in self-contemplation and in control, or where the artist extracts herself.

Geta Brătescu’s image is often present in her art, but she voluntarily depletes herself: the artist as an artistic tool. This is visible in certain works in the Romanian Pavilion. Her hands, be they at work, performing (The Line, 2014), or at the center of an exploration (Hands series, 1974-1976); her legs (Legs in the Morning, 2009), her eyes, as in the object Self-portrait in the Mirror (2001), where a double pair of eyes—her multiplied eyes—her nose and mouth are collaged on a mirror, looking not at the viewer, but beyond, eyes looking into the interior of the artist: instead of her cheeks, one sees oneself reflected in the mirror, as in a continuous dance of gazes. In Alterity (2002-2011), a series of photographs, Bra˘tescu dressed in a black robe and white gloves, appears in the image, faces the camera, covers an eye with one hand, then the other, and the entire face with both hands, until her head is fully immersed in the black fabric, letting out the “arms” of an instrument as a strange apparition. At the end, the artist shows the back of her body, facing a white wall. In the experimental film The Studio (1977), each ritualized gesture performed by the artist herself in the perimeter of her own work space has a clear meaning based on a scenario.

On the other side, one steps into feminist territory, where the artist eludes to herself and puts to work a fertile machine that creates infinitely different instances, twisted forms: one sees Women (2007), a collage of 200 drawings on paper with the eyes closed, small drawings, a multitude of tiny frames, with fragile lines, or the triptych Mothers (1997) or Mother Courage (1965), series of five dry point prints. Or Portraits of Medea (1979), subject of lithographs (present at the New Gallery) and tapestries (in view at Camden Arts Centre, in the show Geta Brătescu: The Studio: A Tireless, Ongoing Space), or The Demoness (1981). When the artist is absent, the delicacy and hesitancy of her lines come up, the space is possessed.

One of the hearts of the Romanian Pavilion, is the original illustration for Faust—an extremely refined work, where each image gains the status of a sign, almost inventing a Goetheian alphabet. Another heart is the high wall, covered with recent works, collages that leave behind varied references, pure playful choreographies. Surrounding everything, there is the question of memory: pieces belonging to the artists’ parents become part of some of her iconic works as in Mrs. Oliver in Traveling Costume (1980) or there is the purely conceptual series of forty collages on paper, Memory (1990): black paper on black paper, carefully folded, producing soft plies, as memories dig their own journeys in our brains. Geta Bra˘tescu is certainly a key figure for the contemporary art scene: her versatility and richness reach far beyond any conformism and stereotype.

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at Romanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale
until 26 November 2017

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