At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu’s exhibition ‘Apparitions’ cemented her status as a rising star on the international art scene. Aged ninety-one, Brâtescu was something of an unusual art world darling, yet she was well-known in her native Romania for a rich, multidisciplinary body of work that she would develop up until her death in September 2018.
Subsequent exhibitions of her late work have emphasised the surprising ways that Brătescu continued to add depth to her innovative oeuvre. The drawings and collage pieces on display at Hauser and Wirth London’s exhibition The Power of the Line offer a vibrant display of bright shapes, jazzy geometric patterns, and lines that romp across the paper making manifest the physical ‘gestures of the [artist’s] body’. Her collages recall the energy of Matisse’s late cut-outs and the colourful verve of Miro; yet they express a kinetic and performative zest that is uniquely Brătescu’s and that threads, in various guises, throughout her seven-decade-long career.
‘Armstrong’, the first piece that greets visitors to Hauser and Wirth’s The Power of the Line, is a joyous introduction to Brătescu’s musical, mercurial form. A collaged photograph of musician Louis Armstrong is followed by a concertina sequence of colour and pattern that bursts from his trumpet. Vibrant yellow and red tones evoke an ecstatic explosion of music; jagged, rhythmic lines of thick crayon dance through each section, occasionally merging to form flailing Keith Haring-esque figures. Brătescu drew ‘Armstrong’ with her eyes closed, channelling her own inner visions in a manner that recalls Surrealist automatic drawing. This method demonstrates Brătescu’s absolute faith in the line’s expressive physicality; like singing and dancing, the act of drawing lines on the page communicates the rhythms of the physical world around us. She worked across many mediums, but the line remained a fundamental part of her artistic vision and practice:
“The spider’s thread borne away on the wind is a flying line. Drawing owes a huge amount to the energy with which the hand traces lines and the character of this energy is determined by the character, the mood, the culture, the vision of the artist. In fact, it is a mysterious phenomenon. To trace a line, a simple line, with the feeling and awareness that you are producing expression; that line is necessary to you beyond reason.”
Although her work has a clear relationship with non-objective abstract art, Brătescu creates an embodied art that is in dialogue with the material, ephemeral everyday world. Works assembled from discarded objects, such as crumpled paper, coffee sticks, matchboxes, netting, nod to Kurt Schwitters; in her journal, Brătescu described Schwitters’ Merz as the epitome of the conflict ‘between the ideal of the gesture and the perishability of the matter caught up in the gesture’ – an impression that gains a particular resonance when viewing pieces created by a housebound artist at the end of her life. Like Brătescu’s earlier performance art and work with fragile textiles, the drawings and collages on display at Hauser and Wirth express a sense of the finite. Many bear the traces of the artist’s labour: faded lines where the marker pen begins to fail, patches of glue, the trace of pencil marks. This also speaks of the spontaneity of Brătescu’s approach, which is evident in Gestul, desunul (‘The gesture, the drawing’), a wonderfully engaging film of Brătescu working and reflecting on her process with fellow Romanian artist Stefan Sava. She is shown seated at her desk, utterly absorbed by the paper she works on; her hands shake and, at times, struggle with the pen. As she inks in blocks of colour, she jokingly acknowledges the painstaking effort, asking first Sava and then the pen in her hand if they ‘have the patience’ for her process. This hands-on, slow method is essential for an artist who understood drawing as a gesture of the body; a physical act, like a dance, through which she explored and captured the world around her. Brătescu’s reading of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu offers an insight into her own perspective: she describes Proust’s world as one of ‘absolute tactility…full of forms and colors, not so much seen as traversed’, words that could easily be applied to her own creations.
Brătescu shied away from politics: she dismissed feminism as ‘a uniform’, played down the experience of life under Romania’s repressive communist regime, and declared her studio to be an ‘apolitical’ space. Yet, the centrality of the body throughout her oeuvre hints at a certain political intent. For a series of works inspired by Medea (the Medeic Forms of the late 1970s), Brătescu used her mother’s old clothes and created a method she called ‘drawing on textile with sewing machine’. These unsettling abstract textile works suggest the violence and conflicted desires of womanhood, as well as the stifling strictures society places on them. Aesop, another mythological figure, featured prominently in Brătescu’s work as a joker; her fondness for him and for the more modern fool Charlie Chaplin suggests a similarly disruptive design behind her ludic lines. In the late drawings, they impishly morph into smiling faces and shapes that evoke breasts, ova, and sperm, evoking a defiant joi de vivre that mocks autocrats and old age alike. Following Brătescu’s lines lead us into a space both playful and profound, where our expectations of avant-garde culture, age, and gender are upended and a joyous chaos of form reigns.
Geta Brătescu: The Power of the Line was on display at Hauser and Wirth London, 27 Feb – 27 Apr 2019.
Words: Lottie Whalen