Geta Brătescu Apparitions

Romanian Participation at the 57th
International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia

About / Concept

Geta Brătescu’s participation in Biennale Arte 2017 brings together works representative of all the stages of her artistic trajectory – many of them shown for the first time –, demonstrating the ease with which she employs a multitude of artistic media. The exhibition Apparitions is conceived through the lens of thematic clusters, including the most recent phase in her artistic practice, in an attempt to provide a mirror of her studio space, understood both as a physical space and a meta-artistic entity. The physical and mental spaces of the studio blend together in a complex assemblage, and so do the literary texts with their visual conceptualizations, the feminine mythologies with the process of self-investigation, personal memory with cultural memory and imagination. “Memory is apparition; an epiphany, like art”, states the artist.

In the current context, Geta Brătescu’s presence at Biennale Arte 2017 is aimed at communicating art’s capacity to invent narratives that transcend the gloomy climate of the contemporary world, by means of an artistic reflection that highlights the transformative strength of femininity as the consummate embodiment of a “nomadic subject”. Geta Brătescu’s art finds itself in full consonance with the return to materiality, to the power of the artistic imagination, to art’s power to give shape. Her artistic practice resonates with the current debates about the role of art as a space that points to reality’s sore spots, but also as a means of instituting a specific language capable of generating new forms of subjectivity.

THE ROMANIAN PAVILION

Geta Brătescu has had a rich career as an artist, working extensively since the 1960s. She draws on a series of procedures from the visual and conceptual arsenal of modernism, but also modulates and transforms this legacy, while at the same time advancing in the direction of contemporary modes of expressing and conceptualising the artistic act, with an emphasis on performance, process, self-representation, and the serial. Her career deserves a nuanced reception in the context of the global history of art and the endeavour to gain a panoramic view of contemporary art, which aims to revise the canons, not only by reinterpreting them from the standpoint of genre, but also by dismantling the western cultural hegemony which, up until recently, constituted them.

Brătescu studied both art and literature, and this dual background is essential to an understanding of her career. Brătescu’s participation in the Venice Biennale representing Romania places an emphasis on her combination of artistic media, revealing the mobile, open, performative nature of her art; as well as the proliferation of ideas, the overflow of imagination, and the freedom of manifestation that go hand in hand with the creativity specific to her as an artist.

The exhibition in the Romanian Pavilion is conceived around two major themes: the studio, which is central to Brătescu’s career as an artist, and reflection on female subjectivity through various modes of conceptualising the feminine. The studio has multiple meanings and instantiations, and for the artist it is both a physical and a mental space. The exhibition captures the various phases and transformations of the studio over the course of time, ranging from the way in which it is currently invaded by series of collages, caught up in the whirl of an inexhaustible “game of forms”, to representations of it in film or photography. The studio is an autonomous realm of creative expansion, but it is also a space appropriate for concentration, introspection and associative thinking. Drawing on her rich visual and literary background, Brătescu interprets classic texts from literature—assimilated through fertile contact with the multidisciplinary environment of the Secolul 20 (now Secolul 21) editorial office, where she has worked for many decades as a graphic designer—constructing veritable visual philosophies, shot through with meditations on the feminine, understood as a generative agent of artistic creativity. Overcoming “biological servitude,” woman attains to the condition of creator of forms, and as an artist Brătescu extrapolates this condition through self-exploration, sometimes drawing upon a rich inventory of references drawn from mythology, in both the broader and the personal sense.

The collage The Demoness (1981), a hieratic-Expressionist representation of a female figure, visible from outside the Pavilion, provides the starting point of the exhibition. The Demoness articulates a central issue of the exhibition discourse—reflection on female subjectivity. The film The Line (2014), screened in the antechamber, places us in proximity to the artist and her working process. For Brătescu, art is essentially performance, regardless of the medium, and drawing stands out as a signifier of every form of artistic thought and exteriorisation.

Entering the heart of the exhibition, we encounter the disconcerting diversity of the studio, whose multiple hypostases are brought together. On the one hand, the current physiognomy of Brătescu’s studio is transposed, with the walls of the exhibition space being papered with recent collages that provide countless conjugations of “drawing with scissors.” This is the freest and most abstract of the artist’s collage procedures, practised in this form for more than a decade. The forms call to each other, summon each other; remnants of materials used in other compositions are incorporated in ever-renewed configurations. The process is cumulative, and through exhibition/montage, the fragments of paper—sometimes placed in dialogue with lines or small objects from the everyday world—can be read as a series, as interconnecting from one series to the next, forming a “world” that the artist likens to a musical composition, where every form is akin to a separate note.

In proximity to this profusion of forms, which make up a self-contained game, can be found the “mental studio”, represented by the Faust (1981) series, one of Brătescu’s most complex works. It is a visual interpretation of Goethe’s tragedy, which had been translated into Romanian by Ștefan Augustin Doinaș at the time. The hieratism, esotericism, and abstract nature of the transposition of the individual episodes correspond with a penetrating analysis of the literary text and with a movement around what Geta Brătescu calls “the snail-shell spiral of culture.” She undertakes a vast exploration of a world of symbols and visual motifs from various periods in the history of art and adopts elements of Goethe’s theory of colours in order to invent formal-conceptual moulds and superimpositions and juxtapositions of materials that make up a “visionary world”, sufficient unto itself and functioning autonomously from the text of the tragedy, while at the same time in communication with it.

In Brătescu’s vision, culture accumulates within a vast mental territory, where the fields of knowledge (visual and literary) freely communicate between themselves and can be activated according to the laws of the imagination and the whims of subjectivity. At the centre of the meditation occasioned by her work on Faust can be found the two female characters Margareta and Elena, two hypostases of the feminine that in fact merge, like Medea, in “the rudimentary and form-generating figures of Goethe’s mothers.” The feminine moves beyond the identity conferred by sex and gender to become a matrix that gives birth to forms.

In many situations Brătescu makes use of readymade materials, which she incorporates into other works. She employs an arsenal of objects from her family’s history, using them to imagine characters caught up in various narrative situations. Personal objects, each with its own history, throng the space of the studio, and they are incorporated into narratives such as Mrs. Oliver in Travelling Costume (1980). The Oliver typewriter belonged to the artist’s mother, and Brătescu photographs herself in a symbiotic union with the object. Her memory of her parents also imbues other works, either directly, as in the My Father’s Spectacles (2005) ensemble, or as a trace, a vestige, as in the cut-out disks of paper that are incorporated into the collages. The disks are outlines of the small weights that Brătescu’s father, the proprietor of a pharmacy in Ploiești, worked with in his laboratory, weights that are always to be found on the artist’s worktable and which accompany her in her working process. But the most extensive use of this personal mythology can be found in the book object Thonet: Voici ton maître (1992), which includes a number of the artist’s experiments with objects handed down in the family. These bibelots, pieces of furniture, and toiletries come to life; they become characters and interact among themselves in miniature vaudeville sketches. This is what happens with the elegant Thonet chair, which becomes the Cavalier Thonet and enters into various intrigues and amorous games with Mrs Oliver.

In Brătescu’s practice, the real, physical space meshes with the inner, intimate space and becomes part of sphere of art. In certain cases, the artist reflects on the sphere of art in an almost literal way, producing works that investigate the conventions, instruments and framework of art, as well as her own involvement in this process. Not only the space of the studio as such, and the objects, shelves and worktable therein, figure as elements that acquire visibility within reflection on the possibilities of the existence of art, as well as on the artist’s body, which analyses itself in an attempt to generate “expression.” Through gradual restriction of her relationship with the world around her and, at the same time, through reduction of art’s instruments to the one ultimate, indispensible element, Brătescu inevitably ends up exploring—phenomenologically, psychologically, artistically—her own hands, as in the Hands series (1974-76).

Setting out from the core of the exhibition, which crystallises a vision of the studio, the visual journey branches off in two directions. On the one hand, there is a transition toward aspects addressing the physical space of the studio, and, on the other hand, the way opens up to an introspective zone of visions and “apparitions,” which reveal the tension between the representable and the nonrepresentable. But Brătescu’s approach does not establish a dividing line between these seemingly divergent directions. Rather, they coexist and feed upon one another.

The first direction focuses on two works in which the studio can be visualised. The series of photographs conjoined with the installation No To Violence, first conceived in 1974, reveals the extent to which the configuration of a work is dictated by the physical limits of the space. The photographs record a happening in the studio, during which the artist represents herself with huddled body, in a posture of fragility, near a sculptural assemblage that evokes the idea of war and bodily trauma, but also healing. This disjointed assemblage provides an abstract, synthetic, and, at the same time, lifelike (almost palpable) transposition of memory as montage. The artist’s memory of the war, of the smell of blood from the period when she was a schoolgirl in Ploiești reading books to wounded soldiers with her classmates, combines with the reference image of a military convoy from a film frame and the “contemplative archaeology” of the materials that the image evokes: the military cape, the straw mattress, the wooden crutches, the plaster cast. To the same constellation of associations can also be added the famous protagonist of Brecht’s Mutter Courage [Mother Courage], to whom the artist dedicated a series of lithographs and engravings in 1965. Mother Courage, an embodiment of strong femininity, endowed with the strength to shape her own destiny, “is a symbolic character of the contemporary world, with the stature of figures from Greek mythology,” as the artist herself noted in connection with the work.

The film The Studio (1978) summarizes and condenses Brătescu’s poetics. The film also combines with a text (translated in the exhibition book) describing its subject; perhaps more than that, the text is an extension of the film, a supplement. What is thereby highlighted is meaning’s astonishing power of modulation via plays of signifiers that constantly slide toward and into each other. The film is comprised of three parts: Sleep, Waking, and Play. In the first segment, the camera captures the studio and the objects therein, while the artist, sleeping stretched out on a chair, presents herself as an object no different from the others. In the second section, she marks out a framework of action, schematically configuring a three-dimensional space within which the artistic act/action becomes possible. The third sequence depicts a game that is unleashed with the objects in the studio. These include the chair, folded and unfolded during the game, upon whose oval surface two photographic cut-outs of the artist’s eyes are pasted at one point in the action. This is in keeping with the idea of anthropomorphising and personalising the objects around her. The objects are invested with their own dynamism, and their structures, which are mobile and flexible to greater or lesser degrees, contribute to highlighting the permeability between subject and object.

The second direction branching off from the core of the exhibition focuses on the artist’s preoccupation with interiority and self-contemplation, against the backdrop of a multifaceted reflection on femininity. Apparitions (1997) is a series of drawings the artist made partly with her eyes shut, and it is part of a wider series of similar drawing experiments. The humour and pleasure of the act of drawing are immediately apparent, and so too is the delicate balance between chance, improvisation and control. The sexualised female bodies seem to crystallise small narrative episodes or to embrace the identity of characters, but their representation and interrelatedness remain unelucidated. Apparitions is a prominent series because it reveals the crucial contribution of inner vision and automatism to the creative process—the repeated invocation of the “apparition” of mental images that the hand seeks to convey through the lines of the drawing. Also akin to the practice of drawing are the works in the Mothers (1997) series, which repeat a theme from Faust that has intensely preoccupied Brătescu. The Mothers are the pattern of feminine creative identity, and the artist associates the “domain of the mothers” with the Mediterranean, as a “female apparition of the cosmos” whence emerge “the germs of divers forms”. In this rendering, the mothers are hieratic apparitions, which break away from the limitations laid down by genre. The artist cites C.G. Jung, embracing his interpretation of these protean figures; the mothers are “free of opposites,” and their eroticism is a form of pure love capable of procreation.

The form of the female body is declined more schematically as text through the compulsive act of drawing in the montage Women (2007). The transition to a personal, intimate register, which corresponds to a discrete tonality in the economy of the exhibition, is realised through another serial work, Myself and the Bird Bird (1993), which has been Brătescu’s constant companion in the studio. Here, the bird functions as the alter ego of woman in general, as well as the alter ego of the artist in particular. The bird is also a metaphor for the freedom of thought that “takes flight.” The quarrel, the tense relationship between woman and bird, conveys the conflict between the contrary impulses that structure the artist’s subjectivity, as well as the dialectical relationship between form and the amorphous in the practice of drawing.

The theme of memory is explicitly tackled in the final section of the exhibition, which presents the series Childhood Memories (1975-78) and Memory (1990). Although Brătescu does not dwell on autobiographical confessions in her texts, snatches of autobiography inevitably occur, precisely because the labour of memory and that of imagination function in constant communication with each other. Childhood Memories captures this ambiguity of the process of recollection. Episodes and moments from the artist’s childhood—the dove wrapped in a napkin that her grandfather gave to her; the white lamb; an imaginary friend who went everywhere with her—cannot be distinguished from the integument of fiction in which the “epiphanies” of memory become enclosed over the course of time. The effort of extracting representations from these nebulous figments leads to results that lie at the limit of the visible. The Memory cycle provides an ending to this complex journey. The collage of black paper on black constitutes a counterpoint to the coloured, expansive world of the “game of forms” cycle. Here, the invocation of memory does not produce any representational effect. Memory is obliteration and repetition; it can be understood as automatism and as a process devoid of finality, which, the same as art, pulsates via the pure movement of the spirit.

THE NEW GALLERY OF THE ROMANIAN INSTITUTE FOR CULTURE AND HUMANISTIC RESEARCH

The New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice is an important space for familiarizing the broader public with the work of Geta Brătescu. The New Gallery exhibition complements the display in the Romanian Pavilion. Two coordinates define the identity of this space in the given equation: it is both a place for study, providing conditions for readers to immerse themselves in the exhibition book and other materials relevant to Brătescu’s artistic and intellectual career, and a concentrated exhibition, whose theme is the artist’s creative process.

Here I have chosen to present two emblematic works by Brătescu: the Medea (1980-81) series of lithographs, along with the series’ preliminary documentation (The Mediterranean), and the film The Hand of My Body (1977). Medea is a complex series which, like Faust, highlights a perfect agreement between strength of intellect and artistic mastery, and The Hand of My Body, a film of vital importance to Brătescu’s career, makes us witness to the act of creation. In keeping with the focus on the working process and artistic research, the exhibition is rounded off with a number of Geta Brătescu’s travel albums, which document her trips to Italy in 1966-67 and 1977. The albums contain numerous images and notes. Connected to the book From Venice to Venice, translated excerpts of which are included in the book, the following question appears in one of them: “Venice, beginning and end, when will I see you again?”

The superimposition of artistic and cultural references and the contribution made by personal memory converge in the manner in which the artist visually approaches a literary text, a myth, a “sign” such as Medea. For the artist, the “sign” is characterized not only by its semiotic complexity, but also by the ability of contrary impulses to cohabit within it, while ultimately remaining opaque, impervious to interpretative elucidations. Here, the same as in other situations, the theme of Medea is conjugated in a plurality of media, from drawing to tapestry, from lithographs to flax traced on cloth using a sewing machine. For Brătescu, Medea is an inexhaustible sign, but at the same time Medea is contained within a formal pattern, repeated as an incantation, as if the artist were serially performing the tragic destiny of the character to the rhythm of creation. Medea embodies, she says, woman as a “territory of birth and death… the maternal ‘I’ is reflected terrifyingly, hysterically.” As the Mediterranean documentation shows, the Medea pattern comprises an “ensemble of forms.” The outline of Medea is based on the image of an island viewed from above, which, when turned around, becomes a portrait. But the archetypal symbol of Medea is multiform, labyrinthine. Likewise we can see in the interpenetration of striated ovoid forms an X-ray of the mother’s womb. Certain hypostases of the series allow us to divine in schematic form the slain children.

In the experimental film The Hand of My Body, the artist’s hand works at or rather dances above the worktable, absorbed in its own choreography. Brătescu calls the worktable her “field of action,” and over its expanse her hands come into contact with the “outskirts of objects,” taking possession of them one by one, before quickly abandoning them. The imagination transforms the objects into characters, and the surface of the table becomes a landscape, so that it is not at all out of place to compare the worktable with a playground. Everything is both serious and ludic. There is something serious about the game, because the actions of the hands seem to remind us of the fact that we are witness to an act of creation. For Brătescu, the febrile, aimless game, as a stage preliminary to the work, becomes an artistic act in itself and corresponds to an attitude that (partly) abandons the pride of creation, but which never abandons faith in form, understood as “form that possesses—and makes us party to—the consciousness of its own formation,” to quote Jean-Luc Nancy, an author whose commentaries have accompanied Brătescu’s reflections on art.

The consistency, integrity, and aesthetic and intellectual quality of Geta Brătescu’s art, the artist’s incredible presence—revealed in both the works in which she represents herself, and in the female characters she invokes—transforms the Romanian Pavilion and the New Gallery into a “continuous studio” for every visitor.