You get the feeling that Bucharest-based Geta Brătescu is taken very seriously in the Romanian art world. On the eve of her 91st birthday, she has been chosen to represent her home country at the 2017 Venice Biennale, and has also been the longstanding artistic director of art and literature magazine Secolul 21. Over the past few years there has been an uptick of interest in her work outside of Romania, and even the title of this retrospective exhibition has a sober tinge to it.
But there’s more to Brătescu than the thoughtful reception of her impressive output suggests, another layer to be found in her idiosyncratic way of expression – in a body of work encompassing photos, drawings, films, sculptures and textiles. Put simply, this nonagenarian multimedia artist has one finely tuned sense of humour. In a short film, ‘The Hands. For the eye, the hand of my body reconstitutes my portrait’ (1977) (admittedly not the most hilarious title ever), we see the artist’s hands as they pick up and consider various items lying around her studio. These include a rolled cigarette, some paint sticks – which she uses to draw lines on her hands – and some strings, which get her into a solo game of cat’s cradle. This film, appearing early on in the exhibition, sets an agenda of creative spontaneity and the liberating nature of play. Another silent film, ‘The Studio’ (1978), starts with a door opening into the artist’s home studio (a regularly occurring location in her work), and she shows us around, at times drawing with her head, dressing a stool up in a skirt, and pulling her own shirt up above her head so she can float around heedlessly. In another film, ‘Earthcake’ (1992) she wears messy face paint and, well, eats a cake made of dirt (or something that’s supposed to be dirt). In fact, in a lot of her self-portraits she is wearing messy face paint.
There are many aspects to Brătescu’s output, and a lot to be said about her textile works featuring scraps of fabric collected by her mother, or her collage drawings that are reminiscent of Moholy-Nagy—but it’s the self-portraits, the films and the photographs that really resonate. The main exhibition image of Brătescu, ‘Lady Oliver in her travelling costume’ (1980-2010), shows the artist wearing a refashioned portable typewriter, along with a traditional travelling cloak and leather gloves. Here she is repurposing items to comedic effect, while also making a statement about how far you can travel when you let the imagination run free. This is the liberating message of her work, and it’s hard not to be seduced by this very proud, very intelligent and very funny artist.