Geta Brătescu (1926-2018)

Geta Brătescu, Mrs Oliver in her traveling costume, 1980/2012, black-and-white photograph, 15 x 15.5". Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin, and Ivan Gallery.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO PICTURE Geta Brătescu and not see her in her studio (the occasional flashes of the traveling Lady Oliver aside). Not simply because the recent resurgence of interest in her work arrived at a time when her mobility was already reduced, a fact that kept her from personally presiding over the triumph of her long overdue Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. Nor only because so much of her practice is thematically tied to the studio, with one of her most celebrated works—Atelierul (The Studio), 1978—quite literally enshrining its physical space against the pint-size might of the artist’s body. Rather, Geta saw the “studio” as a state of mind that she consciously dwelt within.

Many a well-meaning writer has cast Geta as a kind of resistance fighter, who sought the shelter of her studio as an escape from the repressive regime of Ceaușescu’s brand of communism. Geta may have had a lot of fight in her, but her studio was by no means a refuge. Instead, she considered it an aesthetic athanor—alchemist’s furnace—a fire that demanded to be fed. “The fable of the alchemist, the transformation of gross matter into noble matter, into gold, is a story about art,” she writes in her 2009 book, Copacul din curtea vecin?? (The Tree from the Neighboring Courtyard). The figure of the artist, then, is one fluent in “the chemistry that transforms experience into expression.”

Geta Brătescu in her studio, 2012. Photo: Ștefan Sava.

This fable condenses in works such as Geta’s 1985 series “Regula cercului, regulate oculi” (“The Rule of the Circle, The Rule of the Game”), which marks out a large circle on a gridded sheet of paper. Anything that enters within this circle—whether rags or torn paper scraps—is immediately elevated to the sanctified status of Art. Geta’s studio operated in a similar manner, as a kind of nest of orphaned forms, experience forged into expression. Walls fluttered with drawings and collages in high-contrast color schemes, with the blacks beat by red wedges and the pinks unabashed. Knickknacks and personal mementos clustered atop wardrobes and along bookshelves, while the artist’s desk was covered in candy boxes and cheap art supplies—regiments of thick-tipped markers, rulers, glue sticks, and the kind of old metal scissors they don’t sell anymore—alongside mismatched stacks of colored paper and towers of neat portfolios, all in earth tones and carefully tied up with twine (not sure if the last was Geta’s doing, or, more likely, the work of her longtime dealer and caretaker Marian Ivan).

At her desk, Geta was birdlike, industrious; dwarfed by the visual immensity of her surroundings even as she was its source. A solitary figure, but never sulking in that solitude. In a letter, the artist poignantly observes, “Solitude is not an empty word. For everybody it is measured and configured in a certain way. For me it means the distance between my eye and an emptiness that I construct for myself looking out of the window (or a window) at fragments of tree and sky and roof, etc. It means the steam from a cup of coffee and its bitter taste, cigarette smoke.” She goes on to describe solitude as “the continuous studio, a unique inner space that you carry around with you”: “When it moves down into the hands, all that comes to light and allows itself to be viewed is merely the overflow, that which boils over; something has been left to the silence, to the darkness.” In other words, what Geta has given us are the remnants of an imperfect alchemy. One can only wonder what splendor she left to the silence.

Kate Sutton is a writer based in Zagreb, Croatia.

Geta Brătescu, Atelierul, 1979, Gelatin silver prints with tempera on paper, 33 x 27.5". Photo: Ștefan Sava.