“I think of drawing as a dance,” Romanian conceptual artist Geta Bratescu said. “And a dance is a drawing in space. If you don’t appreciate dancing, these things aren’t possible to create.”
In her studio, the Romanian conceptual artist Geta Bratescu was looking at a large drawing she had made in 2012 of a bird dressed as a clown. The 91-year-old artist remarked how much younger she was when she made the piece. “What I work with these days is smaller,” Bratescu said. “This big surface is harder for me to work with now.”
Bratescu is in her studio daily, she said. She had set it up with everything she needed within reach from her chair. Fat markers were lined up in a row to her right; strips of paper cascaded out of pots next to a selection of scissors, and a metal ruler framed a small patch of surface where Bratescu draws and makes collages. To her left, a stack of her recent pieces was held in place with a paperweight in the shape of a bird.
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Bratescu’s studio is peppered with mementos from her childhood, and a photograph of her mother and a portrait of her father by her hang on the wall.
An exhibition of her work, “The Leaps of Aesop,” opened Feb. 17 at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles and runs through May 20. That solo show includes more than 50 drawings, collages, textile works and photographs exploring the role of the artist as a disrupter in society, and exploring Bratescu’s long-standing interest in Aesop, the ancient Greek author of fables.
When the show was presented in New York last year it was her first extensive introduction to an American audience. International recognition for Bratescu, who represented Romania in the 2017 Venice Biennale, came late in a career spent principally in Romania under communism.
Bratescu was working on abstract collages made of geometric shapes drawn with chunky marker pens and pieces of paper or found materials glued on top. One of her most recent collages included candy wrappers from some chocolates she had eaten a few days before.
“I think of drawing as a dance,” Bratescu said. “And a dance is a drawing in space. If you don’t appreciate dancing, these things aren’t possible to create.”
Her studio has long played an essential role in her creative process. In 1978, she made an experimental black-and-white film titled “The Studio,” and last year an exhibition in London explored how critical the space has been for her
“My family and friends, everyone, understood that the studio was a necessity,” Bratescu said. “But it’s not very complicated; like for many artists, it’s a place of my own.”
Magda Radu, a curator and art historian in Bucharest, said in a telephone interview, “It’s space of freedom, delineated from the outside world, but very fertile and productive.” Radu has worked closely with Bratescu for a number of years and curated the Venice exhibition and the show in Los Angeles. “For artists in Eastern Europe, the studio represents a space of autonomy.”
Interest in Bratescu’s work centers on a paradox she is reticent to talk about: She worked freely as an artist in a period of political repression.
“During communism it was almost mandatory to make political art, so the avant-garde had to be political in an unpolitical way,” Sebestyen Gyorgy Szekely, an art historian who specializes in female Eastern European artists, said in a telephone interview. “One of Geta Bratescu’s escape routes to make unpolitical art was to use mythology, and the other way she did it was in her handling of the process of art, using the act of drawing as a way to discover the world.”
Born in 1926 in Ploiesti, a city 50 miles north of Bucharest, Bratescu started drawing in early childhood. Her father owned a drugstore and she said her parents encouraged her artistic ambitions: “My parents never forced me to become a pharmacist; they saw that I liked to draw and they left me to take my own course.”
In 1945 she enrolled concurrently at the University of Bucharest, in the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, and also at the Bucharest School of Belle Arte, an art college. Her studies were interrupted in 1949 when she was expelled from university in a purge of the bourgeoisie: Her father was a landowner, and therefore unpalatable to the communist regime.
In 1951, Bratescu married Mihai Bratescu, an engineer and photographer with whom she sometimes collaborated, and they had a son, Tudor, in 1954. During the 1950s, Bratescu illustrated children’s books; by 1957 the regime had softened somewhat and she became affiliated with the Union of Artists, a state entity that approved exhibitions and granted studios to its artists.
In a book of sketches in her studio, Bratescu has drawings from when she was sent by the union to depict peasants at weddings and in factories on the Danube Delta. Through this affiliation she had the rare occasion to exhibit in Romania and to travel a little, although she didn’t leave the country for the first time until she was 40.
Radu said that while being overtly political was never an interest for Bratescu, an underlying current in her work deals with the freedom of artists and their role in the wider world. “Her work functions on conceptual, literary and Aesopian levels,” she said.
As such, the Los Angeles show, centered on Bratescu’s long-standing interest in Aesop, is perhaps the best way to read any sort of political statement into her work. Her interest in Aesop has less to do with his fables and instead is focused on the character of Aesop himself. “For her, Aesop is a disrupter, someone that is a fool but plays tricks on authoritarian figures,” Radu said. “He creates mayhem.”
Given that Bratescu’s oeuvre combines playfulness and dark humor, it is little surprise that she named her other major influences as Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett and Charlie Chaplin. Clowns, chocolate-wrapper collages and childlike drawings are all Bratescu’s little jokes, but the punch lines remain hazy.
“It’s a game,” Bratescu said of her most recent collage. “I like to draw and to work freely, like any other game.”