Geta Brătescu, whose work in a variety of mediums proposed poetic, abstract means for resisting oppressive political regimes through art, has died at 92, according to the gallery Hauser & Wirth, which represents the artist. A cause of death was not immediately provided.
“Geta Brătescu was a true artist who even in the darkest times maintained her sense of playfulness and freedom,” Iwan Wirth, the cofounder and president of the gallery, said in a statement. “Her powerful life force went in so many directions, from drawing and graphics and photography, to animated videos and tapestry, that even in her 90s she embodied the spirit and passion of a young person. That Geta lived to see her art embraced so enthusiastically on the international level at the 2017 Venice Biennale and at her first New York solo exhibition at our gallery last year, means so much. She will be dearly missed.”
Brătescu’s work has for years been a powerful influence on artists in the Romanian contemporary art scene, but it wasn’t until the past few years that she achieved fame outside Eastern Europe, thanks to appearances at the Venice Biennale (where, in 2017, she represented Romania) and Documenta 14 (also in 2017), as well as a career survey that appeared at Tate Liverpool in England in 2015.
Brătescu’s output took the form of films, collages, photographs, installations, travel journals, drawings, and more over the course of her seven-decade career. Her primary interests included the body and the relationship between art and life, and her work often tackled these themes with a dry sense of humor.
“I am so grateful to have had the privilege to visit her studio on a daily basis,” Marian Ivan, the director of Bucharest’s Ivan Gallery, which represents Bratescu, said in a statement. “Her works, her writings and her studio are her artistic legacy and this is something that will endure and will continue to exist and go on in the future.”
Her most famous piece remains the 1978 film Atelierul (The Studio), in which she appears to have fallen asleep in her studio, then wakes up, begins drawing shapes around herself and the space, and moves around papers, a chair, and various other objects. There is a ritualistic quality to all this—it feels primordial, and one wonders whether there is a specific set of rules guiding it all. Brătescu seems to show that her body cannot be separated from her materials, nor her life from her métier.
Many critics have ascribed a political dimension to Brătescu’s work, noting the ways in which it might be considered a commentary on the control of women’s bodies by those in power. She often resisted the notion that there was a feminist statement in her work, preferring instead to discuss mythological connections that may not have been immediately obvious to some. (Her use of her mother’s textiles in her work has been cited as evidence of that latent feminist streak, but Brătescu frequently denied this, pointing out that men are tailors, too.) She tended to describe her studio as an “apolitical” space in which she was free to do what she wanted.
When Brătescu began working in earnest in the 1950s and ’60s, her art was de facto political, simply because it looked little like what the Communist party in Romania then sanctioned. Artists in the country were expected to be socialist realists, but she resisted this aesthetic dogma, eschewing the allegories and figural scenes of government-sanctioned art. As the years went on, however, and as that repressive regime gave way to a more liberal one, under the leadership of Nicolae Ceaușescu, avant-garde art became something of an open secret within the country.
Some of Brătescu’s art meditated on the relationship between art and life in modern-day Romania. During the ’70s, she created a series of collages called “Magnetii in Oras” (“Magnets in the City”), which proposed a project wherein horseshoe-shaped magnets would be placed in public squares around Bucharest. The magnets would halt the flow of everyday goings-on, and passersby would be able to place metal objects on them.
Aesop and Medea were frequent characters in Brătescu’s work throughout her career. She often represented the former, a trickster from Greek mythology, in spare black-and-white drawings depicting him as a blobby mass that consumed things around him. For the artist, Aesop—a disfigured slave who managed to seduce his master’s wife—was a disrupter in a society aligned against him. It is unclear whether Brătescu thought of herself in that way, but many critics have suggested as much.
Brătescu was born in Ploiești, a city about 35 miles north of Bucharest, in 1922. Her family was middle-class, and her father, the owner of a drugstore, encouraged her pursuits as an artist. She went on to study art, and in 1949 was kicked out of the Bucharest School of Belle Arte amid a government purge of the bourgeois from various institutions. Brătescu then took up work as a children’s book illustrator during the 1950s. When the government began loosening control of arts institutions, she joined the Union of Artists and was able to obtain a studio.
In the later part of her career, Brătescu was widely acclaimed for her abstract work, which features fanciful geometric forms arranged in sui generis patterns. For Brătescu, the creation of these works seemed to be a game of some sort, and the sense of freedom she felt was palpable to many. In a recent interview with the Calvert Journal, Brătescu, then 91 years old, said, “At my age, I can work as a young person.”