File Note 109: Geta Brătescu - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Catherine de Zegher



A Studio of One’s Own Images References Quote Biography Credits

A Studio of One’s Own

As I write this essay, in January 2017, thousands of women take to the streets in the Women’s March on Washington, while Bucharest sees the largest protests since the 1989 Romanian Revolution. In times of toxic supremacy, intolerance, corrupt and conservative politics, their critical voices need to be heard to remind us of the recurrent rise of reactionary movements and the enduring sway of racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Throughout the twentieth century, during such periodic crises, many women artists have deconstructed existing representational codes and searched for innovative models to imagine the world differently, their art practices subtly and subversively counteracting the rise of repressive totalitarian systems.

One of these fierce women artists is Geta Brătescu, who was born in Romania in 1926 and experienced Soviet domination of her country. Rather than responding with traditional models and reaffirming obsolete conventions of pictorial representation, she formulated an independent voice and addressed the in-between space of life and art. Through repoliticisation of the female body, the ceaseless play of unravelling hidden traps of language, and challenging the triumphant gaze, Brătescu has participated in the international and progressive development of art as a reflexive and social practice: art as generative. If language constructs both individualities, or subjects, and also the social relation between them, the necessity for symbolising and naming the feminine becomes clear. 

Geta Brătescu’s interest in language led her to study literature with the renowned literary critic and writer George Călinescu. She later studied drawing with the artist Camil Ressu. Perhaps this explains why Brătescu’s primary medium has remained twofold and intertwined: writing and its whimsical twin, drawing. As she says: ‘Whenever I draw I experience the feeling of writing. I write an image, I write a form, I write a concept. With the letters of the alphabet I can give life to images, forms or concepts, by describing them.’1 Writing partakes in the legible, but also of the legible that is forever at risk of disappearing or becoming lost, as in Brătescu’s illegible writing. In her work, the writing process comes across as a work-form that is forever at the point of drifting off course, thus erasing the illusory barrier between the legible and the visible – line as trace, line as sentence: ‘the poetry of line,’ she states. 

The space where binary thinking of life/art, subject/object, real/abstract, public/private is undone is the studio, which is at once Brătescu’s domestic and artistic space of creation. And the vital means to achieve this is drawing. Since the 1960s she has expanded her practice to include a myriad of media: collage, sewing, print-making, photography, performance, experimental film and video. Using household materials, discarded clothing and found typographic paraphernalia, she worked at home and in the margin of a totalitarian system, rarely traveling abroad. Her series The Great Vestiges (1978) and later Vestiges (1982) are telling as a record of traces drawn, among other processes, with a sewing machine. 

To realise her film The Studio (1978) Brătescu wrote a precise script of which every passage was caught on camera by Ion Grigorescu. ‘The Eye’, as she called the camera, captured common objects and studio utensils along with the artist’s performative gestures, consequently drawing fragments of the real into the abstract scope of her art. In the political climate of Romanian post-war culture, the private studio was also seen as ‘a secondary public space.’2 Structured in three sequences: The Sleep, The Awakening, and The Game, the filming ‘eye’ or gaze shows how the artist awakes and gets to work as she draws a vertical and horizontal line on white paper, taking her own body as coordinates. ‘In the delineated square where she places herself, she tries unsuccessfully to draw a diagonal using her own stature. Suggesting that one cannot live but according to one’s own “measures,” the process of sizing oneself engages questions of self-knowledge and perception.’3 

For Brătescu writing is drawing; that ‘mirror stage’ she speaks of in Lacanian terms, relating the subject and the world. Indeed, there is a profound connection in drawing between the thought of the decentered, scattered body, associated with fragmentation in the mirror stage, and the reenactment of early experiences of love, loss, and retrieval. In some respects, as Serge Tisseron observes, the initial building of her manuscript as a body of work is similar to the initial process of gathering, by hand, the sensations which are for a child scattered across the body. The child’s hands glide over the body, exploring its limits, bringing together the scattered parts and slowly replacing the mother’s hand – much as in the scenes where Brătescu takes her own body as measurement and movement in her films Towards White (1975), The Hands (1977, camera Ion Grigorescu), and The Studio. The hand captures what neither the eye, n r language can grasp. According to this view, ‘the hand is no longer regarded in relation to autoerotic pleasures but in relation to the special role it plays in attempting to reconstruct symbolically the lost dual entity.’4

In Brătescu’s work the hands play a crucial role, as she says, ‘for the eye, a hand is the object of the reflexive state of a portrait.’ In her film The Hands, subtitled For the eye, the hand of my body reconstitutes my portrait, the fragile hands of the artist become the actors, perhaps ‘playing’ the part of the mother and the child. The drawn mark thus stages not only a separating but also a binding; the trace as the echoing response to the ‘surrogate mother’ that the paper contains in her absence. As Brătescu writes, ‘Round, concentric, anamorphosis, image-object, globular, trinket, the studio thus mirrored is aflame with the irony of current magic of being contained in what you yourself contain, of bearing what bears you.’5 As if in reverse, Brătescu’s performative action in Towards White stages the becoming paper container, when the artist/mother progressively covers herself with large sheets of white paper, ultimately disappearing behind them; only her face painted white and mask-like remains. This profound analysis of drawing seems to correspond with Brătescu’s approach of aesthetics and ethics through literary and legendary figures, in particular the mother figure, such as Euripides’ Medea and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Perhaps it is not only their maternal roles but also the versatility of these figures that intrigued the artist, because she constantly re-invents herself and can be considered one of the protagonists of the 1970s feminist generation. In her continual pursuit of the self, she may have felt an affinity with some of the heroines in these narratives, like in a more recent work Didona (2000). In Brătescu’s œuvre, consistent in vocabulary, search and tune with the international neo-avantgarde of women artists in the 1960s–70s, the archetypal symbol of femininity is multifarious, relational, and elliptical. The art of this remarkably complex artist consists of an economy of means and materials and a readiness to work with what is at hand… 


1. Geta Brătescu in conversation and unpublished text

2. Alina Serban, ‘Strategies of Self-Representation’, in Geta Brătescu, The Atelier (Sternberg Press, 2016), 160. 

3. Ibid., 162. 

4. Serge Tisseron, ‘All Writing is Drawing: The Spatial Development of the Manuscript’, in French Yale Studies 84, Boundaries: Writing & Drawing (1994), 31–32. 

5. Geta Brătescu in unpublished text 

Canetti, Elias. The Torch in My Ear (London: Granta Books, 1982)

Chevalier, Auteu Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. Dictionnaire des symboles (Éditions Robert Laffont, Jupiter, London: 1982)

Jünger, Ernst. The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios. (Candor: Telos Press Publishing, 2012)

Kafka, Franz. The Castle (Munich: Kurt Wolff, 1926)

Modern Times. Dir. Charlie Chaplin (United Artists, 1936)

Medea. Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969)

Ortega y Gasset, José. Meditations on Quixote (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1963)

Pamuk, Orphan. The Black Book (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1990)

Proust, Marcel.  À la recherche du temps perdu (Paris: Grasset and Gallimard, 1913)

 'Whether it functions in its state of mental activity, or it marches stark naked or clad in all sorts of two- or three-dimensional matters, the drawing cannot absent itself from the studio. The drawing is the realm of the line. The line, be it visible or concealed in the matter of the image, understated or violently contradicted, is the backbone of any spatial creation; to be able to convey what it wishes to tell, it has to be credible. One can draw while lying in bed, on a small piece of paper, on a street or on a wall, on the surface of the pavement. However, the place where drawing rejoices in its force and absolute freedom, like the prayer in a church, is THE STUDIO.' Geta Brătescu


Geta Brătescu (b. 1926, Ploiesti, Romania) lives and works in Bucharest. She has had recent solo exhibitions at: Hamburger Kunsthalle (2016); Tate Liverpool (2015); CAM, St. Louis (2015); Berkeley Art Museum (2014); MUSAC, León (2013); and Salonul de Proiecte, Bucharest (2012). Her work has been featured in major group exhibitions such as: Construction to Transmission: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2015); Straight to Camera: Performance for Film, Modern Art Oxford; 5th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2013); Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2013); A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance Art, Tate Modern, London (2012); Intense Proximity, La Triennale Paris, Paris (2012); and Istanbul Biennial (2011). In 2008, she was awarded the title Doctor Honoris Causa from the National University of Arts, Bucharest, for her contribution to the advancement of contemporary Romanian art. Geta Brătescu will represent Romania at the 2017 Venice Biennale. She is represented by Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin.


Catherine de Zegher is the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

Supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute in London and the Geta Brătescu Exhibition Circle. With thanks to Candida Gertler and Marian Ivan.

With thanks to: Francesca and Marco Assetto; Blidar-Verjus Collection; Collection de Bruin-Heijn; Adam and Mariana Clayton Collection; Joshua Mack; MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna; Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Moderna galerija, Ljubljana; The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Romania; Bozena and William Nelhams; Collection of Adriano Pedrosa; Ovidiu Şandor collection, Timişoara, Romania; Luisa Malzoni Strina Collection; Tate Collection, London; Coleção Teixeira de Freitas; and those who prefer to remain anonymous.