Geta Bratescu in her studio last year
Geta Bratescu in her studio last year © Catalin Georgescu

Geta Bratescu liked to dance, she once told an interlocutor. “When I draw,” she continued, “I can say that my hand dances.”

Geta Bratescu: The Power of the Line is a testimony to the Romanian artist’s balletic gifts. The new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery brings together a body of works on paper and two films, all made in the last 15 years of her life. By then she was in her eighties, yet the work here shows that — like many contemporary dancers — she employed an essentially classical discipline as a foundation for a jazzy, audacious joie-de-vivre that is entirely of the moment.

Only in her final decade did Bratescu, who died in September last year, truly come to the attention of art lovers beyond her homeland. Born in 1926 in the town of Ploiesti, a town some 40 miles north of Bucharest, she spent most of her life behind the curtain of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal regime.

The artist herself did not consider her fate especially arduous. Life in Romania, she told an interviewer (Adriana Opera) in 2013, “was not as bad or as politicised as it appears now”. She was thrown out of art school in 1945 — “It was a time of purges” — because her father, a pharmacist, was considered a capitalist. Yet afterwards she worked constantly, holding down a job as designer of Secolul 20 and 21, an avant-garde graphic arts magazine, while also making her own art.

Bratescu's 'Untitled (The Line)' (2013)
Bratescu's 'Untitled (The Line)' (2013)

As an artist she was privileged, allowed to travel in Romania and abroad, including Russia, Greece, Italy and the UK. But there were almost no shows outside Romania and very little international critical attention. Furthermore she was a natural introvert. “I spent a lot of time secluded in my studio. I had a family; I raised my boy. I had no time to go out with my colleagues. I was not immersed in the artistic milieu . . . I didn’t join competitions.”

That way of life permitted her the “time and quietude” to produce an opus of shimmering, experimental work. In the last decade she finally emerged on to the world stage — in part thanks to Marian Ivan, her devoted gallerist in Bucharest — with solo institutional shows at Hamburg, Leon, Liverpool, London and Berlin.

Her place in the firmament was assured at the Venice Bienniale in 2017. Representing her country in its national pavilion, Bratescu stamped herself as a majestic all-rounder who roamed through film, photography, textile, collage, works on paper and performance with a seamless authority over her media and expression.

'Game of Coded Forms' (2012)
'Game of Coded Forms' (2012)

Drawing on literature — Medea, Aesop, Faust — as often as on visual inspiration, she probed big issues such as being and motherhood with a mercurial touch that never stooped to irony nor ideology.

Yet the London drawings reveal a tauter, more condensed Bratescu. In her old age, it appears, her existentialist question mark hovered less over human identity than contour, shape and colour. As if in the end, for Bratescu, all that was left was the line.

Few drawing shows can ever have opened with a more tempting appetiser than “Armstrong”. Made in 2005 — with the artist’s eyes closed, as many of her drawings were — it is a miniature concertina of 40 pages that begins with a collaged photograph of the legendary trumpeter blowing his instrument as if it is his breath rather than Bratescu’s hand that is responsible for the boisterous, linear melody that follows.

Skidding and swooping across the cheerful yellow tempera ground in essentially abstract forms, the red and black lines do once or twice resolve into a human profile and the long, crumpled fingers of a hand. That mongrel marriage of abstraction, figuration, collage and drawing is the expression of an artist who once said that, when drawing, she could “sense an erotic atmosphere: highly different forms seek each other, find each other, crossing the space with sensual lines.”

'Untitled' (2012)
'Untitled' (2012)

Five years later, Bratescu is pursuing that hybridity through sequences of small, chiefly abstract works which are, for the most part, mixed-media collages of cut-shapes in coloured paper, lines made in marker pen and graphite and the occasional found object — coffee sticks, scrunched tissues, photographs.

The earliest of these marriages, a 2010 suite entitled “Game of Forms”, sees her cut out Malevich-style black triangles of paper and set them amid amorphous ribbons drawn in pen and coloured in pencil. The geometric forms reveal that Bratescu had a touch of cosmic Suprematist seriousness. In 2011 she wrote portentously that “The primordial forms with which God . . . created the universe are the circle, the square, and the triangle . . . Creators are the priests of these primordial forms.” But those fluid, crayoned shapes reveal that any tendency to spiritual grandiosity is tempered by an earthy pleasure in the here and now. She once said though she liked to draw as if dancing the tango, it was “not a Spanish tango, but an elegant, bourgeois tango, the kind danced at cosy family parties.”

In reality, there’s nothing cosy about the exultant radiance of most of the works here. A 2012 trio of untitled collages juxtaposes scarlet serpentine lines with lilac triangles and circles. The impeccable Platonics lie edge to edge with the red arabesques, at times poised for flight, at others clinging to their undersides. Yet whereas Malevich, for example, would have suggested a cosmic defiance of gravity, Bratescu hints at a more personal dimension — a transient moment of inner freedom perhaps rather than an eternal transcendence, a lightness of mind rather than eye.

Her studio was essential to this felicitous inward turn. She was always happy within its confines, and the frailty of old age saw her increasingly content to remain at her drawing table. The two films at Hauser feature her chatting to her interviewer, sometimes asking if a particular line works, sometimes staring at her paper in bemusement: “I don’t know what to do now.” But she always does, suddenly sweeping a thick line across her surface, or reaching for her scissors to cut out a shape.

It’s a pleasure to watch her in her haven, every table crowded with tools, every inch of her wall papered with loose drawings. As you wander through the gallery, the murmur of her soft yet confident voice and the swoosh of her felt pen create an intimacy with the drawings in front of you, as if you had stumbled upon them in their moment of creation.

'Marker-art' (2013)
'Marker-art' (2013)

A lucky few visited her studio in those final years, some bringing gifts. One curator presented her with a pot of honey, whose net wrapping she recycled, along with the little sack over the lid, and stuck down on to squares of black cardboard — “Untitled” (2013) — along with several coffee sticks (like lollipop sticks) painted in red tempera and placed at diagonals.

She may well have invented a story to accompany this seductive juxtaposition. In the catalogue a number of her micro-narratives appear. One includes the baffling yet beguiling lines: “The girl, hiding in the vines, weeps on the scrap of paper.” The abstract collage (not in Hauser’s show) it accompanies contains neither girl nor vine, though there are paper scraps in various shade of red.

That tension between narrative flow and surrealist paradox is just one of many that animate Bratescu’s late vision. Sometimes with the tiniest gesture she threw the significance of a whole sequence into doubt. After perusing 34 abstract collages where potent colours — lilac, black, daffodil, scarlet, mint — raised contrasts between shapes, geometric and otherwise, into encounters of boundless vitality, I did a double take.

On the final drawing, Bratescu has drawn two black dots and stuck down a cut-out paper triangle and oblong to create an unmistakable human face. Mischievous, unexpected, a little childish — truly, the gesture of an artist enjoying her last dance.

To April 27,

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