“— Look, there’s Pepe! Hand on his face, halfway between El Greco and Tuymans.”
“— Rolling his eyes, he seems lost among women. Does he feel shame or despair?”
Words and technology often arrive our country too late. I was also a late arrival to this technology. I was unsure how to translate the word into Portuguese.
A filmstrip is exactly what its name says, even if it evokes the image of a larger spool — and that’s relevant. Developed as a cheap alternative to common film, filmstrips were small strips of positive images that were projected in a fixed sequence, one by one, following the rhythm indicated by an accompanying vinyl record.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, this technology was used intensively in the wealthier regions of the world, as a vehicle to educational and propaganda materials. The economy of celluloid, the autonomy of the sound support and the simplicity of the projector spurred new pedagogical methodologies, which became increasingly accessible. Slide reels, VHS cassettes, transparencies, reams of photocopies and PowerPoint presentations came later.
It was only when I was confronted with the original photoliths of the book AUTO-FOTOS (1978), which was out of print at the time and in the meantime republished, that I realized how important “transparency” was in this exhibition. It’s not just about the transparency of the film as a medium, or the possibility of seeing through lace. There is a desire to see through bodies that, at the limit, could be described as a mediumistic gaze.
“— We’re talking about film, but it was magnetic tape that transformed Gretta’s work in 1976.”
“— How so?”
In 1976, when Franco Terranova invites Gretta to create a show for the Galeria Arte Global, owned by Rede Globo, the artist requested access to the recording studios. The exhibitions were announced on prime-time television and, instead of a banal advertisement, Gretta had herself filmed incarnating different characters or personalities and manipulated the video signal creating interference and ripples in the image. The exercise was fun and the technology fascinating. The result was new and powerful: the television that sold so much toothpaste, and conveyed so much vanity, presented the artist in multiple personalities and in a continuous metamorphosis. Gretta’s image on TV had the quality of a reflection on a liquid surface, which the wind or a stone would easily deform. Gretta was difficult to catalogue and impossible to resolve.
And this is the fundamental moment for a good part of Gretta’s body of work. Photoshoots of faces and grimaces came later, as well as experiments in the darkroom with the manipulation of paper at the time of printing — images that soon became the source for paintings that explored the high contrast of shadows, scantily modulated chromatic variations, and the distinctive seriality of film media.
This was Gretta’s fourth exhibition with the title Metamorphosis, but it was very different from the previous ones, which comprised expressionist, fast drawings, using varied techniques on different supports. The exercise of drawing and painting, with friends or personalities posing, will later be resumed: discovering the aura of one, the future of another; seeking the multiple identities of Brazil or integration into the Brooklyn Jewish community, where she studies the Kabbalah.
The coiled body is getting ready to be born — the bud of a flower. There is no natural birth without the woman making a thousand faces while the foetus’ head moulds itself to the canal through which they’ll pass into to the light. And because in the end it’s all about light, you cling to the light. And if there’s light and there’s a shutter, then there’s violence.
The whole body, closed in on itself, looks like a fragment of that same body — a closed fist hiding or clinging to something — a woman’s right to individuality despite the threat of a preordained destiny.
With arms and legs crossed, aligned on the same axis, a rope is drawn with the body. And if one body is followed by another, then the rope will be longer — and its limits wider.
When a seven-year-old child is forced to be someone else — to replace hours and alphabets, to change languages and wardrobes — they transform hurdles into lessons and embody the chameleon: when in Rome do as the Romans do… or in New York, or in São Paulo…
A Ladino family leaves Athens in the 1950s and, perhaps looking for the comforts of a familiar language, settles in South America hoping for a better future. Chance had them landing in Congonhas, São Paulo. It could have been _______, but Brazil was on the lips of the world as the country of the future. Reaffirmed upon arrival, the wandering doesn’t stop with her childhood. In every trip, encounter or wedding, Gretta will collect a new name and, eventually, a new passport.
“Preste atenção, querida” [Pay attention, honey.] The social elites are dumbfounded. . “Preste atenção, o mundo é um moinho.” [Pay attention, the world is a grinder.] A five-year-old defies their parents, because defiance is still a possibility; a teenager makes faces, ruining the family photo while challenging protocol and conventions — but also just because it’s so much more fun; a woman makes faces to have fun and shake off her dirt.
Whether in Ney Matogrosso’s version, or in the original song by Raul Seixas (1973), I find in Metamorfose Ambulante [Travelling Metamorphosis] the soundtrack for this moment. I see myself in these verses: “prefiro ser essa metamorfose ambulante / do que ter aquela velha opinião formada sobre tudo / Sobre o que é o amor / Sobre o que eu nem sei quem sou.” [I prefer to be this travelling metamorphosis / than to have that old formed opinion about everything / About love / about what I don’t even know who I am.]
Life becomes double and the generational conflict is intensified by mysticism and protest. The military dictatorship in Brazil has still many years to run its course. Her friend Belchior sings “Sei que assim falando pensas / esse desespero é moda em 76 / E eu quero é que esse canto torto / Feito faca corte a carne de vocês.” [I know when you talk that you’re thinking / this despair is fashionable in 76. / And I want this jagged singing / Like a knife to cut your flesh]. In the market, one can find cruzeiro banknotes stamped with the words: “Quem matou Herzog?” [Who killed Herzog?]
We review the history of human expression. Timeless masks, martyred saints, smiles yet to be decoded: the unwavering serenity of Venus, the absorption of the usurer, the cry of a boy bitten by a crab, the gaze of the accomplice and the witness, drunks, revellers, and figures of state. Many of the great portraits of humanity were already painted when photography was invented and shortened the time for posing.
In the studio, the bourgeois hold their breath. In institutions, people without options find themselves in front of the apparatus without ever coming to know the image it makes of them. These are clinical cases of hysteria, physical deformities, or “deviant” behaviour. And as the camera frees itself from the studio, gaining mobility, speed and definition, the forms of human violence reach extremes, and each new image, as surprising as it may be, is also a confirmation of the previous one.
What cinema has machined and what machines guess from our faces — fear, pain, anxiety, joy, gratitude or openness — has the uncontrollable force of an invasive plant that, on the plane of the visible, has barely taken over the dunes but has them thoroughly seeded.
“Sister Alma, what’s your first impression?” Confronted with twisted bodies and odd faces, we asked scientists, clinicians, and psychologists for answers. “I don’t know what to say, Doctor. At first her face her looks soft, almost childish, but then you see her eyes…”
There’s no point in quoting the original Swedish, few of us would be able to read it. Ingmar Bergman was one of the directors whose films were censored in Portugal by erasing some of the subtitles. The censors believed that, if there was nothing written under the image, the strangely close-up-shots of the female faces would fail to convey little else. What could be political or inappropriate about the female face? What harm could be done by such an image? If it wasn’t written, it was not declared. But beyond its experimental attributes, its burnt film and surprise frames, Persona (1966) is a mirror-film and survives until silence.
The faces are not mute and sometimes they come associated with founding discourses, heralds of change, or disconcerting laughter — an actor’s line, or a failure transformed into gesture and value. In 1963, Bob Dylan recorded his 115th Dream. The song has the particularity of being interrupted by a spontaneous laughter, underlining the free and delirious character of the lyrics — a convergence of times and narratives that evokes Arab (Ahab, from Mellville), the Pilgrims (the passengers of the Mayflower), various North American emblematic figures and Christopher Columbus, who arrives last. This creates a new awareness of the possibilities of history, the relationship with the myths and the limits of freedom, and what America — in all its scale and diversity — wants from, and for, itself.
Gretta spends some seasons in Europe, participating in various shows and meetings. In 1978/79 she presented Evocative Recollections at the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), at the Palazzo di Diamanti di Ferrara and at the Internationaal Cultureel Centrum (Antwerp), and in Brazil. A white cube is not necessarily opaque. A mosquito net over a bed — like a pelted refrigerator — is a good metaphor. The value is always Inside the White Cube, in the form of a work in process or an object on display. Gretta proposes a performance in which she interacts with a cat, blocking it from any escape, in a game of veiled intimacy, protected from gazes and mosquitoes. In the sequence of this experience, now without a cat, she created Metamorphic Recollections: a series of photographs printed on emulsified canvas, covered with lace. And if the cube was not evident, then one must look at Change and Appropriation of an Autonomous Identity (1980) — a traversal of planes and a breaking of orthogonal grids at the turn of the decade — a performance and photographic series created in collaboration with Elvio Becheroni.
Mick Jagger’s tongue, sticking out, is already a convention and the boldness of Madonna Louise Ciccone is already noticeable. In December 1983, Gretta lands for the first time in New York, where she will stay for 11 years. From this period, works such as Goya Time, Kabballah, or My Single Life in New York deserve deeper dives.
This is a time when you are still either a man or a woman, and limits and boundaries are defined from there — the rest are just the others. A woman goes through 12 jobs to escape what is expected of her, and later, she participates in the definition of a new stereotype — that of the young woman who goes against the family’s will to follow her passion for a certain idea of art and freedom.
The television film, The Portrait (Arthur Penn, 1993) tells the story of the artist’s reunion with her family and the process of completing a portrait — the real reconciliation will only take place in 2018. The characters find common ground, they renew their love, and the artist thrives. The paintings on display in the film’s final scenes were painted by Gretta, who participated in the production, and she appears, photo camera dangling from her neck, in the opening.
But the most curious thing about this film is the casting. Gregory Peck plays the artist’s father — he who had played Ahab in the 1956 Moby Dick’s film adaptation. The figures of authority, the father, the captain, overlap in the confrontation with the will to create.
Time is not enough, but it is time to realize that all these issues are connected: one cannot think about feminism without understanding freedom, without questioning politics or relating to the economy. What is all this here, or beyond our borders? And what times are we talking about?
Greta is an ever-expanding woman who’s determined to achieve her goals. Understanding the different periods of her life, she portrays herself in a silver cap, wig, turban or with burnt hair. These are never-before-seen images where she represents her figure in profile, as in a medallion, a cameo, or even a mug shot — because “there’s no culture without crime.”