Mannerism and soteriology

The Mannerism and soteriology

Luigi Bambulea

The level break leading to the formation of the Mannerist conception of art and world can be explained by the breaking of the knot, the “vanishing point” that “held” the Renaissance world in its mathematical coherence. Pieces of the cosmos float in the void of the Mannerist world, reacting chaotically to new, hitherto hidden laws of attraction and repulsion. What was geometric structure – „mathesis” – is tuned into a surface covered with signs, a recomposable surface, through circular permutations, like the world it represents. (Victor Ieronim Stoichiță, Manierismul sau despre triumful „invențiunii” – Mannerism or the triumph of “invention”)



In a short fantasy prose – one of the last he wrote – Borges imagines an anonymous string of privileged people transmitting Shakespeare’s memory to each other through random phone calls. Each becomes – for a while – the host of the entire horizon of consciousness of the Elizabethan writer (whom literary history places at the intersection of Renaissance and Baroque literature). However, cultural memory is both blessing and curse, so the holder is soon compelled to pass the gift on, thereby evading folly and contributing to the making of a timeless cultural community. (Herman Hesse would call it the glass bead game; Arthur Lovejoy would call it the great chain of being.) Before Borges, in Gog, Papini imagined a letter in which a friend bequeaths his own soul to him before committing suicide, because “a man does not have enough of a single soul: he always lacks some inclination, some experience, some form of skill. With two souls, you will be able to surpass others and yourself.” In a similar way (but not in fiction, but in immediate artistic reality), Cătălin Bălescu became the testamentary legatee of a cultural age. He does not recover, but summarizes Mannerism in today’s visual culture; in other words, he neither celebrates nor commemorates, but offers another destiny for a (still) fruitful and – in a given context – possibly salutary creative mode.

Far from sentimental effusions or plastic innocence, the artist cultivates a systematic amor intellectuallis for this creative mode, for the imaginary that structures it and, above all, for the model of the universe assumed. The artist bears two souls – a post-modern soul and a mannerist soul – that is to say, he has synthesized creative formulas, temperamental accents and ways of thematizing the world, belonging to chronologically distant but typologically convergent paradigms. The cerebral ecstasies of his canvases do not express a pathetic commitment to the questions that pursue him. The mists populated by evanescent beings or – from earlier projects – the collective paintings with physiognomies or diffuse silhouettes are sequences of a consistent project, whose dominant feature is not spontaneity but contemplation (to which the ecstatic mood of the characters corresponds). But beyond the instruments of a tempered academicism (anatomical study, classical repertoire, allegory, palimpsest, intertextuality), the composition here is energised by forces, tensions and various directions of movement (reminiscent of the vortex image in the modernist poetics of the refined Ezra Pound). Open and dynamic, the work is spoken as it rotates, thus acquiring the character of an almost audible aria. Its leitmotif is the crossing of the horizon (upwards and inwards). The virtues of Mannerism are therefore exploited here not so much as tools or stylistic solutions, but more as ways of expressing a problematic cultural and spiritual situation.
Mannerist „opera aperta”

Perhaps the most comprehensive and appropriate concept of modern art has been formulated, for over half a century – and not by chance – in Italian. In an attempt to synchronise definitions of art and artistic object with paradigmatic shifts in the fields of science and culture, Umberto Eco formulated the hypothetical model of the open work. However, what initially seemed to be a peculiarity of art after the Impressionist experience turned out to be a condition of any aesthetic experience. Moreover, the category of openness had already become – beyond the field of art – a cultural symbol, a true hallmark of the modern age of Western thought, which generated a new model of the world. In particular, from an aesthetic point of view, the double openness – of meaning and of the structure of the artistic object – defines a conception (of world and of art) of a new type, although the intuitions, anticipations and precedents come from the consciousness of post-Renaissance man and accompany a broad and serious cultural evolution.

For example, in incompiuto and in non finito – which in the Cinquecento achieve the status of visual poetics – the postclassical vision of the art object is already insinuated. According to the Mannerist aesthetics of the manifold, crystallised in the 16th century, the artistic object is geometric and stable (hence circumscribed) by virtue of nature, but variable and infinite (hence open) by virtue of the imagination. This vision can be integrated into a much broader conception of an infinite universe in change and becoming (testimony to a continuous creation and at the same time preserving creation, according to the theological and scientific language of early Modernity, Mannerist and Baroque). From this point of view (i.e. in so far as, through its plurality and dynamism, it expresses the type of early modern thought), Mannerism, assumed as a creative formula and as an inner disposition by Cătălin Bălescu, is not only the symptom of a late phase in the evolution of the Renaissance, but also of a general sensibility and conception that found a channel of manifestation and expression in art.

The movement of forms as the development of the work

At the heart of this new image of the world is movement, as a descriptive concept and as an instrument of knowledge. Like openness, discussed above, movement itself has a category status and, more importantly, explains not only phenomena of the system of nature but also elements of the system of culture. In other words, abandoning static models of the universe also implies overcoming inert models of art. It is enlightening that Umberto Eco draws attention to the dynamic structure of the open work: openness means variable geometry, both semantically and structurally. On the one hand, the work of art has ambiguous meaning (its meanings are not reducible to a single message or univocal statement). On the other hand, it is not the work that imagines the movement, but the movement that imagines the work; movement is therefore not content, but the principle of composition, i.e. the structure of the visual system of the image. The source of this movement is the tension experienced and then invested by the creator in the act and gestures of creation.

Volatility and dynamics – present even in Cătălin Bălescu’s apparently static compositions – express not so much the movement in space of the represented forms, but primarily the movement of the work from its genesis to the moment of reception. Therefore, looking at the modern work, open under the aspect of movement, I witness the origin of the work of art (in the same way that cosmology infers the genesis of the universe from its accelerated expansion). In this sense, the open work is the work that is created before the eye that looks at it, an eye that complements the eye that first looked at it. The work is no longer a signifying singularity, but a signifying becoming, a structure of meaning in motion, in which I myself, as viewer and receiver, (move) and (understand). Its undulatory character is inscribed in its condition of openness, and often – as in Cătălin Bălescu’s art – in the very variation of plastic values and in the oscillatory aspect of the spectra it mediates. Movement is therefore not time, but becoming. Looking at these rustling, whispering shadows (from this and previous albums), you participate in their tension towards the zenith, their dynamic expectation – for they all seem suspended in non-time and at the same time moving.

Between Postmodernism and Mannerism

The fact that in the last decade (i.e. at the end of the postmodern eon) a European artist has developed a project to summarize Mannerism – with its open and dynamic visuality – is a symptomatic conjunction for a certain state of mind, for a particular feeling of existence, for a specific vision of the world. The same Umberto Eco, among others, has established the equivalence between Mannerism and Postmodernism (see Marginalia and glosses to “The Name of the Rose”) and it is conclusive that this equivalence is also manifested at the level of cognitive style, as shown in the thesis of logical Mannerism and postmodern sophistry (about which Professor Marta Petreu wrote in Romanian). I therefore believe that there are grounds to integrate Cătălin Bălescu’s project in a broad context, considering it not only as a direct expression of conscious or subliminal choices, stylistic sensibilities or a creative experiment, but also as a symptom of a more general phenomenon, in which art is naturally involved, even engaged. Ernst Robert Curtius had for many decades theorised Mannerism as a cultural style, recurrent in the history of the West, and had noted the perennial alternation, defining European culture, between Classicism and Mannerism (considered typological); the latter relapses in the context of major identity crises (and especially at the end of cultural cycles). Thus, in the neo-mannerist project that the artist develops here, I see the re-edition and adaptation of a universal mannerism (John Shearman), of a typological mannerism (therefore not strictly post-renaissance), of a mannerism that now succeeds modernist “classicism”.

However, it must be said that the return to Mannerism does not here indicate an identification with the postmodern ethos, which itself has Mannerist overtones. Rather, in this return we must decipher the project of a painter who is trying to retrace the path of the Western artistic tradition, to the “knot” from which the – problematic – evolution that would later lead to Postmodernism was drawn. This itinerary expresses the desire to choose, starting from that node, which is historical Mannerism, another route, another evolution, within which the figurative tradition can be fruitful (and not inadmissible and impracticable, as the dominant paradigm from the avant-garde onwards declares). This Mannerist summary contains a manifesto for a new figurativism (proven by the artist including sketches, studies and drawings, to which he gives, in exhibitions and catalogues, the same status as that of the final works); this figurativism is nourished by the (naturally reinterpretable) tradition that the dominant paradigm in the 20th century has concealed. This is why I personally hesitate to associate the art I admire in this album with Postmodernism. Rather, I see it as a postlude to Postmodernism (and as an anamnestic signal). Although technically akin to Postmodern experimentalism, Cătălin Bălescu’s art seems to me very different in spirit from Postmodern ideologies, illusions and excesses. That perennial, typological mannerism, evoked above, is directly inspired by historical Mannerism and is practiced, here, against the background of a classical plastic memory, and not within the framework of avant-garde iconoclasm, from which postmodern artistic visuality was inspired and through which it legitimized itself.

Mannerism and cultural soteriology

The observation of some theorists regarding Mannerist relapse in difficult eras offers a clue to the stakes of the art I am commenting on. The task of the Mannerist formula – integrated, sometimes, as a transitional style, “Hellenistic” and “Asiatic”, of the baroque eon (Eugenio d’Ors) – is to suggest answers or solutions to an inner crisis; this formula therefore has a soteriological function – it is, of course, an immanent soteriology, associated with the Romantic notion of culture religion – and thus outlines the conditions of a salvation through visuality. More concretely (and applied to the present case), the artist’s response to a society whose founding myths are in crisis is the (emphatic) redesign of the transcendent landscapes where these myths were once situated. The artist’s response to a visual culture that has exhausted its resources of dreaming and invention is to revisit the vibrating and diffuse territory of the totality of forms. The artist’s response to a massively ideologised field of art is to re-establish the imagination as a visionary faculty, capable of infering („per speculum et in aenigmate”) hidden or culturally repressed truths. In other words, in a doctrine of art defined (in Bourdieu’s sense) by field, role and functions, here a demiurgic and visionary vocation of the artist is evoked, here the work is reclaimed in the traditional (I would say “classical”) sense of the notion, here a style (the mannerist style) is readapted not only as a mode of expression but, above all, as a state.

It is a utopian situation in the mythological sense (I am referring to a personal mythology), but anti-utopian from an ideological point of view. The creator inscribes religion within the limits of pure art (art whose tradition he participates in plastically) and extracts from its latencies, by means of vision, the forms that primarily signify openness. Thus, he creates a horizon (which goes beyond the restrictive space – limited to dense, robust and inert forms – of his early works). In this sense, opera aperta in this art means a dynamic image, a multiplicity of forms, a visual and semantic ambiguity, but also an opening up of values, an interiority gap, a spiritual opening up. Therefore, I suspect that mannerism, which structures and legitimises Cătălin Bălescu’s approach, is only one project in a larger programme, i.e. the overture to a work which, having already had its dominant theme and motifs, is still conceiving its future movements.

The rising perspective on the world
This is the ideational, axiological, conceptual and aesthetic framework that explains, for me, the contents and tools of the present painting. All its elements and coordinates restore the early modern (I would say inaugural modern) perspective on the world, typical of the Mannerist era, a world reflected (therefore understood) through the mirror of the imaginary. In the opposite sense of Postmodernism and its plunging perspective on existence (I use the notion of perspective in the Panofskyan sense, as “symbolic form”), Cătălin Bălescu’s art proposes a rising perspective: diaphanous skies, angelic spectra, fluid horizons, vaporous volumes, deep shortcuts, di soto in su angles of view, resonant chromatics, blurred flights, silhouettes suspended in the undefined, disparate physiognomies, all these designate the plus pole, reaccessed on the imaginary vein.

This is the meaning I evoked the religion of art and immanent soteriology: salvation is not revealed (and therefore descended from transcendence, as in the icon and religious painting), but sought and invoked from immanence, through the release of vision and pathos, through the vertical reorientation of the gaze, through the effort to rediscover the conditions of salvation within the limits – and with the possibilities – of art. The “Great Hypothesis” – that of salvation – to which Victor Ieronim Stoichiță referred in a well-known essay dedicated to Bernini, is here the prerequisite of a search detached from the object (and, therefore, installed in plastic illusion, not mimesis). Perhaps more correctly, unlike the Baroque Hypothesis, the Mannerist Hypothesis is not salvation, but revelation, obtained, via analogiae, through the possibilities of the imaginative faculty (and reproduced specularly and spectacularly through the multispectral and dynamic image). Here, for example, is the meaning and the stakes of the large vertical composition, in which a theoria with angelic silhouettes evolves towards the zenith; all those spectres (from the family of late Renaissance, mannerist, baroque, rococo sacred figures) are in a liberating ascent, the purpose of which remains the view cast over the chiaroscuro of matter. Exploited in all the compositions through sfumato, imprecise contours, spectral presences and indeterminate spatiality, chiaroscuro marks the border between dimensions, designates the still persistent materiality, but also suggests the supralunar view. Reflected through the magic lantern of a painter who is at once visionary and illusionist, this evanescent view is created from spirit and dream. The eschatological scenes and scenarios here are articulated between Jesuit spiritual exercises and la vida es sueño.

Vision and phantasm

Therefore, I don’t think I’m wrong in seeing this art as a specular, spectacular and speculative exercise. It mediates visions, it stages its own genesis, it problematizes its own contents; it reflects the scintillations of the imagination and reflects on its ideational background. It is an attempt to reshape creative inertia through the virtues of Mannerism. A Mannerism which, in the era of the Counter-Reformation, synchronised with the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, exercises in which subjectivity was, for the first time, programmatically and systematically exhibited, and spirituality manifested as image and through the imaginary. In the famous vision of Manresa (recounted in paragraph 30 of The Pilgrim’s History), the Jesuit mentor plunged his face into a deep river, and the ecstasy it provoked opened his “eyes of the mind”, bringing him revelations of “spirituality, faith and letters”. In the same way, now, in the selective painting presented in this album, the external nature is replaced by internal nature, the study of the object becomes projection of the subject, the image manifests the vision, the reflex becomes reflection. Within this framework, the planes of interiority (religious values, cultural values) interfere and merge.

The pseudo-portraits, reinterpretations, quotations, mosaic paintings, photomontages (or “stamp” sheets containing blurred portraits) – all common to Cătălin Bălescu (and brought together in the 2007 album) – are, in turn, instruments of this mechanism of reflection, engaged in the visionary approach. However, I would not rule out the phantasmatic nature of these faces taken from the nebula of memory, imagination or vision. Moreover, some dramatic accents, highlighted by intense chromatic contrasts (especially in recent works), confirm the dreamlike source and agonistic nature of the series of physiognomies, shadows and appearances. They may be signs of the Uncrossed, but they may just as well be precipitations of inner, intra-psychic conflicts. And it is not excluded that some of them may host projections of the artist self, be camouflaged self-portraits, shadows of the creator. Thus Mannerism exhibits interiority once again, using the imaginary and the image as media for (i)radiating the subject into the object. This is why, for example, some of the round dances with putti (seen spectroscopically or through fluorescence) are anxiogenic; although they are not nightmarish and do not evoke the absurd, they do not always remain in the vicinity of the sublime. They often seem to be dreamlike remnants charged with emotion; they can be associated with the “energy-characters” Cristian-Robert Velescu evokes in the accompanying text of the artist’s previous album.

An apocryphal Eastern tradition states that the souls of unbaptised dead children wander in weeping mists until the Judgement; not once, in the imagery of the art reviewed here, the landscapes of infant nudes floating in the mists evoke this fragment of popular religiosity, somehow suggesting the theme of purgatory and insinuating the atmosphere of tense expectation. Their real significance probably remains suspended in the indeterminacy of the artist’s creative unconscious. I would like to read in them the fragile – yet impetuous – condition of our entire cultural tradition, endangered but remaining, which haunts us not because the past is obsessive, but because the present is the synthesis of the past with the future. It is to be assumed that, in his next search, the artist will give a meaning – that is, a status and a direction – to these shadows (which come from Mannerism and which he assumes only to give a face to the agonies of the present), and then we will be able to decide how the borrowed “soul” (of) yesterday’s Mannerism has saved and enriched us, how we have saved or enriched – through it – the perspective on the world and humanity (implicitly art) of tomorrow.