La pensée moderne s’est peut‑être inventé le baroque comme son miroir. (Gérard Genette)

I shall begin these lines about Cătălin Bălescu’s exhibition at the Art Museum of Timișoara by specifying that I wrote them before seeing it in the baroque palace’s premises; for one of the drawbacks of writing about an exhibition before the opening is the very inability to see the end result of an artistic and curatorial project. In its absence, an imaginative exercise was imperatively necessary, the only one that allowed me to see with the „mind’s eye” how the paintings I knew only from the artist’s studio are arranged in a (otherwise familiar) space.


In this case, however, the drawback turned into a significant challenge, because it revealed a unique dimension, hidden in the play between the visible and the invisible, the known and unknown, the predictable and the unpredictable. It also urged me to consider the distance separating the workshop, as locus of artistic practice, museum, as a place of reflection, not of sensation (to quote Hans Belting). Leaving the studio where he was born and entering the exhibition space, any artistic object ex-poses itself to an inevitable trans-formation: deep operation, precisely because it is inevitable. For—if we are to believe Manet, for whom to expose was vital—the very act of exposure would (could) have the ability to enliven the work, giving a (new) vitality. From this perspective one can understand—and identify—different strategies of the artists from the non-discriminatory ambition to expose as much as possible, to the cautious apprehension guided rather selectively.


Coming back to the exhibition where Cătălin Bălescu ex-poses himself in the museum of Timișoara, both the assumptions and the conclusions seem obvious. The first concern the substance itself of its artistic production, the latter refer to the significance of its presence in the baroque palace „from the edge of the Habsburg Empire”. Both are entitled to be analyzed with equal attention, because both of them can draw viewer/onlooker’s path.


I shall naturally start by trying to decipher the artistic dimension of the author. What we see in this exhibition is his „path” to the world of painting: a winding road that started from digital paintings and reached the compositions touched by an undeniably baroque „soul”. In painter’s vision, the presence of the former seems to be a princeps moment from where the latter start and claim themselves. It can also equally emphasize the distance separating them and this is the exercise that I propose below. The common element I identified consists (only) in a tenacious (re)visiting of an imaginary museum, out of which Cătălin Bălescu seems to „feed” himself with virtuosity and whose landmarks are, unless I am mistaken, the great „discoveries” of pictorial modernity: both in its extended meaning, from the mature Renaissance onwards, until the one circumscribed to the great renewal inaugurated in the 19th century with Manet. It is not by chance that the artist took (over) Manet’s mask to look back to the great masters. For who could offer a more effective lesson to understand them in order to quote them and, by quoting them, to manipulate them in a new context, that takes lesson itself „against the grain”? Deliberately, the figure of Velázquez insistently returns both in the numerical paintings and in a recent paper, written as a portrait medallion. It is an explicit tribute to the one consecrated by Manet himself as „the painter of painters”. Velázquez is equally the artist who opens another gate; and here lies hidden the key that helped me decipher Cătălin Bălescu’s painting: that is that the lesson of classical modernity that opened his eyes to the Baroque that, as I said earlier, infuses his works with its unmatched substance, from what a new stage might be called. Having the most baroque example of artistic literature in my mind, that is Marco Boschini’s La Carta del navegar pitoresco, I would say that in his own journey on the „painting’s sea”,  Bălescu is haunted by the Baroque ghost that seems to show him the „way”. In discovering this way, he uses the Aristotelian Spyglass (Cannocchiale Aristotelico) imagined in the middle of the 17th century by Emanuele Tesauro to exalt the new values of painting: ingegno, a faculty superior to intellect, as it produces argutezza or acutezza more important than beauty itself. The result is the illusionism, the supreme quality of the Baroque art, able to cause pleasure by inganno—deception; and deception, in its turn, gives birth to astonishment: stupore and meraviglia. Let us not forget that the perspective baroque treaty due to Pietro Accolti was called Lo inganno degli occhi; remember then the words of Sforza Pallavicino, who published in Rome, in 1662, Trattato dello stile e del dialogo, dedicated to Padre Oliva, leader of the Jesuits and responsible for the Baroque decoration of the church Gesu: „the better a craftsman in the arts deceives, the more he is more worthy of praise, for when the deception is discovered, it engenders an even greater admiration”.


The pictural substance created in recent years by Cătălin Bălescu can be deciphered—from this perspective—by the binomial ingegno-inganno: its exercises, confined to easel painting, reproduce methodically the illusionistic formulas of the monumental painting practiced in the 17th century by Pietro da Cortona or Andrea Pozzo. The purpose of these exercises seems obvious: most of all, one can see a definite pictorial virtuosity, manifested in what Didi-Huberman called la chair, „the meat” of the painting, deep, distinct from the inevitably superficial „skin”. This almost visceral dimension defines the pictorial matter in certain paintings of Cătălin Bălescu: they are the ones prevailing and „calling the tone” to the exhibition now.
Or, in other words, they circumscribe the Baroque stage of his current painting. I tried to look at it and understand its specific dimension in relation to the proximate gender of the Baroque painting in Seicento: proceeding cautiously, I would say that what differentiates them is the iconographic size and the purpose. The masters of the illusionism of historical baroque were primarily servants of the post-Tridentine Ecclesia triumphans, i.e. their art was (also) a privileged way of persuasion, a lesson so clearly formulated in the counter-reform ambience. In this sense, the illusionism could be an „effective weapon” to convince the believer naturally conjugating and allying with mysticism. In Bălescu’s painting, the themes are diffuse, sometimes abstruse, the characters seem to spring from a primordial magma, with no iconographic constraint.

Aware or not, Cătălin Bălescu (re)lives the eternal classical-Baroque tension in its artistic activity: in this phase, the balance is definitely in favor of a Baroque expressiveness, which can be deciphered using the late or last considerations of Heinrich Wölfflin in Gedanken zur Kunstgeschichte: Baroque does not represent the decline, but the natural development from the Renaissance classicism to „late style” prevailing ever since, characterized by a fundamentally optical dimension, according to an internal law of formal development dominated by (pure) visuality. All these traits are found in Cătălin Bălescu’s painting, that is, from this point of view, a triumph of the pictorial (in relation to linear) and implicitly of the color (relative to drawing). Maybe that’s why the author chose to expose the drawing avariciously, though reduced to „draft” and „sketch”, but inviting the curious onlooker to discover him in the portfolios made available. He seems aware that the sketch and/or outline are the most obvious demonstration of the mnemonic process the art implies and the reference to it:  the imagination is called to complete the artist’s project, to substitute the absence of those elements that can complete the picture of reality. Imagination is here a derivation of memory. I tried to redo the inevitably imperfect and fanciful script of the painter at work, starting this time from the dilemmic reference to the model.


When the painter—after looking at the model—turns his eyes toward the easel, the model disappeared. When he has the model in front of his eyes, the painting disappears in its turn. As Diderot shows, the painter discovers every time something else, someone else behind the canvas. Behind the representation, there is the irreversible loss of what is represented, as its image is there to convince us that it no longer exists: si videbis non videris Amor says to Psyche when she insists to see him. It results here the equivalence between seeing and believing. The representation corresponds to a desire: a desire translated into the need to isolate the simulacrum, to frame it and adore it. So we can distinguish the idea of loss due to a strange and also spectacular dichotomy: the pictorial signified or signifier; the figure or the matter; the whole or the part. The significant production of the painting should guarantee the clarity, the legibility and transparency of the image. But once the eyes approached the painting to designate and tote up the visible, an economy of desire is revealed to us in/through this advance, where the painting becomes body—therefore equipped with the symptom and ready to respond to a fantasy of the subject before the image. Thus, cutting the visible, the fragmentation of the painting reveals a blinding aura power, a bit hesitantly between near and far, between tactile and optical.


I like to imagine this scenario as part of the road that bore Cătălin Bălescu from his workshop in Bucharest to the baroque palace in Timișoara. I have visited his workshop in Pangratti only twice in the last four years: at the end of January 2012, when I discovered with amazement—stupore—his first „baroque” paintings. I followed their trail at the end of December 2015 to reconfirm my initial intuition. The baroque palace in Timișoara, on the other hand, is part of my intellectual and affective memory, inextricably linked with my own meditations inspired by the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl. In 1992, when the palace was still affected by the value of Alterswert, wearing dramatically the mark of a time devoid of clemency, it seemed to me that updating Riegl’s lesson about Baroque could be beneficial for the theoretical perspective of a new artistic historiography. I will especially insist on the concept of Baroque artistic will, defined by an exacerbated sensitivity and enhanced subjective-optical conveyance as principle of continuity and renewal on the North-South and antique-modern axis. In addition to the positive recovery of baroque as tension between sensitivity and will, I think the distinction between local, provincial styles and the central Italian style is interesting. Some of those comments continue to still „haunt” me even today: I still think Timișoara offers a coherent testimony of a provincial baroque, both in the urban fabric, and through its monuments, especially the palace, meanwhile restored and hosting the art museum of Banat.


The distance separating the workshop of the painter Cătălin Bălescu from the Timișoara museum will not be cancelled until the opening of the exhibition. Until then, the only connecting link is the view—pre-eminently Baroque—of the paintings created by the artist with a convex mirror, which is part of his favourite instruments. The world of his painting seen through the mirror is to me a pre-eminently baroque metaphor and at the same time an Auftakt of the exhibition show to come. It will surely stand under the sign of happy exception: for if usually contemporary art is creeping in contradiction to the stylistically and historically stodgy atmosphere, in this case, the painting will discuss naturally, harmoniously with the Baroque space in which it will sovereignly install.