Painting is nothing more than an idea of immaterial things, although they represent bodies, rendering only the order and the way of the species of things.
(Giovanni Pietro Bellori)

Undoubtedly, the exhibition opened by Cătălin Bălescu at the Art Museum in Craiova has a significant dimension in his artistic activity. First, because we are in front of a retrospective marked by a symptomatic omission. The painter chose to present an early phase, circumscribed temporally in the first decade after his debut, alongside the current stage delineated by Mannerism Studies. The series of numerical paintings was knowingly excluded, which invites/requires an explanation. If we accept the retrospective dimension, we must admit a voluntary reflection of the artist. Let us recall that the Latin origin of the word “retrospective” brings together two key words: retro (back) and specto/specio (to look, to contemplate), from which “spectator” and “show” derived. On the other hand, the retrospective character goes hand in hand with the dimension of introspection, decipherable as the artist’s fundamental attitude. The Latin etymology is once again emblematic: intro (inside) and again specto. Retro- and introspection seem to meet in the show of Cătălin Bălescu’s painting, inviting to contemplation and provoking the exercise of the (viewer’s) insight. The bridge between early and current paintings can be identified in the artist’s fundamental attitude to the image itself. I tried to decipher it, hoping to understand how it relates to the reality from which it extracts its subject and the pictorial matter that makes up/forms its object. So I discovered, step by step, a novel dimension, hidden in the play between visible/invisible, known/unknown, predictable/unpredictable.

Returning to the exhibition opened now, on the other hand, the choice of Craiova Museum seemed to me significant in terms of canceling the white cube; after the exhibition at the baroque palace in Timişoara in the spring of 2016, the painter chose now a space heavy not only with history but also with a setting that might seem at first sight uncomfortable and which is certainly a challenge for any contemporary artist. In fact, Cătălin Bălescu feels neither uncomfortable nor rejected by the opulence of the palace built by Gottereau for one of the richest families of the old kingdom at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. At a closer look, we discover that the Baroque provincial universe in Banat’s historic capital was replaced by Second Empire type eclecticism that dominates the Jean Mihail palace: the ambition of the architect responded to the Commissioner’s aspiration to implant something from the atmosphere of Paris in the capital of Oltenia, wanting to mark the periphery with a Western strategic dimension. Looking at the façade and the interior of the palace (especially the staircase and the honor room), we discover something of the famous Parisian hôtel particulier Jacquemart André (which shelters one of the most interesting examples of second empire collectionism in the original areas kept). Through an interesting symmetry, the same temporary gap – about a quarter of a century – separates the dates of construction of the two edifices and their transformation/consecration into the museum.

Cătălin Bălescu seems to have guessed that his works will naturally sit in the eclectic setting of the Craiova Palace, in which the styles seem to combine in a diffuse intertwining of untamed and neobaroque classicism, typical of the late architecture practiced by the French architect of Royal Romanian House. The above mentioned natural, however, sends us to another, more profound dimension, which is related to the ambiguous relationship of Cătălin Bălescu with modernity itself. He is modern in a more subtle way, hidden under the baroque layer of mannerism studies. I am convinced that the “baroque soul” – which I recalled when writing about the 2016 exhibition at Timişoara Museum of Art – really enlivens the paintings made after 2010. I also continue to believe that his pictorial exercises, limited to easel painting, methodically resume the illusionist formulas of the Baroque monumental painting practiced in the 17th century. They find the same pictorial virtuosity embodied in the profound “flesh” of the painting, distinct from the superficial layer of the painted surface.

Although more difficult to identify, I deciphered the connection between early and current paintings in some elusion of likeness; there is a definite assumption of a distance that interposes between the eye of the artist and the reality he looks at, in a concealment and disclosure motion. Early paintings were a definite proof of the acquisition and cultivation of a remarkable virtuosity of the painting understood not only as a craft, but also as a dialogue between f aire and magie. What strikes now, a quarter of a century away, is a certain obstinate cultivation of the fragment/detail where the fold prevails. Was it a first date with the baroque fold? Because the curtains tend to dominate all the compositions, folded in multiple ways, masking the landscape, dead nature and even the portrait in an image play that undermines the genres of painting to confusion. Looking retrospectively, the early paintings seem inspired by the lesson of the great modernity from Manet to Cézanne, which inevitably marked any renewed gesture in Romanian painting, becoming part of the pedagogy of Bucharest art school.

On the contrary, the present Baroque paintings astonish by the integrity of the compositions, in which the detail is sacrificed for the sake of the whole; the characters – when they appear – seem to float in a sort of magma that is no longer a landscape and goes far in the depth of the pictorial space, canceling the background. The goal is to create the illusion and deceive the eye – lo inganno degli occhi – closely following the precepts/exigencies of Baroque aesthetics. The principle of resemblance is again eluded in the play between opacity and transparency: opacity of poiesis and the transparency of mimesis.

From this perspective, we could say that the pictorial image owes its existence to its function of triggering a memory: either an ideal prototype or a recognizable object in nature. In both cases, the spectator has to guess what is/hides behind the representation. Letting him the freedom – more or less – to imagine what is not seen seems to be the purpose of the painting. The more we see only what is shown to us, the more we enjoy what remains hidden. The opposite is equally true: the more it hides, the more effort to discover what (barely) manifests itself gives rise to more delight.

The substance of the image always seems to guess something behind the painting, a project – here and there – at the origin of the painting, which is to be done in colored matter, often incandescent. Paraphrasing Diderot, it can be said that from the moment the eye approached the painting, to designate the visible and integrate it, it reveals itself in/through this advance, a frugality of desire, in which the painting becomes body and is ready to respond to a fantasy of the subject in front of the image. Thus, the cutting of the visible, the fragmentation of the painting reveals a dazzling, aura power, in the hesitant game between close and remote, between tactile and optical. Diderot summarizes, in fact, two fundamental problems of painting: the point of view or distance assumed by the painter towards the model and, on the other hand, the relationship between visual and tactile, or, in other words, the competition of sensations in the pictorial act. Both problems fall into – I believe – the fundamental dimension that determined the course of the history of painting: the imitation of nature, its assumption and/or its overcoming.

In the 17th century, Bellori exemplarily formulated the thesis of the overcoming of nature by imitation, when he stated that “fantasy makes the painter wiser than imitation does; because the latter does only the things it sees, while the former does also the things it does not see in relation to what it sees.” Before him, another theoretician, Franciscus Junius, evokes the gift of fantasy that “can also approach what it has not seen, because it proposes unknown things in relation to things as they are.” This trip to the history of Western artistic literature can – I believe – clarify the sources of early modernity the current stage of Cătălin Bălescu’s painting feeds on, dominated by a chimeric world populated by putti floating in (yet) imaginary gardens.
Perhaps the next step will be an exploration of the nature through the attention given to the natural or human landscape in the sense evoked by Diderot, who at the beginning of his Essay about painting recalled the nature as the original principle of legitimation, authentication, causality and necessity; a nature seen as an operator of multiplications, transformations, compromises: „La nature ne fait rien d’incorrect. Toute forme belle ou laide a sa cause, et de tous les êtres qui existent, il n’y a pas un qui ne soit comme il doit être”. (Nature does not do anything that is incorrect. Any beautiful or ugly form has its cause, and from all existing beings, none is not what it should be). Thought/viewed like this, nature becomes the place of differentiation, variation, but also divergence. Nature has the ability to regenerate itself, to deduce itself from one side of it. The classic ideal of overcoming nature can no longer work in this case, because what is counted as an accident – something to be avoided, eluded in representation – comes into the relationship with the whole and can no longer be abstracted from it.
Looking at the recognizable landscape fragments in the painting of Cătălin Bălescu I feel an artistic will that will recover fragments from a nature abstracted from a familiar universe of the artist, defined by the Danube’s elbow at Cetate or by the obscure monuments of Maglavit and Dobridor. The film made together with Nicu Ilfoveanu and presented as a welcome surprise in this exhibition reveals this new type of exploration of forgotten territories, rediscovered by the attentive poetic eye of the contemporary visual artist.

The drawing permanently accompanied the art work of the painter Cătălin Bălescu, from the sketch size/quality to large sizes, and can be seen in the mirror of the painting covered with colors. Let us not forget that in classical tradition, the drawing is the visible/invisible of the composition. The circumscription of the form implies its limits: “Il ne se donne point de visible sans terme” (There is no visible without end) Poussin said. What can be circumscribed, is lost sight of. It is the drawing that discerns, becoming an analytical tool that divides the whole to know it better, to master it. The relationship that the drawing establishes between the whole and the part, under the sign of the fantasy of absolute visibility, is the one established according to the model of an anatomized, motionless, perfectly controllable body in the smallest detail. Poussin also spoke of the “two ways to see the objects, one is to simply see them, the other to consider them carefully. To simply see is nothing but naturally receive in the eye the form and likeness of the things seen. But seeing an object by contemplating it means that, beyond the mere natural reception of form in the eye, we seek with special attention the means of knowing this object well.” This is – I believe – the lesson of the drawing practiced by the painter, and his presence in the Salon of the Craiova Palace has the value of a memento that will remind the viewer that the drawing is (as Roger de Piles stated with scholastic ingenuity at the end of the 17th century) the proximate genre of visual arts, and the color/coloring, the specific difference of the painting.

Ruxandra Demetrescu
May 2018