Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Circus Is Coming to Town" by Matei Serban, A Must See Show in Bucharest

By Steven Thompson

The genesis of Matei’s characters, their symbolism, as well as his interest in the circus can be found in his early association, beginning at the age of 13, with Traian Alexandru Filip, an internationally renowned etching artist and painter. As Traian’s apprentice, Matei studied the à la paupée technique of etching and in 1984 was asked to assist in printing a number of etchings for Traian’s upcoming exhibition in Italy. Among those works was one titled “Il circo” in which circus characters and animals represent the difficulties of Romanian life under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. The symbols in that etching were repeatedly used by Traian as his work became progressively darker and pessimistic in contrast to the regime’s officially sanctioned and purposely optimistic art of social realism.[1] Traian began to let his art show his growing contempt for the regime and to raise international awareness of the plight of the Romanian people through symbolism using biblical, mystical and medieval compositions.

Matei uses many of the same compositional themes in his paintings to speak of the societal issues facing all of us today and to deliver his own social messages. However, Matei uses humanity instead of animals or objects as his symbols. More specifically he uses the flawed, troubled, rejected or simply average parts of humanity, to communicate his social messages. His paintings examine our daily struggle walking the line between right and wrong, strength and weakness, and generally dealing the daily ‘circus’ of our society’s characters, especially those in positions of power. Or perhaps we are the circus performers in a society in which the ruling elite benefit from our work and the only chance we have of improving our status is to make it to center ring of the three ring circus.

The “Circus is Coming to Town” series is the modern equivalent of the mythical with unique but outcast characters, such as the giant woman and the dwarf-strong man in “The Arena” as well as the hunchback and the contortionist in “The Caravan”. The characters in the paintings, some repeated from his previous works, have a common element. They are solitary, generally not interacting with others, and in the few instances where characters do show a connection, it is impersonal. In fact no character looks at another and only two in the entire exhibit actually look at the viewer. Each person crowded around the table in the “The Graal” is unaware or indifferent to the others surrounding them, a reflection of our society today.

Matei’s artistry in composition, skilled use of symbolism, and supreme craft of execution create works that are immediately attractive while also possessing a much deeper meaning. His work draws you in, forcing you to study it and contemplate the composition and message. The characters, individually and together, are the symbols, communicating Matei’s social critiques. It is the viewer who must ‘read’ the paintings and the messengers therein.

This exhibit in the Romanian National Library brings the story of Matei’s art full circle. Designed and started in 1986 as a principle part of Ceausescu’s ‘celebration of socialism’ development project, the National Library building today hosts the work of one of Romania’s most significant artists who has carried on the social criticism begun by the most important artistic voice of the communist era which the dictatorship failed to silence.

[1] Carroll, Tonya Turner, “Traian Alexandru Filip: His Art and Life”, 1997

Steven Thompson is a consultant  specialised on Eastern European Markets and an art collector

Grand Circus - The Caravan
oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm, 2013

 Grand Circus - The Graal
oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm, 2013

oil on oak, 165 x 40 cm

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