Foundation projects cultural heritage into the 21st century
In 1950, Willem de Kooning developed his aggressive Women series; Marc Chagall painted The Bride and Jackson Pollock painted Lavender Mist No.1. In 1950 Edward Caruana Dingli passed away. He was still painting idealised portraits of women with rosy cheeks.I
t’s all about context. And in this case, “cross-referencing” is unavoidable. The Maltese and international context of the early 20th century should always feature when discussing the prolific output and calibre of a painter such as Edward Caruana Dingli.
The short list of works above only serves to demonstrate that in 1950, action painting, abstract expressionism and symbolism were among the key active movements in the art world. And yet, in sunny Malta we seemed to have been blissfully unaware of the goings on abroad. This much becomes all too evident in the Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950) Portraits, Views And Folkloristic Scenes exhibition presently underway at the Palace in Valletta.
Eight years have elapsed since Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti organised one of their extensive and memorable shows. The foundation has been almost solely responsible for elevating the status of Maltese cultural heritage by making public and privately-owned objets d’art more accessible to the public.
Moreover, the foundation has instilled a sense of pride in the Maltese by making their temporary shows available at a small yet reasonable price. This has proven that the public cannot and shouldn’t expect “culture” to be delivered free on a silver platter – we all have a duty to safeguard and promote our heritage. Having said this, I feel compelled to say that there seems to have been quite an issue with the ticket price this time round – with Heritage Malta claiming it wanted visitors to pay the same price (€10) as those visiting the Palace State Rooms. Which is ridiculous, to say the least. This is a temporary show, organised by a private foundation and the National Agency should be assisting not hindering such projects.
Edward Caruana Dingli was undoubtedly a virtuoso artist whose works have been analysed, appreciated and to a certain extent, criticised to death. So I honestly do not feel the need to go down that road all over again. Repetition is boring and “space” is valuable. Plus, there are more important facets to this show that require comment and consideration.
Caruana Dingli was indeed a precursor of modern art in Malta as he was director of the Government School of Art; however, he had a very rigid and formulaic model to which his students were made to adhere to. So much so that his students’ works often resemble his own (although this might have been the result of his own retouching, or adding finishing touches to his students’ works) as much as they resemble one another’s. This strict work ethic might have also held him back from experimentation and ultimately from evolving beyond a certain extent as an artist.So I must call a spade a spade, because this show has both strong and praiseworthy aspects as it has limitations. Writers are often in the habit of pussyfooting around issues about which they feel strongly for fear of upsetting any of the 400,000 inhabitants of this island.
Despite the excellent and praiseworthy job undertaken by the Fondazzjoni which also includes a hefty publication, I cannot refrain from commenting and criticising the hanging and space distribution of the show. An important exhibition such as this shouldn’t have been treated with the same mindset used for the planning/allocation of works in a historic house museum, or a home for that matter – this is a temporary show which necessitated a 21st century model, and not one resembling the picture galleries at the Château de Chantilly. Each of the paintings deserves visitors’ attention and scrutiny but this is hardly possible.
More is not more. And 254 works is definitely more. True, the collection amassed is remarkable, and viewers are truly being given a unique opportunity to view this artist’s work. But the individual pieces should not be fighting for attention; viewers should not have to crane their necks for most of the duration of their visit to properly admire the works on show; nor should they have to place their backs against the wall to get a good enough glimpse of the paintings. There are simply too many works in the restricted space, and their close proximity strongly limits the appreciation of the many intense and minute details. Fondazzjoni should either have placed a limitation on the number of entries or chosen an alternative venue.
An exhibition is meant to be a holistic experience – it is far from being just about the works on show or the technique and bravura of an artist. The latter is undisputed. So much so that the designed labyrinthine structure and the colour(s) imparted unto it, the captions, the typographic elements are well-thought out and definitely set a standard. The idea of including bozzetti of some of the more prominent works and the audiovisual show serves to demonstrate that the audience’s interpretation was considered in more ways than one.
I must commend Fondazzjoni on the guising of the ornate damask-covered walls. There is not a glimpse of their usual vestige. The works stand out and thoroughly dominate the exhibition area – not once was I inclined to admire the gorgeous timber roofs or Matteo Perez d’Aleccio’s frescoes. Another highly commendable aspect is the utilisation of gorgeous banners in St George’s Square, which really set the scene for the exhibition and helps direct passers-by to the eye candy. The exhibition also serves as a visual documentary and this show should really spur the proper study of fashion trends in the first half of last century.
This is Fondazzjoni’s 11th show and the foundation has dedicated their time and efforts to the fine arts and a visual artist – the decorative arts having been set aside for the time being.I do hope they will consider showcasing the works of Willie Apap for instance in the future, Antonio Sciortino or Emvin Cremona who deserve an updated study and a public reintroduction.
■ The exhibition runs till June 6.