Caruana Dingli’s views on contemporary artists
The artist Robert Caruana Dingli’s next letter from London to my father, Vincenzo Bonello, on January 1, 1915, turns embarrassingly emotional, written “with tears in my eyes” to “good old Bonell” – who was nine years younger.
The two were unashamedly infatuated with art as the guiding energy of life and “both think so differently from the ordinary way of the public in general, we have found our beautiful world, a world of eternal happiness and joy that death has neither power to destroy”.
They had come “to understand the higher aims of existence, we are growing out of the ordinary vulgar life of vegetation”. His ideal aimed at a life “shut in far from the outside weak and despicable influences that spring so easily from the minds of the ignorant, the thoughtless and unimaginative minds”.
The writer here reverts to the Rembrandt painting he had come to the UK to sell – there were no export restrictions on works of art then. He had left it with a dealer, Mr Hughes, to show to interested customers, and their agreement had expired at the end of the year.
He would now renegotiate with the greedy art broker the terms of that deal which had originally included a clause that the sale price would be split 50-50 between them – now not more than a 25 per cent commission and the painting no longer to be kept by Hughes, but to be placed in safe deposit. If Hughes refused, another dealer would have it.
Robert harboured no doubt at all that the painting – a portrait of a Muslim corsair – was a genuine Rembrandt. He had undertaken further researches in Eltham library and came across a book on the Dutch master’s engravings which included a portrait of an old lady, “an almost perfect likeness and composition”, as the one in Robert’s possession. It was a print of an old woman in a velvet hood with her hands folded, after a well-known painting by Rembrandt today still in the Hermitage, St Petersburg.
Apparently Robert had left some of his watercolours with Father, for the latter to put on sale from the family’s art studio in Strada Reale, Valletta. But Robert by now had second thoughts about them and instructs Father: “I really don’t like that work and I think it’s better not to have them exhibited. They’re rotten.”
Though desperate for money, Robert’s artistic integrity stood in the way of linking his name to inferior stuff.
The artist then goes into some detail about a trip he had made to Chislehurst to paint en plein air, “a most lovely place, so desolate, so poetical it seems throbbing with the sense of spirituality and suggestiveness – it is simply grand” but with the practical proviso that working there would have to wait “if only the weather gets a little better, at present it is so terribly cold that it will be almost impossible to hold a brush in the freezing weather”.
He contrasts his pilgrimage to that solitary, romantic place with the Malta walks he had shared with Bonello in Floriana and Marsa. How different: “so far away from factories and Cinematograph places – not a soul to be seen”.
Father had sent Robert a Christmas card, a copy of the magazine Malta Letteraria with his article on Roberto Longhi and his periodical notes on current artistic topics, Cronaca d’Arte. He gratefully acknowledged these and signed off, “Your devoted great friend Ruy”.
Robert intended his next letter, by design, to be “more as a chat than a business sort of letter”. The original of the iconic portrait of King Edward VII by Luke Fieldes (1843-1927), which he had examined closely, struck him as splendid, with its amazing technique which turned out to be exactly as Robert thought it would, and equally striking was a huge group painting of the King and Queen by Sir John Lavery (1856-1941 “I like it immensely”. (His brother Edward had already, on commission, made a creditable copy of the Fieldes King Edward portrait for the Palace state rooms).
He then described to Father a picture he had completed, a garden and trees and a quantity of flowers massed together in the sun “a holiday in colours – the orange yellows and purples harmonise wonderfully well with the massed trees of golden foliage” reminiscent of the work of Gaston la Touche (1854-1913), a prominent French post-Impressionist whose originals he had seen and admired in Paris.
A second painting Robert had completed (“I am sure an attractive work”) represented a typical English landscape in Kent, with orange brown rocks in the foreground, “a golden brown ranging from chocolate brown (so to say) to all yellowish and golden variety”, avoiding strenuously “that burnt Sienna and mahogany colour which I have hated so of late, as it is hard and crude in middle distance... it is all atmospheric and no heaviness”.
He relied on Father’s judgment when he would eventually see the painting: “Mind you old chap, that is a very difficult subject to experiment and it is indeed worth to study”.
“I bet anything,” he adds, “that D (Dwardu, his brother Edward) would not arrive to paint a background with such atmosphere... and as I said, D has not got to the effect of such shadows and there where he ought to experiment, otherwise his work will look cardboardish and run to no quality.” Here the artist enters into an extremely detailed technical analysis of the whys and wherefores of his choices.
And then back to Dwardu. “You remember when D was working the background of Mrs Horniblow’s half bust portrait and I had pointed you out the difference of a thinly painted background and an impastoed background” – implying that D had got it wrong – the way it was painted “will only produce a cardboard stage scenery and, of course, it is ever so much easier to do this, but quality will be absolutely about the limits of vulgarity of style and quality”. Miss Edith Flynn, the sitter, had married William Fredrick Horniblow, born in Malta, in 1912.
Here Robert reminded Father to write the letter he had promised, to Signor Pictor. They were to correspond with someone “that shows he is easily apt to sympathise rather than answer coolly”.
Then he throws in the news of the sale of the Morgan Fragonards and enclosed a press cutting revealing that Messrs Duveen, the renowned art dealers, had purchased J. Pierpoint Morgan’s huge Fragonard paintings and that Duveen had, in turn, resold them to the American steel magnate Henry Clay Frick for £285,000 – today these exceptional paintings have become the pride and joy of the Frick Museum in New York.
Then follow Robert’s musings about the Germans feeling the pinch of starvation “that, I think, will civilise them at the end – they try to frighten Londoners with aircraft and submarines, but we are here perfectly tranquil... nobody is frightened here of these blackguards and assassins... did you read of the raid of the 40 British aeroplanes that have shown the Germans that the British are not asleep... I am sorry I lost such a lot of my time here through this horrible war!”
He was sure the hostilities would be over in three months... and he was borrowing another £50 in the expectation of that.
“I am practically friendless here... it is my greatest delight when I receive your letters... my only friend’s canvas and colours here and study is my chief struggle”. Again he signs ‘Ruy’.
The next letter, dated March 4, a relatively short one just over three pages long Robert wrote in an unusually clear handwriting.
He vents his frustration on the war, misguidedly placing all his hopes in the Dardanelles campaign which, he believed, would bring the hostilities to a rapid conclusion. “I have money just enough to last me another month”.
He thought that at home he was being blamed for having left Malta when the war broke out and always being short of money. Quite unfairly, in his view: “I assure you I have done my very best and economised the best I could”.
He still felt confident the sale of the Rembrandt would go through and that would solve all his problems and settle his liabilities. That his father worried so much about money matters “really annoys me awfully” – annoys probably in the sense of disturbs.
His friend Bonello in Malta received the dubious privilege of obtaining another £50 loan from Robert’s father: “Try to make him understand how very important it is that he should not object”.
It appears that Robert had not managed to secure a certification of the Rembrandt from Bode, and he was hoping Father would help him get Marius Pictor interested in it. Pictor, the art nom-de-plume of Mario de Maria (1852-1946), presumably an acquaintance of my father’s, was a particularly prominent architect, painter and art critic who had, in 1911, published a significant study on Rembrandt – hence the connection.
Mr Hodges (never mentioned before in the surviving letters), Caruana Dingli remarked, “is too soft and is apt to be caught in some scrape of these dealers that are such rascals”. Hodges was the one who had persuaded Robert to sign away 50 per cent of the price of the painting as commission “to the saintly-looking dealer” – Mr Hughes, presumably. Pictor had warned him of these sharks, and Robert now hoped that if the Italian art critic were to write an article on his Old Master, some government would be induced to buy it. This time, Robert signed off as “Moreno”.
When Robert writes again on April 5, his mood has plunged further: the Rembrandt sale had stalemated. Experts disagreed and one suggested the portrait to be by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680), the master’s pupil. Robert found that unconvincing: “Bol is too much smoother and less bold in his work”.
A gallery he showed it to would not even offer any price at all, as the picture had no verifiable pedigree. Well, if it could at least be sold as a Bol, he would wait till after the war and get the best price for it – or give up.
The fact that his picture did not have enough impasto, no loading of lights, appeared, in Robert’s mind, as quite irrelevant because many of Rembrandt’s other known paintings also had as smooth a surface texture as anything.
Back to financial worries – he had written to Miss O.C. hoping to get something out of her. He did not, by then, have one penny to his name and had fallen back in his rent: “Good job I am finding these people I am living with good enough to wait until I can pay”.
He just hated being in debt. Cryptically he adds he had not written to the ‘Spanish’ as with so many worries he was unsure whether he should tell her.
He asked Father: “Do you often see her passing from Strada Mezzodì – is she alright? Do you see her often out?” Possibly the romantic involvement of a bachelor with a girl going through a bad financial predicament as he was. “I am just as hard up... sometimes I feel wondering at myself how I can bear all these worries and not driven mad!”
No chance of finding a job either. Young men who had not enlisted for the war were simply not given jobs. Robert is now back to his old pet name Ruy.
Two days later he is writing again to his friend in Malta. He had just received from “poor old Father” Raffaele a cheque for £20: “his kindness almost breaks my heart! He is the very goodness itself, poor dear Father... I feel extremely sad really to take away money from him, I know he cannot do much for me owing to the large family and smaller salary since he retired from service... he is exceptionally a good, kind father”.
To Bonello he says how he regrets watching capolavori of the masters in his absence. Such beauty, such perfection would drive dear Censinu almost crazy with joy. Part of his pleasure would be to catch Censinu’s delight and enthusiasm.
This letter confirms that Father wrote to Robert in Italian, as he quotes with relish and verbatim part of the last one – an irreverent dig at Cal “You sacrilegious man!” Bonello had bantered in Italian, “You place Cali’s name next to that of Corot! Why? Because both start with a C? Don’t you know that many other words start with a C?”
Father referred to Robert that D (his brother Edward) had befriended a French captain who was a painter, and had discussions about art with him. He (Edward or the French captain?) was one of the admirers of Corot, Pierre Puvis de Chavennes, Manet, and so forth: “These are the class of painters that will never die”.
They discussed the important portrait of Cardinal Lavigerie by Leon Bonnat (1833-1922) and he (again, who of the two?) remarked that “the Cardinal gives the impression of a vulgar man resting after a big dinner probably of indigestive oysters”. Bonnat had not succeeded in putting any fragment of soul into his work.
One of Robert’s favourite portrait painters, we learn from this letter, was James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923), who had the ability “to diffuse the very soul of the artist in his sitter, to see him noble”.
And here he takes another prod at his brother Edward’s portraits: “he has no sympathy with his model, he does not see him noble, so that always gives lack of dignity. Unless the artist is capable of producing this most vital part and object of portraiture – photography will not give this precious result”.
He turns very hard about Edward: “If a work lacks of this quality, he is a copyist, if not a photographer of anything that is inanimate and could not animate in his reproduction”.
Robert contrasts Shannon, “who has enthusiasmised (sic) me” with Landseer, the painter of animals who only sees what he is painting “through ordinary eyes – he is marvellously true in tone, colour, composition, etc., but he puts no life in them, he does not make you love the animals that he paints”. Wrong with Landseer is the fact that despite his perfection, all you can see is the skin of his animals.
Robert obviously worshipped Turner (who wouldn’t?) and rushed to defend him against his many detractors: “Poor Turner, his pictures see all the ugly faces the people make before them and hear the most awful language and call him mad, eccentric, ignorant, daubs, even so far as disgust!!
“I heard a lady calling a glorious sunset a disgusting smear of crude dirty colours – similar remarks are heard always at the Tate Gallery in the Turner Rooms.”
Back to his brother Edward: “I am glad to hear D. is beginning to discard Calì’s poisonous theories. You say he is painting a portrait of my zia that is very good in quality, I am sincerely glad to hear it because as I always said it would be a great pity that he would stick to the absurd methods of C(alì)”.
The important thing in a painter is to be himself: “It is no use trying to paint like Sargent, unless he has Sargent’s mind, character and knowledge of seeing life in the light Sargent sees it, and I dare say this is impossible”.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1920) dominated the portrait scene at the time. He throws in two other then renowned and popular contemporary painters: Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945) and Arthur Hacker (1858-1919). If Zuloaga and Edward were to study together under Hacker, Zuloaga would remain Zuloaga and Dwardu would remain Dwardu.
Here his teacher and national art guru Giuseppe Calì again comes under scathing attack. “Take the example of Calì, Ciuc by nature, Ciuc by school; so Ciucun will always remain”. One, Robert adds, can read the real character of artists by just looking at their works: brutality, weakness, hesitation, doubt, fear.
“You can always imagine Brangwyn a man of great power, strong of will, firm of determination and bold as Michelangelo, so is Rodin and so is Velasquez”. Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) had reached titanic heights by Caruana Dingli’s time for his virile, power-packed compositions, though his reputation later seems to have somewhat faded.
To exemplify “the poets as painters” theme, Robert homes in on Tranquillo Cremona (1837-1878). This special, ethereal artist seems “a gay, happy, kind-hearted chap... very sensitive in his greys that denote spirituality... sensitive in the highly pitched joy of light – colours ever resourceful and want to attain the highest possible joy it gives... in short he is a very study of great emotion and delirium of colours”.
Among his other favourites, Robert mentions the prolific Venetian artist Emma Ciardi (1879-1933 “I always feel I would pay large sums to possess one of her greatly poetical landscapes if I had the money to do so!” He believes Italy has more poet-painters than England, which encourages classical academics: “I am afraid I may be getting a fanatic in favour of the poet-painters, but there lies the joy and I am sure you think very much the same”.
This letter then reveals Robert’s current aversion to modernism: “One kind of art I profess I am absolutely ignorant of in their intention, the ‘Cubists’ I really cannot understand, yet perhaps there may be something we don’t know, but at any rate I don’t think they will ever be included with my favourite list that I adore”.
He had experienced modernism first hand at the Secessione shows: “I don’t think I shall ever be proud to paint pictures of the kind”. There he had seen “portraits of ladies, face emerald green and orange lips and banana hats!”
On the contrary, he rather liked the pointillists and the divisionists. He singled out a nude figure by Camillo Innocenti (1871-1961) “very brilliant in flesh” when seen from far away.
Robert’s later (and highly successful) digressions into restrained, quasi-cubist landscapes would seem to indicate he may, as he grew older, have had second thoughts about the validity of modernist aesthetics.
Following Father’s advice, Robert would be picking up a copy of Byron’s Childe Harold from the library, to read. This time he signed by his real Christian name.
(To be concluded)