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Aldo Micallef-Grimaud’s artistic heritage

Lino Borg, Joseph Cassar: Aldo Micallef-Grimaud (1925-2010. Glorian Micallef-Grimaud. 2012. 72 pp.

This finely crafted and colour-plated publication serves as the catalogue for the current exhibition at the Presidential Palace, San Anton, showcasing the work of a prolific Maltese artist who passed away two years ago, at the age of 85.

A boon for anyone studying the history of Maltese 20th-century art

Aldo Micallef-Grimaud established himself, throughout an eventful 70-year artistic period, as a portrait painter and a painter of still lifes, landcapes in oils and watercolours, and religious subjects.

The collection on display at the Presidential Palace is rather large but by no means all-embracing.

Micallef-Grimaud was very much what we would call a traditional artist. He was a protégé of Edward Caruana Dingli, and this sums him up. The influence of the Caruana Dinglis – Robert and notably Edward, the latter arguably the most influential mentor in Maltese art during the first half of the previous century – is there for all to see at the exhibition.

This book has the merit of providing insight into the nature of artistic education in Malta at the time. The details through which this account is provided, both in the brief captions to a selection of paintings on display and also in the lengthy biographical account, renders it a boon for anyone studying the history of Maltese 20th-century art.

Some of Caruana Dingli’s students managed to break away from the formulaic stranglehold which their mentor must have had on them. Micallef-Grimaud, however, demonstrates through most of the works on display, that he stuck to the principles provided by his mentor.

Of course, the techniques employed were varied, as evidenced by the different works on view. His works range from oil paintings to watercolours to sketches carried out in pencil.

Some works display the knife-edge technique, others involve light palette or thick brushstrokes. Some portraits are very traditional and detailed. Others stand out for their sketchy freedom. This renders Micallef-Grimaud quite eclectic.

Other influences are noticeable, not least that of the Church’s premier peintre of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There’s also Envin Cremona in the authoritative but loving image of Christ, with some echoes, according to the authors, of Cremona and Anton Inglott.

Watercolours providing imaginative and exoticised depictions of the Orient, in the manner discussed by Edward Said in Orientalism, are also evident. We see this in representations of Egypt on page 16.

These were carried out in 1942, that is, five years before the artist actually went to Egypt to follow a course at Heliopolis’ British-run Education Vocation Centre, where he spent six months attending a life-class course, enjoying facilities that were not available in Malta.

I therefore assume that the representations are figments of the artist’s imagination, perhaps in­fluenced in no small measure by similar ‘exotic’ depictions provided by Maltese and high-profile foreign artists. This is the Orient as we are led to imagine it to be, fed by western constructions.

The landscapes, mainly in watercolours, and some said to have been carried out while the artist took his family out on a picnic, vary in quality. There is an obvious fascination on the artist’s part with the shimmering surfaces provided by the chromatic contrasts that enhance the movement of the meandering pathways and rubble walls.

We come across the old, 18th-century vedutista convention of prominently setting a decaying building or arch against the background of the Maltese countryside, the way earlier artists used remnants of Greco-Roman antiquity in their Italian country scenes.

The sentiment is nostalgic throughout these and other paintings, notably scenes from Maltese everyday life. The depictions of country women tending their sheep is very much in the Caruana Dingli tradition of romanticising these people, shedding little light on their social plight in bygone days.

We notice greater freedom in Micallef-Grimaud’s later works, notably work from the 1990s. The watercolour and ink minimalist sketch Going Home, characterised by dashing strokes, is executed with a freedom not seen in earlier works.

The same can be said of his 1995 oil painting Arbre Enchanté, in which the tree metamorphoses into a female figure at one with nature. This work stands out for its impressive sense of movement, capturing the idea of being rooted in, rather than apart from nature, though the human figure still takes centre stage.

What emerges from the exhibition and the paintings illustrated in the accompanying volume, for which Borg and Cassar deserve much credit, is an appreciation of the artist’s superb array of technical skills and his powerful design. These are areas in which, I suspect, one or two contemporary artists who hide behind the veneer of abstract or conceptual art, might be found wanting.

The book and exhibition are admirable for being comprehensive, even though I felt the exhibition itself should have been more selective. Who is to say that the artist being honoured would have wanted all works gathered from his studio and elsewhere to be exhibited?

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