20th century artistic vacuum
I recently came across several photographs of Charles Ray’s blanc de chine-like statue Boy with Frog looking out with eyes wide shut from the Punto della Dogana over the Laguna di Venezia.
I was intrigued by this statue and its positioning in such a historic and artistically rich place within spitting distance of the ethereal church of Santa Maria della Salute. It is a statue that forms part of the 53rd Venice Biennale, which looks ephemerally plastic and hyper real to the extent that it could be a modified polystyrene mannequin: a boy holding a dead, rather unpleasant looking frog to which those with overactive imaginations have given the most peculiar and farfetched meanings to.
At the end of the day it remains what it is: a pubescent naked boy holding an outsize dead amphibian. It goes without saying that it has caused a great deal of controversy and it has still not yet been decided whether or not this ‘work of art’ should be left in its current location or not.
In our quest to be original and examine every avenue of creativity, we have, in fact, come full circle. Hyper-realism seems to have enflamed the imagination of artists who must perforce compete with the symbolic realism of our television screens and mobile phones, laptops and iPads, let alone the camera lens.
Alexander Calder’s mobiles and Magritte’s eyes in pies are now old hat as are, even more, Picasso’s multi-breasted portraits of Dora Maar and layers of thrown paint that Jackson Pollock took the world by storm with.
Since the advent of photography the artists of the world have sought alternative means of expressing themselves in a bewildering concatenation of ‘isms dada-ism, futurism, cubism and a host of others, till now we have reached the latest – hyper-realism.
It takes the swansong of pre-camera painting like the output of the Macchiaioli, for instance, to a new dimension devoid of the poetry and romanticism with which these Italian 19th century gems are infused.
Where do we go next?
In a country like Malta, which, for many social and economic reasons, got completely bypassed in as far as mainstream artistic development is concerned, the present state of artistic development, let alone appreciation, is in dire straits. Considering its size, Malta is blessed with a surprisingly large number of art practitioners who, no doubt, have been influenced and stimulated by the visual splendour of what had been created or inspired by the fateful sojourn of the Order of St John in Malta.
A child with an artistic bent, upon being taken regularly to churches, the blueprint of which are baroque masterpieces like St John’s, will logically have a different visual archive to a child who is taken to a simple whitewashed Greek church on Crete, for instance. The imagery is so rich and jam-packed in Malta that, inevitably, Maltese artists must either embrace the horror vacui of baroque or eschew it completely.
We are, of course, attempting to compare like with like here. I would not even attempt to compare the subconscious visual archives of a Roman or Parisian child to a Maltese one.
In today’s IT-dominated world, Maltese artists have had to make a ‘great leap forward’ from being relative traditionalists to being part of the avant-garde. This is not easy. One has to remember that artists have to make a living and there are very few potential patrons who either understand or appreciate the avant-garde.
There never has been an Albert C. Barnes or an Ambroise Vollard in Malta, as far as I know. This is understandable when one thinks that when our national collection was being put together in the years between World War I and II, curators on the continent were purchasing Matisses and Braques and not Favrays and Pretis as ours were doing here. Sadly, there were no Matisses and Braques to buy anyway.
Those artists with the wherewithal to travel got as far as Rome which the innovations of futurism had not quite reached. This generation of artists, like Cremona, Barthet, Apap and Arcidiacono, did not produce earthshatteringly original works as pleasant works that one could easily live with.
We never quite had the creative edge. It is the vast knowledge that IT has given us in the last 10 years that has revealed several new worlds and a plethora of different artistic dimensions.
Today’s young artists are able to view what’s new and exciting at the touch of a button and not have to come across what was then still contemporary art in an accidental roundabout way, like me when working as a volunteer in Peggy Guggenheim’s house in 1982 and wondering what the Calder mobiles and Ernst mechanical people were all about!
This is why we so desperately require a museum of modern art and a large exhibition space for contemporary art. With Picassos and Derains, Freuds and Warhols being sold for trillions of euros at Sotheby’s and Christies despite recessions, it would be virtually impossible for Malta to catch up on what we lost intellectually over the last couple of centuries unless there have been a Barnes or two in Malta who are going to surprise us all.
We do, however, have a very respectable collection of 20th century pictures that has been collated over the last 30 years which makes up a pleasantly eclectic representation of what Maltese artists and artists working in Malta, like Pasmore and Trevelyan, have produced. These need to be brought out of storage and displayed in a museum that is aesthetically beautiful, with state-of-the-art facilities and separate from traditional 17th, 18th and 19th century art.
Our young artists and even our old ones need to know where they came from and what inspired our forbearers to create and produce what they have. This will, hopefully, close that gap which, at present, is like an intellectual and cultural vacuum that still blights the art of 20th century Malta and the knowledge of it.