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From landscapes to sacred art

A retrospective exhibition of Mary de Piro’s works shows the artist’s versatility

Artist Mary de Piro (left) with curator Theresa Vella.

Artist Mary de Piro (left) with curator Theresa Vella.

Artist Mary de Piro is the protagonist of Bank of Valletta’s 24th BOV Retrospective Art Exhibition, currently on at the bank’s headquarters in Santa Venera. Fifty-five of her artworks are on display, showing different phases in the artist’s development since her very first exhibition in 1967.

The artist, who is recognised for her significant contribution to the local artistic scene, is the great-grandchild of renowned painter Giuseppe Calì. She said of him: “I marvel at the volume of work my great-grandfather produced, especially as I admire the large paintings in many of Malta’s churches and his depth of vision in his sacred art, as well as his sensitivity and understanding of the Maltese land and seascapes.”

De Piro has a penchant for these subjects too.

“I seem to like a variety of subjects, as well as experimenting with new media but, ultimately, the larger landscapes seem to suit my brush strokes! The sacred artworks come through a time of solitude and prayer, and I do find great joy and fulfilment in the sharing of these paintings,” she said.

Theresa Vella, who curated the exhibition, had a quite a humongous task to condense 50 years of the artist’s life in such a limited number of pieces. Together with de Piro, they tried to display paintings that represented different periods in the artist’s life in order to achieve a chronological reading of her career.

They also planned to include a variety of genres.

The next step was to identify works that demonstrated de Piro’s style and technique best. Vella explained that there were other practical parameters which determined what went on display, not least the matter of availability of paintings from private collections in Malta and overseas, as well as their state of conservation.

“So the real difficulty lay in tracing works from Mary’s early years. We were fortunate with the generosity of the artist’s patrons in lending their works,” Vella pointed out.

Getting to know the person and the artist at the same time gives a curator the chance to observe the works of art in a more profound way

Speaking of the exhibition’s structure, Vella said that the exhibition was largely made up of landscape paintings, on which de Piro’s reputation has grown since the 1960s, with seminal pieces from her 1971 White on White series as well as later works which reflect “a particular engagement with expansiveness and light”.

The other half of the exhibition comprises paintings belonging to other genres, namely sacred art, including her Power of Pentecost from a London collection, as well as still life paintings from her years in Florence, portraits and figure drawings which reveal the artist’s knowledge of balletic movement.

As regards the display itself, the duo opted for an aesthetic approach –  “hanging paintings in a manner that achieved an overall sense of visual harmony, as opposed to a chronological approach”.

The latter approach is instead adopted in a catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, to better help the reader observe how de Piro’s style developed over time.

Vella is also a friend of de Piro. Asked whether it’s a “plus or minus” knowing the artist whose work she was curating, Vella said:

“I have to admit that before the exhibition brought us together, I had only met Mary at her previous two solo exhibitions in 2006 and 2014. For this reason, I was glad to be asked to curate Mary’s retrospective show as I looked forward to getting to know her.

“Getting to know the person and the artist at the same time gives a curator the chance to observe the works of art in a more profound way; in this way the more nuanced passages in Mary’s paintings revealed themselves to me over time.

“I hope I have done justice to Mary’s aspirations in the biography I wrote, and that readers and viewers of the exhibition find the time to let the depth of the artist’s work reveal itself in its subtlety as well as in its expression.”

De Piro described this exhibition as an “emotional” one for her.

“Seeing a selection of works from over 50 years of painting was quite an emotional experience, but thankfully the retrospective took a while to set up, so I was able to see it take shape gradually.

“However, it also made me appreciate the encouragement and support I had been given, by several key people over these 50 years and, most of all, by God’s grace, to make it all possible. The kindness of the BOV exhibition organisers and their professional support has made it a memorable experience for me!”

Opportunities for emerging artists to exhibit their works have indeed increased since de Piro’s early days.

“I think there is a wide range of opportunity for young artists everywhere today, as well as an extensive interest in contemporary art in Malta and Gozo, with many art galleries and collectors.

“Support is also forthcoming from both public and private institutions, like Bank of Valletta, along with many charities that invite artists to share their talents,” she said.

■ The BOV Retrospective Art Exhibition featuring the works of Mary de Piro is on display at the BOV Centre, Canon Street, Santa Venera, until Thursday.

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