It was 20 years ago this month that artist Josef Kalleya passed away aged 100 years.

[attach id="676037" size="medium" align="right"]Kalleya’s proposed project for the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Blata l-Bajda, consisting of an enormous door panel depicting episodes from the life of San Ġorġ Preca.[/attach]

Today we have a better understanding and appreciation of his work thanks to exhibitions and conferences organised from time to time, and some scholarly papers published on such occasions.

However, the personality of Kalleya in the history of Maltese early 20th century sculpture remains remarkably unique, mysterious even to fathom within the thoughts and extensive writings and endless portfolios of sketches that he left behind. His sculptures, paintings and drawings marked a sharp contrast from his predecessors. He was far ahead of his time, and his works remain to date pleasant surprizes of avant-garde artistic expression.

His personal style emerged consistently and persistently. His inscribed technique of graffiti was manifested in the use of the felt pen, ballpoint, crayon, charcoal, chalk, paint and clay. His nervousness was evident in his brush strokes, his scratches in wood, in his prose and in his undeniable religious convictions.

His course in low relief at the Scuola della Medaglia in Rome was the basis for his design and sculpture. In fact, this schiacciato is evident in Kalleya’s works especially in his low reliefs which always tend towards the graffito, the scratched and engraved images on flattened slabs of clay.

For this reason, one can claim that Kalleya painted his sculptures and sculpted his paintings, thus eliminating the basic differences between the media.

Kalleya often resorted to the human form only to inevitably crush it or mould it into natural shapes as mountains, cliffs, valleys, sandy wastes, or barren plateaux. His eroded, scratched, etched and indented sculptures resemble landscapes bombarded by some cosmic force.

He produced works of art to understand the haunting mystery of art itself. The knife was for him the best of tools; with it he scraped and cut into clay. It became almost like a ritual, a symbolic gesture, a dialogue between the artist and the work, between the artist and his image, between the artist and his creator. He made use of wood which was already aged with the mark of time, since he insisted on co-operating with the hands of nature.

Art was never an end in itself

The elements of the weather fascinated the artist because these showed God’s hand working on his own art by means of the acts of rain, sun and wind. He saw God as the backbone of everything. Initial violence in the creative act was resolved in the humble act of repentance. He saw his role as artist as a kind of moral preacher and communicator of clear ideas.

The majority of Kalleya’s sculptures have an emphasis on deep vertical lines carved into the clay. They invariably appear to be pulling a mass of matter towards a single point. The tall, rough mounds of deeply etched clay are transformed into twisted umbilical cords which derive energy from a source or centre.

The uneven surfaces of his three-dimensional works and the sketchiness of some of his drawings show that Kalleya cared little for elegance. For the artist art was never an end in itself. It remained authentic not because it was Christian in essence, or because he avoided orthodoxy, but rather because he believed in what he did and was dead serious about his artistic dreams.

Some of the most important projects envisioned by Kalleya re-mained imaginary projects and never materialised. He did not hesitate to declare himself as a dreamer.

However, I also find that there is a visionary almost prophetic quality to his work, like for example, in the complex project he designed for the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Blata l-Bajda. It consisted of a door relief (which he called his Camposanto, c. 1970), consisting of an enormous panel, moulded and cut in plasticine and gesso duro, a study which re­mained abandoned in his studio until it was eventually allowed to fall to pieces. It depicted episodes from the life, mission and good deeds of St Ġorġ Preca, well before he was declared a saint in 2007.

The project also consisted of a design for the tomb of the saintly priest and a monument outside which was meant to replace the present obelisk known as Spencer Monument. 

Most of Kalleya’s works were never cast in metal and consequently doomed to be lost forever. However, Kalleya was keen on recording his projects photographically. He simply destroyed his work for lack of storage space and to be able to rework with the same lump of clay.

He worked with an addictive spirit always trying to understand the haunting mysteries of art itself. The process of developing an idea and its execution was more important for Kalleya than the end result; for he realised that the work underwent an organic growth and hence he imposed constant changes. In a purifying process he was known to constantly retouch, remodel, and at times destroy the work only to start afresh.

His work was never for one moment accepted voluntarily or spontaneously, but only gradually, controversially and with pronounced resistance. It is time to celebrate Josef Kalleya, an artist who made his country proud.

Joseph Paul Cassar is Professor of Art at the Department of Graphic Communications at the University of Maryland University College in the US and author of several books on Maltese modern artists.

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