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An artist of 'colour'

Louis Laganà takes a look at the development of the artistic career of Charles Cassar who continuously explores colour which is a strong force in his art

Charles Cassar is one of the few Maltese artists who profoundly explored aquatic imagery and marine creatures. His love for the sea can be traced to his childhood, and specifically to his father, whom he accompanied on trips to foreign countries while he worked in the merchant Navy. His art is all about painting nature's textures reflected in powerful representations of changing moods.

His prolific and unquestionable talent is traced to his early days and his thorough artistic training. He attended evening classes at the Malta School of Art in Valletta from where he obtained a four-year scholarship to further his art studies in England, at Croydon College of Art in Surrey. He was later admitted at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, where he met distinguished masters such as Renato Guttuso or Mino Maccari. This was an important phase in his artistic formation and the artist grabbed every opportunity to develop his ingenuity in creativity. He was successfully awarded the Diploma di Licenza and the Medaglia D'Oro in Rome in 1968, he came back to Malta to continue his art teaching career.

Impressionism was one of the modern art movements which influenced Mr Cassar's early work. His sensibility, spontaneous use of vibrant colours and love for nature reveal the responses to the environment and mythologising concepts. Moved by the influence of impressionism, the artist's forms and colours seem to have gained strength and definition. Professor Oliver Friggieri rightly described him as "the painter of colours" (il pittore dei colori). Colour still remains a fundamental tool in his exploration of spiritual and metaphysical concepts.

Analysing his early works we come across the study of the human body; most especially the female nude and portraiture. For him the human body is a vessel of form, which can be externalised and perfected by a simple line. His female nudes are portrayed in an academic rather than in an obscene or erotic manner. Mr Cassar's female nudes express beauty of form, harmony and timelessness. His figures however evolved with time, and became more mysterious and symbolical.

Experimenting continuously with figures, objects and forms, the artist is sometimes inevitably led to complete abstraction. His abstract work is of a 'lyrical' nature rather than the usual tendency for decorative or preconceived abstraction. His abstract work conveys a spiritual outlook. It relates to that mystical sensibility which is rarely found in other abstract works.

Professor Peter Mayo commented on some of Mr Cassar's early abstract works describing them as "the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements within the mind. The use of such psychedelic devices as reddish and bluish impositions depicts, according to the artist himself one's mental turmoil..." Colour is manipulated by the artist's subconscious and when it meets form the medium dictates the visible narration of structures. In the artist's work we can therefore trace the development from realism and naturalism to abstraction.

His surroundings constitute the major source of inspiration: anything from simple flowers, plants, birds, fish and everything in the natural environment.

Mr Cassar looks deeply into natural forms; seeking to transform organic forms into living objects. Like an artist-shaman he transforms these objects into mythologised and animistic forms which have a direct and immediate response to life.

The symbol of the seashell is a recurring image in his paintings. The seashell is a symbol which has been and is still found in various cultures. Because of their pleasing geometric shape, seashells became common decorative motifs and so we find them in many works of art. Mr Cassar, I believe, uses the symbol of the seashell to represent "time".

Recently, Mr Cassar's work became very complex, yet highly refined and textured. One notices how the artist captures the beauty of idyllic settings of lush vegetation intermingled with abstract forms, figures and other forms of life. The colours are dense like a dream.

Computer is another important facet of Mr Cassar's art. He is one of the first Maltese artists to produce computer-aided work as early as the 1980s. The late, Emanuel Fiorentino had written that, "He provides significant proof that art can or should keep in touch with scientific developments. Mr Cassar's example is ideally placed to stimulate others along the path of that electronic device which is in process of revolutionising our ways of seeing and hence of aesthetic appreciation."

Although the artist made good use of this new tool of expression he did not abandon traditional methods and techniques. He used the computer to enhance his aesthetic sensibilities and was therefore able to create works which he has carefully combined with computer generated images and traditional media.

In his selection of works entitled: I Ricordi del Tempo, exhibited at the Pinacoteca e Museo delle Arti, Fondazione Nosside, in Locri, Italy (December 2003), the artist presented themes inspired by Malta's Prehistoric heritage. Mr Cassar did not just depict the topographical images of the temples but created imagery which expressed the spirit of the age. The works entitled Nereidi, Sogno, and Primavera are particularly intriguing. Here, the artist made use of the primordial female image to illustrate the body-earth identification. These works are also representations of female energy which metaphorically refers to our primitive origins.

Mr Cassar has exhibited widely in many countries and his works are found in several galleries and private collections. In 1968 the Museum of Modern Art of Pescia in Pistoia acquired three lithographs entitled Il fiore nella grafica and in 1969 the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta bought a triptych illustrating episodes from Dante Alligheri's Divina Commendia. He has won many awards and in the past he was also an active member of many organisations like the Malta Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and Din l-Art Ħelwa. Apart from teaching at university and various schools, Mr Cassar worked as a graphic artist for many years. In fact he was one of the few artists in Malta who created awareness of graphic art during the late 1960s.

Throughout the years Mr Cassar kept working and experimenting with new techniques and searching for new expressions. His artistic contribution is invaluable and he will certainly be remembered as an important contributor to Maltese art. Bank of Valletta has invited Mr Cassar to hold a retrospective exhibition early next year, in their premises in Santa Venera.

• Dr Laganà is a reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History, specialising in Jungian Aesthetics, Primitivism and other aspects of art criticism and theory. He lectures at the Junior College and the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta.
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