The history of Malta’s art is quite intense. You can study the development of artistic growth on the island through the application and manipulation of materials, the techniques adopted in application of different grounds as well as the development of subject matter and artistic focus.
In theory, Malta’s art has always been on exhibition, appreciated by its viewers irrespective of the art’s private or public nature – but Malta art exhibitions have come a long way from the prehistoric cave art that adorns the likes of St Agatha’s Catacombs or Hal Millieri.
How did Malta’s art and culture scene start?
Right from the beginning, Malta was rich in art and culture, and even though regarded as a backwater by the Knights of St John, who referred to Malta as a “barren rock” in the Mediterranean, when compared to the culturally rich island of Rhodes, from which they reluctantly voyaged to Malta as their new resting place.
Hidden Art: Religion and Occupation
Malta’s resilience and ability to adapt was one of the island’s strongest points in history, with numerous invaders, occupiers and rulers taking charge of not only the politics and socio-economic structures of the island, but also the culture, heritage and landscape of the islands. Religion played a big part in Malta’s development too, the first recorded conversion of the island was from Paganism to Christianity, where St Paul’s Shipwreck resulted in a series of events, bringing the population to a new faith and serving as a huge inspiration for the art created from then on.
Fast forward to 870 CE, Malta’s climate changes once more, this time with religion playing a big part in the mix. The Arab Conquest led Malta to underground worship and burial, with the creation of complexes that housed the dead relatives of the Muslim-ruled Christian archipelago. These catacombs were embellished with iconography in the form of amateur frescos that gave reverence to their adamant faith in Christianity. Oyster shells, chalices, doves and symbology of the Alpha and Omega began the expressive journey, only to be further enhanced with symbology of St Agatha herself, a multitude of time in fact, together with other saintly figures that served as semi-private exhibition halls for those practicing their faith in these underground holds.
The Order’s Arrival: Enter Gold, Baroque and the Affetti
A big jump later took Malta to the rule of the Knights Templar, where the Order of St John was synonymous with architecture, sculpture, painted artwork, tapestries, ornamental metalwork, relics and other precious treasures – that in themselves all gave reverence to religion. From the iconic Madonna of Philermos to the notorious St John’s Co-Cathedral, where frescos and masterpieces by Mattia Preti, including his Saint George on Horseback gracefully hangs in the Chapel of the Langue of Aragon, not to mention Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John – possibly the island’s proudest symbol of Malta’s art.
As art continued to be appreciated in Malta, even well after the departure of the Knights of the Order, the art scene continued to develop with Baroque art taking full conquest with the likes of Francesco Zahra and Stefano Erardi among the most respected in the genre. Later followed by the British period that emerged soon after the French looting that took place due to Napoleon’s invasion. During the British period, Malta experienced an artist reformation of realism with the artistic representations of Edward Caruana Dingli and the sculptural musings of Antonio Sciortino.
A Taste of the New: Speed and Colour
Sciortino’s art voyaged from pieces of Realism inspired by Auguste Rodin to Futurist sculptures such as Speed that led to an entire study on equestrian sculpture as well as motion as a controlling factor in the development of his art. Edward Caruana Dingli continued on to become the Director of the Malta School of Arts in Old Bakery Street in the capital city of Valletta. It was here that his proteges, who in every brushstroke challenged his techniques to create a new and innovative genre, flourished and became the leaders of the 20th Century Modern Art Movement.
Artists like Anton Inglott, Esprit Barthet, Emvin Cremona and Willie Apap to name a few studied under Edward and his brother Robert Caurana Dingli’s tutorship, the students even spent a fair amount of time contemplating their artwork and discussing art as a whole at a thriving Valletta Cafe The Premier that was found in Republic Square, just a few metres from their Art School.
Their legwork broke the towering walls that limited artists to work in patronage with the church, allowing them to voyage deeper into non-religious commissions and more colourful representations. This sort of art lived on for a long time in Malta, and has quite firmly established itself as a style and technique that shaped the way contemporary painters would carry out their passionate creations on canvas.
How did Malta’s Contemporary Art live up to the Modern Era?
Quite simply put, it didn’t, it evolved it. When comparing Modern Art to Baroque, the changes are clear, the embellished techniques, the new found methods and the bolder stances that time allowed were easily noted by the public, but the subtleties between Modern Art and Contemporary Art are few and far between.
What Contemporary Art does to surpass Modern Art is that with every brushstroke on a canvas and every indent in a mound of clay, Contemporary Artists are able to allow the aura that Modern Art represented to live on! Can we say that Sciortino’s Arab Horses lives on with Austin Camilleri’s Zieme, or that Debbie Caruana Dingli’s art is an extension of her predecessors Edward and Robert Caruana Dingli? Perhaps. But, even though influence and inspiration can always be drawn from past art, new nuances are always churning.
Take Rosette Bonello’s art for instance, with influence from Cremona seen locally, and perhaps Klee and Burri internationally – her creations are far from stagnant in a style that dominated the 20th century, but rather gives her oeuvre the standing point they firmly require to act as standout pieces in the 21st century and beyond.
Much like the artists gone inspire the Contemporary Artists of today, Rosette Bonello’s art will continue to inspire the new generations of artistic creators who will wait in anticipation as she launches a new series of collections to perplex and entrance her viewers with hues of pink, blue or green – all reminiscent of that regal and captivating gold highlight.