Understanding the local modern art scene takes quite a bit of research and analysis to fully comprehend. The international art scene was thriving, colours, shapes, expression seemed to stem from every corner of the world and Malta, although small in size and diminutive in influence was in a way catching up with the artistic expressions that hit the sphere as a whole.

The changes in Expression: how Modern Art changed The Arts

The primary question that needs to be understood, before any discussion of the modern art scene is addressed, is this: ‘What is Modern Art?’. Many a time, modern art and contemporary art are interchangeable in language, modern defining the idea of new and perhaps not the old gilded paintings that we were more accustomed to seeing in grand museums, palaces and showcases.

But Modern Art refers to a specific time frame, it dates back to the start of the Industrial Revolution and continues on to the mid 19th century where the term ‘modern’ was seen in literature with authors such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in scientific literature too with Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and of course in the development of modern photography in France thanks to the portable camera obscura.

Modern artists of the time were thought of as outcasts that were often labelled, criticised and ridiculed for their work. Picasso was thought of as “satanic” or “schizophrenic”, Cézanne was labelled a “madman” for his interpretation of Manet’s Olympia – a painting that in itself kickstarted the entire modern art movement in Paris, alongside the same artist’s Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe.

Critics were often the cause of entire movements being named as they were, with Henri Matisse’s works of art being displayed among a number of classics at the Salon, critics dubbed his and André Derain’s works “les fauves” amongst Donatello (an Italian sculptor belonging to the Renaissance era). The term “impressions” was also used as a stab for the work of Claude Monet, whose works appeared unfinished and therefore serving as simple impressions of a painting. Thus creating the terms, Fauvism and Impressionism respectively.

This apprehension stemmed from the population’s understanding that art was meant to be grand, poised, dignified and above all else, representative of God’s sacred existence. Most commissions were out of patronage for the church, both locally and overseas. This explosion of expression and colour served as a shock to most and even heresy to others.

But Modern Art was ammunition to the revolutionaries, the free people who expected more of the world than following a King’s orders or attending the Catholic Church every Sunday. Modern Art was the beginning of something new, a notion that dared to be different and challenge the normalities of mid-19th Century life.

How did the Modern Art scene change life in Malta?

In Malta, the change did come too. And much like the movement’s birth and growth, iconic figures, pin-pointed paintings and even choice of expression caused a stir and gave rise to the pioneers of Modern Art in Malta.

Locally, the changes in art composition started to stir in the 20th Century, where artists such as Giuseppe Calì worked as a church painter, having his work displayed in numerous churches across the islands of both Malta and Gozo, but conducted private commissions of a far less regal and profound subject matter.

With simple artworks that challenged the status quo, such as Crossing the Brook, denotes a young girl who seems to be covering herself slightly with a red garment, crossing a shallow stream in the woods – perhaps slightly reminiscent of Le Dejeuner, maybe even enough to give Calì the local credit as Father of Modern Art in Malta, as is bestowed upon Manet in France.

Other artists, such as Anton Inglott and Emvin Cremona, went through the same paths that Calì did, working on church commissions or religious works while creating heavily impastoed or conceptually obscure pieces that would never find their way onto the walls of a holy building, museum or exhibition.

But times were changing, and with the influence of Edward Caruana Dingli, his brother Robert, George Borg, Carmeno Mangion and others who either lectured or gave sessions at the Malta School of Art, modern artists were able to transcend the idiomatic bureaucracy of church painting and delve into an expression that resulted in a series of complex discovery.

Antonio Sciortino’s Arab Horses, Esprit Barthet’s Rooftops, Emvin Cremona’s Broken Glass, Willie Apap’s Descent from the Cross, Antoine Camilleri’s lino prints, Giorgio Preca’s caricatures and so many other sculptures, series, artwork and techniques that delivered the true essence of what it meant to be a Modern Artist in Malta.

How does the Modern Art scene affect the Contemporary artists of today?

Theoretically, you can say that an absolute myriad of things would be able to affect, influence and even condition the art of today’s contemporary artists. From the movements in the media, to the ways in which climate change has altered our environment, to the firm stand for justice with women’s rights, black lives matter and other causes for uproar, art is constantly influenced. But to say that the modern art movement did not influence today’s contemporary artists would be a discredit.

Rosette Bonello is influenced by her emotions and current state of mind – both of which are conditioned by her surroundings suppressed by the changes in our political, environmental, cultural and every other conditioning factor.

These factors condition her as a human and artist, while notions such as Burri’s cracked surfaces, Fontana’s slashed canvases and perhaps even Pollock’s use of colour – may have influenced her work as an artist of the Arte Informale realm, in creating series of work that speak to the soul and transcend any time period, modern or contemporary, to create art as a timeless expression.