category: All,Art

(De)Memorialising Malta’s Heroes

Saturday, September 6, 2014 by

[On the mutual negation of art and memory]

The relationship between art and memory is fundamentally inalienable. There is a symbiotic emerging-from-the-other which gives birth to their being, circumscribing a history and its particular perceptual condition. Consequently, when a nation’s social, political and artistic history is momentous to its present prosperity, one should expect its direct reflection in art to be an equally powerful remembrance and evocation of time. This is fitting for art in general, however public monuments owe a greater responsibility to memory purely due to their role as tangible records of cognitive immateriality.

By simply looking at the selected proposal for the monuments of Dom Mintoff, Censu Tabone, Guido de Marco, the realised bust of Mattia Preti and statue of Grandmaster La Valette, it seems that Malta’s state cultural institutions have succeeded in defying the logical function of such commissions. The bozzetti of the three statesmen have received a barrage of negative reactions by academics and artists who have spoken bluntly in the public sphere, attacking the technical ineptitude and artistic superfluity of these pieces. Not much was publicly said on the bust of Italian artist Mattia Preti produced to commemorate the 400th year anniversary of his birth and located in an eponymous piazza in Valletta. The bust, which was commissioned by the Valletta Local Council, is an abhorrent pseudo-tribute to a creative genius who spent the last 40 years of his life infusing the island with Baroque art of the highest quality.

In fact, it was Preti who transformed Malta into an inimitable Baroque treasure chest during the 17th century, a period which we look upon as defining the Maltese cultural identity. He set a qualitative example for local patrons and artists, and even though his work was unsurpassed, others strived to at least assimilate themselves with his greatness. What the recent aforementioned commissions demonstrate is that the highest level which local artists have to aspire to, at least according to state examples, is middling, uncreative, unintellectual, innocuous insipidity.

This stifling of artistic value is obtrusive in the common idiom being favoured by the current heralds of cultural politics. All the five monuments are rendered in a figurative style which doesn’t even portray an inkling of taste or artistic awareness. Realistically, these statues say nothing. Nothing about their subjects and nothing as art. Memory is obscured into an abyss, and art is rendered vacuous. By not sustaining each other, the two fall apart. A veritable crumbling of our historical past, symptomized by the inability to tell the difference between the most clear cut binary for the formation of judgement, good and bad.


When walking through Valletta one evening, art historian and critic Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci pointed out to me that La Valette’s statue has a grievous anatomical mistake in the contortion of the figure’s torso, which no artist selected for national patronage should conduct. It was only a few months back that artist Charles Vella was featured in the national press for ravaging a statue of Saint Gregory, which was entrusted to him by the titular church for restoration. Vella reworked the piece in a manner which overshadowed the talent of the original artist, and succeeded in expelling any sort of beauty with which it was characterised prior to this unethical restorative procedure. This same artist was commissioned to produce Preti’s bust.

A similar, and exacerbated, problem is encountered with the maquettes of the three late statesmen. The commissioned artists, Alfred and Aaron Camilleri Cauchi, seem to be occupying highly respectable positions as state artists. Over the course of the Easter period, an exhibition of their processional statues was held at the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta. The fact that this event took place, I found, was rather alarming for two major reasons. The first is that kitsch statues were exhibited in such a prestigious venue of national importance. The second was the marketing of the exhibition as a showcase of spiritual art. If spirituality is defined by derivative papier-mache representations of Biblical idols set in dramatic poses for theatrical effect, then those permitting such happenings have serious problems with understanding existence, let alone art.

There was an underlying element of Church propaganda in this infantile assimilation of spirituality and art, conducing art to the purposes of supporting an ideology of dominance and stripping it of all creative artistic merits, a situation reminiscent of the art produced under totalitarian regimes. The same bland realist approach is evident in the bozzetti, however these pieces are bereft of both imagination and of meaning. They are absolutely futile works. Dr. Schembri Bonaci has rightly stated that “the works must not only show assimilation with what the statesmen looked like but this assimilation must be transcended so as to reflect their spirit, ideas, struggles and the politicians they were in the widest sense of the word.”[1]

With constructive criticism of the latter kind being made publicly, why do those in authoritative positions choose to follow their trajectory of mediocrity rather than engage in dialogue with Maltese professionals who are capable of providing cultural insight into the subject? Newton’s third law demonstrates that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction, and action is reflective of the objective. Those making the decisions are complacently content with the current level of public art in Malta and, even more worrying, they have no idea that a radical change in consciousness is needed for art to ensure the continuity of collective memory. These monuments are forgettable as artworks, and they command no spatial presence, undermining their function as monumental presences in public spaces. Except for their resemblance to a person’s physicality, they bear no essence of why their memory should be retained, thus leading to Malta’s historical dementia, or the obscuring of a cultural memory.


Disclaimer: Referenced maquettes have not been printed in this magazine as they are visually offensive.

[1] The Malta Independent, 11th December 2013.

Category All,Art

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