Patrick Dalli is well-known for his pictorial exploration of the nude female body. Joseph Agius discusses with the artist his collection of paintings, currently exhibited at Mqabba’s Il-Kamra ta’ Fuq, titled Din hi li hi (It is what it is).

JA: French film director Robert Bresson once claimed: “In the nude, all that is not beautiful is obscene”. This statement discriminates with all that pop culture defines as ugly and that does not fit its preconceptions of what constitutes beauty in the eye of the contemporary beholder. Does beauty in this context depend on the zeitgeist of the time?

PD: Probably it does depend on the zeitgeist of the time period. However not exclusively. I think there is always that one beauty, the simple, the ‘girl-next-door’ kind of beauty that always comes out as the ultimate beauty of all time(s).

But yes, each period, on a generic idea of the body type that one identifies as beautiful (or perfect) at the time, different periods in time have their own ‘type’. If we consider the iconic legend that is Marilyn Monroe, one can immediately see that although she is considered a superstar, her curves are not what was being epitomised a decade or two ago. 

JA: Your name is synonymous with the nude genre in the local art sphere. Do you find that this label somehow restricts you as local art aficionados compartmentalise your oeuvre?

PD: My exhibitions both in Malta and abroad have always been of my nude works. I don’t think this restricts me at all. In fact, during the last year, I started painting en plein air.

Patrick DalliPatrick Dalli

This resulted in a series of landscapes which I am constantly seeing transforming in their style and execution, and the more landscapes I produce, the more abstract they are becoming, which are in turn starting to reflect the block- colour backgrounds of some of my large-scale nudes. 

JA: Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown are major exponents of this genre who, in their own signature ways, explored the human body and its behaviour in different circumstances and contexts. Does your work fit in this milieu or are you after something else?

PD: My large-scale nudes do not convey any sensual tension. The figures are in their own parallel world and there is no inkling of any desired interaction with the viewer. The figure is there in all its glory, taking over the room, but the nudity here is conveying a sense of power over the viewer, which is accentuated by the gaze of the models; a gaze that strikes right through you or beyond you, completely ignoring you, thus asserting the artwork’s importance in the room.

I am not interested in the ‘indisputably’ beautiful, but in the human figure and mainly in the flesh- Patrick Dalli

In this exhibition, I am showing small-scale works, fresh sketches, primi pensieri, charcoal and watercolour pieces, and a couple of oil paintings. Again, as with my large-scale nudes, there is no sexual tension felt here. It is all about understanding the human figure through the use of various media and analysing human figures in all shapes and sizes, how I see them through my own eyes.

JA: The erotic played an integral part in the development of the genre across the centuries as demonstrated by many examples in the art of the classical civilisations and as superbly illustrated by Gustave Courbet’s photorealistic L’Origine du Monde. Does the artistic sometimes slide into the realm of pornography or is pornography often disguised as art?

PD: I think there is a thin grey line. Sometimes an artwork can become pornographic even just by the chosen title of the work – and vice versa – a work which at first glance can be seen as ‘pornographic’, its title can, on the other hand, make us look at it with a different pair of eyes, as I feel L’Origine du Monde does for me.

JA: Are your nudes not dependent on the artist-model relationship? Pierre-Auguste Renoir said: “My concern has always been to paint nudes as if they were some splendid fruit.” Are human bodies just ‘fruit’ or ‘vessels’ to be interpreted by the artist?

PD: In my case, the models are anonymous. I am not interested in the ‘indisputably’ beautiful, but in the human figure and mainly in the flesh. The flesh is the main focus of my works and how the painterly work will be used to capture flesh.

So yes, one could say that for me the model is a kind of ‘fruit’, and I am interested in the flesh of that fruit. 

JA: Is the compositional aspect of a painting relevant? Do your nudes transcend such limitations?

PD: The human figure is central in my works.  I rarely include any props or anything that can distract from the human figure. The backgrounds of my work are block colours – if any background is included at all. In this intimate exhibition, there are a couple of works where I am experimenting with the composition, by manipulating the void on the paper.

JA: Does the pictorial space in your work complement the actual and symbolic properties of ‘the room upstairs’? Do you see the former as an extension of the latter?

PD: Not particularly. But the small-scale works chosen for this exhibition have been selected to complement the size and intimacy of the space. My past exhibitions have been all about my large-scale (life-size) works, but when I saw Il-Kamra ta’ Fuq, I was immediately inspired to present an intimate exhibition of smaller works.

Din hi li hi, hosted by Mqabba’s Il-Kamra ta’ Fuq and curated by Art Sweven, runs until October 12. COVID-19 restrictions apply.

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