Intrigued by the transformation of the Inquisitor’s Palace into an art gallery, Peter Farrugia interviews artist Tamas Cserna and rediscovers the role of representational painting in today’s art world.

Tamas Cserna is a Hungarian painter and university lecturer, whose large figurative canvases are on display at the Inquisitor’s Palace, Vittoriosa, and Opus 64 Galerie in Sliema.

Where the canvases echo the Baroque painter, they do so by corresponding with a pre-existent appreciation the viewer already feels for Caravaggio’s pictures

In The Wake of Caravaggio is Cserna’s first exhibition in Malta, encouraged and assisted by curator Adél Stahlmayer-Kardar. It was her vision to enhance the relationship between these Caravaggio-informed canvases and the Baroque artist’s legacy on the island, an added layer of familiarity and innovation that has sparked a flurry of interest in the collection.

“I think the exhibition fits perfectly in Malta’s arts scene,” said Stahlmayer-Kardar. “Cserna is a contemporary artist with a traditional message, and I felt this would be more perceivable to the general Maltese taste and culture, at least as an introduction to his work.”

Indeed, Stahlmayer-Kardar is keen to foster strong cultural bonds between Malta and Hungary, and the lack of a Hungarian embassy or cultural institute on the island has not daunted her spirit.

Although the arts have always been important in Cserna’s life, he is hesitant to say that he’s loved art since his childhood.

“When I was a child I had no idea about art whatsoever. In fact, I would not be able to give a concise, striking definition of it even today.”

What Cserna feels most keenly is the magic of portrayal itself, the second life of a subject captured in paint and remade through shape and space.

“It has always been a good feeling when the image seems like it can be touched and it is instantly recognisable. My studies over the years have added to that experience.”

While the exhibition is being marketed via a relationship with Caravaggio, Cserna lists many other painters whose work informs his style, including Rogier van der Weyden’s Flemish altar pieces and Manet and Braque’s modernist experimentation.

He also mentions painters closer to his own heritage, names which might not be too familiar, such as Karoly Ferenczy, of the Hungarian Nagybanya artists’ colony, whose Boys Throwing Pebbles into the River is clearly indebted to the medieval style, albeit transformed into something altogether more poignant.

Of Caravaggio, Cserna says “he left the greatest impression in the history of painting. This is proven by the number of painters who used his style for at least a 100 years after his death, all over Europe. His ingenuity is indisputable”.

It’s doubly fun then that the exhibition is being hosted at the Inquisitor’s Palace – Caravaggio was there on July 26 of 1607 to give evidence in some sordid case concerning a Greek bigamist.

However, Cserna has not painted his work in homage to the master (or with obvious reference to Caravaggio’s colourful life, both on and off the island). Where the canvases echo the Baroque painter, they do so by corresponding with a pre-existent appreciation the viewer already feels for Caravaggio’s pictures.

“The whole of Europe produced followers of Caravaggio,” said Cserna. “Now, contemporary art has alienated its spectators.”

Perhaps it is simply a Hungarian talent for the telling aperçus, but Cserna’s views on the struggle between figurative and contemporary art are keenly relevant.

Exploring themes of conceptual and figurative art, it is easy to see where a painter like Cserna could find sympathy with that great contemporary champion of representationalism, Odd Nerdrum.

Quality is a product of execution and skill, coupled with the viewer’s ability to react to the work. “Conceptual art”, said Cserna, “has strengthened the feeling of uncertainty in the audience, struggling to connect with contemporary artworks. The depth of the message of these artworks is mostly to be found at the level of conceptual originality, but I think today people just yawn if they see something like this.”

There are certain critics and art historians who might think that Caravaggio himself would, in today’s milieu, have been a Martin Creed or Genco Gulan. But the truth is, each artist develops according to individual needs – it is not the duty of an artist (in whatever medium) to bow to the prevailing zeitgeist. Bach was controlled by his skill for harmony, just as Caravaggio was led by a sublime understanding of light.

It is interesting to consider that, if Caravaggio painted his highly skilled works today, they might, to use Nerdrum’s term, be considered kitsch. The overwhelming edifice of today’s art industry hangs off an armature of intellectual and critical dissimulation.

Nerdrum writes that “a beautifully drawn nude can be criticised to pieces, because a work like that lacks a respectful superstructure”.

It is this superstructure, insatiably hungry for innovation and renewal, that has turned an infatuation with conceptual art into outright hostility towards classical, figurative painting and the flagrant sensuality of the old master style.

Whether we favour the conceptual or figurative artist, it is true to say that painters like Cserna produce work of exceptional sensitivity. By allowing our imagination to draw inspiration from his work, we are nourished by a direct appreciation of beauty. And if a certain cadre of critics find that to be insufficient justification for this kind of work, it remains an admirable achievement – a triumph of skill and talent.

The exhibition is being held at the Inquisitor’s Palace, Main Gate Street, Vittoriosa, until August 19. Opening hours are Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information contact the curator Adél Stahlmayer-Kardar on adel.

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