Since its conception, Maltese Modernism was off to a shaky start. It is thanks to the perseverance of its pioneers that Malta can now proudly boast of an array of historically important 20th century artists. As all the odds rose against them, these young emerging artists at the time took it upon themselves to breach the bigotry of tradition, show resilience in the face of indifference from the powerful Catholic Church and introduce Malta to artistic currents that had taken Europe and North America by storm during the previous decades.
The short-lived Modern Art Circle of 1952 had transformed itself into the Modern Art Group a year later, which was again restyled as Atelier ’56 in 1956. The core of such groups included Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005), Frank Portelli (1922-2004), Giorgio Preca (1909-1984), Hugo Carbonaro (1908-1979) and Joseph Calleja (b. 1924) among others.
Preca was chosen as honorary president, despite being based in Rome and not being able to physically participate in all the group’s initiatives and decisions.
This was indicative of the high esteem in which he was held by his younger colleagues. By the late 50s, some of its members had become disenchanted with Malta and emigrated to try their luck abroad.
In 1958, the Gozo-born Calleja married his English girlfriend, Gina Gadsby, in London, to which they decided to leave Europe for Canada. It was here that his concurrent teaching and artistic careers flourished.
Calleja’s pioneering endeavours in Kinetic Art drew the attention of various Canadian institutions which invited him to exhibit at prestigious venues.
His innovative and yet playful approach somewhat recalls that of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely.
One such example is Calleja’s 1977 masterwork, Spring Revelry, an intricately mechanised yet whimsical homage to Spanish Surrealist giant, Joan Mirò.
The BOV Retrospective Art Exhibition, featuring various works by Calleja, currently being hosted inside one of the upper halls of the Archaeology Museum at the Auberge de Provence, Valletta, goes a long way towards re-establishing Calleja as a major Maltese Modernist.
While proving providential for his career beyond our shores, emigration also deprived him of the fame that Maltese artists such as Antoine Camilleri, Frank Portelli, Josef Kalleya and other stalwarts of his generation continue to enjoy, among the other connoisseurs and collectors of 20th-century Maltese art.
This the second time that Calleja is being exhibited in the Maltese Islands, following that held at the former National Museum of Fine Arts in 1996.
Curated by Theresa Vella, this exhibition is a cross-section of Calleja’s multifaceted oeuvre. It includes landscapes and portraits executed early in his career, forays into abstraction, kinetic sculptures and optical experiments.
One can also find photographic documentation of his Wrapped Trees, which are slightly evocative of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. One can also admire his abilities as a consummate graphic artist in the small but representative selection of works in different graphic media.
His biomorphic sculptures are somewhat reminiscent of Barbara Hepworth and Lucio Fontana – the rip in Calleja’s Ripped Form sculpture particularly evokes those in Fontana’s Spazialismo paintings and in the Concetto Spaziale Natura sculptures.
The Gozitan artist has always been aware of and in touch with the international artistic breakthroughs, which concepts he at times reinterpreted in his own inimitable way.
This retrospective exhibition finds its true culmination in theSacrifice of the Lambs – a series of 16 paintings that took Calleja 15 years to complete. Its timelessness and artistic prowess elevate the whole cycle as a masterpiece of 20th-century Maltese art.
The series is a poignant testimony to Calleja’s cultural roots, as well as to the artist’s sensitivity to global catastrophes.
The sacrificial lamb is a paean to bloodthirsty divinities on the altars of archaic religions, which include those of the Maltese Islands’ Temple period. Hapless, lifeless limbs reach out to the heavens to redeem those sins committed by the docile creature’s own murderers. The mouth is agape as the last squeal accompanies its last breath, its eyes stark open in primeval terror.
The lamb, symbolically the most innocent of God’s creation has been paradoxically earmarked since time immemorial, for butchery to assuage divine wrath. Whilst at the same time, it transubstantiates into a symbol of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who redeems mankind by dying on a cross.
Sacrifice of the Lambs 6 introduces a Roman Catholic dimension to this series through the figure of a monk wearing what might be a Franciscan habit.
The holy man seems to be at odds with himself. His hands are raised in a sacrificial blessing, or in an act of resignation to the mores of a dogmatic belief that unequivocally demands a victim.
The immoral act of killing an innocent creature somehow betrays what he really stands for as a follower of St Francis. As the cycle of paintings progresses, the group of the three lambs – which form an audience to the slaughter of one of their number – is replaced by three women clad in garments of mourning.
Calleja stresses on the strong feminine presence in the later paintings from this powerful cycle. Perhaps these imply deep maternal instincts that resent the murder of innocents under any guise, be it ritual sacrifice, gangland execution or “unavoidable” accidents of war. Here are very spiritual paintings that tug at one’s heartstrings, where the depiction of everyday maternal despair at the loss of children in war-torn countries, is transformed into a timeless Pietà.
In some instances, the male gun-wielding presence appears aloof. In Sacrifice of the Lambs 15, a lance-like phallic gun barrel hovers above the head of the woeful mother, a contemporary Our Lady of Sorrows.
The ninth and 11th works in the series display a morbid immediacy one can find evident within American photographer Weegee’s crime scene prints. The focus is on the body, which lies very much lifeless and in rigor mortis.
The presence of onlookers is reduced to pairs of feet, eliminating any show of empathy towards the victim. Death has always been matter of fact in a cruel world, and these two paintings emphatically drive the point home.
In her insightful introductory essay for the exhibition catalogue, Vella observes that “the series of paintings are overlaid with prehistoric sacrificial imagery, biblical episodes from the Passion and contemporary war footage”. It may well be agreed that the Sacrifice of the Lambs series is to be regarded as a story which Calleja pictorially narrates over a period of 15 years.
It is a narrative as old as prehistory, and as epochal as the death of a Jew on the Golgotha almost two thousand years ago. Yet, at the same time, it is as contemporary and clichéd an expression as today’s horrible breaking news from the usual global hotspots.
In its entirety, Sacrifice of the Lambs seems to echo Gertrude Stein’s claim that “a masterpiece may be unwelcome, but it is never dull”.
The BOV Retrospective Exhibition runs at the National Museum of Archeology, Valletta, until July 15.
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