While Malta was celebrating the feast of St Paul’s shipwreck on February 10, 2014, a great Pawlin, and an artist of colour, passed away at the age of 69.

Charles Cassar always searched for new forms and surfaces with varied colours and textures.Charles Cassar always searched for new forms and surfaces with varied colours and textures.

Charles Cassar was one of the few Maltese artists who profoundly explored aquatic and marine imagery. And that couldn’t be otherwise as he was born a few footsteps from the sea – his family lived in a modest house in the capital, at 19, St Christopher Street, so Cassar grew up admiring the beautiful baroque architecture set against the blue backdrop of the sea.

Born in 1944, Cassar’s artistic temperament was strong even as a boy – he was a very sensitive and observant child, showing a great inclination for art even at primary school.

“I remember Cassar was with me at primary school,” reminisces Archbishop Emeritus Paul Cremona.

However, Mgr Cremona does not remember much about Cassar. “I remember I felt very proud of him as a classmate especially when his renown as a painter increased,” he continues. “I had congratulated him heartily some years ago when we met near lower Barrakka Gardens.”

The last time Mgr Cremona met Cassar was when he presented one of his paintings at the Mdina Cathedral Museum in an exhibition some years ago.

“This same painting, which depicts the dead Jesus on Mary’s lap, was bought and given to me at my Episcopal Ordination. I am proud to see it hanging in my room where I live at St Dominic Priory, Rabat.”

A painting depicting the conversion of St Paul. It was done around the beginning of 2011.A painting depicting the conversion of St Paul. It was done around the beginning of 2011.

Cassar’s love of the sea also came naturally – his father worked in the navy and used to take his young son along on trips to foreign countries. These childhood travels probably strengthened his inspiration to paint nature’s textiles, reflected in powerful representation of changing moods.

To quote the catalogue for a retrospective art exhibition organised by Bank of Valletta in 2009, “The art of some artists has significance and meaning which is not revealed at once but throughout the passage of time.”

“It is impossible to highlight all the artistic accomplishments which Cassar successfully achieved throughout his life,” Louis Laganà, one of his closest friends, told The Sunday Times of Malta.

Cassar’s artistic temperament continued to flourish when he started attending the Lyceum in 1956, then a barely 12-year-old. Ġorġ Borg, the well-known sculptor and his art master at the Lyceum encouraged him to start attending the Government School of Art in Strada Brittania, now Melita Street, Valletta. Here, he was instructed by the great School of Art masters during the late 1950s and early 1960s, namely, Karmenu Mangion, Emvin Cremona, Ġorġ Borg, Antoine Camilleri, Esprit Barthet, Carmel Attard Cassar and later Fr Marius Zerafa.

The Final Tragedy, oils on cardboard, 2006 hanging in Mgr Paul Cremona’s room at St Dominic Priory, Rabat.The Final Tragedy, oils on cardboard, 2006 hanging in Mgr Paul Cremona’s room at St Dominic Priory, Rabat.

Cassar was a very promising art student and in 1964, after obtaining first prize in the School of Art final examination, was awarded a four-year scholarship to continue his art studies abroad. He spent the first year at Croydon College of Art in Surrey, England and then he continued his art studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, Italy.

In 1968 Cassar returned to Croydon College of Art to follow an intensive printing course and successfully complete his four-year scholarship.

“When he returned to Malta, Cassar resumed his art teaching career,” continues Laganà, a University of Malta associate professor and lecturer on history of image making at the Digital Arts Department.

“He was an excellent art teacher, respected by many students and colleagues and he will be remembered by many for his continuous support for all those studying art,” adds Laganà.

Cassar held his first personal exhibition in 1969 at the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. In this exhibition the artist showed a selection of paintings and prints that showcased his love of nature and marine life, and his versatility in shifting effortlessly from one medium to another.

Of Shells, oils on canvas, 1969, private collectionOf Shells, oils on canvas, 1969, private collection

Cassar’s early work was influenced by the impressionist movement. His sensibility, spontaneous use of vibrant colours and love for nature reveal the responses to the environment and mythologising concepts. Moved by the influence of impressionism, the artist’s forms and colours seem to have gained strength and definition.

Oliver Friggieri, one of his closest friends, rightly described him as “the painter of colours” (il pittore dei colori).

After a period of about 11 years, working and experimenting continuously on different subjects and mediums, in February 1981 the artist held another personal exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta.

This period marked significant changes in Cassar’s art. The artist was already demonstrating his great concern about nature. In fact, the title for the exhibition was Dialogues with Nature.

Bastions, oils on canvas, 1972, private collectionBastions, oils on canvas, 1972, private collection

Cassar was one of the first artists in Malta to introduce graphic design as an important discipline in advertising, visual communication as well as its use in fine arts. He was also a pioneer in exploring possibilities of design with the aid of the computer during the 1980s. In October 1986 the artist held his first exhibition of graphic works at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta.

He showed other artists and the public that there were new possibilities provided by the computer and that there was a scientific shift happening in the world from the traditional media to computer-generated art.

Cassar always searched for new forms and surfaces with varied colours and textures. In 1987 he participated in another important exhibition organised by Din L-Art Ħelwa, where he showed his latest techniques and experiments in painting.

Camouflage, oils on canvas, 1980, private collection. Right: Windswept Foliage, oils on canvas, 1980, private collectionCamouflage, oils on canvas, 1980, private collection. Right: Windswept Foliage, oils on canvas, 1980, private collection

Together with three other artists – Harry Alden, Joseph Casha, and Paul Haber – he exhibited his works again at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. These works were made with spray painting, obtaining an unlimited variety of textures.

Thematically Cassar continued to explore images inspired by the little things that nature provides, even though the medium changed.

It is this moving from the general to the particular that kept appearing in Cassar’s art. Seashells, urchins, fish, algae, stones, pebbles, sunflowers, leaves and other natural objects painted in vibrant colours and transformed into living, colourful abstractions, yet quite recognisable from their original form.

Cassar’s art was all about painting nature’s textures reflectedin powerful representations of changing moods.

Off and Away in Summer, impasto and oils on wood, 2008, artist’s collectionOff and Away in Summer, impasto and oils on wood, 2008, artist’s collection

In the patterning and colouring of these images we see the skillful crafting of a language of his art which developed and became coherent and cohesive. Laganà describes Cassar’s art a symbolical style typical of William Blake.

“It is hard to define his style especially in his later paintings. Above all his paintings are strong and colourful with many times sharp edges with a ‘sfumat’’ technique. His flowers are perhaps the most intriguing when related to symbolism.” 

All great art hides knowledge sunk beneath the surface of appearances. In his work Cassar emphasised the relationship of form, colour and content and a visual exploration and expression of the spirit within and behind nature. The work that Cassar left behind remains to give us aesthetic pleasure, reminding us of his artistic vision.

On my father’s shoulders

Robert Cassar remembers celebrating St Paul’s feast with his father

Generally speaking, we weren’t fans of feasts. However, since my father used to live in a small house in St Christopher Street, we used to visit my paternal grandparents for the Easter procession and St Paul’s feast. As a child I recall meeting at my grandparents’ house after a late lunch and then walking to St Paul’s church round the corner to follow the procession.

Needless to say, the amount of confetti that used to be thrown out into the streets while the statue paraded by, always fascinated me. Running through the pile of paper was a highlight.

While the statue of St Paul was parading through other streets, my parents would be constantly speaking to friends and acquaintances, met along the way. This constant chatting was obviously not very amusing to me, so my mum would walk me up to a famous sweet shop in Merchants Street to buy candy. Occasionally we would buy doughnuts from the makeshift festa stalls along the road. 

As the hours passed by, we would be eagerly waiting for the statue to reappear at the top of St Paul Street where it would make its way back to the church. This was, and still is today, the longest part of the procession.

Once again, right in front of a printing press in the same road, an endless shower of confetti would once again blanket the streets, giving us kids more paper to play with. Obviously all this wait was justified as we always loved to watch the spectacular run with the statue at the end of the procession.

This used to be one of the few occasions I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime. We would rush in, or rather squeeze through the already crowded church, to find a good spot inside.

I always had the best spot, sitting on my father’s shoulders. Once the statue was rushed in, we used to join in the singing of the anthem dedicated to St Paul. This routine, repeated itself pretty much every year however it instilled acertain belonging to St Paul’s feast even though we did not live in Valletta as a family. 

Throughout my dad’s final days, we were so focused on his daily regress, that I had completely detached myself from the reality around me. So when we got into the funeral preparations, it was a pleasant surprise to me that it was February 10. At that point, it became obvious that Mass had to be celebrated at St Paul’s Church, a fitting exit for a Pawlin.

Nowadays, I still look forward to the feast, despite  it being a constant reminder of my father’s passing. February 10 remains a special day in my life because it links my childhood memories to the sudden interruption with my father’s unexpected death in 2014 and to the building of my children’s memories and experience.

In fact, every year, without fail, together with my wife and two kids, I make it a point to instill the same sense of belonging for the St Paul’s feast that my father instilled in me. Every year, with the help of my wife and kids, I relive these childhood memories. 

‘Rich, decorative sophistication’

E.V. Borg reminisces about the artist

The first time I met Charles Cassar was probably in the early 1970s at his studio in a corner building in Guardamangia. Quite characteristic was the decoration of the façade of this building in geometric abstract shapes of vivid colours. I am not sure if this decoration was his idea but I would not find the idea so strange. His fantasy was saturated in an orgy of colours and abstract concepts. If I remember clearly he showed me drawings and paintings related to his academic studies abroad: a copy of God the Father by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Mass at Bolsena by Raffaello in the Stanze Vaticane in the sensual, soft Venetian colours of Lorenzo Lotto. Since this interview took place about 50 years ago my memory blurs but surely we discussed art.

I remember distinctly Cassar’s works exhibited at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Valletta in November, 2006. I came out of the venue visibly impressed.

His work was rich, decorative and sophisticatedly arabesque. Inspired by nature, it was rich in texture and finely drawn.

Some of his personal exhibitions show an evolving relationship according to the illustrations in the BOV Catalogue (June 2009). They seem linked by colours, abstraction and the subject matter: flowers, petals, leaves, seashells, underwater creatures, seaweed and animals. Their unifying property is rich, decorative sophistication. There is a warm sensuality in his works.

Cassar is primarily remembered as a master of art. He taught art in schools and printing at University. He is acclaimed as a portrait artist. I feel his teaching career – in which he was immersed and that involved him completely – might have prevented him from exploiting in full his artistic talents. I felt all along that he was deeply sensitive to criticism and that he was absorbed and withdrawn into his world of art that did not allow him to breathe anything but rare art notions.

‘For Cassar, sheer decorative beauty in bold printed colours is the rage.’ Maltese Contemporary Art at Palazzo De la Salle, Sunday Times of Malta, December 12, 1971.

‘Charles Cassar’s abstract is repetitive. His monoprints in gaudy and brilliant colours were more convincing and less artificial. I think Charles Cassar should abandon the use of oils to simulate a printing effect.’ Art Exhibition at Palazzo De la Salle, Sunday Times of Malta, November 26, 1972 (signed ‘by a special correspondent).

‘Charles Cassar and Philip Chircop are exhibiting abstract works of art which are sacred only in title. Chircop’s sheer love of colour has an affinity with that of Cassar. But Cassar’s use of brush and oils instead of his usual monoprints in poster colour widens the gap between him and Chircop extensively.’ Images of Faith, The Sunday Times of Malta, January 9, 1972.

‘Studied and rich in execution are the works of Charles Cassar… [He] has two abstract panels executed as one unit. The rich, invented, fantastic, subtle colours in Motif I balance the bold colours in Motif II. Line and Masses extend and interlock from one panel to the other. Cassar is surprising us with ever increasing subtlety and depth of feeling.’ Atelier ’56 – Maturity & Experience, The Sunday Times of Malta, October 13, 1974.

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