Lecture Blog Post:
Mediterranean Institute Seminar: Mediterranean and Modernist Multiplicity in Art
The Mediterranean Institute is delighted to be hosting the inaugural Mediterranean Institute Seminar for this academic year with a talk by Professor Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, who will be discussing Mediterranean and Modernist Multiplicity in Art. The Seminar will take place on Tuesday, 21st of November at 18:30 at the Ħursun Farmhouse, the Institute’s historic premises at the University of Malta Msida Campus.
The colonial global expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries roped in a corresponding aesthetic language - a language not only reflecting but also enhancing and defending the very same interests of economic and industrial hegemony. This power relationship created a vertical-linear methodological approach in art historical studies. Artistic movements and developments were, and still are, studied within these parameters, and, more specifically, solely in relation to cosmopolitan centres. Verticality has long been sustained as an approach to studying international artistic relationships. The paradox is that postcolonial and other related studies have appropriated that very same colonial language and replaced it with a neo-articulation, one which nevertheless addresses the same content the same hegemonic interests. This talk will attempt to provide a different approach to the study of Mediterranean Modern art, namely a horizontal-diagonal perspective. Aside from delving into this methodological approach, the talk will frame the Mediterranean basin as a region in its own right. This introductory talk tackles the suppression of collective consciousness, engendering thus the fragmentation of Mediterranean interconnectedness, an interconnection that was displaced by the verticality of the ‘master-slave’ dichotomy. The artistic Europeanisation of North African cultures and their de-Ottomanisation, together with the Greek upheavals and the effect these seismic events had on the development of Modern art will here be placed under artistic scrutiny. The Malta-Mediterranean connection will play a central role in the debate.
Prof. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci studied Philosophy, Law and the Arts. He graduated from the University of Malta, from the State University of Kiev, and from the State University of Moscow, and undertook postgraduate research studies at the State University of Milan. He has authored several books on Modern and Contemporary Art, Philosophy of Art, and Maltese twentieth-century art.
Schembri Bonaci is the founder of the Fine Arts Programme and of the Modern & Contemporary programme within the Department of Art and Art History, Artistic Director of the APS Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale, and was Artistic Director of the Strada Stretta Concept, a cultural programme under the auspices of the Valletta Cultural Agency, until 2022. His recent publications include a philosophical-methodological treatise on the works of Frank Portelli and Antoine Camilleri. He has just concluded his series of publications on the Maltese artist Josef Kalleya’s visual dialogue with Dante’s Divina Commedia and a novel history of Mediterranean Modern Art. His 'Metal and Silence' work formed part of the Venice Biennale 2022 Malta Pavilion.
Kylie Aquilina, Temples as Portals to Nature
Kylie Aquilina's short film titled Temples as Portals to Nature was inspired by the theme of the APS Mdina Biennale 2023 - 'Mediterranean Goddesses'.
It incorporates documentation of nature to represent a ritualistic act. The images of the local temples are superimposed to dialogue with images of nature which represent unity. Thus, the film cycles back towards the images of the temples, sites within which many rituals signifying rebirth would take place.
Antoni Tàpies, Creu de paper de diari
This early Tàpies’s work typifies, even at this stage of his career, his belief in ‘untranscendental mysticism.’ The cross at the centre of the composition is formed with the obituary pages from a newspaper and is placed alongside Manila tissue paper, thus asking viewers to question materiality and mortality.
Tàpies was heavily influenced by the thirteenth-century Catalan mystic Ramon Llull, who wrote that “painters painted, drew, or carved no other things than crosses.” Tàpies’s appreciation of the symbolic importance of the cross paralleled that of Maltese artist Antoine Camilleri. It allows us, in the words of Tàpies, to “analyse the problem of being and show us ultimate reality.”
Tàpies’s aim in art can be compared with that of Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis. Whilst their artistic disciplines differ, they both saw art as an almost alchemical process that leads artists and viewers alike towards deeper truths and knowledge. In a 1957 interview, Kazantzakis stated: “Ever since my childhood I was haunted by the figure of Christ… I wanted to free myself from this obsession through a work of art.” Tàpies’s work is similarly ‘obsessed’ with the cross – Christ abstracted into a universalising symbol – which marks Tàpies as one of the most spiritually-engaging Modern artists.
Alexandra Kollárová, “Contemporary art practice in the Middle East – The case of Cairo Townhouse gallery"
“Contemporary art practice in the Middle East – The case of Cairo Townhouse gallery” by Alexandra Kollárová is an academic essay which analyses twentieth-century activist art as a form of cultural resistance in the Middle East, specifically focusing on the Townhouse Gallery.
The essay is divided into seven main parts. Throughout the initial three sections, the author outlines the context of Middle Eastern art while highlighting the recurring issues presently afflicting non-European art. The research also examines the vital role that NGOs play in the production of political art within Egypt’s authoritarian regime, expressing the importance of such independent establishments for freedom of expression. One such institution is the Townhouse Gallery which is located close to the historical Tahrir square. Founded by Yasser Gerab and William Wells, the Townhouse Gallery developed from a cultural space for the visual and performing arts to an influential establishment that allowed artists to respond “to critical social issues” and fight against “state imposed conventions.” As explained in the latter half of the essay, the gallery even served as a drop-off point for medical supplies during the 2011 uprisings. Kollárová concludes by stressing the importance of such spaces for open discussions, allowing for free communal expression to take place.
One of the cogent arguments expressed by the author was the influence that Middle Eastern art had on Western art, thus leading Kollárová to conclude that those who accuse “modern Middle Eastern art of being a secondary product of Western art [share] an ethnocentric conception approving superiority of one cultural sphere above another.” Another seminal issue discussed in this essay is the vagueness of the term ‘Islamic art,’ mirroring Silvia Naef’s concerns regarding the broad parameters being encompassed by this terminology.
In parallel to the Changing Gear project, Kollárová recognises the importance of a coexistence between the international and the local artistic scenes, allowing art to prosper through freedom of expression.
Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar: The Manifestation of Time
Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar, Key of Time, 1951
Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar, Chain and Time or Waiting for the End, 1964
Key of Time (1951) by Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar (1925–1966) combines the mysticism of surrealist art with the iconographic uncertainty of hieroglyphics. This work represents a triad temporal dimension where the past is represented in the fortified background, reminiscent of the Fortifications series (1978) by Maltese artist Norbert Francis Attard. The present is witnessed in the main portrait and the future is represented by the key.
The gaze of the main figure is empty and disconnected, awaiting the mysterious future while remembering the hateful past which foreshadows oncoming turbulences. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, in his essay Dun Karm u Edward Caruana Dingli quddiem l-'Angelus Novus’ (2019), creates a dialogue with Walter Benjamin in the analysis of the temporal dimension of artworks. This is also featured in El-Gazzar's Key of Time (1951), echoing Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (1920).
Chain and Time or Waiting for the End (1964) features a seated figure with a tranquilizer dart on the right shoulder. This figure is chained to a Rhino-like beast standing on a pocket watch which could represent the transposition of roles between humans and animals. The power structure in El-Gazzar’s painting is also highlighted by the background with Muslim and Pharaonic symbols and the Pharaoh-like seated figure in frontal view recalling The Great Temple of Ramesses II (c. 1264 B.C.)
In Chain and Time or Waiting for the End, the artist depicted the interdependence between nature and modern human “who renounced myth and religion thus falling into the abyss of angst”. This painting could be representing the artist’s wish to go back to nature and ritual instead of the propagated progress of the mechanical age. The idea of past ‘progress’ is relative since it replaced the ritual of myth and religion with angst. ‘Progress’ is ongoing In the present and future, containing infinite possibilities for change which is encapsulated by El-Gazzar’s manifestation of time as a key and his longing for the never-ending end.
Emilie Goudal, “Defining a Space for New Art Genealogies – North-African and Middle-Eastern Modernities and Critical Legacies"
In the critical essay “Defining a Space for New Art Genealogies – North-African and Middle-Eastern Modernities and Critical Legacies,” Emilie Goudal engages with the importance of defining new academic parameters that encapsulate innovative artistic genealogies. The author debates art theoretical sources which best capture the hegemonic issues pertaining to the treatment of North African and Middle Eastern modernities.
One of the major recurrent issues is the question of shared spaces and “hybridisation,” wherein works of Persian and Islamic heritage are being juxtaposed with “globalised forms of Western modernism.”
Much like Finn Barry Flood asserts, this juxtaposition has been interpreted as a hegemonic absorption or ‘Occidentosis’, meaning “being intoxicated by the West.” This concept of hegemony is pursued further through Dario Gamboni’s understanding that “the universalism born of European Enlightenment [should come] to be perceived as truly universal, rather than appearing as a new form of colonialism or the cultural face of economic globalization.”
The article also considers the concept of authenticity by reviewing Elias Chad’s essay “Posthumous Images”, which deals with the spaces that have been subjected to ruin due to the Lebanese Civil War. Here the misrepresentation of the media is highlighted as an obstacle to be transcended through art to safeguard memory and identity.
This parallels Fanny Gillet’s assertions of media sensationalism with regards to the Arab Spring. Thus, to counteract such stereotypical media distortions of truth, artists and academics are striving to restore forgotten narratives to produce a holistic historical mosaic that would help shape “international exchange and interpersonal solidarity.”
Emilie Goudal’s article is a relevant work to Changing Gear because it provides several critical reviews of theoretical and artistic sources interweaved into a holistic argument regarding new art genealogies. This academic essay echoes the words of the Algerian painter Mohamed Khadda, who encouraged artists not to “elude the question of the contribution of art to the disalienation of humankind.”
Giulio D’Anna, Dinamismo Aereo+Vulcano+Paesaggio
Dinamismo Aereo+Vulcano+Paesaggio (1929) by Giulio D’Anna (1908-1978) is representative of the futurist genre known as aeropittura. This finds its conceptual roots in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s (1876 - 1944) Le Monoplan du Pape (1912), important points from which were developed in the Manifesto dell’ Aeropittura Futurista, published in 1929, the same date of D’Anna’s painting.
Futurists were fascinated by the ways in which the modern technological experience of flight could provide artists with new perspectives, new understandings of cosmic dynamism, distort the perception of shapes and colours, as well as unite all these distortions under a painterly synthesis through the capturing of the continuity of flight.
The painting shows other elements which are even more interesting within the discourse of modern art from the Mediterranean region. The first is the volcano Etna. This can be contextualised in relation to the futurist interest in the volcano. Marinetti, defining the Etna as “mio padre”, considered it to be the epitome of nature’s futurist expression because of its dynamic and eruptive force and potential to simultaneously destroy and shape anew.
The second is the cactus, which Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci has identified as a modern art motif found in art from all over the Mediterranean, bearing connotations of dispossession and pre-colonial community, as in Kamal Boullata’s (1942-2019) works, Walid Abu Shaqra’s (1946-2019) View from My Village (1975), and Renato Guttuso’s (1911-1987) Cactus sul Golfo di Palermo (1978), among others.
D’Anna’s painting represents an important case in which the artistic avant-garde displayed strong Mediterranean connotations by blending Futurism with the Mediterranean landscape and soul, elements which would later find their echo in Mohamed Melehi’s (1936-2020) Moroccan works.
 This relationship has been investigated in Andrea G.G. Parasiliti, All’Ombra del Vulcano. Il Futurismo in Sicilia e l’Etna di Marinetti, Olschki, 2020.
Silvia Naef, “Reexploring Islamic Art: Modern and Contemporary Creation in the Arab World and Its Relation to the Artistic Past”
“Reexploring Islamic Art: Modern and Contemporary Creation in the Arab World and Its Relation to the Artistic Past” by Silvia Naef outlines how Western art replaced ‘Islamic art’ at the turn of the twentieth century only to lead to the rediscovery of ‘Islamic art’ in the latter part of the 1900s.
Naef clarifies certain terms employed throughout the essay, whilst also delving into the artistic context of the Arab world. This is followed by an analysis of so-called Western art, which, unlike Islamic Art was perceived as an instrument for progress and civilisation.
During the later years of the twentieth century, artists started to question this dominant prevailing trend not only because of the avant-garde developments in the West, but also because of the rising nationalistic concerns which re-defined identity. Modernity and authenticity were meticulously interweaved into a united opposition against the academic Western tradition. Artists started to re-appropriate Islamic calligraphy. This led to the rise of the Hurufiyya movement.
In Abstraction and Calligraphy: Towards a Universal Language, Alice Querin points out that at this same time North African artists started to move away from the “literal meaning of the written word”, embracing its abstract qualities. Naef also targets such artists who departed from the influence of Islamic art, concluding that only elements inspired by the latter seem to resurface through non-Islamic artistic languages.
The difficulty in defining Islamic art is recognised by the author herself who underlines the vague parameters laid out in the introduction. This lack of clarity is exacerbated due to the vague definitions of other terms such as Arabism and Modernism. The text interestingly refers to Samīr al-Ṣāigh’s beliefs that the West should be rejected as the sole source that defines modernity. This bears affinity to Keith Moxey’s theory of ‘Multiple Modernities.’ However, this notion is questioned within the Changing Gear project as this approach fails to acknowledge the hegemonic dominance of cosmopolitan centres.
Ignacio Zuloaga, Retrato de Domingo López Ortega vestido de torero
Artworks of bullfights executed by non-Spaniards conjure up images of dynamism, violence, and pithy romanticism. Some examples include the orgiastic drawings of André Masson’s Mythological Bullfight, Francis Bacon’s Study for Bullfight No.1 and, belonging to an earlier era, Édouard Manet’s Dead Toreador. Alongside this, the most iconic bullfight artworks executed outside of Spain by Spanish masters are undoubtedly Pablo Picasso’s innovative interpretations, such as his Bullfight, Salvador Dalí’s Hallucinogenic Toreador, and Francisco Goya’s dark, violent Tauromaquia series. Maltese artists similarly picked up on this ‘cosmopolitan’ imagery of bullfighting as seen in Frank Portelli’s Spanish Diaries and Esprit Barthet’s Toreadors, amongst other works.
Yet there is another, far less promoted and exported, side to bullfighting art, one that is closer to the aesthetics of the inner workings of the institution of bullfighting; that which may be referred to as ‘academic’ bullfight art. Ignacio Zuloaga’s Retrato de Domingo López Ortega vestido de torero, painted in the last year of the artist’s life (1945), typifies this style. Portraits of matadors, full-length or upper body, tend to be formal and formulaic. This academicism goes back as far as the 18th century as can be witnessed in a portrait attributed to Goya depicting ‘Costillares’, the inventor of the veronica pass, which echoes Diego Velázquez’s portraits. There is a similar austerity of colour, bare, almost monochrome background, and figures in quiet dignity. These ‘academic’, formulaic portraits of the insiders of bullfighting reflect the provincial origins of the institution, which, over the years, has been overlooked in favour of a more cosmopolitan, dynamic, romanticised mythos overseas. One can observe here a dichotomy between the ‘official’ portraits of toreros and breeding bulls, which were intended for viewing by those operating within the world of the corrida, and the popular prints (the most popular being Goya’s Tauromaquia) intended for a wider audience. The dynamic, violent imagery of these prints, and even poster, would be picked up and popularised by cosmopolitan Spanish artists (Picasso, Dalì, Óscar Dominguez, to name a few) and foreign artists (from Manet to Masson to Antoine Camilleri). This portrait by Zuloaga arguably straddles both worlds.
The Monster and Inji Efflatoun
Inji Efflatoun, The Young Girl and the Monster (series), 1942
Giorgio Preca, Inhabitants of the Moon (series), 1952
“trees are like people - suffering - and represent our dream spirits.” – Inji Efflatoun
Inji Efflatoun (1924-1989) is an Egyptian artist who painted the series The Young Girl and the Monster (1942) which depicts a young girl haunted and stalked by anthropomorphic trees and monstrous alien creatures. These elements are characteristic of Surrealism, which found roots in pre-war Egypt.
The isolation of the artist is seemingly represented by the barren land, the roaring sea, and dark colours echoing German Expressionism. The celestial is haunted by aliens and the land birthed moving trees. The imagery of the flying alien-monster echoes Giorgio Preca’s creatures in the Inhabitants of the Moon series (1952) produced in the same year when Inji Efflatoun exhibited works at the Venice Biennale.
In Efflatoun’s The Young Girl and the Monster series (1942), there is a great dissonance between the girl and the hostile environment she inhabits wherein the trees haunt and defeat her. In her work The Unknown (1940s), the uprooted trees still retain their trunk features which are metamorphosed into female bodies in Surrealist Composition (1942). The artist’s interpretation of trees as representation of “dream spirits” suggest that the girl is haunted by her own dreams and sufferance.
The surrealist language is here grounded in the reality of the artist’s biography and the political turbulence in Egypt which led to the imprisonment of the artist in 1959. This series is interpreted as a self-portrait of the artist and of Egypt itself, exploring the themes of unreality, uprootedness, and authenticity.
“the real Egypt, my roots, that I needed to discover.” - Inji Efflatoun
Fanny Gillet, “The Impact of the Arab Revolutions on Artistic Production in Algeria: Between Saving the Local Model and Denouncing Foreign Interference.”
“The Impact of the Arab Revolutions on Artistic Production in Algeria: Between Saving the Local Model and Denouncing Foreign Interference” by Fanny Gillet is an essay which evaluates the role of artists in protest movements that arose in Algiers during the rise of the Arab Spring.
Divided into five main parts, this essay contextualises the role of the arts in relation to politics as well as the misinformation promoted by the mass media on the Arab revolts.
In the initial segment titled, ‘Grasping the “Event” of Arab Uprisings,’ the author not only outlines the contextual information with regards to the Arab Spring but also the Algerian political engagements which assumed “a quasi-proverbial attachment” to their inherited past anti-colonial struggles with France.
This is followed by an investigation on Noam Chomsky’s assertion that the Western Sahara was the trigger for the revolts in Northern Africa. Gillet then focuses her analyses on the ephemeral attempts at political artistic expression by Algerian artists as well as the artistic reactions to the manipulation of information by the mass media. In the final section the author turns to the reception of these artworks and their respective interpretations, revealing the difficulty in analysing these works due to the vast array of conflicting socio-political permeations.
Throughout the essay the author turns to Mourad Krinah’s works including La Valse du Samedi (2011-12) and his installation (They) Occupy Algiers (2011) to represent artistic engagements which were dealing with the politics of the mass media. These works are a testament to the artist’s belief that “the real wars start when the war of the images begin to manipulate us.” Mass media sensationalism turned towards the Arab revolts, erroneously transforming them into fashionable shock content which increased ratings. This treatment of Arab uprisings as spectacle, provided material for works such as Sofiane Zouggar’s Noise (2012). Gillet also turns to the concept of hegemony to analyse the manipulation of information imposed by foreign powers.
At the end of the essay, the author provokes a fascinating question on how these works of art are to be received or interpreted; a question which is intertwined with the current ongoing research undertaken by the project Changing Gear.
Finbarr Barry Flood, "Picasso the Muslim: Or, How the Bilderverbot became modern (Part 2)"
“Picasso the Muslim: Or, How the Bilderverbot became modern (Part 2)” by Finbarr Barry Flood is a theoretical essay which builds upon the analysis of the Bilderverbot and its dialectical relationship to Abstraction in Modern art. It builds upon the first essay which was discussed in a previous blog post.
In 'Abstraction, agency, and the allochronic', Flood concentrates on the various juxtapositions posed by several academics on pre-modern Islamic sources and modern Euro-American Abstraction. The essay develops a debate on whether Islamic abstractions can be seen as prefigurations to Euro-American Modernism and Arab Modernism.
The author turns to the observations made by Esther Pasztory, who concluded that the juxtaposition of Euro-American Modernism with non-Western pre-modern art is in fact an intellectual hegemonic coup that conveniently places non-Western sources under what Hal Foster calls “the sign of Western universality”.”
Flood delves into the writings of Afif Bahnassi who challenges the recognised stylistic and methodological affinities between Picasso and Arab art on the basis of spirituality. This is sustained also by the Lebanese artist Mustafa Farrukh who labelled modernist masters as “Antichrists of art.” Such an observation interestingly echoes the icon philosopher-theologian Pavel Florensky’s analysis of Picasso’s art in The Meaning of Idealism, wherein he characterises the artist’s work as a mechanically cold deconstruction that emerged “from the poisoned soul of a great artist.”
Guillaume Apollinaire once suggested that without studying the necessary points of a non-European artistic reference, one would be ill equipped to advance anything more than mere “conjectures.” Flood’s in-depth study is an academic response to this observation. Therefore, Flood’s essay is quite vital for any research on the genealogy and affinity between Euro-American abstraction and pre-modern Islamic art.
'Metall u Skiet' ('Metal and Silence') forms part of the Venice Biennale 2022 Malta Pavilion 'Diplomazija Astuta'.
This video shows the most important points in Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci's work-in-progress that ultimately led to the final piece.
The soundscape is based on Brian Schembri's original score.
The 2022 Malta Pavilion was curated by Jeffrey Uslip and Keith Sciberras.
Renato Guttuso, Palinuro
This work, painted by Renato Guttuso in 1932, depicts a reclining male body which could be either sleeping or dead on a typical Mediterranean shore. The title suggests the body being that of Palinurus, the boatman of Aeneas who accompanied him on his trip to Rome. Considering Guttuso’s interest in dramatic events related to the labour of the lower classes, a possible way of interpreting this figure is to consider the body as that of a contemporary fisherman transformed by the artist into the legendary Palinurus. The author Franco Grasso in fact confirms how “L’artista ha scoperto il cadavere nudo di un pescatore sbattuto dal fortunale sulla spiaggia.”
Palinurus was the gods’ sacrificial lamb guaranteeing Aeneas safe passage through the Sicilian-Maltese fatal storms - "unum pro multis dabitur caput” - after which the drowned body will “[…] lie naked and dead on the sands of an unknown seashore [...]” [Virgil, Aeneid, 5. 870-1].
Echoing Caravaggio’s choice of a drowned prostitute to represent the Virgin Mary, Guttuso’s choice of connecting a drowned fisherman to the Aeneid narrative creates a link between contemporaneity and the primordial foundation of European civilisation by Aeneas. This exposes the context of Italian art in the 1930s in which the theme of authenticity was central, as in other parts of the Mediterranean.
However, Guttuso does not assert Romanitá or Mediterraneitá as did Mario Sironi’s monumental style. He here fuses such an assertion with his sociological principle of realism, equating the cruel destiny of the innocent Palinurus to that of the equally innocent fisherman.
The contours of the near-flat human body merge with those of the shore. This visceral connection with the land can be found in many works with a Mediterranean link, as indicated by Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s analysis of the body of Abel in Lazzaro Pisani’s (1854-1932) Death of Abel (1885).
Finbarr Barry Flood, "Picasso the Muslim: Or, How the Bilderverbot became modern (Part 1)"
“Picasso the Muslim: Or, How the Bilderverbot became modern (Part 1)” by Finbarr Barry Flood is an academic article which discusses Modern artworks as the ‘pseudomorphosis’ of past Islamic, Jewish, and Medieval art.
The essay is divided into three sub-sections. The author explores the concept of ‘pseudomorphosis’ as defined by Erwin Panofsky and Georges Didi-Huberman in relation to Picasso’s artistic praxis. These theoretical concepts are developed further in the ‘Between abstraction and ornament’ section wherein Flood explores Immanuel Kant’s and G.W.F. Hegel’s divergent views on non-figurative art, as well as the ground-breaking work of Alois Riegl and Wilhelm Worringer. In the final sub-section, the author discusses the ascendancy of abstraction, dealing with the modernisation of the Bilderverbot and its new role in the understanding of abstract art.
Throughout the article Flood proposes several interesting arguments which promote the concept of continuity between past aniconic art and modern abstract works. An interesting approximation of this argument was touched upon by the Irish cubist Mainie Jellett through her essay "The Dual Ideal of Form in Art" where she describes Modern art as a wave that maintains a continuation and a development of the past Byzantine and Celtic forms.
Flood goes further by analysing Jewish and Islamic sources, leading him to the conclusion that most allusions made to twentieth-century art harbour pre-modern Islamic sources. This may be sustained further when analysing the 2021 Louvre Abu Dhabi exhibition titled Abstraction and Calligraphy − Towards a Universal Language where pre-modern Islamic sources were juxtaposed with Modern abstract art.
The essay also studies the concept of the Bilderverbot and its reception before and after the volcanic twentieth century. Therefore, “Picasso the Muslim: Or, How the Bilderverbot became modern (Part 1)” by Finbarr Barry Flood is an important contribution for the project Changing Gear. It seeks to address the theoretical and temporal dissonances which arise from the “specter of the Bilderverbot” in twentieth-century art.
Within this context, one should consider the publications Two Artists: Velázquez-Picasso: Las Meninas by Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and Marjorie Trusted (2010) and Natasha Staller’s A Sum of Destructions: Picasso’s Cultures and the Creation of Cubism (2001).
Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Retablo del rapto de Europalia: Rapto de Europa
“But how far I was from those frivolous games. More and more I seemed to confront the work with the sacred respect of a priest before the altar.” These words of the artist Guillermo Pérez Villalta uttered in 1983 reflect an anti-abstractionist trend in Spanish art following the end of the Francoist dictatorship. This can be beautifully juxtaposed with Francesco Bellia’s blog on Alberto Savinio’s Ulysse et Polyphème (1929) (see below for reference).
According to the critic Jorge Luis Marzo, artists like Villalta, Alfonso Albacete, Miguel Ángel Campano, Manolo Quejido and others began to move away from abstraction.
This painting by Villalta, the Retablo del rapto de Europalia: Rapto de Europa (1985), is part of a series of works that re-interpret the myth of Europa. According to myth, Europa was abducted and raped by Zeus whilst assuming the form of a bull. In Villalta’s painting, the Minotaur figure holds the tower of La Giralda, the bell tower of the cathedral of Sevilla which was converted from a minaret.
By uniting mythological images with a structure that recalls Spain’s Islamic past, Villalta is subtly arguing for the importance of Islamic culture in Spain’s national identity. During the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s propaganda machine depicted his campaign, with its Islamic North African alliance, as a second Reconquista to this time rid Spain not of its Moorish-Islamic identity but of its Marxist enemies.
The classicising themes combined with the quasi-surrealist idiom creates interesting links between Villalta and other Mediterranean artists such as Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Savinio, amongst others.
 Jorge Luis Marzo, From Franco to Expo’ 92: A History of the Artistic and Cultural Transition in Spain.
Nada M. Shabout, Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics
Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics by Nada M. Shabout is a seminal theoretical and historical contribution to the history of art which analyses the important modern artistic developments of the Middle East in the twentieth century. The book is separated into three main parts. Firstly, the author presents an analytical approach that contextualises Arab art through background information and definitions; secondly, the book investigates the reception of Modern Arab aesthetics, including the nineteenth and twentieth century socio-political context; and, finally, Shabout studies the role of secularised calligraphy and text in the modern Arab artistic praxis, situating, as she brilliantly analyses, “the Arabic letter in the artistic creation” and how this provoked an entire novel approach in Modern and Contemporary art.
Shabout differentiates between Arabic art and Islamic art and thus challenges their former synonymous status whilst conveying how these two forms of art intersect and overlap. Overall, the book advances the argument that European Modernism prompted the shift from Islamic to Arabic aesthetics, an argument which provoked an exciting debate. In addition, this research proposes that there is a correlation between the Arab’s understanding of Modernity and other intersecting relationships between modern art, society, and politics.
Shabout’s methodology echoes Eugenio Carmona’s ‘Transversal Methodology’ as it considers the multi-cultural levels of political and social aspects which effected the development of Arab aesthetics. One can also find this approach in Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s ‘Vertical-Horizontal’ methodology in its recognition of vertical European influences and horizontal visual dialectics between artists and movements throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Although achieving high critical acclaim, some have argued that this research would have been enriched had more field research been integrated to sustain certain overarching blanket statements that provided brief overviews on each nation and its artistic context in the Middle East. The author also perpetuates the polemical notion of ‘backwardness’ in relation to Arab modernity, which is not thoroughly defined in its hegemonic context. One may argue and debate that Shabout does not prescribe herself with Keith Moxey’s theory of ‘Multiple Modernities’ as she seems to be still acknowledging art history’s cosmopolitan temporal framework. However, it is undeniable that Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics by Shabout is a foundational contribution to art history’s understanding of Arab art that provides unique insights into the development of Modern art in the Middle East which are discussed in Changing Gear.
Alberto Savinio, Ulysse et Polyphème
Alberto Savinio’s (1891-1952) Ulysse et Polyphème (1929) portrays an interesting composition of Mediterranean themes filtered through the subconscious of the twentieth century.
The painting depicts the moment of the flight of Ulysses from the Sicilian Aegadian land of Polyphemus. Neither Ulysses nor Polyphemus figuratively feature in the painting. The two protagonists of the Greek myth are represented by means of inanimate objects, an aesthetic mode recurrent in Savinio’s modern interpretation of ancient Mediterranean mythology, as can be discerned in his L’abandonné (1928) and Objets dans la forêt (1927).
The Cyclops, son of Poseidon, who represents a fiery irrational barbarian diversity, is depicted as a disordered agglomeration of irregular inscribed shapes. Ulysses appears as a ship which represents his journey, mythic adventure, and wisdom.
From an archaeological point of view, the objects representing Polyphemus - apart from their decorative or concealed inscriptive motives which are seemingly the imaginative invention of Savinio - recall ruins from various areas found around the Mediterranean. The entire aura of the painting is close to that of Giorgio de Chirico’s (1888-1978) Metaphysical works which constitute an interesting case of modern artistic reinterpretation of Ancient Mediterranean mythology.
The Ulysses theme was a source of inspiration for many artists hailing from the Mediterranean. The Greek Konstantinos Parthenis (1879-1976) proposed his Calypso (1935) and his Calypso and Orpheus (1920-25), which attempted to lure the Maltese Calypso back to its grecità, and which was defied by Frank Portelli through his Calypso in Għawdex, the Homeric Ogygia.
Joshua Arthurs, Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy
Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy by Joshua Arthurs is a meticulous study of the meaning, rise, and ramifications of the ideological myth of romanità and its role in establishing what was believed to be an imperial rebirth. The book explores Fascism, analysing the literal and ideological excavation of past cultures which were hegemonically moulded into a new understanding of the anachronistic concept of ‘Roman-ness’. It is logical that Fascism, a catalyst proclaiming the violent twentieth-century birth of a militarised industrial modernisation, succumbed to the Entartete Kunst policy.
Arthurs’ research delves into the abused romantic nineteenth-century desire for a ‘Third Rome’, something that can be visually experienced in the Maltese Giuseppe Calì’s painting Le Tre Rome (1911), and which later developed into the disastrous 4th Shore, paralleling the Nazi Third Reich and Metaxas’s Third Hellenic Civilisation. The book also explores the politics of the Istituto di Studi Romani, founded during Mussolini’s regime, and responsible for the promotion of romanità, as well as the archaeological excavations that were used as a blueprint for the fascist dream. In this respect, Luigi Maria Ugolini (1895-1936), who was in Malta, defined the island as the hearth of ‘Mediterranean civilisation’: a continuation of the ‘Mostra Archeologica’ political-ideological programme proclaiming Latin greatness with its conquête civilisatrice.
Arthurs shows how the 1937 Mostra Augustea della Romanità provided a definition of the political ‘Roman-ness’ being proclaimed at the time. 1937 was the year of Guernica, the Nazi Entartete Kunst exhibition, to which the Egyptian Art et Liberté group daringly responded with its 'Long Live Degenerate Art', and the year after the 1936 Greek fascist coup-d’état.
Finally, the study also focuses on the shifts and decline of romanità that corresponded with the end of Fascism. Arthurs proposes an intricate study of Fascism that seriously ruminates on the ideological concept of excavating the past for colonial purposes. Such reclamation of the Imperial Roman past became a serious endeavour which gave rise to a multitude of Mediterranean holocausts.
Wijdan Ali, Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity
Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity by Wijdan Ali is an analytical study of Islamic Modernity with a twofold aim. Firstly, to descriptively survey the developments of Western modernity throughout the Arab world by looking at thirteen different countries spanning from Morocco to Iran and, secondly, to analyse the continuity of Islamic art in the twentieth century through calligraphy.
Wijdan Ali presents a rich study which contextualises artistic developments in the Middle East. Her research initiates with the years preceding the twentieth century, exploring the specific aesthetic characteristics before and after the subordination of traditional methodologies due to Western interventions and the corresponding establishment of European-oriented modern art schools. This decline of traditional aesthetics attributed to colonialist policies is also an element outlined by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon explains how this is later challenged during the process of decolonisation where “the struggle for national liberty [becomes] accompanied by a cultural phenomenon known by the name of the awakening of Islam”, bringing “the heritage of the past […] to culmination.” Within this bracket, Ali interprets the persistence and re-emergence of the art of calligraphy and the modern calligraphic school as part of this awakening of a national cultural identity. This latter element has also overflowed onto other non-Islamic art. The author explores the various styles and forms of calligraphy, even providing biographical information on the influential Modern Islamic artists which dealt with this form of artistic expression.
Much like Eugenio Carmona’s ‘Transversal Methodology’ towards modern art movements, which explores the relationship between art and other factors such as politics and society, Ali’s methodology takes into consideration political and economic aspects which contextualise the various artistic movements and their protagonists. According to certain academics, the first part of the book sometimes reads like a list of facts, meaning that it occasionally lacks an analysis of the facts provided. Nevertheless, Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity is a substantial contribution to the history of art that expands beyond the confines of American and European modernity, bringing to the fore various artistic developments and movements of the Middle East. Moreover, its in-depth information makes this book an insightful source for the Changing Gear project which seeks to academically explore the rich varieties of artistic developments in and around the Mediterranean Sea.
Equipo Crónica, Rueda de Prensa
This work by the Valencian pop-art collective Equipo Crónica (1964-1981) is a work of the Spanish Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Unlike some of the North American and British equivalents, Spanish Pop Art was a far more politically engaged movement, typified by its amalgamation of historic icons such as paintings of the Spanish tradition and mass media. According to the Equipo Crónica manifesto of 1967, Equipo Realidad’s aesthetic, and others, the work of art is a cultural product. It must respond to the historic moment and to engage with moral and social progress. This served as a reaction to the predominant Informalist art of Spanish avant-garde artists.
The 1969 painting Rueda de Prensa (Press Conference) quotes Velázquez directly, placing his image of the Count-Duke of Olivares amongst journalists. In the background are Dutch soldiers from Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda (1634-35), which glorified Imperial Spain during its decline. Such narratives were revitalised during early twentieth-century Spain. “As Alisa Luxenberg and Natasha Staller underline, Velázquez was, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, resurrected after centuries of oblivion, proclaiming his art as proof that the country could regenerate its glory […] achieving what Spain’s military and navy had not, a dream to be shred into nightmarish bits by Picasso a century later” (reference from Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s Lecture Notes: v. I/39). This colonial narrative was heavily exploited by the Franco regime, against which Equipo Crónica was reacting.
Alberto Abate, Anima Mundi
Anima Mundi (1992) by Alberto Abate (1946-2012) is an artwork which perfectly synthesises the artistic essence of its author, a distinguished exponent of the Anacronismo, and Arte Colta movements which exposed a chronological dissonance in the arts. These proclaimed a ‘ritorno alla pittura’ and to figurative art. From a technical-stylistic point of view, this painting refuses the dictates of the post-1960s Western avant-garde’s by positing a return to academic painting techniques and practices. This ‘ritorno alla pittura’ coincides with a return to Mediterranean visual culture. In Anima Mundi, the references to Abate’s Italian past come from diverse historical periods: the lyre, the archetypal female figure, the decorative motif reminiscent of both of Greek volutes and Renaissance grotesques, and the window’s design which recalls Venetian Renaissance Architecture.
However, none of these elements are faithfully reported in their original orthodox form. Rather, they are appropriated by the artist who altered and even juxtaposed them with one another. Such an approach creates a visual environment which is typically Mediterranean and which does not relate to any specific place or time because it transcends them. The Algerian Hocine Ziani’s (1953-) Berber Queen Tin Hinan and Le silo bleu can be regarded as exciting parallels, although these are not characterised by Abate’s chrono-dissonance.
Abate’s style gains importance within the context of other reassertions of the Mediterranean artistic development, especially the work of a group of Sicilian sculptors active between the 1920s-1950s which Carmelo Abate, Alberto’s father, was part of. In spite of aesthetic differences, comparison with the Egyptian 1930s Art et Liberté movement, and the works by the Greek Angelos Sikelianos (1884-1951) and Nikos Engonopoulos (1907-1985) enrich this debate.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism
Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said is a formulation of a new perspective which investigates cosmopolitan cultures, specifically British, French, and American. The book analyses the link between imperialism and cultural production within these countries whilst also studying so-called peripheral nations and their resistance cultures.
The book is divided into four main parts. The first deals with the overlap of territories and intertwined histories; the second focuses on consolidated vision, which analyses the complicity of canonical texts in engendering imperialism; the third studies colonies and their theoretical and literary movements of resistance; and finally, the fourth looks at the USA’s power ascendancy and compares it prior forms of imperialism in the hope of preventing America’s domination on other countries’ freedom.
By offering a unique contrapuntal approach, the author juxtaposes geographical, temporal, and cultural experiences. He bridges the gap between these elements and analyses connections, revealing the correlation between the identity of these dominant cultures and their realisation of power. However, Said’s Herculean undertaking arguably falls short of the author’s own initial intentions due to the important endeavour of identifying large historical patterns as, according to some scholars, Said excludes certain local specificities, an omission which leads to misrepresentation. In addition, the book has been criticised for placing rudimentary importance, if any, of the class and gender intersections of imperialism, categories which are considered important in post-colonial studies.
Despite these critical remarks, Said’s Culture and Imperialism is an essential study of political-cultural criticism.
This development in contemporary cultural theory is recognised as a vital pivot in the history of art which lead to the rise of several concepts. This includes Keith Moxey’s ‘Multiple Modernities’ which suggests that heterochronicity would only be given a chance through the denial of art history’s cosmopolitan temporal framework. Alternatively, Eugenio Carmona focuses on the ‘transversal’ character of modern art movements and their relationship to politics and society amongst other factors. The Changing Gear project is also participating in this pivotal point in history through Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s vertical-horizontal methodological approach to study the Mediterranean as a cultural hub. In contrast to Alex Dika Seggerman’s ‘Constellational Modernism’, this vertical-horizontal methodology acknowledges the role played by the dominant powers whilst simultaneously analysing the supposedly peripheral cultures and their relationship with power.
Alex Dika Seggerman, Modernism on the Nile
Modernism on the Nile by Alex Dika Seggerman provides an in-depth study of Modernity in Egypt from the late nineteenth century through to the late 1960s, discussing various developments in the nation’s artistic scene. This is achieved firstly by considering the role of satirical cartoons, amongst other elements, so as to convey the recognised educational value of image-making in Islamic culture; secondly, by looking at the sculptural works of Mahmoud Moukhtar and his role in the awakening of nationalist hopes in Egypt, which Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci juxtaposes to the Maltese Antonio Sciortino's Kristu Re and Josef Kalleya's L'Abbandono della Casa Materna; thirdly by analysing the social unease present within the representation of different races by the painter Mahmoud Said; fourthly, by discussing the references to Islam in the surrealistic primitivism of Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar. Finally, the author traces the Fellaha motif and its persistent presence in Egyptian Modernist interpretations, a study which also finds its reflection in the Department of Art and Art History's (University of Malta) Mediterranean Modern Art lectures.
Moreover, this research reveals how artists in Egypt acknowledged their Islamic cultural background yet refused to be solely defined by it. Therefore, Islam is contextualised not as a definitive characterisation of Egyptian art in its entirety but rather as an important characteristic that coexisted with Modernity, allowing for the evolution and diversification of the nation’s artistic scene. Through these various categories, Seggerman provides a constellational methodological approach which departs from the hegemonic vertical impositions of the main cosmopolitan centres and instead studies Modernity as a “series of overlapping and intersecting units”, an approach which echoes Schembri Bonaci's 'Vertical-Horizontal-Diagonal' approach. Parallel to Modernism on the Nile, the Changing Gear project endorses the departure from Eurocentric ideals and seeks to study the visual dialectics of Mediterranean Modernism.
Mario Sironi, L’Italia tra le Arti e le Scienze
L’Italia tra le Arti e le Scienze is a 1935 mural painting made by Mario Sironi (1885-1961) for the Aula Magna of the Sapienza Universitá in Rome. Italy is here flanked by the allegories of Art and Science and enveloped by symbols of the Roman Imperial past, sustaining the fascist ‘Mare Nostrum’ dream.
Both the medium and style clearly manifest Sironi’s will to rely on the Italian artistic tradition as the tool for an ultimate return to order, mirroring the French Rappel à L'Ordre that defined the 1920S-1940s. This was given a strong conservative connotation which overflows onto the socio-political field from the artistic one. Artistic order is thereby paralleled with social order and reflected in the politics of right-wing totalitarian regimes.
The wall painting recalls the tradition of Italian fresco and the pictorial style used follows the classical interest in shapes, volumes, and plasticity. This may be intriguingly juxtaposed with the Maltese artist Giuseppe Calì’s (1846-1930) painting Le Tre Rome (1911), produced to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Italian Unification.
Within the discourse on Mediterranean identity, this artwork underlines the necessity of distinguishing between the various facets of the Italian Mediterranean soul expressed through art. Sironi’s work betrays the will to revive a kind of archetypal soul which should be defined as specifically Italic rather than generally Mediterranean, as was De Chirico’s (1888-1978). Indeed, while the latter embraces the Greek-Eastern component of antiquity, the former is more embedded in the Roman and Etruscan spirit.
Enriching this discourse is the comparison with Frank Portelli’s (1922-2004) murals (1965-1999) which portray industry, agriculture, trade, and crafts, as well as the mural alternative offered by the Maghreb in the Asilah Festival of 1978, initiated by Mohamed Benaïssa (b. 1937) and Mohamed Melehi (1936-2020), during which Farid Belkahia (1934-2014), Mohamed Hamidi (b. 1941), and Hussein Miloudi (b. 1945) participated with a fascinating mural-village to uphold Maghrebian identity.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Written at the height of the Algerian War of Independence, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is an analysis on Colonialism and the process of Decolonisation that engages with the roles and ramifications of various issues: Firstly, the role of violence as an instrument of change in the process of decolonisation; secondly, the role of spontaneity as a revolutionary force; thirdly, racial identity and nationalism; fourthly, the use of national narratives of liberation in the strive for independence; and, finally, a psychoanalytical study that explores the relationship between colonialism and mental disorders. This latter element bridges Gramscian studies on Hegemony with the present age and was also a topic taken up by Michel Foucault in later years.
Fanon provides in-depth research of the colonial and post-colonial realities, transcending the confines of Manichean thinking by consistently seeking to challenge the imposed colonial concepts of ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, in retrospect some authors interpreted this as a return to the convictions of the Romantic nationalists of the nineteenth century. Moreover, The Wretched of the Earth is held in high esteem by some academics, less for its analytical persuasion than for its literary value in its inspirational rhetoric and optimistic view of freedom. However, Fanon's views on liberty are realistically grounded in his critical approaches, which also tackle liberation movements and the ramifications of undermining democracy after independence. He underlines how the Eurocentric "dialectic is changing into the logic of equilibrium”, allowing for the re-examination of "cerebral reality" and "cerebral mass". This is an approach shared by the Changing Gear project which seeks to underline a horizontal analysis to the study of Mediterranean art without minimising the reality of a cosmopolitan Eurocentric vertical approach.
Prof. Rosanna Ruscio
Let's start with a question: how strong is neocolonialism today? How many artists address this issue in their works? The problem is not just getting rid of conditioning. History matters.
“Forgetting the past,” wrote Andriano Prosperi, “is a phenomenon linked to the disappearance of the future. It is important to reflect on the role of memory and history in the traditions of individual countries." (Antonio Prosperi, A Time Without History, Einaudi, Milan, 2022).
I ask: perhaps with regard to art and artists, would it not be important to recreate new systems and new forms of knowledge by
focusing on those realities that have maintained an approach of protecting the traditions of everyday life and those aspects that it has destroyed instead?
One thinks of the production systems that exploit the environments and nature of these Mediterranean countries. Perhaps it is precisely from
these aspects that the artists of the new generations working in the Mediterranean should draw? It would be useful to create a platform for communication on these issues, as Changing Gear is doing, as well as to begin understanding how the institutional realities that deal with art and new talent work (academies, art schools, but also museums and organizations for new artistic talent).
Among art forms, it would be important to look at painting but also multi-media and photography, which has played an important role in shaping collective memory across the continent. The Changing Gear project is enriched when one considers how multi-media played and is playing a vital role within the Mediterranean basin.
Pablo Picasso, Minotauromachy
In the twentieth century, the Mediterranean could not claim to be the centre of the artworld. However, Pablo Picasso had succeeded in making himself a one-man ‘centre’ whilst never disavowing his Mediterranean roots.
The image of the Minotaur, a figure of Ancient Greek myth, particularly obsessed the artist in the decade between 1933 and 1943. Throughout this period he identified himself with the mythical beast. Many believe that he used the iconography of the Minotaur to mythologise his affair with Marie-Therese Walter and his dissolving marriage to Olga Koklova. However, Picasso pursued his Minotaur aesthetic further.
The attraction of the Minotaur was no doubt motivated by his fascination with bullfighting. The figure of the Minotaur synthesised a universal Mediterranean symbol with local Spanish tradition.
In the 1935 etching Minotauromachie are present many of the images that would later appear in Guernica. The anguished mother made so iconic in Guernica first appears in the 1935 etching. Much of Picasso’s personal trauma and the contemporary socio-economic situation were symbolically expressed in artworks depicting the Minotaur. In fact, Guernica could be seen as a climax of Picasso's ‘Minotaur Years’, as John Richardson referred to them.
Considered a great triumph of twentieth-century Modernism, the painting is in itself a microcosm of the long reach of the Mediterranean: Ancient Greece and Mediterranean tradition remained recognised as the timeless centre even in the age of the avant-garde.
As Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci indicates, this rippled across all Mediterranean geo-political borders. Thus one finds Mahmoud Sabri's (1927-2012) Algerian Massacre (1958), Dia Al-Azzawi's (b. 1939) Sabra and Shatila Massacre (1982-1983), Georghios Pol. Georghiou’s (1901-1972) Cypria Saga (1956), and Giuseppe Consoli's (1919-2010) Strage di Portella della Ginestra (1951).
Felice Casorati, Meriggio
Felice Casorati’s (1883-1963) Meriggio perfectly exemplifies the 1920s aesthetic linked to both Neo-Quattrocentism and to Magic Realism.
Within the Neo-Quattrocentist bracket, one notes that the artist was in line with the European reactionist trend of Rappel à l’ordre - the strive towards European-Mediterranean classicism, underlined also by the ‘Académie Européene “Méditerranée”’ (volume 4 of the manuscript of Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci's Mediterranean Modern Art History). In this painting, pre-war avant-gardism was bypassed for a rediscovery of the Italian Renaissance painting tradition.
Beyond the explicit reference to Mantegna’s Dead Christ in the pose of the woman on the right, references to the Italian Renaissance style are detectable in the mathematical order through which the space of the painting is organised, the naturalistic rendition, the study of the human body, and, above all, the manifest interest in the plastic rendition of volumes inspired by Piero della Francesca and researched by means of drawing and mastering of light’s manipulation.
As regards the component of Magic Realism, echoing the work of the Greek-Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, one notes the perspective utilised and the confusing provenances of light. Most intriguing, however, is the atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty. The artist juxtaposes human figures and contextual objects which do not fit into any conventional and immediately perceivable narrative.
Such a relationship between the human figure and inanimate objects contributes to this magic and ambiguous atmosphere. Through the use of perspective and placement, Casorati conferred to the objects the same charge of life and pictorial importance of the human figures.
This painting constitutes a refined synthesis between the post-war human psyche and the Renaissance feeling of order which the artist chose as an antidote to the former.
Edward W. Said, Orientalism