The Malta Independent on Sunday
Intimacy and Introspection
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most loved artists of all time. His paintings are energetically composed, charged with chromatic intensity and undying dynamism. They are so appealing because they are living. Van Gogh’s works are not the sole documents that reveal his artistic ambitions. We are fortunate enough to have access to his private letters to his brother Theo and others that have been published in print and online. Sincere thoughts jotted down on paper, addressed to the artist’s dearest companions, that lead us into the mind of the artist. They reveal his greatest fears, anxieties, moments of spiritual realisation; unfiltered, unmitigated. Letters and paintings allow us to know Van Gogh in spite of physical and temporal limitations.
The private letters of artists are some of the most essential documents for researchers precisely because they open up an entire world of knowledge. At times they amplify the love for an artist whose work one may have an affinity with. In certain cases, they may expose an unlikeable, or even odious, personality, enough to relegate one’s perspective on artworks that were previously revered. Whatever the situation, to greater or lesser extents, written exchanges between artists and their confidantes are the closest that we may ever get to knowing the individuals whose innermost thoughts we actively seek.
In Malta there is a great shortage of letters and personal documents written by or to artists. No doubt these do exist in private collections and family archives, however very few are available for public consultation. This is rather different in other countries wherein such documents are donated to public libraries, archives, and museums. Needless to say, I was ecstatic (a notable understatement) to discover that the letters written by Robert Caruana Dingli to his greatest friend – as he refers to him – Vincenzo Bonello were going to be published.
Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti launched an urgently-needed volume on Caruana Dingli, edited by Giovanni Bonello, late last year. Robert’s reputation has for decades been overshadowed by that of his brother Edward. I have always though Robert’s art to be more interesting than Edward’s Salon-type paintings and saccharine folklore watercolours. Fewer of Robert’s works may be seen in dissertations and catalogues on Maltese twentieth-century art. This is a point debated during the Maltese modern art lectures that form part of the Department of History of Art’s curriculum; the disequilibrium of knowledge in favour of Edward says a lot about the difficulties faced by Robert for choosing a different and more liberated artistic path.
This new publication uncovers Robert’s life in the first quarter of the previous century. He lived during some interesting years in Malta’s art historical development. Antonio Sciortino was the country’s leading sculptor, but his counterpart in painting, Giuseppe Cali, was markedly less daring and far from involved with the French and Italian contemporary art scenes. Robert’s impassioned criticisms on Cali’s sterile art open up the discussion on an artist whose praises have continuously been sung. His polemics against Cali, whom he referred to as “a blithering fool”, were at times personal, but Robert found his art to be despicable for reasons of artistic merit. His brother and rival Edward was not spared from comparable hostil- ities.
In an August 1914 letter to Bonello, Robert wrote; “…when I think of Calì I wish to hang him – he is a criminal & my brother is a fool to follow him – I would rather give up painting than paint blasphemies…”
Robert found their copyist approach to painting to be insipid and their technique to be amateur. His opinion was seemingly shared by the art historian Roberto Longhi, who visited Malta to research the works of Caravaggio.
The comments against Cali, Edward, Gianni Vella and Lazzaro Pisani provoke a reassessment of Malta’s artistic establishment. They emphasise the need for a more critical reading of art production and the reputation of artists whose works have long been upheld as masterpieces. I am not proposing that the historical value of the paintings of these aforementioned artists should be diminished, far from it. However, as Robert’s letters show, historical value is not equivalent to artistic value. The latter is not solely dependent on technical aptitude but, more importantly, on one’s philosophy of art. Robert’s artistic character excels in this regard.
In the London letters, Robert tells Bonello about all that he has seen and learned in the city. He attaches much weight to knowledge and to sensitivity, opining that these qualities are what make a good artist. Not only a good artist but a liberal one too. “…a craving for knowledge a craving to express your ideal in colour & the beauty of awakening new thoughts to others & make them dream, sow your seeds & let them enjoy a bit of your mind… now I feel this need of liberty more than ever.” He insisted that “FREEDOM is only got by knowledge”, a principle contemporaneously fought for by Manwel Dimech.
The Gozo letters from the early 1920s, mostly written in Maltese, were not so much concerned with freedom and knowledge than with maintaining diplomatic relations with the church, since Robert had received a number of commissions for Gozo churches with Bonello’s help. These writings are records of the tense relationship between artists and the ecclesiastical authorities, and also with the public. Artistic rivalries, political party antagonisms, and personal intrigues are all found in this section of the book.
It is significant that the people ( il-poplu) feature strongly in the Gozo letters. Initially Robert found their artistic tastes to be mediocre as a result of ignorance. Yet the growing support of his art and the sense of community that the people of Xagħra and Rabat offered him gradually led to his holding them in high regard.
The publication of Robert’s letters provides a wealth of knowledge for researchers and readers. They transport us to the beginnings of modern artistic development and offer a view of artistic experience in early twentieth-century Malta. The most valuable part of Robert’s personal writings is that they contain moments of doubt, those which expose human vulnerability, and hence which demolish the indifference which separates history from its subject matter. I hope that this sets a precedent for future research projects.