Hats off to Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti for bringing together over 250 pieces by Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950) at the Palace between May 8 and June 6. An exhibition to remember. Pity that it has not stimulated a discussion about the relationship between art and society in our country and, even less, about an elite’s image of itself. Perhaps the Fondazzjoni could have done more to encourage the public to question this remarkable artist’s “version of the truth”.
The expression is Madeleine Gera’s. In a perceptive article (Perfecting The Past, Flair, April 2010, pp.31-37) she argues that his paintings are “staged scenarios” that “form part of myth-making rather than social commentary” and, therefore, “cannot be taken at face value”. He ignores the “desperate poverty and mass emigration” and the “severe social problems and discontent” that characterised these islands during more than one period of their history and his lifetime. Highlighting its decorativeness, Ms Gera suggests that his work “possibly reflects best the aesthetic vision and world view of his clientele”.
Obviously, his clientele did not consist of the plebs he presents in Strada San Patrizio, Valletta, in The Orange Vendor and other exquisite pieces. His world view is not theirs. He depicts them as his clients liked to imagine them. We are, Ms Gera notes, “left with the impression that the characters he shows are not real people but actors who have put on a costume (…) for the benefit of visitors, cleaned of all dirt, disease, misery and ugliness, and all clothing perfectly laundered with no tears or worn patches”. The exhibition closed its doors on June 6, one day before the Sette Giugno.
The artist was 43 in 1919. Living in Valletta, he must have had a good idea of the simmering social and political conditions that served as an incubator for those events. That he chose to ignore them in his work says a lot about his world. By closing the exhibition on the eve of the day commemorating June 7, 1919, the organisers have continued to isolate his work from its context. His clients would have applauded this decision. Their “aesthetic vision and world view” are far from extinct.
The artist belonged to a social niche that included what the exhibition’s catalogue refers to as “the great and the good of Maltese society”. His was a socially incestuous milieu in a culturally stagnant port on the southern edge of Europe, one of a string of ports linking Great Britain to the Raj.
Among the artist’s Maltese subjects, Sir George Borg, Sir Augustus Bartolo and Colonel Francia, to name but three, will certainly have had a different view of the Sette Giugno than Sir Filippo Sceberras and Sir Ugo Mifsud. Edward seems to have played safe and portrayed personalities on both sides, but did he ever paint Enrico Mizzi (who died in office as Prime Minister in the same year as the artist)? It would be superficial to reduce the artist to a mere by-product of his social world. His refusal to part from his lover Olga (a married woman, the subject of several paintings in the exhibition and of much whispering in front of them) and the break with his wife Charlotte suggests that he resisted pressures to bow to hypocrisy and preserve appearances.
Whatever pressure there was, however, did not stop important churchmen – including Archbishop Michael Gonzi – from having their portrait painted by him. The list of clients in positions of authority indicates that the state was not in the least concerned with Edward’s bedroom affairs. He was certainly no pariah. Is it perhaps that, relative to today, it was a much less hypocritical, less backward and provincial culture? Or perhaps the artist was spared vilification because he posed no threat to his world? He humoured the “great and the good of Maltese society”, provided them with highly idealised images of themselves and their habitat, taking their mind off a distasteful reality.
Even his images of Africa, take his Egyptian Barber, are carefully sanitised. Someone looking naïvely at this picture in 1914 and 1942 to get an idea of where Manwel Dimech and the Nationalist internees had been respectively exiled to will have concluded that it wasn’t that bad after all. But, then, the artist was hardly a Dimech and, it cannot be underemphasised, he was hardly a Nerik Mizzi either.
But isn’t it odd how, today, that the Maltese state’s reputation for good governance is at its lowest in decades, it has the temerity to pose as our moral guide, to question our ability to choose what to read and view and to discriminate between citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation? Isn’t it odd that a morally bankrupt state presumes to have an interest in what goes on in a bedroom between consenting adults?
Perhaps, then, it is not that Maltese society has become more hypocritical than in Caruana Dingli’s times but that we are witnessing a cynical attempt to distract us. When the government realises that such tactics will fail, it will go further. Read again Roberto Saviano’s chapter on how, after eliminating Don Peppino Diana physically, the Casalesi undertake to kill him again, morally, by sowing doubt about his integrity and motives. Their aim, as Saviano argues, is to convince us that, at the end of the day, all who seek change are equally rotten. So why vote for change? Better the devil you know. Even the artist would not have cared to perfect this present.
This article appeared in Dr Vella regular column in The Times of Malta. Access the original one at
On Tuesday, June 1, Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo, in his capacity as chairman of the House Social Affairs Committee, is reported to have said that what happens in the bedroom is the state’s business. This newspaper, in its report of Thursday, June 3, of the proceedings of this parliamentary committee paraphrased the Nationalist member as follows: “What happens in the bedroom is, up to a point, the government’s business because it often had to resolve problems caused there”.
Later in the same report, the same gentleman’s own actual words are quoted: “What we’re learning in this committee is that what happens in the bedroom often ends up before the state to do something about it”. Helpfully putting his words in context, the reporting journalist notes that “Mr Vassallo made his comments in reaction to Labour MP Anthony Zammit’s reiteration of Labour leader Joseph Muscat’s statement that it was not for the state to care what happened in the bedroom”.
This exchange of views took place during a sitting of the Committee where the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) presented the findings of a report on the problems faced by gay people in Malta. Mr Vassallo cited “single parents and teenage pregnancies” as “examples” of the sort of problems arising from “what happens in the bedroom”. Presumably, Mr Vassallo cited them to justify the state’s interest and concern with what citizens do in the privacy of their bedrooms.
In a later clarification, he said that the government “can never and should never interfere” in one’s private life, however, it had a role to inform people of the consequences of their private decisions” (The Times, June 4, p.3).
The Times (June 3) reported that the other Nationalist MP on the Committee, Beppe Fenech Adami, showed a keen interest in the existence or otherwise of stereotypical gender roles in the case of same-sex parenting.
According to the report, he “asked the MGRM representatives whether in homosexual couples there were ‘mother and father roles’. In his and his wife’s experience, Dr Fenech Adami said, when they tried filling each other’s role the results weren’t that good”.
I will comment on this myself next time we meet on this page. Today, I will only refer to a few comments to the said report on this newspaper’s online edition. I recommend you read them all. My own reading of these comments led me to two conclusions.
Firstly, that the House of those that are meant to represent us is not above our society. From this point of view, the House of Representatives is indeed representative. It reflects the state of our culture and the contradictions that characterise it. Bigotry, prejudice, intolerance and sheer ignorance tangle and intertwine with enlightened humaneness, progressive moderation and educated opinion in a confused and confusing mass. Moreover, the political tango itself reflects this tangle.
Secondly, that the House of Representatives is less representative of enlightened opinion in our society than society itself.
Joe Zammit, who manages to bring abortion into his picture of the issue, tells us that homosexuality is a great evil. M. Cassar calls upon the European Commission to come to our aid… no, not to remind us about human and civil rights but to compel us to accept “the normality of being raised by a couple made up of a male and a female” and to save us from Mintoffian notions about the privacy of the bedroom. Tommy Lee throws the bible at those that disagree with him and, understandably, provokes the indignation of readers Mark Grech, M. Brincat, Joseph Camilleri and Ramon Casha who regrets our society’s “primitiveness”.
Colette Farrugia Bennet agrees with the latter and complains that we “are stuck in archaic times”. Mario Sammut writes that it is “sad that in the year 2010 we are still discussing gay rights”. Maria Fenech says that “at the end it comes all down to the fact that we are still discriminating and haven’t learned our lesson”. J. Grima describes it all as the “theatre of the abysmally absurd”. M. Fenech thinks that “we are still very far from (…) a true, democratic, European country”.
James Dimech suspects that all this will lead to a Labour government accepting to pay out more social benefits but Eric Gahn assures him that it will cost him nothing.
Some readers, such as A. Taliana, suspect that the present government is resorting to provocations of our intelligence to distract us from other burning issues. D. Attard suggests that Mr Vassallo was “perhaps thinking in terms of boardrooms rather than bedrooms”. What troubles Dominic Chircop “is the thought that Edwin Vassallo is turning his grey cells to such matters”. Aleksandar Dimitrijevic advises the chairman of the Committee to peruse work by the American Psychological Association on the issues he raises.
Dr Beppe Fenech Adami gets his share. “Gender stereotyping at its vilest”, says M. Jones. D. Vella writes that as “for Mr Fenech Adami’s comment about role reversal… that comment says more about him than anything else. The problem is with him”. G. Portelli asks him whether he would “care to enlighten us which bits of ‘mothering’ he found impossible to deliver”. Would he also “care to draw up a sanitised list of ‘Mothering’ and ‘Fathering’ duties according to his philosophy”? More next time.
This article appeared on Dr Mario Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on June 7, 2010. The original may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100607/opinion/the-state-and-the-bedroom