Perfecting the present.
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