Patrick Dalli – The Human Figure

Patrick Dalli insists on describing himself as a painter not an artist. This is false modesty. If I were to shortlist the more important Maltese contemporary artists, his name will feature prominently, and I have no hesitation in singling him out as the leading master of the Nude. His lack of pretence is not only an endearing personal trait. It is, more importantly, an essential watermark of his art. Trained in the study of the nude under Anton Calleja, he has much to be proud of and boast about.

What he has managed to achieve in a decade or so of single minded dedication to art, is impressive. Studio practice, particularly drawing from life, take up most of his free time, and he has in the process become dexterous in the manipulation of the medium and in capturing the fleeting poses of his models. To borrow and slightly edit the well known advice of Antonio Canova to his pupils, he sketches with fire and paints with phlegm.

His paintings are highly finished and reveal fastidiousness with having as much a perfect product as he is capable of mastering. He is habitually self critical and finding satisfaction with his own work is for him a long and suffered process. If you have the good fortune to be invited to his studio, you are immediately struck by his earnestness to know your opinion and take note of it. Such an attitude may sometimes result in a loss of freshness in the finished work that is, nonetheless, compensated by the sculptural solidity and monumentality of his figures. His Nudes have a dignified sobriety and an anatomical exactitude that is hard to surpass in Maltese contemporary art.

In addition to his command of the human figure, Patrick Dalli also excels in portraits. This isa side of his art, known only to a close circle of friends, but it merits to be better publicised. His straight forward approach and rejection of the contrived and the artificial give his portraits a wide appeal. Theyare never portentously inflated, nor do they stoop down to flattery. Their down to earth rendering of the physical appearance creates an immediacy with the sitter that brings out the character in a truer light. The technique is excellent and surprisingly unpretentious. His full length portraits of His Excellency the President Emeritus Dr Edward Fenech Adami, Dr Helena Dalli, Dr Keith Sciberras, and of Baron Igino Trapani Galea are particularly memorable. An exhibition of his portraits is long overdue.

Finally, no critical evaluation of Patrick Dalli’s oeuvre can afford to bypass his drawings and preliminary sketches. These have a vibrant fluency and an uninhibited freshness that invests them with significant artistic significance. Their simple surety of line is, in more ways than one, the most eloquent testimony of his artistic skill and maturity, and they are worthy of as much loving care and attention as his finished work. It is in them that his competence and sensitivity as an artist becomes most manifest.

Prof Mario Buhagiar


Born in Malta in 1955, Patrick Dalli is an established and leading figurative artist in the Maltese Contemporary scene. Dalli’s art is primarily concerned with the figure, especially the nude solidly depicted in large scale and in a stark realist manner. Dalli’s relationship with the nude is direct and essentially that of an object of depiction, placed directly infront of him in a studio context without inhibitions.

Patrick Dalli’s figures are not strangers making one-time appearances. They are his preferred models, painted in stage-set compositions that pass through the academic stages of drawing and study before the onset of paintwork. Dalli’s figures do not reach out for the audience, but they sit, stand, or crouch passively and in silence drawing the audience into them. In rendering his nudes as identifiable models, the artist invites his audience to embark in and embrace a silent relationship with them. Such relationship is enhanced by the way in which, more often then not, the model’s mood and melancholic eyes penetrate deeply the spectator. Despite the stark nudity of his models, there are no sensual overtones and no symbolic references. In all of his paintings, Patrick Dalli erases sensuality and concentrates his thick brushwork on the bare representation of the flesh. Schembri Bonaci, infra, perceptively defines some of his nudes not as nudes but as portraits. Dalli’s artist-model relationship and the confidence achieved through repeatedly painting the same models is palpable.

Patrick Dalli’s oeuvre has shown a remarkable evolution and progress which can be easily charted over the span of the last decade. The sheer determination of working on the nude model incessantly has seen him obtain a masterful control of line, a spontaneous treatment of washes, and a controlled handling of the brush. The hundreds of drawings, washes, and paintings scattered in his studio are testimony of the artist’s long hours of work, of an obsession to draw, paint, redraw and repaint the same models in the same poses over and over again. The work is never the same; drawings get ever more economical, paintings grow in size to monumental proportions. The recent works shown in this publication are his largest paintings ever; they also show the artist in his full maturity.

Dalli’s art and his approach to the nude have two facets. His drawings and works on paper reflect the fast moving dexterity of the artist intent in capturing poses as quickly as possible. They have a fresh fleeting character. His paintings, on the other hand, are the result of long multiple sessions and of paintwork built up in layers of thick brushwork. These works have a solid, monumental and permanent poise.

In his youth, Patrick Dalli grew as a self-trained (or school-trained) painter, showing interest mainly in the landscape, still-life, and portraiture. He commenced a more formal training in 1995 under the tutorship of Anthony Calleja (b. 1955-), where he exercised mainly in the study of the human figure. It is through work with Calleja and his group of artist-friends at Bahrija that Dalli came to concentrate his practice on the nude. This period was complemented by Dalli’s growing interest in the work of Egon Schiele, Lucien Freud, and Stanley Spencer, an interest which he maintains by assiduously following the great artist’s exhibitions.

In the years that followed, Dalli formed his own studio at Marsascala and attracted around him a number of fellow artists who practiced intensely in life-sessions. His painting companions include Lino Borg. His own style, and technique, evolved in the late 1990s and, in 2002, he organised his first personal exhibition The Human Figure at Gallerija Libertà, Valletta. This exhibition introduced Dalli as an independent artist, having moved away from a stylistic attachment to Anthony Calleja’s work. In 2004, he presented his second exhibition Patrick Dalli – Nudes at the same exhibition gallery. In this show, Dalli’s work showed a maturity that significantly placed him amongst the leading figurative artists in Malta. In 2005 he held a personal exhibition of Portraits and Nudes at Muska Gallery, Balzan, whilst in 2007 he exhibited Drawings at B’Art Gallery in Sliema. The latter exhibition, albeit rather small, was one of the finest displays of works on paper shown that year. The fifth solo exhibition was the largest and showed more than forty paintings and drawings executed by Patrick Dalli between 2005 and 2008. Entitled Patrick Dalli – Nudes it was held at St James Cavalier – Centre for Creativity in Valletta in 2008. It showed the artist’s assiduous and unremitting concern with depicting the human figure, his obsession and passion for capturing the physical structure of the nude body and the variegated tactile qualities of the flesh.

This book is published in conjunction with the exhibition Patrick Dalli – The Human Figure 2008-2010 at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. It is an exhibition which took two years to complete, with eight large paintings produced specifically for the show. The paintings have an identifiable character that departs from that of the 2008 show and moves forward with figures growing further in scale. Whilst the tactile qualities of the flesh are a natural progression of the 2008 works, the background and setting context changes considerably in the new works. The austere, blank or bleak setting of the earlier works is transformed into a play of mass and space, with the setting dissolving in abstracted areas of colour which have as their starting point the shadows that his models cast. His large work includes, for the first time, multiple figures.

Through the work of Patrick Dalli, Anthony Calleja, Lawrence Buttigieg and others, figurative art has significantly charted a wonderful chapter in the story of the Contemporary Art scene. These figurative artists have reacted positively to the vibrancy of other fields of visual expression and at the same time maintained a learned attachment to that umbelical cord of academism. This, indeed, is what makes Contemporary art so exciting. Its diversity of interest, modes of expression, and concerns reflect the creative expression of contemporary society.

Dr. Keith Sciberras Ph.D