Born in Malta in 1955. From his teenage years to 1995 works primarily through self training, interested mainly in landscape, still-life, and portraiture. In 1995, he starts formal training under the tutorship of Anton Calleja (b.1955-) exercising mainly in the study of the human figure. It is in these very active years that Dalli concentrates his practice on the nude. In the following years, together with other fellow artists, Dalli practices intensely in life-sessions. He particpates in collective exhibitions in Malta and abroad, exhibiting nudes, lanscapes, and still-life paintings. In 2002, he organises his first personal exhibition THE HUMAN FIGURE, at Gallerija Liberta’, Valletta. Between 2002 and 2004 he works on the pictures for the exhibition PATRICK DALLI – NUDES, Gallerija Liberta’, Valletta. All the paintings in this show were worked through life-sessions at the artist’s studio. In 2005 he holds a personal exhibition at Muska Gallery, in 2007 an exhibition of drawings at B’Art Gallery and in 2008 an exhibition, PATRICK DALLI – NUDES at St. James Cavalier and The Human Figure at the Malta Fine Arts Museum in 2010 and in 2015 Exhibition at Palazzo Collicola, Spoleto, Italy.
The Nude: a study
The nude has always played a central role in the evolution of art. The painting of the nude has engendered endless debate, and many a time evoked a furore. It also underlined a hegemonic statement behind a whole structure of mores, customs and laws.
Whilst for example male nudity was permitted in archaic Greece, the depiction of the female nude was prohibited. Male nakedness could be justified by the narrative context, that is, ‘in dance … in erotic scenes … (or) where naked athletes are represented competing’. It is not my intention to look more closely at the nude in Greek art here. However we should recall the classifications of nudity as Heroic, Ideal and ‘Agonal’, as discussed by Christopher Hallett in the study quoted above. I believe that these classifications are also pertinent to a study of the nude in twentieth- and twenty-first century art, a period which deconstructed and subverted the whole evolution of such classification.
The nude in antiquity partakes of the Divine and of Death. It is precisely this divine-death relationship inherited from Ancient Greece, so clearly manifest in antiquity, and so subtly and subconsciously suppressed in modern times, that determines our attitude to the nude in art. This existential dichotomy perhaps partly explains the central role that the nude plays in the evolution of art. Within this divine-death tension, slowly and painstakingly the female nude starts to wedge herself into the artistic scene, particularly during Roman times. Hallett indeed underlines the fact that the female nude was a Roman invention. In other words the female nude wedged itself into existence through the idea of death.
This divine-death substratum may help us intuit the occasionally bizarre reasons that certain nudes have throughout the ages provoked violent reactions. We might recall the relatively recent vehement responses to Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) and his Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). For various reasons these responses are still alive today, albeit suppressed, thanks to a superficial intellectualism. We should also note how the nude disturbed the shores of Malta when the sculptor Josef Kalleya (1898-1998) tried to organise the first life classes in his studio. The evolution of Maltese art constantly evinced a peculiar tradition, a permanent attempt to conceal the nude. An absurd historical situation arose in the mid-twentieth century, in which the nude in Malta could only be studied through imported casts, made by Maltese artists themselves whilst studying the nude abroad, usually in Naples or Rome. We should not forget that even in more recent times nude studies were undertaken semi-secretly in artists’ private studios.
The nude in Malta has always formed part of a prohibitive collective consciousness: a collectively suppressed unconscious feeling that in many instances provoked a violent and all too conscious reaction. This not only reflected contradictory mores and tastes, and what Belinda Thomson calls ‘moral dualism’. It also mirrored a conscious suppression of the divine-death existential relationship. This feudal suppression succeeded in completely marginalising the nude in the evolution of art in Malta. This marginalisation affected art’s fundamental need to evolve its own language. Banning the nude from the evolution of art is a prohibition of the most essential Lévi-Strauss referent, vital for the development of art and the very language of art.
For these reasons, whereas in the France of Manet’s Olympia, the revolutionary quest undertaken by Manet, together with the corresponding furore it provoked, amply demonstrated artists’ struggles to give birth to a ‘plausible modern nude’, in Malta the struggle consisted, and still consists, in a herculean labour to introduce, albeit belatedly, the nude as an artistic language. While Manet was confronting France with a new language, and striving to devise a new modern nude, a Baudellaire-ian nude basing himself on a rich evolutionary family tree of the nude, Maltese artists were still aching to give birth, to introduce the nude per se as an acceptable language for a new artistic culture. We should here note the nudes by Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005), Alfred Chircop (b.1933) and others.
At this point in the history of Maltese art Patrick Dalli (b. 1955) stridently enters the scene.
The Maltese artistic world, and its place in the wider international spectrum, is yet to be studied as a subject in its own right. An international mosaic embedded – consciously or not – in all the cobweb corridors of Maltese modern art is still in the process of being unveiled. Robert Galea’s M.A. dissertation concerning the nude in the early twentieth century is a small but important step in this direction.
This clandestine yet beautiful mosaic is a reflection of the peripheral material and spiritual life of an island such as Malta, creating a perilous centripetal force. Nevertheless this historically determined centripetalism can be transformed into a modern centrifugal force, thanks to this very same peripherality in Maltese art. This peripheral insularity seems permanently fixed, a quality which Heidegger defined as a nation’s identity. This insularity has played, and still plays, a continuous role in the development of art in Malta. Paradoxically, Malta’s secession from its Italian umbilical cord, and later from its British puberty, accentuated its own peripheral insularity. Yet this very same secession led to the above-mentioned centrifugal force, helping Maltese art enter the Heideggerean ‘into-this-world’ of authenticity. This is what I believe may lead to a more profound understanding of what I would term Epicurean artistic leaps in the Maltese art scene. Perplexingly the evolution of art in Malta is remarkably erratic, and erratically eclectic. The Maltese scene is in fact determined by blocks of different artistic masses, which are sometimes estranged from their surrounding strata. So we may see the relatively radical modernity of Josef Kalleya, as though begotten out of nothing, peacefully co-existing in a Caruana-Dingli (Edward, 1876-1950; Robert, 1881-1941) dictatorial artistic soil. Malta’s art evolves in such disconnected leaps. This Epicurean erratic quality is reminiscent of Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s theories of atomic leaps concerning the origins of light. These leaps seem to be, at least at first glance, spontaneous and haphazard. Like such atomic leaps, concepts of modern art seem to find their way into the Maltese scene without apparently having been inbred within that same scene. The valid though clichéd argument that Maltese art merely imports international concepts which seem to find fertile soil and roots is not altogether convincing. The importation of artistic concepts is an integral feature of all artistic cultures, and is not restricted to island art. We may recall how Cubism and Futurism found their development in Russian Cubo-Futurism, and with remarkable results, which so violently affected international art. We should also recall the ancient Roman importation of Greek artistic concepts, and the Fayum importation into Byzantine art culture and its later evolution in icon art.
This intriguing and erratic evolution in Maltese art is yet to be studied. Without passing through the turmoil of Gustave Courbet’s (1819-1877) nineteenth-century realism in the context of Manet’s Realist-Impressionist upheavals, and probably immune from the powerful Russian social narrative and statement of Ilya Repin (1844-1930), Maltese art suddenly produces Dalli’s strongly realist mannequin representational Freudian imagery. His works show a dangerously anti-Hodler crystallised equilibrium of stasis: a controlled and suppressed ataxia.
We find this Bohrian leap in Maltese art evolution, not only confronting Expressionism and Abstraction, but also radically distancing itself from the cynicism and social satire of modern realism, including Neue Sachlichkeit. What makes this even more surprising is the fact that this development is rooted in a type of Romantic Caruana Dingli costumbrista realism. Within this provincial Romantic idealised realism we find ourselves entangled in a cobwebbed eclectic artistic scene, chequered with the unfortunate compromises of Willie Apap (1918-1970), Esprit Barthet (1919-1999) and Emvin Cremona (1919-1987), amongst others, jumping haphazardly into novel ultra-modern concepts of neo-realism and photo-realism.
I do not intend to deal here with the historical aspects of the evolution of realism. Neither is it my intention to discuss at any length the artistic relationship between Courbet and Manet, but we must introduce some concepts which are grounded in Courbet’s nudes, with their rude and robust beauty. Initially Courbet followed tradition in placing the nude in a quasi-traditional landscape. However this subtly changed, thanks to the legacy of his links with Correggio, as we can clearly see in La Bacchante (1844-7). Courbet’s connections with other great masters in his struggle to create a new language for the nude can be felt in his Femme nue dormant pres du ruisseau (1845) and his Baigneuses (1853), in both of which we find direct references to Rembrandt and Rubens. He further relates to Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) in his Femme nue au chien (1861-2), and he anticipates Manet’s Olympia with his Femme nue couchée (1862). Francois Boucher (1703-1770) entered Courbet’s world in the latter’s Le Sommeil (1866), and in La Source he seems to defy Ingres (1780-1867). The culmination of his approach to the female nude is L’Origine du monde (1866), a painting still uncomfortable for viewers even today. The nude, a constant feature in his work, challenged, and pushed to its limits, Courbet’s self-evident mastery and virtuosity, and a substantial part of his artistic output is dedicated to it. His nudes evolved into a sensual dazzle which confuses our mental eye. Courbet refused mathematically- defined beauty. His idealised nudes evolved into rustic nudes. According to Castagnary, Courbet painted the French woman alive. In refusing the recognised definition of beauty Courbet opted for the obscene, and consciously employed the newly-emerging technology of photography. However he distanced his nudes mentally and physically from the viewer’s actual space, something which Manet reacted against by bringing his Olympia within the physical and mental reach of the viewer. Courbet’s Femme au perroquet (1866) challenging Delacroix’s painting of the same title of 1827, which was also a reaction to a previous work by Jean-Marc Nattier’s Portrait of Mathilde de Canisy (1738). To Courbet’s erotic nude version Manet responded with his pure white Demoiselle (1866). Courbet’s direct yet enigmatic L’Origine du monde (1866) exemplifies once again his brutality. L’Origine continues to haunt us even now in Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’eclairage (1946-66).
Courbet’s provocative and conscious lack of bourgeois propriety was based not only on his social and socialist agenda, but also on his demands for a new artistic language, demands later repeated by Manet. This not only influenced, but determined, the very evolution of the nude in Manet and others. In a subtly consistent way it prepared the contradictory path towards a modernist beginning in the depiction of the nude, a beginning that reached its apex in Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), before succumbing to Picasso’s (1881-1973) anti-nudes or as T.J. Clark states ‘monsters’.
Returning slightly back to our original argument, the nude under Impressionism and before its brutal modern and modernist deconstruction openly declared and successfully set up a novel relationship with the viewer, who in the nineteenth-century world of Victorian values was almost always an enslaved male client, and the female nude, the ‘femme fatale’. A situation completely subverted in contemporary art scene especially when one looks into the recent Hayward exhibition ‘The Human Factor’ 2014.
Gustave Geffroy underlined the fact that Impressionism enriched the voyeurs’ world whereas today the voyeur is completely obliterated from his ‘client’ role. Impressionism created a ‘looking through the key-hole art’, whereas today when is to avoid the key-hole.
Manet’s Olympia and Déjeuner sur l’herbe were considered repulsive, because of a saturated sense of morality and today repulsion is based on the repulsive. Krell explains this 19 century revulsion by reminding us that ‘in place of classical myth and allegory, pretexts for titillating yet sanitized nudes, Olympia evokes a sense of contemporaniety at once confrontational yet removed’.
Dalli breaks away from the key-hole concept, violently opening doors, enabling us to see the nude in all its nakedness. He de-nudes the nude into nakedness and brings it into the border and frontier of modernist repulsiveness. He negates Manet’s material eroticism, as much as the provocative, sensuous and sensual desire in Courbet. Dalli suppresses the erotic, keeping in line, probably unintentionally, with the above-mentioned suppressed collective unconscious, completely disregarding any elements of Impressionist art, and, as we shall see later, of realist, voyeuristic elements.
If we retain the keyhole metaphor, then I would say that Dalli, by revealing all the nakedness, sets up a strange situation in which the model herself is found looking through the keyhole at us, inverting the viewer-nude relationship. Without overtly asserting, or even hinting at, any reference to Manet, Dalli emphasises a parallel contemporaniety in his viewer-nude relationship. A radical difference however between both is that although the images are in fact both removed, Dalli opts out of Manet’s sub-text, and refutes his defiance. Dalli’s nudes are constrained by the paint and brush relationship, and are not subjected to any other factors. They are materiality.
The viewer-nude relationship is furthermore gauged by the strength of the underlying geometrical modules defined by the gazes depicted. In Manet one finds a direct development of a whole labyrinth of gaze-force lines, a strange development of Velázquez’s gaze philosophy. This is reflected in many modernist works of art. The multitudinous gazes create a new invasion of the pictorial space and an unbidden intrusion into the actual space. This intrusion has some remarkable historical precedents, such as the different versions of Titian’s Venus and the Organ Player (1548-50).
Manet’s Olympia’s inviting gaze creates a feeling of frustration, since she is inviting us, whilst at the same time protecting her body instinctively against any possible intrusion from the actual space into the pictorial. While Manet achieves this Titianesque intrusion of pictorial space into the actual, the actual space is excluded from entering the pictorial. Olympia’s gaze comes ‘straight out of her frame’, and transforms us into participants hoping ‘to enjoy Olympia’s favours’.
Dalli, unlike Courbet and Manet, creates a relationship, but a naked gaze relationship between the nude’s gaze and the viewer’s expectations which is one of statementlessness. He evades any geometrical gaze lines of force, such as the triangular relationship seen in Eric Fischl’s (b.1948) The Bed, the Chair, Dancing and Watching (2000), which takes us back to a Manet-like yearning, a modern voyeurism. In Fischl’s painting, ‘as the man’s gaze is directed towards an external point, namely the beholder, and at the same time towards something which this beholder can only see as a shadow at the rear of the picture, our imagination is occupied with forming a picture of the lust-object of the man, which only he can see.’
One finds no such directional complexities in Dalli. He seems to be inverting what Manet had overturned, that is, the nineteenth-century non-reciprocal arrangement between viewer and nude. This arrangement had guaranteed men a unilateral ‘privilege of looking at images of naked women’. Manet violently upset this by making Olympia an equal partner in this voyeuristic relationship. Dalli seems to restore a quasi-Victorian ambience. However, and perhaps for the same reason, Dalli, unlike Manet, prevents our entering into the grace of sexual favours and flavours, not through the hand gesture of Olympia, but exclusively through raw painterly means, through crudeness. He creates this prohibition by using the Brechtian-Meyerholdian de-alienation principle. Dalli’s nudes are nothing but paint. His deconstructed divisionism boldly underlines the pigment structure of his painted models. There is no illusion. This is a compendium of painted blotches. He does not modulate the illusion of flesh, and, unlike Titian, Courbet and Manet, he constructs paint with paint. These nudes are to be seen as such. It is Dalli, not the nude, who is prohibiting us from entering the pictorial space.
In Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) one senses a profound and subtle invitation. Titian’s genius achieves this by creating miraculously soft, caressing, blooming contours, opening up for further exploration. Manet, whose nude is also inviting us to explore further, on the contrary gives us a raw physique that with its realism and in spite of same actually prevents us from going further. However this paradoxically counterpointed by the Olympia’s penetrating and uncompromising gaze. Dalli avoids the devices of both Titian and Manet. For Dalli the nude has no ‘fantasy of female flesh’ . Neither does he reflect the Baudelairean flower of sin, a sin which is all too evident in Manet’s Olympia. Dalli’s nudes are statementless.
He prevents and prohibits us from seeking anything more. Dalli’s nudes are nakedly destitute of Manet’s cats, unkempt linen, negresses, bouquets, faithful dogs and any other symbolical and non-symbolical accessories. There are no such statements in Dalli. There is nothing in Dalli to divert us from the exclusivity of the pictorial, and from the painterly. Dalli confronts Kenneth Clark’s statement that ‘the naked body has been given memorable shapes by the wish to communicate certain ideas or states of feeling’. Dalli annuls all Clark’s wishes, all communication, all ideas and all states of feeling, except that of wanting to show paint as painting. It is true that he is pedantic in his anatomical-mathematical principles of the perfect figure, yet he succeeds in remaining adamantly un-Platonic and un-Greek, according to Clark’s definition. There is no need for ‘our imaginative experience’ in Dalli, since it is he himself who is consciously prohibiting this same evocation of our imaginative yearning.
In the chaos of competing artistic movements in the Malta of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, characterised by the Epicurean-Bohr leaps mentioned above, Dalli, out of sheer artistic obstinacy, makes his entrance. Dalli, like Philip Pearlstein (b.1924), has focussed on the female nude, but with a substantial difference. Where Pearlstein chooses an even illumination, bordering on a graceful flow of colours, Dalli chooses another equally traditional approach: a mosaic construction of blots and stains. Both avoid the erotic. Pearlstein goes so far as to annul the possibility of establishing a nexus of gazes. In his Female Model on Eames Stool (1978) he cuts the face out of the pictorial space. As in Dalli, Pearlstein’s ‘depiction comes across as objective and so sober that there is no intimate tension or sexual charge to be felt’. This conscious lack of intimate tension is probably unintentional in dalli but quite intentional in Pearlstein. In Dalli the only tension is that created by colour forms and their relationships with muscle movements, and various anatomical positions. Both painters are participating in an attack on twentieth-century distortions of the nude, without nevertheless succumbing to the modernist illusions of hyper-photo-realism, with Dalli however struggling with this acute form of realism.
Pearlstein’s words might just as easily be attributed to Dalli: ‘I rescued the figure from its tormented, agonised condition given to it by the Expressionist artists and Cubist dissectors of the figure, and at the other extreme I have rescued it from the pornographers and their easy exploitations of the figure for its sexual implications. I have presented the figure for itself’ , whereas Dalli seems to be presenting the painted form of the figure itself.
However, although this tallies perfectly with Dalli’s concept of the nude, he subtly infuses into his suppressed de-emotionality a refracted glint of empathy. However this empathy is but a photographic sourced empathy. The Maltese artist does this by including a brilliantly executed portrait of the nude, something which Pearlstein completely blanks out. This particularity in his works means some of Dalli’s nudes should be viewed not as nudes, but as portraits. Dalli’s nudes are raw material for his painting divested from a worldview definition. The models are all disrobed and dethroned. In his hands they recall the cold role played by Giorgio Morandi’s (1890-1964) still-lifes but without inheriting Morandi’s crystallised emptiness of existence. Moreover they have become objects with even less to say than Morandi’s bottles. The model for Dalli looks ‘as if she was a loaf of bread’. The only redeeming feature in some of his works, wedging itself in rather forcefully, possibly in spite of the artist’s intentions, is the face of the model. Here we can see how sometimes Dalli’s situation radically changes from the cold stage of figure modelling-construction into one of excellent portraiture. The nude transforms itself into a portrait, a photo-picturesque portrait. I would even dare to use the word ‘photogenic’.
Furthermore, Dalli is not committed to the usual parameters of the artist-model relationship. Models are there to be exploited. Unlike Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Dalli insists on raw physicality, without any hint of spirituality, intimacy or evident pleasure, so clearly seen in Bonnard. Whereas the French painter gives us the impression of a ‘dream of effortless felicity’, Dalli presents us with the crude reality of paint.
Here we should recall Kenneth Clark’s definitions of the naked and the nude, a distinction which ushered in a fascinating debate on the nude in twentieth-century art. Nakedness expresses embarrassment, whilst the nude is ‘the body re-formed’. Nakedness is essentially looking at the body-as-is, whilst the nude entails an emphatic relationship. In Clark’s sense, Dalli seems to be depicting nakedness, rather than the nude. The model becomes an expression of flesh. He might be just as well working on dolls or cadavers. This brings Dalli conceptually closer to Ewan Uglow’s (1932-2000) method, in which we assume that the real subject is not the nude, but a striving towards material perfection and formal perfection respectively. Such perfection suppresses fascination. Edward Weston, in his photographic masterpieces, used to convince his models of the fascination of seeing and recognising themselves as an object. Dalli, who also has an intimate relationship with the camera, conversely forces the models to identify themselves as an object. The suppressed glitter in their gaze is a profound plea, a longing to be worshipped as an object, a yearning that Dalli seems to abort. A loaf of bread cannot be worshipped.
Dalli’s suppressed relationship with Edward Hopper (1882-1967) can be intuited when one looks at the way he depicts space, particularly in the grey-olive green series. In these works he denies space any specificity of time or place. However this denial is brought about in a contradictory and tense atmosphere. Dalli struggles to give his works a concrete definition of time and space, yet cautiousness prevents him from achieving this: his crudeness confronts his artistic talent. Unfortunately he does not pursue Hopper’s timelessness and spacelessness to its logical conclusion. He compromises this through the inclusion of unnecessary shadows. Sometimes he attempts to solve this question by including accessories. In Hopper there is an invariable tension between the exterior, the interior, and the models who people them, expressing a Heideggerean metaphysical meaning; this is absent in Dalli. This is unfortunate, because this spatial characteristic could have led Dalli to a fascinating metaphysical Balthusian interior and ambience. At the same time Dalli, like Hopper, houses his nudes in a certain frigid environment: a material coldness in the Maltese works confronting the metaphysical coldness in Hopper. The Maltese artist turns them into an oasis of nothingness, while the American translates them into an oasis of urban isolation. Hopper’s cloistered exclusion becomes an inclusion of claustrophobia in Dalli.
Although they are philosophically and artistically very different, it is useful to contrast Dalli’s realism with that of Max Beckmann (1884-1950). Beckmann believed that realism is the only way of grasping the invincible. He felt that if one wants seize the invincible one must penetrate as deeply into the visible as possible . Truth that can be only unveiled through art lies hidden in nature, and ‘he who can wrest it from her has it’ . In Beckmann’s definition of realism, it is merely a means by which we can further contemplate and intuit the unknown and the irreal. Unlike Beckmann, Dalli penetrates more and more deeply into the material world, not in order to intuit the unknown as in Beckmann, but to assert an already visible layer of materiality. For this reason, he escapes Beckmann’s depictions of decadence and despair, hopelessness and anguish, offering however paint as an alternative.
This Sisyphean materiality starts to break down in Dalli only when he successfully transforms the nude into portraiture. Almost in spite of himself, Dalli reaches the sea-bed of materiality, from which nevertheless streaks of internal spirituality start to dawn weakly. The artist adamantly tries to contain these streaks, thereby maybe inadvertently increasing their effect. He struggles with these streaks to prevent from overpowering the fixed-ness and the frozen-ness of the image. This is the tension that culminates in a sustained force. However, ultimately the models remain objects.
Dalli has a particularly interesting relationship with Lucian Freud. As Keith Sciberras notes this relationship arises from the admiration Dalli has for the ‘vibrant realism of Lucian Freud (b.1922), an admiration which does not succumb to mimic the great master’s disquiet work’. One of the essential differences distancing Dalli from his British mentor is that Freud follows the poses chosen by the models themselves, thereby creating an acute internal tension between movement and inertia. Another consequence of this is that such a choice gives the impression that it is the model who is determining the viewer-nude relationship, and not the artist. Conversely, the Maltese counterpart expresses a regal, sculpted stasis. Here Dalli is in absolute control. He creates an awkward tension between the viewer-intruder and the artist-nude relationships. The viewer is transformed into an unwanted intruder, an unwanted voyeur. Technically Dalli, like Freud, creates a ‘coarsely structured surface full of nuances’. Both painters succeed in making us take a specific position to confront paint that ‘has to come across as flesh’. Freud’s repulsiveness is transformed into a sharply prohibitive seductiveness in Dalli.
Where Freud exhibits the bitter acerbity of flesh, the anguish, hopelessness in works such as Portrait Head (2002), Frances Costelloe (2003), Naked Solicitor (2003), David and Eli (2004), and Naked Portrait (2004), Dalli holds on to his model-as-object emphasizing painting-as-painting. Freud’s Balthusian Alice in Wonderland-like atmosphere does not have a place in Dalli’s art. Whereas Freud acknowledges that he wants to liberate forms, Dalli on the contrary contains and enslaves them. In Freud one senses how ‘inert objects inexplicably come to dominate, or at least unsettle the viewer’s perception’. Dalli does things differently. Objects, including everyday objects, play an insignificant role. His preoccupation is the nakedness-thingness of the figure. He excludes all extraneous elements and forces. Objects, when included, are only backdrops, props to enhance his artistic intentions, and to determine in his own way, and uncompromisingly, the viewer’s perceptions. What Freud asks of a painting is to ‘astonish, disturb, seduce, convince’. This is brushed aside by Dalli, who forcibly asserts that there is no convincing to do; neither do his paintings disturb or seduce.
Another important link that may in the future be studied is that between Dalli and Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), who was one of the principal exponents of a new language ‘in line with the rappel a l’ordre that was openly related to Realism and Naturalism. This new language fluctuated between Realism and Naturalism and the dynamic influences of German New Objectivity. It gave a rebirth to a plastic figuration pervaded by references to the past and references to intimate daily life’. Walter Sickert (1860-1942) could also be seen as an important predecessor, because of his forceful divisionist-impressionist approach. Alison Watt (b.1966) has also been studied and appreciated by Dalli. However he seems to be her exact antipode, confronting her dead, unhealthy smoothness and sickly-clinical tonalities with his robust flesh-ochre-pink undertones. Dalli repels Watt’s smoothness with his divisionist-constructive/painterly approach, juxtaposed with blocks of colour, without however succumbing to Jenny Saville’s(b.1970) ‘mutilatory’ technique.
Some of Dalli’s drawings should be considered as works in their own right. These drawings illustrate another important side of the artist, a side which reflects his whole creative process. Here we can see a level of virtuosity which suggests an extraordinary tension between line and space. Whereas in his paintings Dalli constructs a mosaic weighed down by blocks of colour, in his drawings we sense a Stendhallian crystallisation of a silk cobwebbed line. Keith Sciberras notes this ‘sparkle of rapid movements, with a sure quality of line’.
Although these drawings demonstrate a previously hidden spontaneity, Dalli manages to escape the haphazard. Whilst they emphasize his absolute creative freedom, his drawings nevertheless remain anchored to his rational analytical approach so evident in his paintings. The sharpness and the crispness, the sparkling character of the line create a dialectical counterpoint to the laborious character of his paintings. Exhibited together they create an edifice of beauty. The drawings give an impression of the erratic, yet it is this disciplined erratic quality that establishes the silk wombing of the figures into a cocoon-like existence.
Although Dalli’s drawings border on, without sinking into, pure minimalism, one cannot equate his style with Matissean minimalism. Neither can one identify Dalli’s quasi-minimalism with the superb line-minimalism of Antoine Camilleri’s nudes. In Camilleri’s works we perceive a conceptual minimalism in which detail is discarded for line. The viewer’s imagination does not need to fill in the empty spaces. Dalli’s minimalism is paradoxically that of a maximalist-oversaturated quality. One of his drawings which I consider to be a work per se depicts a seated nude with a relatively fully modelled face, while the rest of the body, particularly the arms and hands, are barely touched. The scarcely-touched developing line in what I call a dancing diptych depicts a female nude with an upraised arm, and a male nude stretching out his right hand. Here, without question, less is more. In another drawing a Picasso-like androgynous saltimbanco suggests an uneasy tension, and would probably be better viewed in juxtaposition with the female nude dancer.
Regarding Dalli’s nudes, including the exhibited paintings, it is important to state once again that although his nude models are objects in the paintings he sometimes manages to transform these nudes into exciting portraits. In this manner he sometimes succeeds in transcending the objectness of his nudes. This can be seen in two works which I consider to be another diptych: a diptych in blue. Here the nudes are de-nudified through the power of the portrait. In spite of the artist’s insistence in considering his models as objects, when it comes to these particular faces, portraiture takes over, and such portraiture effectively clothes the objectified nude in its nakedness. Because of this portraiture the object-nude loses its object-ness and becomes a profoundly contemplative internal yearning, opposing the clarity of nakedness. The tension between the internal gaze which Dalli has externalized, of both these nudes and the grain-like ‘tikhil’ texture of the paint is enough to convince us that here Dalli is shying away from his own obstinacy.
The nudes in this diptych are unique in the sense that they succeed in escaping Dalli’s tenacity in presenting them as mere objects. This dialectical and contradictory strife between the artist and the model, between the artist’s dictat which considers her as a mere object and her corresponding opposing tense attempt to assert herself, in spite of the artist, creates the necessary explosive chemistry for Dalli’s work. This opposing tension is fatal. One side must obliterate the other. In this diptych, furthermore, one senses the tension painfully easing itself out from the beauty of the gaze depicted. In some works, Dalli opts for a greyish-blue spectrum, supported by an olive-green-ochre tone.
An olive-green space forms the backdrop for three other nudes, one of whose gazes again directly confronts the viewer. Although positioned within an illusion of real space, made up of a real divan draped with a cloth, the feeling of spacelessness and timelessness is still dominant. The malicious gaze of one of these nudes reminds us again of Olympia, while the utter hopelessness of the second nude takes us back to Manet’s La Prune (1878). The enigmatic third nude vouches for Dalli’s acute observation in dealing with his ‘objects’. Dalli paints other nudes. However these do not transcend their object-ness. They are completely overpowered by the artist, and remain objects. Without undermining their finished quality, these nudes still remain within the realm of ‘thingness’, something which seems to have formed part of the artist’s intention. Amongst these I would like to single out one in particular: a slightly deformed-distorted nude bending diagonally with an abortive serpentine movement which is opposed by her sharp gaze.
When looking at these works and analysing the whole of Dalli’s oeuvre we see that he is still struggling with the concept of the nude. He is also struggling with the evolution of realism and his own variant of it. There are studies of the nude in which the model is surrounded by studio props, such as armchairs, chairs, divans, fabric, and pillows, creating a seemingly traditionalist atmosphere. Yet Dalli is in conflict precisely with this traditional aspect, and opts sometimes for more austere blankness and vacuity, something which perhaps he could further develop to its logical conclusion. In his later works this tension is more accentuated. He now gives us a broken and parcelled backdrop to his nudes. This abstract background creates artistic ambiguity. Such a tense relationship between the model and its background introduces an important artistic deliberation on the importance of composition. Dalli has still to cultivate and perfect a complex compositional structure. Composition is the material reflection of an artistic philosophy, the embodiment of thought. It constitutes the relationship between the artist’s intellectual structure and reality. Composition is not merely a formal mathematical arrangement, but a conceptual edifice. Dalli has to strive towards a more complex arrangement. After one of our many discussions he set out to explore the world of composition, and experimented with a group comprising three nudes. This work formally recalls Hodler’s Les Los de vivre I (1892). Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) is one of the most important artists of twentieth-century Europe in the same tradition as Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), who I feel should conjointly become a pivotal point for Dalli. Unlike Hodler, in Dalli’s works the three nudes are still configured as separate entities, something which he tries his best to overcome in his later works. There is no compositional link between them; neither is there any bond between them and the viewer. So a risky question emerges. Why are they depicted together? What is the compositional raison d’être? Henri Matisse (1869-1954) may reply that composition is only an arrangement of colour. However even colour has to have a relationship with the whole composition. So composition begets relationships, whether it is colour, form, line or space.
Here one may also recall Piet Mondrian’s Evolution (1911) in which three nudes confront the viewer. Both these masters founded their work on the philosophy of symbolism, something which is absent in Dalli. However from the point of view of the study of composition their works are necessary for the development of Dalli’s art. Composition is not exclusive to particular movements of art. It is a necessary component of all art praxis. And here Dalli is still to turbulently challenge the art of composition. Even Dalli’s couple/triple composition, for example, reflects Hodler’s Le Printemps II (1904), but again he unfortunately de-spiritualises Hodler. He is Hodler’s antipode, because of Freud.
The present study is an attempt to choose a particular path in the analysis of Maltese art, taking Patrick Dalli’s works as exemplars in a comparative introduction to art and art history. It is structured on three levels. First of all I have analysed Dalli’s nudes as works that form part of a wider international development. Secondly, I have juxtaposed Dalli’s nudes with those milestone works which became iconic artistic statements within the chaotic concatenation of artistic movements. Finally Dalli’s works have been analysed within a complex amalgam of artistic concepts that evolve in parallel and sometimes in direct defiance of the works themselves. These three inter-related sides of a compact triangle cannot be separated from each other. The international comparative aspect and the philosophical-artistic substratum have to be organically and integrally bound together in one crystallised structure. It is such a structure that can help de-insularise the Maltese art scene. Such a structure may assist our vitally needed process towards intellectual globalisation. At the same time this will radically determine an outward-looking approach in our quest for an artistic identity for Malta. By placing Maltese art and Maltese artists within an international philosophical, historic-artistic intricate maze we may defy the deeply-rooted insular and provincial conceptualisation of the rest of the world.
In my publication, The Nude in Art. A Study (Malta, 2008) I had concluded that ‘it is now time for Dalli to take up the Sisyphean struggle in humbly challenging the Masters and I do modestly hope yet again that this study may trigger such a reaction from Dalli. Life and Nature are the undeniable prerequisites for the evolution of all creative art. Delacroix stated emphatically that life and nature are but a dictionary from which an artist may draw out possibilities to bring forth his creative genius. However the dictionary itself may not and cannot create art. For painting to transform itself into art it needs to conduct a permanent dialogue with the masters. Dalli is now, in my opinion, fully equipped to relate his praxis not only to the life model, but more important still, to his relationship with the great masters of the past. Without this deep study and active creative counterpoint Dalli’s nudes would retain their nakedness and their statementlessness. An artist’s philosophy can be born only out of the birth pangs of a relationship with history, that is, with masters who have changed the course of history of art through their artistic revolutions. As Courbet related to Rembrandt, Rubens, Ingres, and as Manet related to Courbet, Velázquez and Goya, so Dalli’s independent branch of Freudism has to be still further distanced from this contemporary master by reverting back, passionately and violently, to the great masters of the past.
I am grateful to Marjorie Trusted for her assistance with the editing of this article.
Dr Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci