University honours Gabriel Caruana

Contemporary art pioneer Gabriel Caruana was recently bestowed in absentia with the title of Master of Letters – Honoris Causa by the University of Malta. In his oration, which he shares here, Richard England spells out his vision of the man who was to become an institution of the art scene in Malta.

Since his early days, Gabriel Caruana mantled a strong cultural overlay from his surrounding environment, a legacy which was to be paramount in the artistic development of his later years, as if to verify Longfellow’s words “That is best which lies nearest.  Shape from that thy work of art”.

Gabriel Caruana. Photo: Raffaella ZammitGabriel Caruana. Photo: Raffaella Zammit

He enthusiastically recalls taking part at an early age in preparations for the Annunziata festivities of his home village of Balzan – an extravaganza of fireworks, decorations and bustle in strong contrast to the everyday calm and dormant lifestyle of the village.

He recounts that on one occasion he had personally decorated the parish church façade with 1,200 light bulbs.  The festa stage set with its carried statue, fireworks, colourful food stalls and folk traditions formed in the young man’s mind a gestation bank which was to provide the cornerstone of much of his artistic baggage.  The inquisitive mind of youth is, as Freud has taught us, the key to the understanding of any personality and there is truth in the saying that the child is father to the man.

Also among Caruana’s earliest artistic ventures we find a number of papier-mâché masks and floats for the annual Malta Carnival festivities – all worthy of notice for their novel boldness, colour and jocular design.  Even at this period Caruana had already established the basic rule of following no rules.  His work was always a form of visceral rebellion against convention, with an exuberance which seemed fired by a childlike enthusiasm.

Caruana’s art continued to demonstrate a sense of immediacy and spontaneity, typical of the acute, observational and impulsive power of the artist’s mind.

During the decade of the 1960s inspired by the zeitgeist of the age, the Nation’s Independence and the rich influx into Malta of a number of intellectual art and literary figures, Caruana’s work soared to the forefront of the local art scene and his talent soon elevated him to becoming a master of his art.

Already during this period, his exhibition of used tyres, magnified bus tickets and other objets trouvés at the Museum of Fine Arts marked him as the enfant terrible of Maltese art.  The presence in Malta of personalities of the like of Victor Pasmore, Sir Basil Spence, Desmond Morris, Ernle Bradford, Nicholas Monsarrat, Nigel Dennis and A.C. Sewter was to have a strong influence on the local cultural and art scene and also on Caruana himself.

More than others, it was art historian A.C. Sewter, former editor of The Burlington Magazine and senior reader at Manchester University, who was responsible for guiding Caruana through this period of development and also helped introduce the artist into the international milieu. Sewter and the British architect Basil Spence were also admirers and patrons of Caruana’s art.

However, the most influential was the eminent British abstract painter Victor Pasmore with whom Caruana was to later form a close friendship.

Pasmore, who referred to Caruana as ‘a wonderful artist’, imparted further confidence and as a mentor provided fundamental development patterns for Caruana’s approach and philosophy.

Although Caruana’s work continued to derive its iconography from his early ethnic influences, it was the likes of Pasmore, Spence and Sewter who further enriched his artistic output. Throughout his working life, the essential core of his designs remained his ever-present love affair with Malta’s ambiances – the island’s azure seas and their scintillating sub-aqueous hues together with the rich chromatic palette of local fishing boats.  These colours fused with those of the opulent church interiors, together with the didactic teachings of his newly-found mentors, formed essential databanks.  Yet, his work also seemed inherently to re-echo dreamed presences of the island’s long past Neolithic artefacts. It seemed that what cradled the hearts of the ancients still nagged at the modern artist of today.

Although Caruana’s energies focused on the creative, rather than on the pedagogical side, he did spend many years in a dual capacity and many ceramists practising today reveal Caruana’s didactic influence. Throughout his life, Caruana always demonstrated an instinctive need to create spontaneously, with a sense of immediacy and endless energy. His methodology is the personification of Gaston Bachelard’s words ‘creating quickly is the secret of creating live’.

All too often, artists spend much of their time constructing intellectual barriers between their art product and the public at large. Not so Caruana. His works stand for what they are… even if they evoke mystical metaphors.  Whatever the evocations, the final work always echoes an ancestral Mediterranean tillage pregnant with all its mystical legends and myths.

Often, I have had the privilege of watching Caruana’s hands tune themselves in the act of giving birth to a work… a dance… a play… a beating pulse, building forms and cutting crevices in a passionate rhythm of activity. I have watched in awe as the artist’s creative energy is transferred from his hands into the virgin clay.

Art to him is a mistress who has held his hand throughout his life

Caruana’s effortless handling of this raw material is demonstrative of the bond which exists between the artist and his material. As he weaves a thought and radiates it to his hands, the mass of clay, its inner waters later dried by raging fire, becomes an offering and the work gains a meaning… its name is art. It is as if Caruana speaks to the raw material ‘clay, be patient, I can turn you into magic’.

While many still want to entrust the future of our planet to science, it is the likes of Caruana who convince us that it is safer to leave our destiny in the hands of artists and in the realm of their art.  For despite its quantum leaps, science has a long way to go before it can satisfy the emotional presence of human nature.

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Now firmly established as a much loved and highly-esteemed iconic personality, not only on the local artistic scene, but also in the larger Mediterranean cultural context, Caruana is also acclaimed in international ceramic circles and numerous examples of his work hang in a number of esteemed galleries and museums abroad.  Perhaps it is because Caruana does not know the question that it is easy for him to come up with the answer.

Cezanne’s saying “art is religion” may well have come from Caruana himself, while the words of Dag Hammarskjold seem to have been specifically written about him: “He broke fresh ground because, and only because, he had the courage to go ahead without questioning.”

Caruana’s approach to his work is always joyous and exuberant and the result is inventive, innovative and beautiful.  He is an artist considered by many as a larger- than-life personality, with an exuberance that holds no limits and a character which effuses all the joyful manifestations of life… the perfect personification of someone you can call a good man.

Art to him is a mistress who has held his hand throughout his life.  He once confessed to me: “I could not live without art, it is the totality of all the meaning of my life”… words which clearly emphasise that the man and his art are inseparable.  How right the great Italian artist Emilio Vedova was when he referred to Caruana as “un volcano”, for few artists can equal his vast, exuberant and titanic outpouring.

Some years ago I had sent a letter to Caruana, which I shall quote as a closure to this oration.

“Using the awe-inspiring four basic elements as your tools, you, Gabriel, shaman of the arts, are able to obtain an even greater value for air than the freshness of its winds, donate to water an even greater magnitude than the gushing of its sibilant rivers, achieve for earth an even greater significance than the sunshine of its precious stones and extract from fire a luminance brighter than its radiant glow.  From the baked, moulded, washed and fired material of clay, you have, for many a decade, ignited the art world with a resplendent radiance.  Your exuberance and extravagance of expression hold no limits.  Together with echoes of the island’s cerulean sea which timelessly laps our now no longer virgin shores, there is, in your creative opus, a magical presence of a reborn spirit of all the stratified overlays of our island’s history”.

I feel I must, on this notable occasion, make reference to Caruana’s marriage to Mary Rose, later in life, blessed by two loving and energetic daughters Raffaella and Gabriella… all paramount influences on the artist’s persona and his work.

Mary Rose’s own background in art and education enabled her to act both as critic and adviser. Her selective scrutiny of his gargantuan output together with her sincere and loving advice helped him to become more judicious in his creative productiveness. While it may be said that she has helped to condition him, she has been wise enough not to have attempted to tame him.

We know that the beautiful, illusive, inspirational Mistress of Art who has accompanied Gabriel throughout the years will continue to motivate and inspire him in his twilight years.  In today’s spiritually bankrupt world, Caruana, artistic conjurer that he is, has stood proud, but never arrogant, as an example of all that is truth in art.

I am honoured to have been invited to deliver this oration on the occasion of the University’s conferement on Caruana with its highest academic recognition.  I consider myself also proud to have penned three books on Caruana’s work and numerous exhibition catalogues and, more so, to share a deep friendship and indeed fraternal relationship with this illustrious personality.

Gabriel, thank you, Malta is proud to have you as a son.

The conferment ceremony was held at the University’s church, the Jesuit church in Valletta.

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