Art Thou Myth?
When abstract art meets myth
01 October 2019

"Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another."
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

There’s just something about the ancient past that keeps you guessing. No matter how many exciting discoveries and contrasting theories inform our thoughts of how and what might have led man to leave a mark on stone, ultimately, this early human activity belongs to the world of shadows. It is steeped in mystery and wonder; it activates the imagination into a time and space where any belief and sentiment are possible, ones that perhaps cannot even be reached by the ordinary modern human, let alone be kept alive.

In 1966, a British artist, Victor Pasmore (1908-1998), arrived on the shores of Malta and cast his eyes upon it and its history. “The island has long been very built up and now of course this is increasing at great speed,” he once exclaimed in an interview about his experience on the island. “But there is still much of the scenery which retains the spirit of Homer’s descriptions in the Odyssey. Melita still is with its honey coloured walls, its brown earth and pearl cliffs which seem to hang in the afternoon sky…”. His descriptions up to this point, although irresistibly poetic, are mostly formal. They are full of content but lack substance. In artistic terms, it would be like looking at an abstract painting and describing the various forms and colours in a bid to force out some meaning from them. Several are the art connoisseurs, for example, who argue that the chromatic and visual changes in the later works of Pasmore – the use of more blues, greens, and vivid colours – may be a result of his move to the Maltese Islands.

However, Pasmore moves on from mere descriptions of his surroundings; his interest in the natural world permeates deeper still: “What, perhaps, is relevant to my new paintings in Malta is that the close and constant proximity of the ancient, mythological and Neolithic past has reinforced my orientation from the physics of art to its biological and psychological content.” Here Pasmore seems to be telling us that he was gradually becoming more and more intrigued in the “why” rather than the “how” of an artwork’s creation. He was seemingly interested in patterns of creation – what leads to the act of creating – and much less so in following the rules or reconstructing the steps which led to an artwork’s creation. Indeed, natural forces would often also have their say in the creation of an artwork: large canvases would be worked on outdoors, exposed to the elements; wooden boards would be reused and reshaped; paint would spill onto the surface by chance; and spray paint would spread out unevenly on different surfaces. You cannot quite reconstruct what has followed a spontaneous order. Like the work of nature, not one work is identical to the other, even if created by what is essentially the repetition of the same or similar pattern – lines, dots, spots, and fields of colour. Like the prehistoric man whose carvings were intentional, efficient and controlled, but also responsive to nature, so too was Pasmore in harmony with nature and its rules as he filled his canvases with signs, creating what he called “independent paintings” that carry a spirit of their own.

Several of Pasmore’s abstract works are unnamed or have been titled as if belonging to some inventory: ‘Abstract No.’ this and that – a meaningless record, a name that takes away or adds nothing to the work it refers to. Surprisingly, a good number of abstract works produced while he was living on the island also carry suggestive titles, evoking thoughts of arcadian landscapes, of gods and goddesses and all the outwardly (often ungodly) stories linked with their name. The titles of these works were often born from memory, from impressions the artist had of a story he had read about, heard or even, imagined. But once again, the substance or origin of the work had nothing really to do with its visual content – with the colours and forms used. Instead, it had to do with memory, with the pattern of the mind, repeated throughout history since the earliest days of human expression. Indeed, as Pasmore himself puts it: “ the line develops organically, in accordance with the process of scribbling, we find ourselves directing its course towards a particular but unknown end; until finally an image appears which surprises us by its familiarity and touches us as if awakening forgotten memories buried long ago.”

Perhaps Pasmore believed that the line, like the one traced by the beating heart on an ECG monitor, has a certain emotional reality to it, one that pulsates through time. The proximity between reality and possibility is the ground on which Pasmore furthered his experimentation with abstract images. Certainly, his move to the remote village of Gudja in Malta, provided him with the insularity necessary to both rediscover physical and sensory realities such as light and colour, as well as to develop new forms of a personal and symbolic nature. The possibilities were, in this regard, infinite. Relentlessly, Pasmore made it his artistic mission to give them a life of their own as enigmatic as the ancient myths that helped shaped them.

Written by Giulia Privitelli