Of Falls and Descents 01 October 2018

‘...only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.’
- J.R.R. Tolkien

During the second month of Autumn (or shall we say ‘Fall’ to keep to the theme) the Victor Pasmore Gallery in Valletta will be housing a temporary exhibition on the twentieth-century Maltese artist Willie Apap (1918-1970). From those displayed, however, one work in particular – The Descent from the Cross - will directly confront and, perhaps, even challenge Victor Pasmore’s abstract, yet suggestive work – The Fall of Icarus, painted some thirty years later. But let us be clear: the two works were independently created; one is not a reaction to the other.

Indeed, the artists never met even though they might have very well heard of each other at some point in their life. Apap mostly painted in the whereabouts of Rome; Pasmore in the UK, and later in Malta with frequent trips to Italy. Apap is what one would lazily classify as a figurative artist, and Pasmore as abstract. Yet both were largely renowned for the portraits and landscape works earlier on in their career. Then, a break in their artistic language soon after the Second World War, as if a bomb had triggered within them a deeply lodged expression which goes beyond the mere interest in aesthetic, in how things seem. They began to look beneath the veil of the apparent; Apap shifted his focus to the dark folds of the human condition, and Pasmore into the complete independence and freedom by which nature operates. Once down this route, neither would ever quite turn back.

Yet to inquire into something specific one will also have to look beyond it, in the same way that a doctor would look at the symptoms or effects of an illness in order to understand it better. Ironically enough, one way to go about this would be to consider episodes that tend to generalise 'universal truths' such as those immortalised in classical literature and sacred texts. Historical facts, myths and fairy-tales have this in common – their resulting and unconnected pattern animates the fabric by which we may understand very specific situations in the world, even as it is today. And we know this all too well. This is why we often exclaim that history repeats itself with hardly a stammer of surprise in our voices. This is also what allows us to draw innumerable parallels between mythological heroes and historical figures, between the imagined and the real, and, in our case, between two independently created works of art.

Representing the image of Christ’s descent from the cross in the shadow of the flight and fall of Icarus is not a new idea. The famed Florentine master of the High Renaissance, Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), for instance, depicted a young boy preparing for flight in a scene which immediately recalls, now as it did then, the contemporary iconography for a typical rendition of the descent from the cross. For viewers well-attuned with the implications of both episodes, this is an unmistakeable yet indirect way of saying that the proud fool’s unsuccessful attempt to reach the heavens, that is to dwell among the gods, is opposed by the successful descent of Christ to earth and his ascent from it. ‘For only the soul that has beheld truth may enter into this our human form,’ explains Socrates to Phaedrus (in Plato’s Phaedrus), and only through the experience of love kindled by the sight of the beautiful Beloved can the “wings” be regrown.

So, in other words, and just to bring things down a notch, pride and love are opposites: where one brings you down, the other lifts up. The Fall of Icarus faces The Descent from the Cross; the contrast augmented by their complimentary hues, by the abstract boldness of one and the sombre solidity of the other. One is indeed 'easier' to look at; there is a sense of freedom, and it hardly imposes anything on the viewer save for some script scrawled along its middle. The other, in its grave stillness, shrills in despair. Indeed, the effects of pride and love seem to have been reversed. Can we really be certain that Pasmore’s Icarus is falling? And where is the ladder in Apap’s Descent? In any case, what has happened to the hero who descended so that 'wings may be regrown'? What beauty remains to look at? The hero’s face is covered, as if to express the mystery behind the sort of salvation that has concerned us so far. ‘Every man has his own image of the face of Christ, and I leave that imagery to each person,’ explains Apap.

Perhaps, that was the only way the artist could go on about revealing part of the mystery, for what freedom would there be if Beauty was not ours to seek and discover? And what freedom would there be if we were not allowed to mistake it for the sun, even if that meant falling into the sea?

Willie Apap: Revelations is open to the public between 18 October – 30 November 2018 (Mon-Fri 11.00am-3.00pm; Thurs 11.00am-8.00pm) at the Victor Pasmore Gallery and Annexe of the Central Bank of Malta, Valletta. Entrance is free of charge.

This entry was published in the Air Malta in-flight magazine, Il-Bizzilla, for the month of October 2018.

Written by Giulia Privitelli