A Friend, A Mentor, An Inspiration 01 November 2019

Victor Pasmore (1908–1998) is today recognised as being one of the foremost protagonists of twentieth-century abstraction. He was an English artist who had made a name for himself as a landscape and figurative painter in the 1930s and 40s, before surprising many by devoting himself entirely to abstract art. In 1966 he settled in Malta for the remaining thirty-two years of his life, becoming unquestionably the most important foreign artist in the course of Maltese Modern Art.

His radical move from figurative art into abstraction may well be in fact ‘the most revolutionary event in post-war British art’, as described by art historian Herbert Read. Yet, the name of Victor Pasmore remains somewhat clouded in mystery to the man in the street, certainly in comparison to some of the other artistic giants of the twentieth century. It is, however, a name that Maltese sculptor Victor Diacono (1915–2009) immediately recognised whilst working at one of the country’s leading hotels back in the 1960s, when Victor and Wendy Pasmore were visiting the Island – then still with the intention of finding a holiday house rather than, as it happened, a new home.

It was through Diacono that Pasmore first came to know the artist-architect Richard England (1937–present) and artist Gabriel Caruana (1929–2018), who would become two of his closest friends. The three often shared their art, thoughts and ideas over lunch, and Pasmore came to be viewed by the two younger artists as a mentor. Both England and Caruana claimed, on numerous occasions, that Pasmore significantly influenced their artistic philosophy and, subsequently, their artistic output.

Through mutual friendships as well as through his several exhibitions, Pasmore interacted with and integrated within the Maltese artistic community of the time. In addition to England, Caruana and Diacono, he also befriended renowned Maltese artists such as Josef Kalleya (1898–1998), Antoine Camilleri (1922–2005), Anton Agius (1933–2008) and Alfred Chircop (1933–2015) – whose abstract inventions he particularly admired. The English artist supported and encouraged his Maltese compatriots, pushing on artists such as Caruana to delve into the world of abstraction. Before even meeting in person, Pasmore had phoned Richard England to compliment him on the then still incomplete Manikata Church, today recognised as one of the architect’s masterpieces. His encouragement, however, was not limited to words of praise; he also collected several artworks by his Maltese contemporaries for his own home. Among others, the Pasmore residence is adorned with the art of Caruana, Camilleri, Kalleya, Chircop, as well as Emvin Cremona (1919–1987).

Cremona, who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday this year, was another of Pasmore’s close connections on the Island. Interestingly, Cremona underwent a similar radical transformation from the figurative to the abstract – a transformation that caught the Maltese public off-guard. Cremona was at the time the leading church painter of the country, producing works for the churches of Msida, Għaxaq, Floriana, Ħamrun and Żebbuġ (Gozo), among many others; one of his religious works today embellishes the terminal of the Malta International Airport, so make sure to check it out! The man best known for his monumental church paintings and his innovative stamp designs was morphing into one of the great pioneers of Maltese abstract art. His abstract work reached a pinnacle with the Broken Glass Series in 1969 – a ground-breaking (or rather, shall we say, glass-breaking) corpus of works, comprised of a sheet of glass placed on wet paint before being broken into arbitrary abstract designs.

Despite the difference in execution, these works share an affinity with the works of Pasmore in that they do not represent anything from the natural world; they are not an abstracted landscape, portrait or object but are in themselves autonomous, independent images. Pasmore often insisted that his constructions were not ‘a process of abstraction but rather a method of constructing from within’. It seems that Cremona here, consciously or otherwise, took a leaf from Pasmore’s book, although Cremona’s method is less one of ‘constructing’ and more ‘destructive’.

Comparably to the counter-culture Pasmore had faced in England, Cremona too struggled against (but, arguably, succumbed to) the resistance to his abstract work. Despite the earlier modernist work of several local artists, the Maltese public was, and to some extent still is, somewhat sceptical of an art whose forms cannot be recognised or understood. Pasmore’s settling in Malta certainly injected a much-needed stimulus to an artistic community that was shackled by the tight grip of the ecclesiastical authorities, thus confining it to the overpowering shadow of the long-gone days of Baroque glory. (Sadly, to this day, too many local artists remain conditioned by the authorities’ unwillingness to outgrow the Baroque).

Pasmore brought with him something different: an abstract revolution that would invigorate those local artists who had already been searching for an artistic language that reflected their century. Richard England would later assert that Pasmore’s decision to settle on the Island was ‘the greatest cultural event in the history of art in this country since Caravaggio visited these shores’. Indeed, it doesn’t take much to see why Pasmore’s presence was of such importance. Be it for personal or creative reasons, to his Maltese contemporaries, Pasmore was not solely a friend or a mentor but, above all, an inspiration.

Written by Samuel Casha

A public talk about Victor Pasmore and Emvin Cremona was held by Prof. Joseph Cassar at the Victor Pasmore Gallery on Wednesday 27 November 2019