The Artist as a Political Being 02 March 2020

‘[The artist is] at the same time a political being, constantly alive to heartrending, fiery, or happy events, to which he responds in every way.’

Pablo Picasso

Throughout history, sensitive beings have felt compelled to turn to their pen, their chisel or their brush as a means of responding to the socio-political context of the time. Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was one such man. He portrayed numerous poverty scenes in works such as The Frugal Repast, yet it was the monumental Guernica that truly places him among history’s truly great political artists. The Guernica, a massive canvas over seven metres in length, was his response to the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. At the centre of the composition, a horse stretches its neck, its mouth open in a silent scream of suffering. Lifted directly from bull-fighting imagery, the horse represented the innocent victim in a fight between man and bull; the common man or woman who kills and is killed in the name of the powers that be.

Our second ARTPICK is likewise dominated by the imagery of the horse in battle. At the very centre of The Battle of the Balaclava, by the Maltese Frank Portelli (1922–2004), two horses evidently hark back towards Picasso’s masterpiece. In front of a bright red background, the two horses stand amid the fighters and the fallen. Much like the Guernica, it is at once a powerful statement on a singular battle and on the reality of war. Certainly impacted by the Second World War, during which he lived and served, Portelli would revisit the intertwined themes of war and suffering in a number of other works. Malta – A Cradle of War and Peace (a work that was auctioned in the United States in late 2019) is one such painting. Whereas in The Battle of the Balaclava Portelli quotes Picasso, in Malta – A Cradle of War and Peace, Portelli quotes Michelangelo, specifically the celebrated Vatican Pietà.

Meanwhile, in The Two Faces of the Turning World, Pasmore quotes Goya. Within the Victor Pasmore Gallery, Portelli’s The Battle of the Balaclava might initially seem as somewhat foreign and odd among the abstract works of Portelli’s British contemporary. However, in close proximity stands The Two Faces of the Turning World, the sole figurative work in the gallery’s collection, with which Portelli’s work creates an interesting dialogue. It is a work that juxtaposes a violent scene with a family at peace in a scenario reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. In front of a hunter that obviously alludes to Goya’s Third of May, the stylised animal stretches its neck in a manner not dissimilar to the horses in Portelli’s Battle of the Balaclava and Picasso’s Guernica. Pasmore’s painting actually reflects the stylistic influence of Picasso, whom Pasmore had admired and met at the Peace Congress of 1950, for which Pasmore had designed the banner.

Portelli’s The Battle of the Balaclava is a bozzetto, later translated into a mural. Unfortunately, the mural did not survive the test of time, or rather did not survive society’s lack of appreciation for its artistic heritage. Fortunately, the bozzetto’s survival enables us to appreciate first-hand an intriguing, original creation by one of Malta’s most important modern artists. Standing before this work, the onlooker quickly arrives to the inevitable conclusion: in war, there is no victory... Standing before The Battle of the Balaclava, Bob Dylan’s words ring in my ear: ‘How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?’

ARTPICK is an ongoing project at the Victor Pasmore Gallery in which an artwork by a Maltese modern master is on public view at the gallery for an entire month. Frank Portelli’s bozzetto for The Battle of the Balaclava is on view till 30 March. Do not miss out on this unique opportunity to come face-to-face with this fascinating work!

Written by Samuel Casha