Introducing Willie Apap: Revelations 18 October 2018

‘The ultimate test of a painting of a man is surely not whether it looks like him, but whether it feels like him.’
- Victor Pasmore

What other way could there be to introduce the temporary exhibition Willie Apap: Revelations if not through the words of Victor Pasmore, the artist to whom the gallery housing this exhibition is dedicated? For it may indeed appear surprising that the works of an artist who was considered to have brought about ‘the most revolutionary event in post-war British art’, and who was practically adopted by Malta in the last three decades of his life, should make room for a twentieth-century Maltese artist who gradually fell into obscurity, who severed his artistic ties with Malta in the last three decades of his short life. To juxtapose one work by Pasmore, The Fall of Icarus, with eighteen works by Apap might indeed be considered a compromise by some, an opportunity by others. Yet, the aim here is not to cast a shadow on any of the works displayed or on the artist who authored them, but to bring them to light, to reveal the largely underrepresented side to a mature Willie Apap – his finer qualities, preoccupations and concerns.

For a reading of this exhibition, it would serve us well to recall that the mid-twentieth century was a turning point for both Apap and Pasmore, and perhaps due in no small part to the outbreak of the Second World War. It takes all but one painting to detect this shift in Apap’s work, even if not as radical as the shift from figurative representation to abstraction as embodied in Pasmore’s Icarus. But the artist who left us the Icarus is the same artist who up until the war was ‘painting [himself] as much as [he] can: landscapes, heads, figure subjects…’ Meanwhile the artist who turned several heads in his direction with his portrait paintings, is the same artist who in his mature years made his figures ‘increasingly eyeless, faceless and anonymous.’ While by 1948 Pasmore had felt that he ‘had reached the end of the road in visual representation and was seized by a violent urge to start again on a completely new basis’, Apap ‘retained his “traditionalist” position’ but without ‘succumbing to the traditional and perhaps archaic definition of art as beauty, art as grace and naturalness’. It was thus, 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 in the complete independence and freedom by which nature operates.

Willie Apap’s eighteen works, carefully selected by our guest curator, Maria Cassar, are oriented in such a way to portray the evolution of Apap’s choice of subject matter, form and colour palette. Collectively, they reveal a certain kind of purification, a move from the exterior to the interior, imbuing immaterial qualities of the divine to the human. Yet, Apap’s works are also shrouded in mystery, ambiguity, and incompleteness. Similarly, he summed up his thoughts and artistic philosophy in a few sparing comments; the rest he translated into paint.

Willie Apap: Revelations seeks therefore to address this twofold nature which swings between stripped-back purity and wrapped-up mystery. Indeed, the term ‘revelations’ itself is ambiguous. Rooted in the Latin word ‘revelatio’ or ‘revelum’ it paradoxically implies two opposing actions. The first is in the sense we often think of, that is to reveal or uncover. In other words, to remove the veil off something and in this way, to purify it; to bring out the nakedness of the object, of the human body and, in turn, to bring out the human in the divine. The second is to re-veil (re-velare), that is to cover up again. The layers of paint with which Apap builds his pictures, his strisce, thus fall over his figures like semi-metaphoric veils, obscuring their identity; he darkens the faces of his figures, casts them in shadow and renders them anonymous. Suddenly, the seam between what can and what cannot be seen appears to be very finely woven indeed.

Willie Apap: Revelations would not have been possible without the willingness, enthusiasm, trust and generosity of several lenders who for obvious reasons will be kept anonymous. We are also grateful for the unwavering support of the Governor, Board of Directors and staff of the Central Bank of Malta, and the members of the Victor Pasmore Foundation.

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.

Written by Giulia Privitelli

Victor Pasmore-Graham Bell correspondence, April 1941, TGA 200214, cited in Alastair Grieve (ed.), Victor Pasmore. Writings and Interviews (London: Tate Publishing, 2010)
Herbert Read, ‘Great Britain’, in Art since 1945 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1959)
Victor Pasmore, letter to William Coldstream, 16 December 1944; cited in Grieve (ed.) 2010
Victor Pasmore, letter to Bruce Laughton, 20 April 1982; cited in Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School (London: Scolar Press, 1986)
Giuseppi Schembri Bonaci, Willie Apap: Descent from the Cross (Malta: Midsea Books, 2008)