A Place in the Sun 01 August 2019
Nicholas Watkins (interviewer, September 1995):
What made you go and live in Malta?
Oh, I don't know, by accident really, no reason at all. We had been going there for years and eventually we thought we would like to have a place in the Mediterranean, go for summer holidays. But when we got a place there, in the country, we got so many animals, dogs, cats and birds that we can't leave for long. I am glued to Malta. Why I like it is that it has got this tremendous history, going right back to Neolithic times. It has a great history, Arab, Roman, Greek, Italian, Baroque - Valletta is a Baroque city - and British. And all this tremendous history is there in a small space.
The country of Malta, with its uniquely fascinating history, has so much to offer. Yet, for so many visitors - among them quite possibly you, dear reader - the first thing that catches their attention is, quite simply, the weather. It was essentially the warm climate that first attracted Victor Pasmore to the Island as he and his wife, Wendy, had been searching for “a place in the sun” – a Mediterranean refuge for frequent getaways. The prevalence of the English language made Malta the ideal candidate. Having become enamored with the Island, along with the obligation they felt towards the stray cats and dogs that they quickly amassed, the Pasmores took the decision to settle in Malta permanently in 1966. For Victor Pasmore, one of the foremost abstract painters of the century, the Maltese phase would be his final chapter; he remained on the Island until his death in 1998, at the old age of ninety. The artist’s Maltese period is best represented in an intimate collection at the Victor Pasmore Gallery in Valletta; a few minutes' walk from MUŻA, the national community museum of art, which also houses some works by the artist.
Naturally, Pasmore was to leave a mark on the local artistic scene, and Malta too would reciprocate in leaving its own mark on Pasmore’s artistic output. Although Pasmore himself largely denied such an influence, critics, even in his own lifetime, observed how “the colours of Malta... its stones and walls and its blue sea, seem to re-emerge in a new form” in his Maltese work, as evinced by pieces such as Green and Indigo (1969, Victor Pasmore Gallery).
There was, however, one influence that Pasmore did admit to. According to the artist, the renowned Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, Durham County, which was designed and built shortly after Pasmore’s move to Malta, was greatly inspired by the architectural elements of the traditional Maltese farmhouse. In the Apollo Pavillion, these features were re-interpreted in concrete. This was a direct result of his acquisition of his Maltese home, Dar Ġamri, an old farmhouse in Gudja which he remodelled in his own artistic idiom.
Pasmore also remarked that the Island’s atmosphere removed any metaphorical shackles and invigorated within him a burning desire to experiment, which led to a sudden increase in his production of prints. In his own words, the expendable nature of paper “dispelled inhibitions and released new energies”. This can also be observed in his paintings, which increasingly make us of cheap materials easily found in the common ironmonger store. Wooden boards and plywood are perhaps the pre-eminent materials found within the Victor Pasmore Gallery, with several works also consisting of the use of electric tape and common spray paint. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1974-1975, Victor Pasmore Gallery) interestingly combines these two materials with oil paint, all on wooden hardboard.
Within this corpus of work, some have observed forms that seem to, perhaps somewhat subconsciously, recall the forms of Malta’s Neolithic structures. Pasmore himself stated on numerous occasions that the shadow of Malta’s unique prehistoric past, which includes the eldest known man-made free-standing structures in the world, greatly inspired him. Shortly after settling on the Island, Pasmore claimed that within this incredibly historic atmosphere “metamorphosis” was now the key word for his artistic philosophy. He became increasingly preoccupied with the idea that his abstract compositions do not represent real objects, people or landscapes that have been abstracted beyond recognition, but rather are the “original” object themselves, created from within the artist and by the artist alone; it is an independent, autonomous image.
It was Malta’s sunny nature which first brought Victor Pasmore to our shores; it was the cats and dogs which “glued” him here; it was our extraordinary history which made him fall in love with the Island. In a correspondence with Ben Nicholson in 1968, Pasmore asserts that even if the Island was (already back then) overbuilt, “there is still much of the scenery which retains the spirit of Homer’s descriptions in the Odyssey... Melita is still with its honey-coloured walls, its brown earth and pearl cliffs”. Perhaps these elements, if any survive the ongoing madness of replacing our own heritage with more profitable projects, will in the future once again act as catalysts for bringing another artist of Pasmore’s caliber to Malta’s shores.
This entry was published in the Air Malta in-flight magazine, il-Bizzilla, for the month of August 2019.
Written by Samuel Casha