First published in The Malta Independent, February 12, 1995.
Reprinted here with the kind permission of Raphael Vella.

The language of the soul

Raphael Vella writes about the exhibition of works by Carmen Pizzuto at the National Museum of Fine Arts. The most impressive of her works are the landscapes.

There is nothing wrong with painting landscapes. In fact, there is nothing intrinsically wrong in any subject chosen by an artist. Yet, most artists will agree that there are plenty of wrong ways of doing a landscape, or any other theme for that matter. Seen in this light, the theme itself does not justify the artist's treatment of that theme.

Putting this particular argument into practice means judging a work of art according to certain absolute criteria, a practice I would not normally agree with in theory. Distinguishing the good and the bad in art is rarely an easy or acceptable task.

However, people's opinions about art depend very much on the kind of visual education they receive, and an irresponsible education can produce stunted opinions. Some people, for example, may detest modern architecture simply because they are accustomed to those anonymous, plastered cuboids which surround many of our coasts; others may associate art only with the kind of pictures they normally get to see in the media.

Now, landscape — or rather, a highly romanticised version of landscape — is a theme which visitors to local galleries bump into with a certain regularity. Some exhibitions of “Malta views”, including the collection of pastel-paintings currently on view at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, may tire the regular visitor with predictability. Boredom in art is a result of over-exposure to a hallowed custom. Local art is not synonymous with landscape-painting, and landscape-painting is not synonymous with soft-focus, nostalgic pictures of Maltese boats. Painting in Malta has more to offer and I feel confident that young, local landscape-painters are capable of directing their interest to less hackneyed interpretations of a well-trodden theme.

One can approach boat-painting in a less routine way, and the exhibition of miniature paintings by Carmen Pizzuto, also at the National Museum of Fine Arts, is a case in point. In her tiny works — most would fit into a matchbox — she uses landscapes or marine scenes only as a pretext. Her real interest lies in searching for what she calls “the language of the soul”.

It is not the visual or nostalgic aspects of landscape which attract her attention. “There are inner states for which adequate words cannot be found. All the artist can do is to suggest and…make the spectator guess at the hidden meaning. This suggesting and guessing…is the hidden language of art”.

Allowing the spectator to “guess” is to respect the spectator's interpretation. The painter explained to me that the titles are given only as an afterthought and are not meant to restrict the viewer's interpretation in any way. Her largest work on display at the museum in Valletta — a triptych entitled “Gol-Gnien tas-Sultan” — is a colourful work painted in a thick impasto and is typically open-ended. A painting suggests, rather than imposes, an idea on the spectator. In its turn, the public has to take this suggestion as a challenge.

Alternatively, it can choose a more comprehensible and stereotyped kind of art.

[ Image: Carmen Pizzuto: Gol-Gnien Tas-Sultan ]