Biography of Antoine Camilleri (1922 -2005)

Camilleri’s early interest in art was first noticed by his father, a textile merchant who supported his eleven children with his shop A La Ville de Lyon, in Valletta. Camilleri’s fascination with the visual arts started as early as seven years old when he recalled drawing trains, which can be interpreted as a reaction to modern technological advances which were entering Malta at the time. He attributes his interest in art both to his paternal grandmother, who enjoyed drawing as a hobby, as well as, his mother, who had an interest in arts and crafts. His mother was born Georgette Mifsud in Algeria of Maltese parents from Cospicua. She spoke exclusively in French for the first few years of his life, till she learned Maltese. The fact that Camilleri’s mother was a member of the important Maltese diaspora in the nineteenth century French Maghreb who returned to Malta, would have exposed the young Camilleri to a Francophile approach to art which he would fully develop during his studies in Paris. The close relationship he shared with his mother is regularly referenced in his work, he believed that she shaped the way he viewed the female gender in its entirety. His respect for his mother, which was sparked by his premature birth, two months before his expected due date, can be noted in his depiction of women as ‘life-givers’. This is further reflected in Camilleri’s portrayal of the subject of female fertility which is also repeated with notable frequency. His early birth created a particularly close bond between the artist and his mother, who saw her son’s survival as a miracle when he was born three months before his due date.

His father valued the education of Camilleri, and his ten siblings, ensuring that they received extra-curricular training in the areas which interested them. At the age of ten, his father sent Camilleri to private lessons with Dwardu Zammit, who is responsible for Camilleri’s earliest artistic training. Although Camilleri was still a young child, Zammit can be credited as Camilleri’s first introduction to the world of modern art and likely triggered the artist’s fondness for artistic freedom. According to Camilleri, Zammit was close friends with twentieth-century Maltese artist Giorgio Preca, a pioneer of modern art in Malta. The local art world was still dominated by a more traditionalist approach to art, however, Zammit introduced Camilleri to the foray of nineteenth and early twentieth century art, encouraging the young artist to study the history of art. With the financial support of his father who, according to Camilleri, ‘was always prompt to comply’, a number of artistic publications recommended by Zammit were purchased for the young artist. The earliest record of Camilleri’s work dates to 1932, aged ten, and was likely produced under the tutorship of Zammit. Portrait after van Dyck is a copy of a van Dyck painting, it shows the artist’s natural aptitude towards the visual arts and hints at the level of training he was being provided by Zammit (fig. 1). Zammit was known to place a strong emphasis on the history of art and this is evident in his receptive student. The early tutorship on modern art that Camilleri received from Zammit, was not favoured by his next tutor, Edward Caruana Dingli, (1876-1950) who was the head of the Malta Government School of Art.


Figure 1 Antoine Camilleri, Portrait after van Dyck 1932 Oil on Wood, 20×16.5cm

Camilleri entered the School of Art aged fourteen, and received guidance from various artists including Vince Apap (1909-2003), Carmel Attard Cassar (1909-1988), who taught art history, and Carmelo Mangion (1905-1997) apart from Caruana Dingli. Caruana Dingli is best known for his portraits of Malta’s upper echelons of society and his nostalgic, traditionalist genre scenes of everyday life. Students of his, recall that his teaching style was very strict and those who were under his tutelage were forced to emulate his style, anything remotely modern was erased. Nevertheless, Camilleri adopted key principles of art from the School of Art, which gave him a strong basis on which to build his artistic career. Caruana Dingli’s approach at the School of Art, which gave express importance to draughtsmanship, had a lasting impact on Camilleri’s own art who placed emphasis on drawing and line in his work.

However, inescapable hints of an artist who preferred modern art are very much evident. Perhaps indicative of the tunnel vision approach towards art which was exercised by Caruana Dingli, is an anecdote from an interview with Camilleri, conducted in the early nineties. Camilleri recalled the time when his then tutor noticed a Henry Moore book which he had brought with him to the School of Art. Caruana Dingli remarked, in a direct manner, ‘Mela, inti għandek toqba f’rasek?’, in reference to the impossibility of Moore’s stylised representation of the human figure, blatantly failing to understand the complexity of Moore’s work and undermining the young Camilleri.[1] Further to this point, in the same interview, Camilleri noted that they would often learn about modern art in secret, and in another interview, he credited his early knowledge of the recent history of Western art to his training with Zammit.

The conservative approach to teaching at the School of Art, was also strongly influenced by the Catholic Church who still held a powerful presence in the art world on the island. In fact, nude life drawing classes were barred from being taught at the School of Art. Students were forced to draw the human figure from plaster casts or semi-nude male figures. Josef Kalleya, tried to set up independent life drawing classes in his studio, however, they were shut down almost immediately.

His training at the School of Art was partially interrupted by the Second World War, when Camilleri was conscripted. He still attended lectures which were held with less frequency, but Caruana Dingli persevered throughout. There are only subtle references to the effects war had on the artist in his work, however, he did note that it taught him a sense of discipline and appreciation for life which he felt was missing prior to his war experience. He completed his training in Malta in 1947 after he previously missed out on a scholarship which would have sent the artist to Rome.

Losing the scholarship to go to study in Rome proved, in retrospect, to be very much to Camilleri’s advantage. Rome was still considered as the hub of artistic activity in mainland Europe by the Maltese, although it did not hold the same importance as it had previously. Students who studied in Rome received a similar academic experience to the one provided in Malta, with the exception that they now studied the nude and the course was full time. Despite not being awarded the scholarship, his father agreed to support his education once more, sending him to Paris, where the artist spent two years, between 1948-1950. Camilleri retained a basic knowledge of the French language, because of his Francophile mother, and this proved very useful since all the lectures were taught exclusively in French. He attended the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of Prof. Nicolas Pierre Unterstellar (1900-1968). Prof. Unterstellar was a stained-glass expert and it is under his guidance that Camilleri began to develop his signature simplified style. He said about his drawing ‘…jekk nista nagħmel sinjal wieħed aħjar milli nagħmel tlieta’, placing emphasis on the importance of simplicity.[2]

Camilleri maintains that Paris was still the bustling artistic hub that previously housed the great minds of the art world. However, by the 1950s, the centre of the art world had already begun to shift to the United States of America, where artists such as Jackson Pollock were already of particular note, while Andy Warhol was up-and-coming. Nevertheless, Paris remained the centre of the art world in Europe, and was still the home of artists such as Picasso. For Camilleri, Paris was undeniably the catalyst for his leap into exploring a modern idiom, he was now unshackled from the reigns of Caruana Dingli’s conservatism.

It is needless to say that Paris was Camilleri’s first opportunity to draw the nude from life classes, a basic principle in art which he continued to give importance to throughout his career. Also, his access to modern art was now not limited solely to print, he could study the works by important nineteenth and twentieth century artists in person.

When Camilleri returned to Malta, he had the aspirations to become an art educator with the hope of changing art education in Malta by introducing young artists to a freer approach to art. He found difficulty in finding work immediately and for a short period of time he helped his father in his shop. Eventually he found work as a teacher, and had a fruitful career in art education for over twenty years. On-going health issues that Camilleri experienced forced him into early retirement, however, he continued to accept visitors to his studio throughout his lifetime. There are two important things to note about Camilleri as a teacher. Firstly, while he emphasised the basics in art, he was adamant that students too can exercise a certain degree of artistic freedom within the remit of formal methods. He said about his teaching ‘…I made sure never to obstruct any of my students from expressing themselves in the way they felt most comfortable.’ The importance of these principles display the respect he retained for the teaching methods used by Edward Caruana Dingli while highlighting the underlying value he attached to artistic freedom. Secondly, he viewed his role as a teacher as a vocation, he did not treat it simply as a steady stream of income. He believed that teaching allowed him to keep abreast of the current trends in art through his students, which was perhaps a reaction towards the judgemental environment which surrounded him as a student at the School of Art.

Nonetheless, Camilleri faced certain issues as a teacher which were beyond his control. Art education in Malta was not given the same importance as other subjects, as a result he was not always provided with the adequate resources he needed. He recalled that he would have to prepare a bucket of water before every class while he taught in Ħamrun because, the room he was given did not have access to water. This highlights the distinct underappreciation of the arts in Malta, something which Camilleri was passionate about changing as an educator. He believed that the arts, be it visual art or other creative outlets, provided people with a holistic education which better enhanced their appreciation of the world around them.

His passion for changing perceptions of the visual arts in Malta, and more specifically modern art, is also evident in his participation in modern art groups. Opposition to modern art from the Church, as well as a general public who sympathised with a more traditional form of art, forced artists to form independent groups which aimed to promote modern art on the island. Camilleri formed part of a number of associations of particular note, namely the Artists’ Guild, the Modern Art Circle and Atelier ’56. They aimed to highlight the work of twentieth-century Maltese artists who were working in a modern idiom through regular exhibitions. The presence of these groups allowed Maltese artists to be featured in the 1958 Venice Biennale, where Camilleri exhibited Rock n’ Roll, 1956. These groups represented a form of peaceful protest by Camilleri and his contemporaries who wanted to assert their worth as artists, and establish a valuable conversation about art in Malta.

Camilleri had on-going issues with his health, he suffered from a heart attack at the age of fifty and underwent varying procedures in subsequent years to treat other issues. However, they were always issues that he was able to overcome with the help of medical aid and changes to his lifestyle. In fact, self-portraits depicting his illness are not characterised by suffering, shame or defeat. His final years, however, signified a change in the artist’s temperament. According to those who knew the artist well, the end of his life was marked by physical limitations which drew him away from his work and significantly affected the artist’s mood. He was described as melancholic, he possibly suffered from depression as a result of the limitations posed by a Parkinson’s diagnosis which eventually left him wheelchair bound. This was exacerbated when he was moved to St. Vincent de Paul Residence, facing a loss of dignity and independence coupled with the fact that he lacked the proper resources to produce his work effectively. It is undeniable that his quality of life was significantly affected in the last few years of his life. In fact, his health issues were exacerbated by the fact that he lived in the top floor apartment of a large block in Floriana, without a lift. Those who knew the artist intimately, recalled that he was forced to place a chair at every floor level because he did not have the energy to climb the stairs uninterrupted. He echoes the affects his Floriana home had on his health in a 1998 interview, where he laments about the situation which was not pleasurable for him. He explains ‘Meta għamilt il-by-pass mort noqgħod fi flat tal-kiri l-Imsida biex ma jkollix taraġ…[3] Antoine Camilleri died on the 23rd of November 2005, aged 83.

[1] Translation: ‘Are you telling me you have a hole in your head?’

[2] Translation: ‘If I can draw one line, it’s better than drawing three…’

[3] Translation: ‘When I had the by-pass done, I lived in a rented flat in Imsida to avoid the stairs…’

FigureDescription & Reference
Fig.1Figure 1 Antoine Camilleri, Portrait after van Dyck 1932 Oil on Wood, 20×16.5cm