Artemisia Fine Arts & Antiques Ltd would like to take this opportunity to thank the following:
Mrs. Mary Louise Agius, Anton Agius’ wife, for her hospitality, intimate storytelling, generosity and support for her husband’s legacy.
Mr. Peter Paul Ciantar, Anton Agius’ dearest friend, for his undying support in all endeavours concerning Anton Agius and his willingness to share key information essential to this essay.
Mr. Stanley Mangion, ex. Mosta Mayor, for his incredibly helpful attitude and help in documenting Agius’ life and work, as well as his willingness to meet and show us the bozzetti mentioned in this essay.
Mr. Christoper Magro, for his contribution to academic literature and study on Anton Agius alongside Mr. Stanley Mangion.
Mr. Matthew Micallef, artist, for helping us understand and articulate fibreglass production technique.
Anton Agius (1933 – 2008)
Sketch for the Commemorative Monument dedicated to Youth, Naxxar
Ink on Paper
38.6 x 33.3 cm (framed)
Signed, in pencil (centre, bottom)
Artist collection, 2000
Purchased from Obelisk Auctioneers & Valuers on 24th February 2018 by Artemisia Fine Arts & Antiques
The Sketch for the Commemorative Monument dedicated to Youth, Naxxar is a small pen on paper drawing by Anton Agius (1933-2008), a leading pioneer of Modern Maltese sculpture. The signed and dated sketch represents monument which was meant to be unveiled in the year 2000 as seen in Fig. 1. The Sketch is a key work in the study of Agius’ later public monuments and sheds further light on his artistic thought process and manner of execution. Thanks to the captions written down by Agius, we are fully able to understand his vision for the finished monument.
Anton Agius’ artistic education started early on in his life (aged 9) under the supervision of Mr. Samuel Bugeja. He then attended classes at the Malta Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce for two years under the tutelage of Mr. Ignatius Cefai and then proceeded to attend the School of Art for four years where prominent Modern Artistic pioneers like Emvin Cremona, Vincent Apap and George Borg taught. Borg was Master of Sculpture at the time and served as an influential tutor to Agius. Whilst abroad, Agius followed prestigious artistic programmes at the St. Martin’s School of Art, the Accademia di Belle Arti, the Scuola del Nudo dell’ Associazione Artistica Internazionale and the Scuola delle Arti Ornamentali. This extensive educational artistic training as well as his persistence to always better himself awarded Agius a National Diploma in Design, Modelling, Sculpture and Letter Cutting in 1961.  Education aside, Agius’ work speaks for itself. The spectrum of media employed and styles and subjects explored is vast; with plates X, Y, Z & O being a selection of works that we feel are testaments of his genius.
Anton Agius belongs to a generation of artists who were to leave a lasting impact on Maltese Modern Art and Contemporary artists alike. This generation was, as Dominic Cutajar rightly stated:
A generation which, while conscious by its past training and its home environment of being heir to the old artistic tradition, at the same time was destined to have its conscience ruffled by exposure to the magnetic pull of Modern sensibility.
The context of Modern Art in Malta changed dramatically during the artist’s lifetime. He lived to see Modern Art rejected, accepted and develop throughout his career and was one of a small group of artists who acted as catalysts for this change. Significant advancements were made after World War II when ‘some of the very first novel ideas were introduced’ most of which reflected an appreciation for European Modern Art, exemplified by the art of Carmelo Mangion, Frank Portelli, Esprit Barthet, George Fenech and even Anton Agius. Unfortunately prior to the 1950s, Modern Art in Malta was marginalised to the extent that Modern tendencies were very slow to enter the local artistic scene resulting in a delayed appreciation of Modern Art by the general public. The perseverance of such artists is as equally fascinating as their art. Despite such hostility, these artists managed make a clear break from traditional artistic practice in Malta, as Peter Seracino Inglott termed it: a break from the ‘provincial cocoon’.
It is in this context that Agius’ art developed and eventually flourished. His recognition as one of Malta’s leading sculptors was only made possible by his efforts and the efforts of the fellow artists who fought to establish a Modern Art group in Malta with the hopes of familiarising the public with Modern Art. After a lifetime of contributing to the Maltese sculptural and artistic scene, Agius is finally being recognised as one of the principal twentieth century Maltese artists. His countless prestigious awards are testament to this; Agius was elevated to a Knight of the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem in 2002 and later made a Member of the National Order of Merit in 2005.
Agius’ revolutionary approach to sculpture was undoubtedly influenced by the British titan Henry Moore, who endorsed the notion that sculpture is first and foremost a public art which is intended to capture the soul of a society and create a symbiosis between the artist and the public.    Consequently, Agius’ prolific oeuvre as well as his understanding of the relationship between society and art is unparalleled. His public monuments, especially those dealing with politics or social change and turmoil, respond to society’s ‘ongoing fragmentation’ and in turn play a direct role in the recognition of such changes. Agius’ public monuments are known to capture the ‘progress of society’s working class’ and particularly ‘commemorate instances of heroism and patriotism in Maltese history’, such as the Sette Giugno Monument Fig.2, Freedom Monument Fig. 3 and the Worker’s Monument Fig.4.
Agius’ executed public monuments, such as the ones mentioned above, are often expressionist and make use of figurative realism which was adopted as the primary mode of communicating the intended narrative to the masses. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci describes his public art as bordering on the philosophy of Socialist Realism and within a structure which was both patriotic and spiritual’. He aimed to commemorate the suffering and sacrifice of the toiling masses, but did not seek to fully commit himself to its political beliefs and associations. He turned to Social Realism as a mode of expression and infused it with his need for figurative representation in order to be understood by the Maltese public. The understanding of his work by the public was of the greatest importance to Agius who declared ‘I still love Modern Art but I must say that I have put it aside, freed myself of it… the public could not understand my message… I want my life to be understood through art beyond my life here on earth’.
The realised Monument to the Youth Fig. 5 found in Triq il-Ħtajriet, Mosta, formally known as the Mafkar iz- Żgħażagħ varies from the Sketch in Artemisia’s collection considerably. The design of the structure is no longer tall and slender but cylindrical and of a shorter stumpier composition (as the bozzetto). A square base acts as the foundation of the whole structure and is surrounded by a small garden area. The monument’s central fibreglass relief is signed and dated to 2001 at the bottom Fig. 6. Two plaques commemorate the occasion of the monument’s unveiling and list the members involved throughout the commission and technical set-up. One plaque reads ‘Gnejna miftuha illum 17 ta’ Frar 2008, Sindku Dr. Paul Chetcuti Caruana M.D. b’ kollaborazzjoni tal- Kunsillier Paul Agius’ whilst the other lists Mr. Stanley Mangion and the initiator of the project and Anton Agius as the sculptor, amongst other names.
The style in which the monument was executed results in a visually more solid and imposing sculptural group than initially planned. This is mainly due to the adoption of low relief sculpture attached to a stone cylindrical base instead of the expressively dynamic figures meant to occupy the central space shown in the unique Sketch and further emphasized in the bozzetto. This flat representation of figures Fig.7 does not fully reflect Agius’ vision, love of sport and youthful activity whereas the initial idea fully explored in the Sketch and the bozzetto is far more dynamic and complex in composition.  Moreover, the relief sculpture is not executed in bronze, but in fibreglass, a material which is distinctly different in both technical working process and finishing.
Agius could have opted for this material for more than one reason; fibreglass is a relatively modern material when compared to bronze and far less costly, making it the preferred material for patrons seeking to decrease spending costs. The monument, bozzetto and sketch together are integral in the understanding of the history of public art commissions in Malta. The request for the monument was made by Mr. Stanley Mangion, Mosta’s mayor at the time and an ardent admirer of Agius’ work. Mr. Mangion commissioned various works by the artist, including the monument in question and the accompanying sketch discussed in this essay. It was Mr. Mangion’s great admiration for the artist that inspired him to leave the social theme of the commemorative sculpture up to Agius. In turn the artist presented Mr. Mangion with this Sketch and proposed the subject of Youth. After the agreed upon changes were made, Agius then presented a bozzetto for the Monument to the Youth.
The work discussed in this essay titled a Sketch for the Commemorative Monument dedicated to Youth, Naxxar was produced during the Agius’ later years, when his importance as an artist had already been solidified. The sketch is vertically composed and executed in ink on paper with several notes listed by the artist whilst working. As seen in Fig. 1, Agius labelled his Sketch with terms indicative of his preferred media for the finished sculpture as well as intended technique which in this case would have been bronze alto rilievo, meaning bronze relief. Due to the above mentioned written terms that label the various sculptural elements in the sketch, we know that Agius was considering different media such as stone, concrete, bronze and fibreglass for the full scale monument. If executed in accordance with the specifications written down by Agius, the monument would have comprised of a rectangular stone or concrete base Fig. 8 which supports the middle section of monument made of up of converging figures executed in bronze or fibreglass Fig. 9. This mid- section was to be followed by an additional stone or concrete rectangular slab meant to display commemorative wording to further convey the monument’s message. In Sketch for the Commemorative Monument dedicated to Youth, Naxxar the figures are placed in a manner that hints at their intended position had the monument been executed. The figures were meant to move beyond the confines of the monument’s base and interact with the public space, a scheme often employed by the artist as seen in his Sette Giugno Monument Fig.2. This is most evident by the reclining figure whose head and right arm fall outside of the monument’s base Fig.2.1 in silent agony adding further shock to an already grave subject.
The bozzetto Fig. 10 that accompanies the Monument to the Youth is more reminiscent of the Sketch than its full size realised counterpart. The overall composition is still cylindrical as opposed to the rectangular tall plinth shown in the Sketch, however, the figures are designed in a manner more in line with his original idea. The figures are in high relief, so much so that they extend far beyond the confines of the cylindrical base of the bozzetto. The figures intertwine and overlap with energetic and youthful movement and further establish Agius’ ability to masterfully model in bronze even on such smaller scale. The cylindrical base which supports the figures is made of stone, as was originally intended by the artist.
Since the work in question is a sketch, it is important to consider the role of the sketch and its development in art history in order to fully realise the importance of Agius’s Sketch in this essay. The act of sketching and drawing has a vast and intriguing history. Although sketching has been utilised since the earliest recorded cave paintings, there have been instances in art history where drawing excelled to the extent that it became almost as important as any other visual art form. This can be exemplified by the great importance given to drawing during the late fourteenth century, where ‘artists began to use paper more [often] to explore their ideas for the design of paintings and sculptures, rather than simply to copy or record finished works of art’. This increased practice of preparing a composition in pen and ink, aids the artist in formulating his initial idea prior to involving any other material. The act of sketching took a further step during the nineteenth century with the development of the esquisse; a small- scale work often executed rapidly ‘intended to preserve an artist’s première pensée, or initial conception of a subject’. The esquisse allowed for a faster execution of lines and a freer handling of colour in order to create energetic and vibrant works even if on a small scale. In brief, drawing or the act of sketching can be seen as the beginning of all things, a point from which the artist, in this case Agius, enabled himself to fully realise the potential of his idea for the Monument to the Youth and effectively translate it to others.
Agius’ choice of media is also important to note because it sheds further light on the monument’s creation and the conditions behind its commission. The artistic method of working in fibreglass is very distinct when compared to any other medium that Agius employed throughout his career. This distinction is most evident when analysing the meticulous process required for such a medium. In a monument like the Mafkar, the sculptural group in relief had to have been created separately and then assembled upon completion by mixing fibre particles and resin to create fibre stock. This will act as a binding agent for the pieces as well as a sealant in order to avoid any water entering and damaging the sculptural relief later on. The fibreglass figures are flatter and do not intertwine as well with one another as they appear in the bozzetto. The youths, like in the bozzetto, still take part in various youthful activities such as football, dancing, and playing music Fig. 11. The monument’s narrative is only fully realised once the viewer walks around the cylindrical sculpture and identifies the various activities, unlike in the bozzetto and the sketch, where the youthful figures are rendered so dynamic that the viewer would have immediately grasped the intended meaning.
Since the commission for the Youth Monument changed, the silhouette initially planned for the Monument to the Youth as seen on the Sketch was reworked to serve another monument, specifically the Monument to the Maltese Missionaries Fig.12 found in the Targa Gap roundabout, limits of Mosta. The Missionary monument and a bozzetto which also survives, make use of the tall and slender motif. The motif of a fibreglass or bronze relief incorporated within a plinth is something which Agius made use of on more than one occasion. Examples to note are the Monument to Mgr De Piro in Rabat and the St. Joseph, also in Rabat.