Catalogue: Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana by Antoine Camilleri

Figure 1 Antoine Camilleri, Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, 1984, Clay and Resin on Wood, 30.5 x 30.5, Signed and Dated (bottom right)

 

Provenance

Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, 1984 by Antoine Camilleri was recently purchased from an auction at Belgravia Auction House, St. Julian’s in 2018.[1]

We know the clay work formed part of a local art collection prior to its purchase, the details of which have not been disclosed.

Report Summary:

Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, 1984 is a clay and resin work by Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005), a pioneer of modern art in Malta. The sitter of the nude has been positively identified as Camilleri’s close friend and fellow artist, Josette Caruana. The square panel, which is signed and dated, encompasses his fondness for simplicity in design, his love for figure drawing, and his use of symbolism.

Figure 1 Antoine Camilleri, Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, 1984, Clay and Resin on Wood, 30.5 x 30.5, Signed and Dated (bottom right)

Report

Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, 1984 is a typical clay and resin work by one of Malta’s foremost twentieth-century artists, Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005) (fig 1). The work is signed ‘Camilleri’ and dated ‘1984’ in the bottom right hand corner of the work. The signature, a trademark for the artist, noted for its long linear ‘C’ which is complemented by the two ‘l’s which are present in the artist’s name (fig. 2). It was developed early in his career, being found in his work dating back to the 1940s while he was still a student at the Government School of Art (fig. 3).[2] The wooden board remains unframed, which is not atypical of Camilleri’s clay compositions and likely reflects the artist’s original intentions for the work.

The work represents a nude female figure, identified as Josette Caruana (fig. 1). She is represented in a non-descript setting, made up of geometric forms which only serve to emphasise the sitter. Her right foot is firmly planted on the ground, her arm appears to push her forwards, as she rests on her left leg. Caruana’s head is tilted towards the viewer, staring with confidence out at the viewer. Her pose exudes a sense of ambiguity, we are unsure whether she is about to rest or rise up.

Fig.2 Detail Antoine Camilleri, Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana

Figure 2 Detail from: Antoine Camilleri, Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana showing the artist’s trademark signature


Fig.3 Detail Antoine Camilleri, Self Portrait

Figure 3 Detail from: Antoine Camilleri, Self Portrait, 1940, Oil on Canvas, Signed and Dated (bottom right) showing the artist’s trademark signature being used as early as 1940

Line is a prominent feature in Camilleri’s work, one that can be traced back to his early artistic training. Between 1936 and 1945, he attended the Government School of Art in Valletta with Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950) who laid the groundwork for Camilleri’s emphasis on draughtsmanship. Caruana Dingli’s teaching style was very traditional and expected students to produce realistic representations of his sitters often scolding students who practiced in a modern idiom. Camilleri’s preference for economy of line was developed during his sojourn in Paris at the École Superieure des Beaux Arts where he studied under the guidance of Prof. Nicolas Unterstellar (1990-1967). Unterstellar was a stained-glass expert, a medium which requires the artist to distil the core features of his subject and likely informed Camilleri’s preference to this minimalist approach. Additionally, Unterstellar’s attitude to teaching allowed room for experimentation for the artist. It is in Paris where Camilleri first experienced a sense of artistic freedom which allowed him to find his own voice. The style he developed in Paris was diametrically opposed to the academic approach taught by Caruana Dingli. However, it is undeniable that draughtsmanship is still at the centre of his drawing technique. In fact, a collaborator of Camilleri’s, Lino Borg, recalled that during life drawing classes he would spend between fifteen to twenty minutes observing the figure in front of him before making the first mark on the page.[3] After closely analysing his subject, deciding exactly what he wanted to draw, he would begin the sketch, sometimes not lifting the pen from the page. What often appears to be a swift pen mark on a page, or a single incision in the clay was always carefully planned by Camilleri revealing a lengthy process of deep thought behind each work he produced.

Fig.4-Antoine-Camilleri,-Visit-to-the-Artist

Figure 4 Antoine Camilleri, Visit to the Artist, 1990s, Photograph, Paint, Clay and Resin on Wood, 65 x 30, Signed

Camilleri’s figures are characterised by their direct and minimalist representation. He is able to translate a complete image using a few choice lines which aim to trace the essence of the human figure. He said about his style, ‘…jekk nista nagħmel sinjal wieħed aħjar milli nagħmel tlieta’ clearly defining his economic use of line.[4] The incised lines follow the contours of the figure’s body which are complemented by her large afro-like hairstyle. The curvilinear forms used to portray her figure are more than a simple stylistic choice. It is part of the personal symbolic language which he developed, as Camilleri explained, ‘A circle for me means female and the square represents the male.’[5] He is making a conscious choice to represent women using curvilinear forms in contrast to the portrayal of the male figure which often uses geometric lines. The contrast is best exemplified in Visit to the Artist, 1990s (fig. 4).

Despite Our Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana not being concerned with in-depth and realistic details of the sitter, it is immensely easy to know who the figure herein is, if one takes the time to analyse Camillieri’s oeuvre and understand the friendship between the two.[6] A suitable comparative analysis which illustrates this precisely is the Visit to the Artist (1990s) by Camillieri (fig.4). According to Professor Joseph Paul Cassar’s expert attribution and study of this artwork, the subject records ‘a visit to Antoine’s studio by artist-friend Josette Caruana when she drew Antoine’s portrait in pastels in 1985.’ [7] It represents Caruana in Camilleri’s il-Kantina studio, standing beside a self-portrait of the artist who is trapped behind an easel. Caruana is portrayed holding a portrait she produced of Camilleri. The two works share the same identifying feature, the large afro-like hair sported by the female artist, which confirms her identity in Our Nude.

The portrait is produced using Camilleri’s unique clay and resin technique. A technique he developed through years of experimentation with various media. The process began with Camilleri collecting the clay from natural sources found in the North of the island, at Għajn Tuffieħa, very often with his children.[8] In doing so the clay would retain all the natural impurities that were typically removed from commercial clay, the impurities helped create texture in the final work but also meant that once dry it was very fragile. He chose Maltese clay purposefully because he liked the unique colour it retained, which was difficult to find in imported clay.[9] Once the clay was in the studio, he would spread a layer of clay on a wooden board, where he then incised the predetermined design. In a 1992 interview Camilleri explained that ‘you have to be very sure not to make too many alterations,’ because the clay is a sensitive medium.[10] When the composition was completed, he would allow the clay to air dry instead of firing in a kiln, which created the cracks in the final work. Air-drying the clay also added to the fragility of his work. With time he understood the medium more and thus, he was able to manipulate the cracks that occurred depending on the thickness of the clay layer.[11] In Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, Camilleri created a thin border of clay around the picture in order to ‘frame’ the portrait which is incised on a raised bed of clay. He would then add colour, in this case a yellow ochre and light brown, usually using glue in order for the colour to appear brighter.[12] Finally, he would coat the clay in resin for preservation ensuring that the clay does not flake. The technique used had a lot of significance for the artist. Camilleri explained in an interview that,

I like leaving it to crack. Cracks give you a lot of heat; I liken them to the pores of the human body. It is as if the painting itself breathes.[13]

 

The symbolism of the cracks was an important element in his work and the same sentiment is repeated in a 1999 interview where Camilleri said,

 

The cracks are like our pores. The work of art achieves a life of its own and it breathes.[14]

 

Every avenue of his work held personal meaning for the artist and aimed to engage the viewer to think beyond the subject matter. Prominent twentieth-century art critic and close friend of Camilleri, Emmanuel Fiorentino (1947 – 2008), points out that his work,

…breeds an attitude in the viewer which sets him thinking and which therefore extends the value of the artist’s message beyond the physical limits of the works themselves.[15]

 

Fiorentino emphasises the fact that in order to understand Camilleri’s work, one must understand the significance of particular elements which include the manipulation of the clay and his use of line which are prevalent in Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana.

 

The importance of Camilleri’s work in the development of Maltese modern art is clear from his presence at the recently re-opened National Museum of Fine Arts, MUŻA, Valletta. Camilleri has also been the subject of numerous exhibitions most notably the 1999 Bank of Valletta retrospective and the 2015 exhibition titled Celebrating Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005), held at Spazju Kreattiv, St. James Cavalier in Valletta.[16] Although his work was not universally accepted in Malta during his lifetime, he was selected to represent Malta for the island’s premier participation in the Venice Biennale, 1958.[17]

There are numerous publications about the artist, including a monograph titled Antoine Camilleri: His Life and Work published in 2006 by Joseph Paul Cassar.[18] There is an article dedicated to the artist in the important 1991 the anthology of essays titled Malta: Six Modern Artists. Finally, Camilleri is prominently featured in Joseph Paul Cassar’s, 2010 book Pioneers of Modern Art Vol. 1 which outlines the artists who shaped the twentieth century in Malta.[19]

Condition

The clay and resin work is in excellent condition. The nature of the technique used means that the unbaked clay has been preserved very well however, it does tend to attract dust which settles in incised design. On the reverse of the work are two pieces of cork glued to the bottom of the board which serve to create a barrier between the wall and the wooden board when hung.

Artemisia’s Recommendations

Due to the work’s excellent condition it requires no immediate intervention. It could however benefit from a cleaning exercise. Nevertheless, Artemisia always recommends minimal intervention and always advocates reversible, professional methods of restoration. In this case we strongly recommend preventative measures as part of proper conservation where possible. Additionally, we advise for the print to be exhibited inside a controlled environment which receives minimal sunlight and cleaned infrequently. Cleaning should only be carried out gently with a dry feather duster.

Valuation

Appendix A – Biography of Antoine Camilleri (1922 -2005).[20]

Read More

Appendix B – Catalogue of other Portraits of Josette Caruana by Antoine Camilleri[24].

Fig.4-Antoine-Camilleri,-Visit-to-the-Artist

Figure 4 Antoine Camilleri, Visit to the Artist, 1990s, Photograph, Paint, Clay and Resin on Wood, 65 x 30, Signed


Fig.7-Antoine-Camilleri,-Gothic-Bride

Antoine Camilleri, Gothic Bride, 1999, Clay, Resin and Metallic Paint on Wood, 61 x 56 xm, Signed and Dated


Fig.8 Antoine Camilleri, Self-Portrait with Josette Caruana

Antoine Camilleri, Self-Portrait with Josette Caruana, 1986, Clay and Resin on Wood, Signed and Dated

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[1] The work was purchased on 10th April 2018 and was listed as lot number 1079.

[2] For more information about Camilleri’s artistic training please refer to Appendix A.

[3] Fsadni, Maria Eileen Repetitive Self-Representation: Originality in the Work of Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005) M.A. Dissertation, University of Malta, 2017, 48.

[4] Translation: ‘…if I can do one line it’s better than three.’ As quoted in: Fsadni, 2017, 9.

[5] Cassar, Joseph Paul 1999 ‘Antoine Camilleri: His Life and Works’ Times of Malta, Wednesday 23 Jun 1999, 21-22, 21.

[6] Josette Caruana was a close friend to Antoine Camilleri and she wrote her thesis about the artist while studying in Rome. Caruana, Josette 1997 Alla Ricerca del Simbolo Perduto.

[7] Cassar, Joseph Paul 2006 Antoine Camilleri: His Life and Works Malta: Publikazzjojonijiet Indipendenza, 199.

[8] Fsadni, 2017, 88.

[9] Fsadni, 2017, 23.

[10] Aquilina, J. 1992 ‘Meeting People’ Sunday Times of Malta 15 November 1992, 30.

[11] Cassar, 1999, 22.

[12] Fsadni, 2017, 23-24.

[13] Aquilina, 1992, 30.

[14] Cassar, 1999, 22.

[15] Fiorentino, Emmanuel 1991 ‘Antoine Camilleri (1922-)’ in Malta: Six Modern Artists Fenech, Victor ed. Malta: Gutenberg Press, 125-149, 126.

[16] A catalogue of works was published in conjunction with the 1999 exhibition: Fiorentino, Emmanuel ed., 1999 Bank of Valletta Art Exhibitions: Antoine Camilleri – Frank Portelli Malta: Bank of Valletta plc.

[17] In a 1992 interview Camilleri revealed that, ‘since we were modern and studied abroad, we were unfairly considered to be revolutionary.’ Referring to other artists who practiced in a modern idiom and were often excluded from gaining commissions. Aquilina, 1992, 30.

[18] Cassar, 2006.

[19] Cassar, Joseph Paul 2010 Pioneers of Modern Art Vol. 1 Malta: Publikazzjojonijiet Indipendenza.

[20] This biographical account was adapted from Fsadni, Maria Eileen 2017 Repetitive Self-Representation: Originality in the Work of Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005) M.A. Dissertation, University of Malta, 4-11.

[24] This catalogue is by no means an extensive one, it has gathered work which has been published or recently exhibited.

FigureDescription & Reference
Fig.1Antoine Camilleri, Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, 1984, Clay and Resin on Wood, 30.5 x 30.5, Signed and Dated
Fig.2Antoine Camilleri, Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana showing the artist’s trademark signature
Fig.3Antoine Camilleri, Self Portrait, 1940, Oil on Canvas, Signed and Dated (bottom right) showing the artist’s trademark signature being used as early as 1940
Fig.4Antoine Camilleri, Visit to the Artist, 1990s, Photograph, Paint, Clay and Resin on Wood, 65 x 30, Signed
Fig.5Antoine Camilleri, Portrait after van Dyck 1932 Oil on Wood, 20×16.5cm
Fig.6Antoine Camilleri, Visit to the Artist, 1990s, Photograph, Paint, Clay and Resin on Wood, 65 x 30, Signed

Published in: Cassar, Joseph Paul 2006 Antoine Camilleri: His Life and Works Malta: Publikazzjojonijiet Indipendenza

Fig.7Antoine Camilleri, Gothic Bride, 1999, Clay, Resin and Metallic Paint on Wood, 61 x 56 xm, Signed and Dated

Published in: Fiorentino, Emmanuel ed., 1999 Bank of Valletta Art Exhibitions: Antoine Camilleri – Frank Portelli Malta: Bank of Valletta plc.

Fig.8Antoine Camilleri, Self-Portrait with Josette Caruana, 1986, Clay and Resin on Wood, Signed and Dated

Exhibited in: Celebrating Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005), 2015, Spazju Kreattiv, St. James Cavalier, Valletta.

Aquilina, J. 1992 ‘Meeting People’ Sunday Times of Malta 15 November 1992, 30

Caruana, Josette 1997 Alla Ricerca del Simbolo Perduto

Cassar, Joseph Paul 1999 ‘Antoine Camilleri: His Life and Works’ Times of Malta, Wednesday 23 Jun 1999, 21-22

Cassar, Joseph Paul 2006 Antoine Camilleri: His Life and Works Malta: Publikazzjojonijiet Indipendenza

Cassar, Joseph Paul 2010 Pioneers of Modern Art Vol. 1 Malta: Publikazzjojonijiet Indipendenza

Fiorentino, Emmanuel 1991 ‘Antoine Camilleri (1922-)’ in Malta: Six Modern Artists Fenech, Victor ed. Malta: Gutenberg Press, 125-149

Fiorentino, Emmanuel ed., 1999 Bank of Valletta Art Exhibitions: Antoine Camilleri – Frank Portelli Malta: Bank of Valletta plc.

Fsadni, Maria Eileen Repetitive Self-Representation: Originality in the Work of Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005) M.A. Dissertation, University of Malta, 2017

Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005): was a Maltese artist and he is considered to be one of the foremost pioneers of modern art in Malta. His early training was carried out with Dwardu Zammit before he attended the Malta Government School of Arts in Valletta, under the tutorship of Edward Caruana Dingli. Between 1948-1950 he attended the École Superieure des Beaux Arts, in Paris where he studied under Prof. Nicolas Unterstellar a stained-glass expert. He is best known for his repetitive self-representation, representation of the female figure as well as his depiction of Maltese culture and heritage. Camilleri experimented a lot with various media and developed a unique technique which used local clay that was encased in resin. The artist also produced lino prints, oil paintings and affixed found objects to his work using resin.

Composition: is the placement or arrangement of visual elements in a work of art, particularly a painting. 

Controlled Environment: is a space that buffers external environs, temperature fluctuations. Artworks in a controlled environment should be exhibited in stable humidity and temperatures and kept away from direct sunlight and high intensity lighting.

Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950): was a twentieth-century Maltese artist best known for his portraits of the upper echelons of society and nostalgic genre scenes of everyday life in Malta. He studied under the tutelage of Giuseppe Calì (1846-1930), one of Malta’s foremost 19th century artists. Caruana Dingli was also an art educator serving as the Head of the Government School of Art in Valletta, tutoring some of Malta’s most prominent artists including Antoine Camilleri, Esprit Barthet and Emvin Cremona among others.

Emmanuel Fiorentino (1947-2008): was a Maltese art critic and scholar during the twentieth century. He studied History of Art at the University of London and continued his studies at the University of Malta and the Augustinian Institute. Fiorentino contributed to The Sunday Times of Malta from 1975 to his death. He published several notable books Willie Apap (1918-1970), Giuseppe Calì (1846-1930) and wrote a number of essays in Malta: Six Modern Artists.

Nicolas Unterstellar (1890-1967): was a French artist and stained-glass expert in the twentieth century. Unterstellar was an art teacher at the École Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris where he tutored Maltese twentieth-century artist Antoine Camilleri (1922-2005).