Nude Portrait of Josette Caruana, 1984 by Antoine Camilleri was recently purchased from an auction at Belgravia Auction House, St. Julian’s in 2018.
We know the clay work formed part of a local art collection prior to its purchase, the details of which have not been disclosed.
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.
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). 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.’ 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. 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.’  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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
There are numerous publications about the artist, including a monograph titled Antoine Camilleri: His Life and Work published in 2006 by Joseph Paul Cassar. 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.
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.
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.
Appendix A – Biography of Antoine Camilleri (1922 -2005).
Appendix B – Catalogue of other Portraits of Josette Caruana by Antoine Camilleri.