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Carmelo Mangion: Remembering a Maltese master

Ahead of a retrospective exhibition of his works at Casino Maltese, artist and lecturer Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci recalls the life and works of Carmelo Mangion, a reclusive but pioneering artist on the Maltese scene. 

3 March 2015, 8:30am
Carmelo Mangion’s style may be classified as a prismatic-refracted style. It has no unitary categorical atmosphere, and no definition can do justice to his works. There are artists who go deeper and deeper into one deep trance whereas others like bees (to appropriate Steiner’s term) tend to go over onto a multitude of fields of different flowers. Picasso and Mangion form part of the latter.

If one for example takes The Valley and juxtaposes with his View of the Sea from the Window, one would immediately sense the deep poetic range Mangion succeeds in exploiting for his creativity. At the same time one senses a profound common denominator uniting all his complexity within one ‘oeuvre’. Together with Josef Kalleya Mangion was not only one of the founding fathers of Maltese modern art but was also a radical participant engaged in the 20th century messianic strive towards a new art language.

This new language which is reflected in his multileveled style concerned not only the introduction of a radical new subject-theme in the arts (industrialization) but also in a new analysis of art language itself. He disrupted the usual way of perceiving, he disrupted our established code of visual behavior, he jolted our ‘seeing’ and provoked our retina to get used to a novel way of seeing. This is/was harsh enough. In fact I strongly believe that this was one of the main reasons why he was made to feel alienated by the prevailing artistic trends of the time. The same can be said of Josef Kalleya.

The strength and power within Mangion’s paradoxical frightening modesty can be immediately felt and maybe also empathised with when one studies his relationship with the Great Masters. I do not recall any such elegiac and fanatical obsession with the thoughts and praxis of the Great Masters as that experienced by Mangion: Rembrandt, Halls, Moreau, Cèzanne, Rouault, Kandinsky, de Chirico, Ben Nicholson and others. And via all these Mangion ‘forces’ us to enter into his worldview and thus finding ourselves being hurled down an irreversible abyssal invitation onto modernity.

Awe confronting the Masters together with enough talent to provoke an original artistic statement makes the Maltese artist a unique one. This uniqueness is defined not only by his original choice of subject matter so radically novel for the times but also by a novel language and idiom. His confrontation with Cèzanne’s Bathers as well as his ‘Rouault’ series are quite at a distance from another Cèzannesque Maltese master, George Fenech. Whereas Fenech subdues, Mangion confronts and de-constructs.

His Methodist Church series amongst others is a fantasy symphony of composition, harmony and visual musicality. But not only. Here again Mangion is confronting Masters. In this series he, not only frontally tackles the German Expressionist aesthetic philosophy but at the same time he challenges the subtle and suppressed beauty of Sisley’s ‘Notre-dame de Moret’ and defies Monet’s speckled refractive translucency of the ‘Rouen Cathedral’ series.

Paradoxically Mangion succeeds in giving the pseudo-Gothic church an authentic gothic ambiance and aura.

Mangion’s relationship with the Great Masters is one of humble yet violent confrontation, a successful counterpoint.

Another form of power can be felt in Mangion’s ‘Deleuzian’ appropriation of the various sometimes contradictory idiomatic spectrum. He does succeed in this without even bordering on the dangerous path of cliché kitsch.

Appropriating an idiom is the monopoly of masters. And Mangion was certainly one. Appropriating an idiom without having the necessary historical, technical and philosophical knowledge and talent to do so would inevitably lead to a massive wave of mediocre kitsch art, something which unfortunately Malta is today being so unfairly for its history rubbished with.

Mangion’s appropriation is that of a gladiator. His Fauvist-Expressionist explosion of colour and thought reflects a deep Nietzschean ‘eternal return’, particularly in his ‘Pre-Historic series’, a milestone not only in Maltese art history.

His constructive methodology of his later works still more prove his unceasing Sisyphean struggle to delve deeper and deeper into the evolution of artistic language. His constructive structure uniting holistically various movements and idioms beautifully integrated within his ‘genetic’ artistry is indeed a rare phenomenon.

Carmelo Mangion – Visions of a Maltese Master will be on display at the Casino Maltese in Valletta from March 6 to 27 

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