The reduced masterpieces of Emvin Cremona

In what is something of an inaugural event for the new exhibition space, the curator for the Malta Postal Museum Lara Bugeja speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about an upcoming exhibition at the venue, which will showcase the stamp designs by the landmark Maltese painter Emvin Cremona

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
14 September 2016, 7:14am
Emvin Cremona
Emvin Cremona
What would you say is the key historical interest in showcasing this particular series of works by Emvin Cremona?

Emvin Cremona needs no introduction. Born in 1919, he was to establish himself as one of Malta’s leading twentieth century artists becoming an accomplished painter of landscapes, church decoration, stamp design and abstracts. In fact, many of us are familiar with his large scale works in a number of churches around Malta and Ta’ Pinu in Gozo. 

In 1938 he gained entry into the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome where he was to study until the outbreak of war in 1940.  He then continued his studies in London in 1945-46 followed by a few months in Paris. He returned to Malta where he started to teach and slowly made his name as a formidable painter. His style developed from the Modernism he encountered in Rome followed by two decades of Impressionistic landscape painting moving steadily towards Abstraction.  Once in Malta, he began to dominate church art – making a bold departure from the Baroque to cautiously incorporate monumental poses and broad compositions.

The key historical interest in exhibiting this series of works is that they belong to a lesser known aspect of his oeuvre – that of philately. For a period spanning 23 years Cremona collaborated with the Department of Post to design some of Malta’s finest stamps. To launch the temporary exhibition program, the museum has brought out of the postal archives some of his finest artworks that relate to stamp production. 

From his first set in 1957 to his last in 1980, Cremona was responsible for 62 sets of stamps, comprising more than 170 different original designs and his involvement in the design of Maltese postage stamps is considered as the “golden era” of Maltese philately.  The XV Anniversary of the George Cross Award issued in April 1957 launched Cremona’s career as a designer of stamps. The designs for this set are bold and colourful showing two war scenes and a personification of Malta. His designs for Christmas 1967 are hugely innovative, introducing a triptych format within a trapezoidal shape and a healthy dose of gold. Highlights include the IV Centenary of the Great Siege and the 1965 Definitive Set.

Inspired by everyday life, Cremona’s designs cover a wide range of subjects including historical events and personalities.  His style was so particular, that to quote one admirer “(his) stamps have reached a stage when the name of his nation ‘MALTA’ could easily be removed from the stamp layout and it would yet still be recognised as a Malta stamp.”  We are incredibly fortunate to house such a collection.

Accompanying the exhibition is a short audio visual on Emvin Cremona showing him as a student in Rome, working at his easel and with another artistic giant – Victor Pasmore.  There is also a charming self portrait on loan for the duration of the exhibition.

What would you say is the appeal of stamp design artworks over more conventional paintings? Would you say that stamps hold a firmer grip over people’s memory, because they are there to be ‘used’ and often commemorate key events in miniature, as it were?

For many of us there’s a definite interest in seeing the process of stamp design unfold.  Pretty much like taking a sketch or bozzetto and watching it grow into a finished painting.  With stamp design the reverse happens – a series of sketches morph into something infinitely smaller than the original. The design therefore needs to have a simplicity and clarity that lends itself well to small scales. In bygone days designing and printing stamps was a lengthy and laborious process – today it’s much faster and streamlined.  These diminutive artworks of Cremona’s are therefore the first tentative steps in the process of bringing a stamp to life. 

Of course, stamps were readily available and used not purely for postage but also revenue purposes. However stamps definitely hold a firm grip over people’s memory as a large number of them are issued (still today) to commemorate important events such as Independence and persons of note. Many of our visitors are collectors of stamps or have inherited stamp collections from elderly parents and relatives. It has been satisfying to see that these artworks have triggered so many varied memories for a number of them.

The Malta Postal Museum is a newly-opened space that engages with postal history through various multimedia displays
The Malta Postal Museum is a newly-opened space that engages with postal history through various multimedia displays
What kind of showcase will the exhibition serve for the Malta Postal Museum? Will it help people acclimatise to this new space?

The history of the Maltese Islands speaks for itself and the fact that the post is inextricably linked to this rich and varied history certainly makes it all the richer. The Cremona exhibition showcases just a small aspect of our postal history but one that we are extremely proud of. 

The idea of launching our temporary gallery space with an exhibition on the philatelic artworks of Emvin Cremona was to showcase these little known designs but primarily to attract lovers of art, history and Melitensia who may not necessarily have an interest in philately. This approach fits into the wider concept of having the museum not only serve as a postal museum but also as an arts hub and a venue where culture in its widest definition can be enjoyed. We are also showing a collection of black and white photographs taken by Richard Ellis – that acute observer of late 19th century Malta.

Our investment in multimedia is making a difference to our visitors – letters, stories and stamps are brought to life at the touch of a button.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, the post has touched all our lives and a wonderful audio visual documentary screened at the museum testifies to the longevity and power of the Post.

The new space that is the Malta Postal Museum is an extremely versatile one. We kept some traditional aspects of the building but have successfully ‘married’ the old to the new.  The displays are cutting edge and the varied use of technology within the museum space makes for a thoroughly interactive experience. I think people are surprised with what they see throughout the museum. There’s always a sense of “Wow! I never knew this existed”.  We are keen that the museum actually serves society and that it is a place of noise and enjoyment.  As a cultural hub, we encourage artists, actors and musicians to make use of our space. We have a few interesting activities around the Science in the City and Notte Bianca weekend and look forward to welcoming many new faces to the museum.

What’s in store for the Museum’s near future?

As the newest kid on the block, there’s plenty to do. We’re slowly establishing ourselves as a cultural hub in the centre of a city surrounded by culture. We have a state of the art audio-visual room, two galleries for temporary exhibitions and an amazing rooftop terrace which we use for our own projects and which we also make available to third parties. We are in contact with a number of artists and the coming year will see new and diverse exhibitions in our space.

Valletta’s cultural scene has grown to be a vibrant and attractive feature and the city attracts a steady stream of visitors from different walks of life.  We are plugging into the cultural scene and will host a number of new and innovative events collaborating with entities to bring Valletta and our space to life.

We are pioneering an outreach program that will make our collection accessible to people who would not normally visit museums or be interested in visiting. Most importantly, we are collaborating with specific age groups within schools and offering a not-to-be-missed museum experience. We have linked our collection to certain aspects of the National Curriculum to offer teacher and class groups a valuable learning experience. Children can dress up as postmen and role play, design their own stamps and complete our ‘fun’ sheets which explore the museum’s collection in an informative but fun way.  We have piloted this project with small groups over the summer months and plans are in hand to roll this out in October, initially targeting a small number of schools and then adopting a wider and more inclusive approach.

I can announce, we have an up-coming exhibition of St. Paul which will use Malta’s rarest stamp as its starting point and which will be launched to coincide with the feast of St. Paul on February 10.  This forms part of our programme of events for the coming year. 

The Emvin Cremona exhibition will be on display from September 16. The Malta Postal Museum is located on 135, Archbishop Street, Valletta. For more information, log on to: http://www.maltapostalmuseum.com/

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...