Here’s looking at hue(s) | Father and daughter artists Giuseppe Cassar and Maria Rossella Dalmas

Warm reds, rich browns, deep greens. Colour plays a central role in the art of father and daughter Giuseppe Cassar and Maria Rossella Dalmas. And it was only thanks to art that father and daughter would communicate, as Veronica Stivala discovers

1 November 2016, 8:24am
Maria Rossella Dalmas
Maria Rossella Dalmas
It is probably the only washroom which doubles up as not only a studio, but as a mini-gallery too. Tubs, tubes, jars, paintbrushes, clips, clippers, slips of paper and photos spread from a small wooden working desk onto, yes, a washing machine (the light is flashing green). Above this eclectic mix of creative tools, and just where the tiled walls end, hang an equally varied array of framed paintings; a pensive dog, poppies with airy light, red petals and numerous portraits are just some of the works that adorn Maria Rossella Dalmas’ workshop/washroom in Msida. She quips that when she wants to be ‘cool’, she likes to list the first line of her address as The Washroom Studio. 

The window is open and a cool breeze flows in from a courtyard, populated with a fair share of perhaps a bit overgrown plants. This is an artist’s quarters through and through, not because it fits any specific qualities of such a space, but, quite the opposite, because it doesn’t, because it is so different.

Dalmas, a retired pharmacist, still sticks to her routine of painting at night when juggling between family and job made it difficult for her to follow a different timetable. She meets me to talk about her and her late father’s art, which have recently been featured in the third of the APS series: Two Generations of Maltese Artistic Families, which takes the form of both a book, as well as an exhibition that is running at the bank’s headquarters in Birkirkara. The last in its series, the collection pitches two sets of artists alongside their offspring, its publication featuring essays, critiques and interviews that offer a holistic personal and artistic insight into the artists’ lives.

The Two Generations of Maltese Artistic Families exhibition will be accompanied by a book
The Two Generations of Maltese Artistic Families exhibition will be accompanied by a book
Charismatic and personable, Dalmas lets me sit on her swivel painting chair as she walks me through the artistic life she was born into. “In my family,” she tells me, “you begin to draw before you write”. Hailing from a family of photographers from her father’s side, Dalmas has always known a life of painting and confesses how while others watch TV in the evening, her way of relaxing is to paint. But it was Mons. Fortunato Mizzi who gave this artist a more formal introduction into the art world when he commissioned some paintings for his headquarters – il-Moviment Azzjoni Soċjali – in Valletta.

Dalmas is known for her “local street scenes and dynamic landscape paintings that capture and express a very unique atmospheric ambiance” (Dr Louis Lagana’). Her other subjects range from flower and animal motifs, to figurative images. Indeed, verging on the impressionistic and post-impressionistic, Dalmas focuses on detail in terms of colour and shadows, rather than detailed representations. Her Cypress Trees, for instance, lends more than a nod towards Van Goghian swirly skies and fiery trees. “Colour, nothing but colour,” is what she wishes to bring across.

Bringing out a particularly bright and colourful landscape painting, and one she is fond of, Dalmas reveals, “my father didn’t like it”. While her father, the artist Giuseppe Cassar, was happy that one of his children used to paint, he was so critical of her work that “anyone else would have given up”, Dalmas concedes, adding that “if you think that I was privileged to have an artist for a father, then you would be wrong. He was too critical and did not exactly promote me”. 

She goes on to reveal how she “found that the only way to deal with him was to paint in different mediums to him – if he painted in watercolours, I should paint in acrylics”. Indeed, while the artists differ in style, their subjects are similar; both focusing on heritage and the identity of what is Maltese. One idiosyncratic painting of Dalmas is of the silhouettes of two women, their clothes blowing in the wind, flanked by the warm limestone of a towering church, and quite clearly, gossiping. 

“My father was a person of very few words,” she goes on. “We began to communicate only through art. The rest didn’t exist. If it wasn’t for ‘Pa, let me show you this’ we would not communicate,” she remembers.

The Two Generations of Maltese Families exhibition at APS Bank Centre, Birkirkara
The Two Generations of Maltese Families exhibition at APS Bank Centre, Birkirkara
What did Dalmas take most from her father? Composition, she answers assuredly. “When you take a photo you are already composing,” explains Dalmas. Known for his photography, Cassar was “always out with a camera”, and the latest model at that. “He’d go into the countryside with a priest friend and they used to walk around and take photos,” recalls Dalmas. He was so eager to see the fruit of his snaps, that he would cut the film in half in order to be able to develop the photos quicker. This love for photography is something that has also rubbed off on Dalmas, who loves snapping photos and then using them as inspiration for her paintings.

Dalmas reminisces about how particular her father was about showing “what is far to appear far”, using warm reds and oranges to show things that were near, and cold blues for objects in the distance. “That is what gives atmosphere to a painting. What looks far and what looks near. That is what he really considered of utmost importance,” she notes. 

While father and daughter are clearly very different in character, a similar love for painting unites them in their creative lives, and even in their relationship. “Art was his way of escaping,” Dalmas tells me, revealing an unsettling incident of how her father was given just 24 hours on his return from the war to decide on his career choice – to resume his studies in medicine or work in the family photographic studio. Just as this emerges in the latter part of our interview, Dalmas reveals that it was only towards the end of his life that his family found out more about his difficult past during WWII when he was stationed in Italy, but which definitely resulted in the manifestation of talented flair, and which, one way or another, was passed on to his daughter.

Two Generations of Maltese Artistic Families is on at the APS Bank Centre, Tower Street, Birkirkara until December 1. For more information log on to https://apsbank.com.mt/en/twogenerations