Far as the eye can see | Jesmond Vassallo

We speak to painter Jesmond Vassallo about his self-explanatory exhibition – entitled ‘Landscapes’ – taking place at Opus 64 Galerie, Sliema, until April 30.

How has your relationship with the Maltese landscape evolved throughout your career?

The earliest landscapes which I still have from my early works were rooftops. The works bear no date on them, but these rooftops are from 1996–1998 approximately.

I was inspired by Esprit Barthet’s works. I got to know the artist at his summer residence in Xemxija, through a very good family friend – the late ceramist John Vella Critien (1945-2007). Later on I was also invited to visit Barthet’s studio in Swieqi. I still regret not purchasing a nude work of his, which had haunted me! 

My first attempts at Maltese landscapes were austere works, not very bright in colour, and bearing references to Cubist works. The subjects of these early works were the cluttered visions from a Maltese rooftop, thus representing a lot of housing, bricks, concrete, several aerials and wires, and a slice of sky.

Since then I continued to study and focus mainly on fine arts: ceramics initially, then drawing, and history of art, which led me to read for a Bachelor of Arts in History of Art at the University of Malta. Following my completion of this degree in 2000, I pursued my studies in Fine Arts at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrara, Italy. 

My approach to Maltese landscapes has changed since I started to filter and be stricter with what to represent. More nature, architecture and colour came in slowly. Composition varies greatly with each work, and I think I am freer now, because drawing permits me to do this.

My landscapes now attempt to be more descriptive than merely presenting the scenery and the actual physical place. I feel each work is a very personal vision of the landscape, and not a realistic rendering.

Here I would like to quote a painter I really admire and love, Balthus (1908-2001), who claimed that “to paint is not to represent, but to penetrate, to go to the heart of the secret, to work in a way to reflect the interior image.” Another quote which inspires me from him is the following “only tradition is revolutionary”, hence my choice to treat what may be deemed a “traditional” subject for this exhibition at Opus 64.

My current style has changed quite a lot from that of my earlier works.

This would not have been possible without my studies in Italy, which allowed me to closely observe the works of both old and contemporary masters. Cultivating friendships with other fellow painters both locally and abroad has also played a crucial role in developing a fierce sense of criticism and of higher standards in the quality of my painting.

How would you describe your artistic relationship with Pawl Carbonaro?

I instantly felt a deep fascination with Carbonaro since I first met him in 1998. This happened during a study tour, which consisted of ten days of travelling in Milan with the History of Art Department of the University of Malta, as part of a course credit.

During this study visit abroad, we had on-site lectures at several artistic spots. Rising early in the morning was part of our daily routine to allow us students to discover as many treasures as we could within the allotted time. With hindsight such discipline instilled in me a sense of art appreciation and criticism along with a passion for the roots of painting and sculpture.

All of the students present immediately felt a deep connection with Pawl Carbonaro, who accompanied us on this journey. Once, in a half-joking manner (from the back of the coach where he used to stay), he suggested to the head of department to let us sleep more! Carbonaro’s compassionate and humane qualities have always been very strong.

From then onwards he had gained all the students’ sympathy. My friendship with him grew stronger.

Pawl was good at cracking a joke, and all students and even our lecturers used to be charmed by his character. I never stopped visiting Carbonaro’s studio since I first got to know him.

He is always eager to have me keep him informed with my developments; we have even travelled together and one of my career highlights was assisting him in printing his sublime acquatint etchings. I can say that we are very good friends indeed.

I feel deep admiration for and fascination with his works. I admire the risks and guts he had to choose to make a living just from painting. I admire his technique, knowledge and versatility in all the materials he chooses to work with, be they mosaics, acquatints or oils. Like Balthus, Pawl Carbonaro too lives an artistic faith that has its roots in tradition.

When executing a work Carbonaro has respect for what has already been carried out in the art world: this he shows in even his most violent and abstract of works. His work, while steeped in sheer craftsmanship, is pure poetry, fresh and without any rhetoric. 

What kept you returning to the Mosta Bridge, as a subject?

If I’m allowed to joke about it, I’d say the fact that my restorers did not finish their restoration job on my chalet in Rossinière.                           

This view of the Mosta Bridge is what I see from my studio everyday; it is my working place. I spend a lot of my time here, working on drawings from life, studying old masters, working on etchings, priming and stretching canvases, painting and modelling in clay.

I started painting this view of the bridge overlooking Wied il-Ghasel in Mosta since I moved from my old studio some five years ago. These works are a very small selection of ideas inspired by the view from my current studio. Other hundreds of drawings await their turn to be taken as starting points for new works. I am planning some 1 metre by 1 metre landscapes of Malta, a format utilised in Gustav Klimt’s landscapes, an artist whom I also admire and love.

From here, apart from the bridge, I can see Mosta’s industrial area, the valley, Santa Margerita, and a slice of Bahar ic-Caghaq sea in the distance. From my studio I can also notice and see how the weather changes abruptly. On the horizon sea vessels and sailing boats occasionally appear; birds are present all the time. It is a fascinating view, which I never get bored of and never cease to draw inspiration from.

Have landscapes in other countries influenced you too? How do these compare to the Maltese scene?

When travelling, especially during these past four or five years, I am beginning to go and visit less of the capital cities and to live in more quite places, where nature is dominant. I travel more to observe nature and scenery, and to experience culture in all its aspects: food, wine and music. To take an example, last year I went to find some Italian friends of mine from Treviso in autumn. We planned some interesting walks and did some climbing at the Dolomiti del Ca Dore. Among the most amazing and inspiring scenery was a fascinating place called ‘Le Tre Cime di Lavaredo’.

So what happens when you are a painter, and you are in such places, and you’re without a camera (by choice), and all you have is ink and paper? You draw…

With drawing book and oak gall ink (which I produce myself following old masters’ recipes) in hand, I seek to jot down the important structure of what inspires me immediately. Then, when weeks, months and perhaps years later I commence works on canvas or board, I reinterpret the drawing in paint and continue to rework the landscape from memory.

So to answer your question, I get inspired when travelling and seeing foreign landscapes; this one can see for themselves by paying a visit to the gallery where my work will be on display for the rest of April.

What would you say is the focus of this particular exhibition?

Landscapes! And of course painting! I would like to quote Balthus one last time here: “No one thinks about what painting really is, a skill like that of a labourer or farmer. It’s like making a hole in the ground. A certain physical effort is needed in relation to the goal one sets for oneself. It is a discernment of secrets and illegible, deep, and distant paths that are timeless.” I hope to be able to continue in this – my – pursuit.

Opening times for the exhibition are: 10:30-13:00; 16:30-19:00, until April 30.