The portrayal of the human form and condition offers the artist infinite possibilities of interpretation. Louis Laganà shares with us the evolutionary changes of the artistic career of Eman Grima
The local art scene in Malta changes according to what is really happening in other parts of Europe and also the evolutionary process of the artistic formation of many artists. During these last few months we are noticing a resurgence in the artistic activities of some local artists who started their artistic career in the early and late sixties. It seems that there is a come-back from these artists and many of them are holding retrospective exhibitions of their work. To mention a few we find Sina Farrugia, Caesar Attard, Alfred Camilleri and others. Among these artists we find Eman Grima who is well-known for his versatility in depicting the physical Mediterranean qualities of the Maltese islands, their social contents and themes centred on ‘humanity’.
Eman Grima started his academic formation in art in 1964 at ‘St. Joseph’, Secondary Technical School, in Pawla under the tutorship of George Fenech and later with Gabriel Caruana and Joseph Borg Xuereb. During the years 1969 and 1979 he followed art courses in drawing and painting at the Government School of Art under the direction of Esprit Barthet. Mr. Grima furthered his art studies in 1980-1985 at the Accademia di Belle Arti, ‘Pietro Vannucci’, Perugia, Italy. Surely the drawing and painting skills he acquired during this academic training is strongly felt in his early works which he produced in the mid seventies and early eighties.
During this period, Eman Grima started consistently to produce work related to the human figure which he treated in an analytical manner. The male and the female nude: the structure of the human form was his major concern. At first his nudes tended to reflect more an idealized tendency rather than exhibit an erotic nature. The formality of Mr. Grima’s nudes changed through continuous experimentation with colour and form. In this artistic endeavour the nude evolved in such an interesting way that one could identify changes which are markedly significant especially when comparing the earlier nude paintings with those executed recently. His early nude figures tend to express more the formal construct of the structure of the body without losing the sensual aspect. In fact, during this period, that is, the late seventies, the artist created a series of bathers characterized by frenetic brushwork. The theme of the ‘bathers’ has a long tradition which spans centuries and in modern art we find the finest examples by the Die Brüke artists, Renoir, Degas, Kirchner, and Cézanne. Mr. Grima re-enacted this theme in a contemporary style employing rich textures of colour with clarity and economy. In the eighties the style changed drastically and his figures became more geometric. The artist portrayed female nude figures based on the interaction of depicting a shape and confining it in a space by simplifying it in the most economical fashion using strong contrasts and patches of colour.
Mr. Grima also treated other various themes and was keen to produce abstract work inspired by flowers and plants and other objects found in nature. The style used was by applying thick oil brush strokes emphasizing more on colour. This also included simplification of form with an accompanying expansion of emotional meaning. Mr. Grima believes that creative act is a process. He stated: ‘My versatility in expression is due to the importance I give to the creative act itself. More than themes or styles in themselves, though obviously important, if I would develop any, evolves under its own steam and I am just a means to that end, and so the more I am technically competent in the medium I am using, the more the creative process is better served to evolve.” In these early works by Eman Grima, I notice that the primitivistic appeal (impulse) is evident in his work, and I think it is a natural process that most artists go through when experimenting with themes related to the human body or any other aspect of nature. In other words it is the simplicity which the artist shares with ‘primitive’ art and the attraction to work in a non-academic manner rejecting the sophistication of classical art. Therefore the creative process becomes more important than form. Examples of this primitivistic tendency is found in works like ‘Shower’, ‘Nude with Towel’ and other works done in the early eighties.
Eman Grima had his first exhibition in 1980 which was held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. The works on show were mainly the result of the close collaboration with Joseph Paul Cassar, another well-known Maltese artist and art critic. Among his nude studies Mr. Grima showed his ‘conversation pieces’; works depicting the social environment of the Maltese of the late seventies. The artist successfully re-created the atmosphere of what he considered to be the standard modern working-class environment. For example in ‘Women Conversing I’ he showed the portrait of three typical old Maltese women chatting with each other. This is commonly seen before and after a Church service, at the grocer’s and in the public square and the narrow streets and alleys of the villages. These works stylistically show radiant colours with spontaneous brushstrokes and the artist left out extraneous detail, but overemphasized more on light and shadow to create a sense of drama. In these works Mr. Grima was mostly concerned with the message, and other forms of human contact especially the emotional aspect of the social connection.
The exhibitions which followed after the mid eighties, which for him were very productive years, mark the symbolical period of Mr. Grima’s artistic career. His work also has another quality which was already shown by other Maltese artists, of which he is in some measure a part, that is, that of depicting the ‘social’ characteristics of the Maltese people. Good examples of these works are ‘Paradise Regained’, ‘And Now The News’, and ‘Stat ta` Telqa’. To give an idea of the symbolic content of the work, if we take for example ‘Paradise Regained’, we simply see a woman resting on a deckchair who had just stopped reading a book and fell asleep. The decorative setting of the background shows part of a railing made with wrought iron and the bright light behind the figure create tension and contrasts to dramatize the scene. Mr. Grima was inspired by one of Milton’s major themes that created great contrasts like: light and darkness, good and evil, and other forms of polarities. The concept behind this picture was to show an ‘interior rebirth’ conveyed by the contemplative nature of the human being to achieve peace, love and unity. The artist dreams of an archetypal world beyond the apparent duality where unity and harmony exist. During the eighties Mr. Grima also executed a number of portraits. In these works the artist successfully achieved not just a good likeness of the sitter but also captured the personality and soul of the individual.
‘Rituals’ was the title of another exhibition the artist held in 1995 at the Contemporary Hall, Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. Mr. Grima had on show a series of paintings capturing an essential part of the lifestyle of the Maltese people where the sacred and the profane continue to exist. In these works one could see snapshots taken from the numerous feasts which are held in the long summer months in many towns and villages on the islands. The artist explores the colourful splendour of the spectacles which the Church organizes for its internal and external celebrations. We note the particular characteristics of scenes like the procession with the statue, band marches and musical performances in the village streets, and at times the ‘wild parades’ of young people celebrating and enjoying themselves on the occasion. The composition of the figures painted on these canvases, were not meant to bear detailed analysis, but emphasis was made more on the ritualistic atmosphere of the feasts. Most of these works were made in acrylics. After ‘Rituals’ Eman Grima had four other personal exhibitions in Malta, and participated in many other collective art shows locally and abroad.
Although many art lovers have the idea that Eman Grima disappeared for some time from the local art scene, he actually continued to work and exhibit his paintings at his art studio in Paola. In fact Eman Grima’s comeback came recently with his personal exhibition entitled ‘Works: an artistic journey’, held at Palazzo De la Salle, Republic Street in Valletta from 6-28 June 2007, where he showed a selection of work from past exhibitions and also other work executed during these last ten years. This exhibition demonstrates not just the versatility of the artist but also the evolutionary process of his paintings covering the landscape, the figurative and the abstract. His latest abstracts have become more crude, yet more vibrant in colour. He uses strongly the red, the yellow and the black to express moods and emotions though frequently alluding to landscape, to spontaneous thoughts and references to the environment. His abstracts can be described as ‘vibrantly sensuous’. Above all they articulate sensations veiled with rhythms to capture the fluidity of light, and the speed of vision.
In this art show one could also observe the stages of his analytical study of the nude and how it developed during the years. In fact the artist dedicated the last two halls of the gallery specifically to his recent experiments with the male and female nude. Here, one could notice that his nudes now are boldly outlined with a strong linear outline against a flat monochromatic background instead of the usual three-dimensional setting with more stress on perspective. While his early nudes tended to be more oriented towards what is termed as ‘perceptual realism’, his recent works are an investigation of the body as a vessel of human existence and technically the artist keeps a balance between the psychological and physiological reality, and they are subtly erotic.
Mr. Grima will surely remain amongst those artists who react to what is happening around them and allude to it in their works to reflect their own reality. He maintains: “My source of inspiration is humanity and since the social context plays a fundamental role in human affairs and obviously intrigues me, so every now and again I analyze and portray through my work, certain aspects dealing with the social and cultural life of our country.” He argues that the artist is a social animal and thus participates and reacts to the social environment in which he lives. The response to the signs of the times will continue to be one of Eman Grima’s artistic challenges in the coming years. His preoccupations with contemporary life will be his major force in his interpretation of social reality and the diverse modes of emotional involvement with the social reality.
Published in Lifestyle, Times of Malta, November 2007, © Lagana
The author: Dr. Louis Laganà is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art and Art History at the Junior College, and also lectures on Art, Culture and Tourism with the Institute For Tourism, Travel and Culture, University of Malta. He is also a practicing artist, art historian and critic and specializes in Modern and Contemporary Art. His papers were delivered in many conferences abroad and published in learned journals and newspapers.
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