The Malta Independent 14 July 2024, Sunday
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Josef Kalleya – with gratitude to Elio and Mario Calleja

Wednesday, 18 February 2015, 09:56 Last update: about 10 years ago

Instead of the rubbish that decorates roundabouts and public spaces which gives a mediocre image of our culture, it would be more productive to establish a national programme to cast artistic masterpieces by Maltese artists and uphold these work as symbols of pride in the intriguing creativity of our masters. There are the works of Sciortino, Apap, Pirotta, and showing casts of their bozzetti and works would represent Malta as a nation with acumen. Furthermore, if we implement this process we will also create an 'archive' and museum dedicated to these modern, enigmatic and profound artists. It is necessary for a limited number of casts to be made of Josef Kalleya's works and to also render them on a larger scale to realise Kalleya's wishes.

The History of Art Department at the University of Malta is currently researching Kalleya and his works as well as other 20th century Maltese artists. In relation to such studies, the Department of History of Art organizes an international lecture series. Last week, the Director of Research of the Tate, Prof. Nigel Llewellyn, gave an insightful talk on research departments within the museum institution. The next lecture will be delivered by Dr. Letizia Treves, Head Curator of the National Gallery, London, who will be discussing the Baroque collection of the National Gallery. In March and April respectively, Dr. Antonio Ernesto Denunzio (Head Curator, Gallerie di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano Naples) and Dr. Guendalina Serafinelli (CASVA) will be talking about their research.

Josef Kalleya (1898-1998), Giuseppe Calleja, different modes of spelling his name reflect and testify to the turmoil of his times. They also reflect the beautiful contradictions experienced by this phenomenal Maltese artist, contradictions which enrich him and which formed an integral part of the artistic and philosophic modernism with which this undervalued artist was endowed. A tragic underestimation which Caesar Attard outlined in his article (ILLUM, May, 1976) called 'The Kalleyan Tragedy'. According to Caesar Attard this is tied to the fact that so much importance is given to the artist's spiritual philosophical aspect that the other equally important aspect, the visual and stylistic, is neglected.

There is truth in Attard's statement, however, as I will attempt to elucidate in this article, the spiritual, philosophical, literary aspects are inextricably bound up organically in Kalleya's work together with materiality, the visual and his particular and unique style. So much so that it is difficult to study the works of this sculptor. In fact, we must analyse him in his complexity, because when his work is tackled from this holistic angle we notice that Kalleya was an artistic giant and a modernist of the 20th century. Without wanting to sound sentimental or spectacular, I am making such a bold statement within the international parameters of the history of art and not only those of Malta. It is important to study Kalleya within a European and international development. By doing so, one will realize the tremendous strength of the artistic thought, creativity and craft of Josef Kalleya.

I have been studying Kalleya for years, in solitude and quietness. An M.A. thesis on Kalleya's works was written under my supervision in the Department of History of Art at the University of Malta. A well-written thesis by Priscilla Ainhoa Griscti (2010). Priscilla produced very interesting work and even managed to build up a detailed archive of Kalleya's works. Articles have been written by E.V. Borg throughout the past 20 years. Still, a lot more work needs to be done, especially when one is aware of the profundity of thought of this artist who, modestly, is a unique figure.

I introduced Kalleya to many foreign scholars such as Dr. Jon Wood from the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, Dr. Marjorie Trusted from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and also to Prof. Krum Damianov from the Sofia Academy of Arts, and many others. I have undertaken this task because I strongly believe that the artistic ideas, aesthetic and philosophy of this artist must become part of and find their place within international scholarship. From the beginning of his artistic career, Kalleya challenged the prevailing values of his age, a characteristic which places him under the first arch of the fathers of international modern art. For example, as Caesar Attard correctly points out, even in an early work The Angel (1917), one may find fundamental elements of a new artistic path: a Gothic idiom, apocalyptic form, Art Nouveau, roughness of line, elongated form, elements which together created a strange work. Yet here there is already hint of a new language, a search towards a new way of looking at reality. This aspect alone already places Kalleya on a global level. Between 1919 and 1930 when one observes the development of his bas-reliefs, Youth Holding a Sextant and the masterpiece L'Abbandono della Casa Materna, we may notice that Kalleya is one of the founders of abstract sculpture which began to find roots all over Europe.

Kalleya was an important protagonist in the development of the modern, even modernist, artistic idiom and philosophy. He destroyed the aesthetic value of Beauty and introduced the idea that the Beautiful and the Ugly are coexistent. He also, albeit probably not conscious of it, was joining the modern movements of the 20th century which initiated a fatal attack against the classical principles of European art. However, whilst these European movements based this struggle against classical art on a nihilist revolution, Kalleya arrived at the same conclusion from his spiritual philosophical perspective.

The international art movements all searched for other geo-political sources to destabilise and discharge Eurocentrism in the arts: Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and many others. Many returned to 'pure' artisanal folklore, and even towards naïve/infantile painting, others found their source within African art, others in Pre-Historic art, in Aboriginal art, in Pre-Columbian art, to show that there are other values, non-bourgeois and non-European values, which play a determinant role in the evolution of art. Everyone began searching for other modes of responding to the system which held a tight grip on art for many centuries. Kalleya followed the same path, yet his path was an introverted not geo-political one; an internal spiritual search. He found a non-European source within himself. I am saying this in the sense that the Maltese artist created a non-European idiom because he wanted to enunciate universal values born of his spirituality. Caesar Attard is correct in saying that: "The aesthetic indifference of Duchamp is as artificial as the pseudonym 'MUTT', whilst that of Kalleya is the fruit of spiritual experience." This aspect actually makes him far more interesting. Obviously, this approach caused great problems for Kalleya, artistic, religious and even personal ones. 

Another beautiful and tragic paradox of the Maltese sculptor was the fact that at the same time that his art was causing a nihilist and solid revolution he was simultaneously not only a fervent Catholic, albeit problematic, but also a co-founder with Dun Gorg Preca of the most conservative religious organization M.U.S.E.U.M. Moreover, this aspect increases the enigmatic excitement of this phenomenal artist. I vividly recall the heated and passionate discussions that we used to have on religious subjects.

Unconsciously, or maybe not, yet certainly without anyone knowing, Kalleya began to create a new language not only for Malta but together with his contemporaries he was establishing a new mode of expressing our reality. I am convinced that history will one day recognize Kalleya as a protagonist in this modernist field, and that it will recognize him as a navigator who reached new horizons. He arrived at the idea which today forms an integral part of international contemporary modernism, that the work of art is a process, and a process guided by the fundamental element of chance, as was believed by the Dadaists and even the Surrealists. Yet whilst these artists essentially asserted chance as a random act, Kalleya used to determine thought through chance and moreover how chance determines thought. And to establish a relationship with the determination of chance, Kalleya was in actuality also challenging the ideas of Miro and Pollock, with the same methodology and idiom as these artists.

The works also involve viewer participation and amongst other things the work of art must have an interactive and continuous relationship with nature (in the words of Josef Kalleya, with God) so that God himself is a co-creator, a co-author of this artwork. As Kalleya stated himself, after finishing his side of the creative process, this would be finally completed by what he called the universal gesture and cosmic action. In fact, this also connects Kalleya to Malta's Megalithic and Prehistoric art. Caesar is right once again when he said that Kalleya 'managed to break to frontier between artistic process and natural process, between metabolism and catabolising':  another organic element within the definition of modern and modernist art.

This principle is today a basic one. In fact, as the Modernist used to and still believe, artistic works do not have an eternal life, and they shouldn't. Thus, works pass through internal transformations which lead to their death and even their oblivion. Work is an action, it begins and it ends, like a theatrical action. Fortunately, photographs of Kalleya's works still survive otherwise our knowledge on this artist would be much weaker. Kalleya used to also believe in physical materiality of creation. However, instead of believing in materiality per se, in the physicality of materiality in itself, as did the Minimalists, for Kalleya such materiality was the fight and the tension for the spirit to assume form: he wanted to dig into materiality to emancipate the idea, the concept. This aspect really reminds me of the ideas of Michelangelo with a modernist conceptualist philosophy. Where other sculptors always dreamed of releasing form from materiality, Kalleya wanted to physically free the idea from materiality: he transformed the material into an idea.

Repetition as an organic part of artistic work is another value which Josef Kalleya introduced into his work with great passion. A value which today forms an important constituent of modernist thought. Andy Warhol is a proponent of this. Yet where repetition for artistic movements of the sixties was a reflection of the communist-commercialist-mercenary reality, for Kalleya it was the eternal cosmic spiral.

The gesture, the burrowing into materiality, the scratching, the holes he digs in, the continuous struggle with the physicality of the artwork, are integral to the creative process of this Maltese artist. Instead of seeing Pollock working with paint, one sees a 'monster' with his nails almost eroding materiality. We can enter into further detail to witness the modern and modernist elements which Kalleya was proposing in a relatively insular island. These demand a greater space and a separate forum yet I cannot refrain from mentioning another element which like others was never studied properly. This is the 'naivety', the infantilism of Josef Kalleya. His work bordered on the naïve and the elementary, so much so that Vincent Apap used to declare that Kalleya didn't know how to draw and sculpt. This element, another strong element in the modernist earthquake, created confusion in the artistic appreciation of Kalleya. It is important that we consider Kalleya together with the other elements when we come to study this artist.

One can observe an intimate relationship with the contemporary painter Georges Rouault (1871-1958). The relationship with Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) is also enigmatic and intriguing especially when we see Madame Pogany (1912) and likewise The Kiss (1907-08) which were direct and challenging confrontations to Rodin. Another development of great importance concerns photomontage and Kalleya's leading role in this field.  The dreams which he could not execute were actualized by means of 'primitive' photography. This requires profound study to place Josef Kalleya in another niche of creativity, a radically new creativity born from the century in which he lived.

Intriguing is the fact that Josef Kalleya was 'surrounded' by contemporary artists one from the previous generation and one from the subsequent period, Rosso and Josephsohn. The three of them took a different road from the sculptural epoch of the time, and the three of them edged closer to each other practically without knowing anything about each other. The three are important enough to be placed on the same pedestal because aside from proposing a new language they also managed to show the artistic world a radically different road to that shaped by Rodin and his school. There is the need to observe the history of European sculpture from the spectrum offered by these three great artists. Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), who is the 'Monster' of modern sculpture, gripped the whole artistic world in the 19th and 20th centuries. The effects of his sculptural revolution are still being felt today. His seismic impact shook the entire world. Brancusi himself had to admit that he wanted to escape Rodin's pervasiveness as rapidly and as distantly as possible because "nothing grows in the shade of a giant tree." Antonio Sciortino (1879-1947), another sculptor of great repute, on the contrary, remained under the shade of Brancusi's tree as did many other sculptors of global fame as did for example Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929).

Everyone included, Sciortino introduced cultural and personal variations to the Rodinesque language but he couldn't depart from the fatal magnetism of the French sculptor. Brancusi managed to flee into a purely abstract creativity and created an important branch in modernist sculpture. On the other hand, Medardo Rosso (1858-1998), Josef Kalleya (1898-1998) and Hans Josephsohn (1920-2012) also chose another road which assumed an anti-Rodinesque stance. I recently participated in an international conference at the Tate Britain (London) and in one of the workshops was discussed the relationship which existed between Rodin and Rosso. My participation consisted in positioning Kalleya between these two giants of sculpture. The discussion which ensued was extremely interesting. I do not have enough space to go into detail here, however, even by simply seeing some reproductions of these masters; one is astounded by the strange and new language which they began to speak.

The three of them engendered a distinction in their work between statuary art, which means the art which produces statues and sculptural work, meaning 'the work'. A statue is not a monument. Whereas a statue is static materiality, a monument is a symbol of remembrance which places the past, the future and the present within one movement. Josephsohn monumentalizes the materiality of form and Kalleya monumentalizes the concept, the idea. Rosso, who worked before Josephsohn and Kalleya, introduced both sides. Rodin's best work in my opinion is the monument to Balzac. And this is the work of art which encloses upon the artistic thought of Rosso which then developed in the work of Kalleya and Josephsohn. It is no wonder that a national polemic arose when Rosso, who worked in 'Rodin's' Paris, in a convincing manner persuaded the artistic world of Rodin's indebtedness to Rosso's for the latter's creation of Rodin. Sciortino responded with Christ the King and in 1933 Kalleya responded with L'Abbandono della Casa Materna.


Article edited and translated by Nikki Petroni



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