The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Opinion: The Picture of Joseph Muscat

Mark A. Sammut Sassi Tuesday, 14 September 2021, 11:31 Last update: about 10 days ago

Unless you’re blinded by wild fanaticism, your reaction to the picture of Joseph Muscat can only be that it’s a hideous portrait. The subject thought he was an emperor, but this portrait certainly isn’t a David.

The pose conveys lack of gravitas, sitting as the subject is on the edge of what presumably is the prime-ministerial desk. One’s tempted to perceive a pun – the subject’s sitting on the edge of his seat. Alas, no such pun seems intended: the look in the subject’s eyes betrays not excitement but resignation.

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The portrait has possibly five instances of symbolism. There’s a graph in the background that shows continuous growth which then plateaus. It presumably refers to the economy, not corruption. Photos with better resolution will eventually allow us to date the picture’s completion thereby providing context for interpretation.

Then there’s a black book on the desk by the subject’s side, but one can’t figure out the title from the photo. That said, one could hazard that, even though the cover’s black, it certainly isn’t the Bible.

There’s also the subject’s wedding ring, to which the artist strives to draw our attention. Again, it seems like a contradictory message. Why emphasise the traditional values a wedding ring recalls, when Muscat’s policies were anything but traditionalist?

The creases on the subject’s suit could be another symbol, of Muscat’s attitude. In the 1990s, Muscat used to write a column for Labour’s organ KullĦadd called “Fejn Ħabat Ħabat”, loosely translatable as “Any Which Way” or “Bits and Pieces”. This devil-may-care attitude could be inferred from the creases on that suit. A friend of mine thinks the creases represent corruption, but I wonder whether the artist wanted to convey such a message – the overall impression is of an attempt at an apologetic not realistic portrait.

There’s possibly a fifth instance of symbolism: the time on the subject’s wristwatch. Again the photo’s resolution isn’t high enough. Is it midday (or midnight), or 12:15, or 3 o’clock? Hard to tell.

Otherwise, the picture is bereft of detail, everything is blurred and fuzzy.

Except for the subject himself, that is.

He’s wearing a light blue tie and the creased suit we’ve already mentioned above, of a darker shade of blue – Prussian blue probably. It seems an odd statement for the artist to make, even though Muscat loves to wear those colours. Odd because, again, blue denotes conservative and traditional values, a sign of stability and reliability. Muscat was anything but conservative and – it has now turned out – anything but reliable.

Then again, blue can denote feelings of sadness and aloofness. Picasso’s “blue period” paintings, say, convey loneliness, sadness, and forlornness. The look in the subject’s eyes seems to confirm this reading.

The pose and look in the eyes taken together depict the true Joseph Muscat: nonchalant in his attitude toward the dignity inherent in the office of primus inter pares, and lonely in the mess he brought on himself and the country. Just like in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Muscat’s picture seems to bear the subject’s sins. Given Wilde is a gay icon and how Muscat abused the LGBTI vote for his political advantage, the hidden message might have been intended.

Muscat’s departure from office was shrouded in controversy. If the commission was paid from the public purse, one would have expected a public competition, and a public discussion on the symbolism the portrait was meant to convey. On Facebook, the artist paid tribute to Muscat as “Father of Modern Malta”. Most Maltese taxpayers beg to differ, Sir.

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