The Malta Independent 13 June 2024, Thursday
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Island of Treasures

Marie Benoît Saturday, 8 June 2024, 08:00 Last update: about 7 days ago

MARIE BENOIT’S musings on the Christmas ’23 issue of Treasures of Malta.

Here I am. Mid-June with a copy of the Christmas 2023, Treasures of Malta (Fondazzioni Patrimonju Malti), in one hand, and the Easter 2024 issue of the same journal on my desk, awaiting publicity.  It's all a question of time and space.

I have of course been browsing through them. I cannot resist this publication and tear the envelope open, when it arrives. Much work and dedication go into this quality journal and I am not going to squeeze my musings into half a page of text and one picture. It deserves much more.

 The Christmas issue has three articles about and written by women.  The first is about "a largely overlooked woman artist in twentieth-century Malta" whose name is Blanche Ellul Sullivan (1907-2002). The author herself, Margherita Amodeo, who is a niece of the artist, worked, mainly in communications, for the United Nations for some thirty-five years, travelling all over the world.

After leaving the UN, she embarked on a new journey in the field of the arts, creativity and psychology having obtained more degrees from Malta, Spain and Switzerland.

This article, Art in All Forms: The Work and Life of Blanche Ellul Sullivan (1907-2002) is written with love and admiration of the artist as well as personal knowledge.

Blanche was a woman who was born before her time. A free spirit, an eccentric, the third of a family of thirteen children, she was also a pianist, a chain smoker and "loved a fierce game of tennis." She was devout and "belonged to the Third Order Secular of the Franciscans...she believed that it was only possible to live at peace with oneself if one practiced compassion and generosity toward those in need."

Her spirituality extended to her art and in spite of being a great admirer of the Impressionists she loved painting sacred subjects. "Her copy of Domenico Tiepolo's  St Joseph and the Child hangs in St John of the Cross church in Ta'Xbiex. She felt blessed and privileged when a sacred work was commissioned by church dignitaries. 

The author tells us that Blanche was also a philanthropist. "There was always a row of large boxes in her hallway. Each box served to collect different items of clothing donated by friends and neighbours. She would send them to the missions or have them delivered to one of the needy families in her parish."

She studied at the Malta School of Arts with the best teachers of the day including Edward and Robert Caruana Dingli, Vincent Apap, Antonio Micallef, George Borg and Karmenu Mangion.

She loved painting en plein air with a group which included, Anton and Mary Inglott, Frank Portelli, Vincent and Willie Apap, Hugo Carbonaro and Antoine Camilleri.

The author's description of Blanche's studio at Aidengrove, the family's sprawling villa in Ta'Xbiex, is written from first hand experience and moving in its detail.  

But Blanche had her demons too. She suffered from depression. She even underwent shock treatment and strong medication and could not function normally. Little was known about mental conditions in those days. More is known these days even if there is still much left to discover about mental illness.

Was her depression a result of her experience as a nurse in the Second World War and the horrors she witnessed? The author also tells us that she had assisted a priest performing exorcism rites. Who knows what effect those experiences could have wreaked on a creative and sensitive woman, the author asks. However once she recovered her energy she was unstoppable. "Art was her salvation."

In writing this most interesting article, Ms Amodeo, not only managed to publicise the work of a gifted but self-effacing artist who never searched for publicity in her lifetime but to point out what little attention female artists received then and not much more now. "While the past cannot be changed the quest for gender balance in contemporary scholarship and curatorial practice is finally bringing women artists to light and a number of previously unknown artists are finally being discovered, sometimes  posthumously. However, the balance is far from over. Statistics show that collections in major art museums in the United States are 87% male. Europe does not fare much better. Now is the time for recognition and justice to be served at last for Blanche and for all other women artists  worldwide who have been restricted from the public eye for too long."

Blanche's life ended at the age of 95. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when she was 83. In the last chapter of her life, she was looked after by the Franciscan nuns and nurses at Pax et Bonum Home in Mosta.
At least she had a better ending than Camille Claudel, that wonderful sculptor who finished up in a lunatic asylum where even her brother, the renowned Catholic poet, Paul Claudel, never went to visit her. She too, was reassessed fairly recently Equality? We still have a long way to go.

Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel wrote a splendid book published by Patrimonju,  Princess Poutiatine and  the Art of Ballet in Malta. The Princess, unlike Blanche Ellul Sullivan was a household name in Malta.  Many attended her renowned ballet school . Dr Farrugia Kriel's contribution in this issue of Treasures is Pursuit of 'Intangible' Histories: Princess Nathalie Poutiatine's Art of Teaching Ballet, in which she attempts to reconstruct the structure and ethos of the classes developed by a Princess who almost single-handedly pioneered the art of Russian Ballet in Malta.

Princess Poutiatine walked regularly with her husband Edgar Tabone, through our street in my young days. They lived nearby and our street was eventually named after her.

Poutiatine's Russian Academy of Dancing was not the first to offer dance classes in Malta however,  hers was the first purpose-built dance studio on the island "designed to the measurements  of the Royal Opera House, stage precisely thirty-six feet wide." In her memoires in Princess Olga,  my Mother (1982), Poutiatine recalls: 'I placed a sprung wooden floor and ordered beautiful large mirrors from Belgium for the wall...where I could, in adequate conditions, impart to the younger Maltese generation the poetry and beauty  of the classical dance I had acquired from celebrated Russian dancers." The author researched through notes, memoirs and many interviews with pupils and others.

 When I had walked into the school, then under Tanya Bajona's direction, to put one of my daughter's names down as a pupil, little did I know that that studio had been designed by the Princess herself. Every teacher and pupil of ballet and even ballet lovers should read not only the book but this article as well. How lucky we were that the Princess landed in Malta and stayed on.

The third article about a woman authored by another one is Nadette Xuereb's A Prominent Patron of the Arts, Cosmana Navarra (1600-1687). We've heard of this patron of the arts  before. If I remember well in connection with property she left and which is being disputed. I wonder what happened to that case. She is considered to be the most prominent benefactor of the church of St Paul in Rabat. She  was one of the few female patrons during this period to be portrayed on her own and the first woman to be painted in full length in Malta. Hers is the only portrait of a woman to be displayed in the sacristy of the church of St Paul.

She was evidently very rich, inheriting property in Malta and Gozo from both husbands and from her brother Ugolino. It was her nephew Federico Falsone who was eventually, the universal heir to her estate. However, she was generous throughout her life, a benefactress and a patron of the arts. She commissioned  prominent architects and artists who contributed to  the wonderful buildings and works of art we have today.  She used her riches well... Many (but not all) who have great supplies of money, these days, believe in conspicuous consumption, spending  far too much on frivolities such as huge cars and vintage bottles of wine. I like this woman. She deserves to be remembered. She used her riches wisely and well.
I shall review the other articles next week as I am running out of space.
I so enjoyed reading these three articles. Whoever is contributing to Patrimonju's projects, including this journal  has my respect. Where would the Arts be without their patronage?


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