An edited version of this interview was published on The Sunday Times. Photography by Chris Sant Fournier.
When the family of abstract art pioneer Victor Pasmore asked the Museum of Fine Arts to restore two of the artist’s works, no one predicted that the pieces would be donated to the national collection. Modern and contemporary art curator Katya Micallef talks about the restoration process that brought the works back to their full glory.
You could say that the circumstances leading to the donation of two Victor Pasmore paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts happened thanks to a series of unlikely events.
The chain kicked off when Pasmore, who had decided to move from England to Spain, discovered that his new property was slap-bang in the middle of a new tourist area. The tranquillity that he craved was to be no more and the hunt for a new home started.
Malta couldn’t have been further from his mind – until while visiting the Venice Biennale an acquaintance mentioned that the Mediterranean island possessed the serenity and the beautiful landscapes that are so important to artists. This was back in the 1960s, when even the most popular spots on the island were relatively quiet.
Pasmore needed no second bidding, particularly as soon as he discovered that there would be no language problem.
Before you could say ‘abstract constructivism’, Pasmore and his wife Wendy were happily installed in their new home in Gudja, where Pasmore was to spend the rest of his days. Of course, Malta was incredibly lucky to land one of the biggest pioneers of abstract art on its shores, especially given that this was at a time when the field in Malta was still very much in a fledgling state. The artist would in fact go on to considerably influence the development of the scene in Malta.
Fast-forward 30 years later: Pasmore’s passing left a definite void, however now his memory is once again being marked with the donation of two pieces from his repertoire to the Museum of Fine Arts. The two pieces were bequeathed by the Pasmore family, represented by the artist’s son John, after the museum carried out a much-needed restoration process.
Both works are currently being shown in a special area at the museum. The main piece, Abstract, dominates the room with its vibrant greens and blues and is iconic of Pasmore’s later style; the use of primary colours in his works only started becoming more frequent after the artist moved to Malta, in what might be a tribute to the island’s brighter climate.
Modern and contemporary art curator Katya Micallef explains that when the massive painting was brought to the museum by John, it had spent some years rolled up in storage. Prior to that, it was hanging in the open air outside Pasmore’s house. Heavy restoration was needed fast.
“Pasmore had this habit of hanging his paintings outdoors, spending hours contemplating them and seeing the way the natural sunlight bounced off the canvas. He would add and change parts of it here and there, as the fancy struck him, gradually perfecting the work until he was satisfied. This was the last painting he finished before he passed away.”
The works took about six months, with restorers Alice Sautois and Charlene Muscat working on the piece practically non-stop, aided by other members of the Heritage Malta restoration team.
“There were scratches all across the canvas, because of the way it was rolled up. A sizeable patch on the left had cracked badly. Restoring a modern piece is always more difficult than a traditional oil on canvas because the medium used is very particular; in fact we decided to consult the Marseille restoration centre before taking a decision about the spray.”
Till then, there was no inkling that Pasmore’s son would actually donate the piece to Heritage Malta, which is responsible for the national collection, after restoration. The proposal was made half-jokingly by the team when the final results were presented to him – he accepted on the spot, adding that there was another work that needed restoration and that maybe it should also join the rest of Malta’s Pasmore collection.
“Needless to say we took him at his word. We were particularly pleased because the two works are very different from each other and represent different stages of his art. The second piece is more sombre, uses ochre colours and various media. However, you can also see the initial use of certain elements that only started appearing after he moved to Malta; the curved lines are an example.”
The work is a screen print with a number of different elements; one of the circles, for instance, is an actual piece of paper that evidences the originality of his technique. The piece exhibits another feature that is not typical of Pasmore, with a text quotation on the side of the painting. The quotation is not painted directly on canvas, but printed and added afterwards.
“It was in Malta that Pasmore started developing this idea of poetry for his paintings. Strangely, this work is not signed with his usual ‘VP’. The reason remains a mystery, because it is certainly finished.
The omission might be related to the era when it was finished; at the time he started going into printing and maybe this is typical of the works from that era.”
The two Pasmore works can be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts. They will eventually join the rest of the Pasmore collection on permanent exhibit.