The midsummer heat fingers its way through the shutters and into the studio. In the corner, a fan is going into overdrive, but to little effect. The heatwave is intense this year — and this intensity is reflected on the large-scale canvas that the 28-year-old Maltese artist Gabriel Buttigieg is working on at the time of my visit: 'On Eros and Pride'.
The interwoven bodies, caught halfway between dance and transcendental turmoil, seem to pounce out of the painting into the space before them. Their faces tell a story of distracted interaction. The figures, both co-existent and interdependent, seem to be consumed in thought, simultaneously stricken by pride and the frenzy of desire. Drifting above the interlaced bodies, Eros, as if hewn out of white stone, pulls at the reins of the immortal steeds entering the canvas from the right. Standing before this explosion of life’s joy, wonder and agony at such mammoth proportions, it would be hard to remain disengaged.
The lively parping of horns on the busy main road outside Buttigieg’s studio in the town of Paola, situated five kilometres from Malta’s capital city of Valletta, just about wrenches you back to reality. But even the reality of this place is intriguing. Directly underneath the studio, which combines 20th-century style furniture, pot plants and a Bernini-inspired plaster cast, lies the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.
The hypogeum was discovered by workmen digging a cistern in 1902, and was then made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Although the constant stream of traffic outside the window can make it seem easy enough to forget the history lying beneath our feet, the existence of this subterranean necropolis feels oddly palpable in Buttigieg’s work. Primarily concerned with the human condition and an exploration of the 'feminine' in all its forms, it somehow feels right that his workspace is above the site where the remains of the island’s prehistoric inhabitants were found; they were discovered alongside the mysterious Sleeping Lady figurine (circa 3600 – 2500 B.C.) of a voluptuous woman lying on her side in eternal repose.
Smoking a cigarette, his curled tresses hanging loosely over his shoulders, Buttigieg smiles and confesses, "I’m a romantic. I get inspired by everything — by beautiful things…". In the intimate, aesthetically pleasing setting of his studio, meticulously crafted to reflect his own personality, this statement comes as no surprise, but my curiosity is sparked…
How do you define “everything”? What sorts of things inspire you?
When I said I am inspired by everything, I mean looking at a beautiful face, meeting someone with an interesting character, eating a good plate of pasta, or having a really good bottle of wine. Unfortunately, I am constantly inspired by everything and everyone, and this doesn’t help at all because my expectations of myself are extremely high. I mean if you look at a 22-year-old Bernini, instinctively, that would make you want to give up immediately. But then again, the beauty of art is looking at a Francis Bacon, a Bernini, listening to a Jimmy Hendrix or a Janice Joplin — they are all so valid, but they are all extremely different. One speaks about the soul. One is a virtuoso. The other one has amazing lyrics.
All these human narratives fascinate me. Nowadays, in the contemporary art scene, you see all this clinical stuff, which I honestly can’t really relate to because we are all so human. I am bored by this clinical stuff, but it is temporary. I mean humans have been around for thousands of years — some things are so present, so primitive. I felt it was my role to create this allegory in a way.
When did you start painting?
To be honest, I have always painted. I am lucky enough to still have my first drawing. It’s uncanny — I still remember doing it. It was of an Indian, divided into three parts. I did all the details like the nostrils and the fingers. I mean it wasn’t a Michelangelo, but at that age, my father realized how much I was already observing and how sensitive I was to my surroundings. At a young age, my father introduced me to the great masters: Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Bernini and so forth. But if I have to be bluntly honest, the first artist who left an impression on me was Modigliani — those beautiful reclining figures left a real impact on me.
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
On a typical day, I wake up and have a coffee. I don’t like waking up early because I love the night. But at around ten, I make a coffee and I sit on the sofa. I look at the canvas. I will have already thought about ideas the previous day. I brainstorm. Then I take my brushes and start. I treat it like a job. I don’t paint in the evenings. If I come here in the evenings, it’ll be to have a bottle of wine with a friend. I tend to work in series. I get an idea, and I keep on delving into that idea and then at some point, I say, “Stop!” I have a short break, and then I kick off again. That is how I worked on series like 'The Beach', 'Darkness at Noon', 'Dik il-Qtajra' and 'Babies', for example.
What are the most common recurring themes in your work?
For me, the most important thing is reawakening our sense of humanity. It’s about our vulnerability, our worries, our anxiety, our insecurities and the emotional baggage that each of us carries with us — that’s what interests me. I want to talk about the human condition through my art: in existential literature, we are born, and we die, and we have this space in between. Some processes are extremely unconscious — this need to procreate, the way we behave, the need to choose our partner, the way we might feel comfortable with one person and might feel extremely uncomfortable with another person. It is evolution. These processes are so ingrained in our DNA.
My work is about sex as a holistic theme. Some people are never happy. They always want to have sex, sex, sex. Others get bored with one person, then go to the next, then to the next. These are all unconscious processes that are somehow related to us being finite. I can speak for hours about this subject. Being finite makes you behave in a certain way. We need to procreate. We have this timeline.
What role does mythology play in your work?
Mythology offers us all of these beautiful narratives — be it Homer, Ulysses, Zeus, Leda. This storytelling beautifully explains all these universal emotions and patterns from a psychological point of view. We have our own insecurities, our own anxieties, and I boil them all down to mythology. All these links are still present today. The first thing is always mythology, then psychology, and then the aesthetic of it all.
How do you see the role of the artist today?
If you had to speak to a certain group of people, they would say that artists have to be political, make political statements and cause political awareness. But I see politics in a more holistic manner. The contemporary view of art makes artists feel a bit more like journalists, in a way. But to be honest, in my case, I don’t feel the need to be overtly political. I am just so inspired by emotion — just something like listening to the lyrics of Kurt Cobain and hearing the agony, and how much he suffered as a child. It is about experiencing that emotional connection. Obviously, I am affected by my immediate environment — the never-ending construction in Malta, the situation with the refugees. But I am caught up in my own world.
You studied psychology. Can you explain how psychology influences your work?
My background is psychology: the evolution of the psyche and psychodynamic theory, which stemmed from Freud. I have always been loyal to this idea of psychology and the psyche: the darker side of what makes us human.
Psychology makes you so sensitive, and it makes me feel so human, so vulnerable in a way. You just feel that everyone has their own baggage, and then they are inclined to behave in a certain manner. You can talk it out. For me, painting has always been this cathartic experience.
There are often great masses of intertwined bodies in your work. Why?
I love playing with archetypes. Over there on the table I have tarot cards, for example. They are another source of inspiration. In many of my paintings, where I explore the essence of femininity, you’ll find archetypes like the seductress, the Madonna, the sorceress, the mother. The proliferation of bodies and different archetypes are an exploration of the roles we play in real life — all these paradoxes and roles. You would be different with your father, your mother, your friends, or with someone you had just met. We are ever-changing on a personal and social level, but some things remain, depending on our childhoods, our traumas, and beautiful things that have happened in our lives.
You are currently exploring the 'feminine' as part of your Masters in Fine Art and through your work as whole. What does the 'feminine' mean to you?
I am exploring the feminine from a very holistic point of view. I am delving into what makes the feminine. By feminine, I don’t necessarily mean women. I think the feminine is the way you behave — that idea of being inspired by beauty and appreciating your surroundings. I mean, a woman might not necessarily do all of these things. Growing up, my father was my nurturing model at home. I saw masculinity in a different light. What makes the feminine? Is it that nurturing role or the physical role of giving birth to a child?
Which upcoming projects are you working towards?
I am about to participate in an artist residency in the Netherlands, which I am really excited about, as it will be a great opportunity for international discourse. The pop-up exhibition will be on 19th September at the CloverMill Artist Residency in Giessenburg in the Netherlands.
Next year, I have an exhibition coming up in Gozo. I want to interpret Vivaldi’s four seasons both literally and conceptually. I have this idea of having a room with four panels and doing spring, summer, autumn, winter, allowing people to have this experience of going from one season to the next. I am going to have this tryptic inspired by Calypso, Ulysses and the Four Seasons.