The lithographs of Norbert Francis Attard's
Unpublished article, 1984
PETER SERRACINO INGLOTT
The Empty Sky
There is a lot of sky in the lithographed world of Norbert Attard. But it hardly ever tempts you to think of it as "the heavens", or the habitat of the gods.
On rare occasions, clouds appear. But they are such as could scarcely furnish even a Hamlet with pretext enough to goad a Polonius into seeing them as whales or weasels or camels' back. They induce no escapist reveries. They do not function as the footstools of mythical heroes; they satisfy no baroque angel's need of modesty; they betray no trace of eroticism. They are cast like a forbidding arras: you are not allowed to dream that anything nicely surprising is concealed behind it.
They do not look like plain atmospheric phenomena either. Dominic Cutajar notes, about the lithograph of Mdina, "The Silent City", that it is "the very first print in which he (N.A.) attempted to inset photography - i.e. the cloud formation in the upper register. Yet the result did not satisfy him, and subsequently he retouched the entire zone". He gave it his usual lurid hues, unnatural enough to be reminiscent of Grunewald's palette or the German Expressionists, but rather more like a scientific picture of some unusual spectrum. The entire sky turns into a huge anti-rainbow. Yet the most pronounced tendency of Attard's sky is toward the annihilation of colour: pitch-blackness. Thus it is, for instance, in the lithograph - "Floating Islands" - dedicated (heaven knows why) to me. He didn't know (I know) that the opening lines of the first poem I ever published, written by a boy who often lifted his short sighted, ever so slightly squinting eyes, lovingly, anxiously upwards, were:
In the heavens above,
The birds are in flight,
Frightened of the aeroplanes…
In Attard's sky, there are neither birds nor aeroplanes, nor anything evocative of flying colours; often there is just nothing. His sky is most itself when it attains absolute negritude. Then, it almost looks as if it were posing itself a Biblical query: Niger sum, no doubt; sed formosum?
This sky, spongy complement of the earthly city beneath, looms large only as an urgent summons to lift the eyes above the horizon line of our planetary pebble. It's a hefty sock in the neck to make our gaze gyrate, a rough shove to make our thoughts rotate. Otherwise, if we do not abandon our usual perspectives and habits of looking and judging, we will not manage to keep our right foot planted on earth; the left's already in the grave…
The aerial space is often a mirror-image of an impalpable and bottomless marine space, except that it lacks the warmth of the maternal waters. This sky marks out the finitude not only of the clayey, nourishing earth, but also of the oily, seductive sea: of the Ocean which Ulysses didn't dare to venture upon, of the Great Aquatic Barrier which Columbus broke. Then, our visual field expanded, we began to see the earth through a fish-eye lens, and our old world-picture at once capsized. Out coastline was re-orientated, from horizontal to vertical; the new frontiers now lay above our heads … until, in its turn, this aerial space was also conquered, i.e. emptied of all its ancient meanings.
Suddenly one begins to suspect, then to guess and feel a ghostly presence in Attard's sky, an unholy spirit inhabiting its vacancy. There is no visual inkling of it, no rat-like stirring behind the scarcely decorative arras. But there - precisely where we see nothing - there (we know) is today the home both of the paraphernalia of total, intercontinental war and of the panoply of gadgets which allow a couple of governments to observe all our actions. There are (we know it) the contemporary versions of the omnipotent's all-seeing Eye and of the hands that launched the lightning flash and thunderclap of His wrath. Over "the silent city" the salmon pink and saffron sky begins to drone aloud with the engines of Big Brother and of Sister Death.
Dominic Cutajar is surely dead right in calling this apparently anodyne Mdina silhouette, (as is indeed becomes when deprived of its colour), superficially so close to a commonplace, touristy postcard, "one of the artist's most anguished expressions".
An Attempt at Trialogue
Undoubtedly, one of the main interests of the book, as distinct from the exhibition of Attard's lithographs, is that one goes through it accompanied by Cutajar's introductory and sagacious guide is bound to enrich or, at least triangulate the dialogue between the artist and anyone of us. I found Cutajar's commentary in general admirable. However, I differ from him in just one important respect, namely the psychologistic approach.
Cutajar often interprets Attard's "landscapes" according to Romantic critical theory, i.e. as projects of the artist's lamp-like soul. Thus, the calculated and nagging tension between opposite elements, which is manifestly the "soul" of Attard's work, is read as the expression of a struggle between the artist's strong surging emotions and his will to rationally control them.
I think this not only a banalisation of Attard's dialectic, but also mistaken. Attard's images, in my opinion, represent an objective tension, apprehended in the world itself, which does not run al all parallel to the little which, willy-nilly, he reveals of his psychology. The tension, in crude simplification, is between Evolution (positively orientated change and commitment to it) on the one hand, and Entropy (the tendency towards uniformity and thence, chaos, apprehended as an approaching physical ice-age, with a ruinous institutional disintegration of human affairs) on the other hand.
In depicting the conflict mainly as it impinges on his native habitat, Attard is not even incidentally, it seems to me, seeking to resolve an inner, subjective conflict between reason and feeling into some sort of harmonious balance. Neither do I think that the oscillation between the poles of pessimistic (entropy wins) and optimistic (evolution wins) images corresponds to the ups and downs in the author's life, to moments of anguish alternating with intimations of peace. Rather the more optimistic images appear intended to be deeper, evocative of a more distant future, more eschatological, than the more pessimistic which are clearly closer to the present, to the surface look of the environment, more historical and ephemeral. To be anguish about the near future and utterly confident about the final outcome is not to be in a state of inner, subjective conflict. The anguish and the confidence may well coexist, consistently and simultaneously.
Nor need the alarm about the immediate context and the hope about the thereafter be a matter of reason and a matter of feeling, respectively. The one and the other could well be insights, in the formation of which both logic and passion each play an indispensable part.
As a corollary to this, Attard's style does not seem to me to have changed as much and as often as it does to Cutajar. I doubt even that he underwent, a decade later, the nineteensixty-eightish sot of "conversion" that Cutajar detects, eight at the beginning of the lithograph series; a spiritual change, from joy and glory in man's growing dominance over nature to awareness of and dismay at the ecological crisis. At any rate, some eight phases in five years would be an excessive turnover of styles even for Picasso!
I think on the contrary that, throughout this first phase of Attard's work (he is only 32), there are only modulations on the same, basic motif. He seems to agree with the Doomsters than mankind is suicidally bent, but not quite in the way it imagines and only in a scenario with a short time-frame; after the Holocaust, both Goad and man will still be there. The threat at the heart of his vision is not of a world overcrowded by idiotic population explosions and by McLuhanite implosions of the communication media; it is of the designification and desertification of living space.
Of these warning images, there are some which appear remote form the standard appearance of scenes in our world, others which appear to be quite close to familiar sites as we ordinarily know them, as we actually wee them, as long as we do not peer at them through any peculiar lens. The first kind are immediately starting and, for the most part, frightening; the second achieve the same effect only, as it were, by delayed action, after one had looked hard at them for a relatively long while.
Keats, in the Ode on Melancholy, says that you are really gripped by the terror of the mutability of things when you discern mortality not in what is obviously withering away, but in things that are in full bloom. Likewise, you will have realised the true significance of the environmental threat not when you are stared in the face by seagulls caught in an ail slick or by subtopia sprawling over a once green valley, but when you glimpse it lurking within the glory of the Valletta which the Knights built or skirting the skyline of Mdina.
The essential threat is the desecration of space; i.e. its reduction to meaninglessness by its being emptied of life in general and human life in particular. This voiding of the significance - the habitation - of space is already partially occurring in multiple ways, but it would occur in an unparalleled way as the aftermath of a final performance, in modern dress, of a very well-known ancestral play: total, nuclear war.
Examples of "profaned" space are brought before our eyes by such images as "Tower of Babel" - prelude to the Deluge - and "Menace". Here, "in the general aquatic setting, the vegetation appears to float, although its coiling action is so thick that it has coalesced in one mass", as Cutajar describes it, adding that "the lilac violet tonality" expresses "phobic alarm" in the chromatic language of the artist.
Cutajar also observes that this "Tower of Babel" image recalls Valletta in some respects. I agree: it is a space determined manu military it is ampant with cupiditas dominandi, paradoxically resulting in a startling spatial involution. The raging desire for vertical conquest has made a people wall itself up, self-enclose itself with bastion and rampart, hem itself in, within a kind of Hitlerian bunker. The consequence - cubically geometricized dwelling areas, through which the serpentine flights of steps spiral - becomes an emblem of Entropy bulging out of the slippery embrace of Evolution.
Cutajar notes: "Nature's exclusion has brought about an atmosphere of torpor and complete aridity. Human presence is already mite-looking and approximates insect life". It is one of the most glaring characteristics of Attard's lithographic world that many of the spaces, aerial, maritime or terrestrial, have suffered dereliction by the inhabitants whom they (as is obvious from the relics left behind) previously had. What humans appear are lilputian ciphers, stunted and de-sensitized things, looking embarrassingly like accidental survivors from a mass holocaust, chance drop-outs from the whiling of a cosmic Catherine wheel or Giant Dipper, thumping violently to no end. They are humans who have found or lost themselves in a very dehumanized space, "The dominant note", Cutajar concludes, "it one of complete disenchantment, even alienation".
Alienation - because this was once their space. Indeed, our space. Indeed, it remindsus of Valletta, - or Mdina, or Gozo, - some place that once was home. Now a distance has yawned open between us and it. But the "it" has become, and still is, part of us: the distance that has opened is, therefore, in a sense, within us. We are at once the architects and the denizens of the Age of (Empty) Space.
Cutajar also finds this image "coloured by the ideas of M.C. Escher." But, in the Introduction, he ways Escher's impact on Attard is visual rather than substantial. I find this qualification surprising. Is it merely by ironic fluke that one of Escher's most famous prints actually has the same subject - The Tower of Babel (1928) - although a quite different visual form? That his major themes are "metamorphoses", "cyclical evolutions", "approaches to infinity" - all, I would have thought, clearly related to Attard's central preoccupations? Even more that Escher was particularly struck by roughly the same characteristics of the fortified cities around Malta's Grand Harbour and for similar reasons? In fact, during his several visits to Malta in the 1930's Escher drew meticulous sketches of Senglea and Valletta, which, ten and even twenty years later, were still serving him as points of departure for such masterpieces as Balcony (1945) and Exhibition of Prints (1956). I think, Escher's explanation, in a 1959 article, of the essential motive force behind his lifework is relevant enough to Attard's to deserve being quoted:
"We cannot imagine that somewhere behind the remotest start of the
nocturnal sky there is the end of space, a limit beyond which there
is nothing, the idea of 'nothing' is not quite meaningless in this
context, for a space can be empty, at least in our thoughts, but our
imagination is not capable of grasping the notion of 'nothing' in the
sense of 'spaceless'. And that's way, ever since their have been human
beings on this earth, sitting down on it, standing, climbing and
walking on it, moving their vehicles across it and flying over it,
we hold firm to a chimera, to a beyond, a purgatory, a heaven, a
hell or a nirvana which unlike the earth, is eternal in time and infinite in space."
(Cfr. Bruno Ernst, Le Miroir Magique de M.C. Escher, 1976, Paris, Chene, p.106)
This thousand-word comment on Cutajar's hundred-word comment on just one lithograph is meant to illustrate how thought-provoking a careful reading of the brief notes accompanying each picture in both sections of the book-essay and catalogue - can prove to be. Of course, it is not possible (for reasons of space!) to repeat the exercise for each of the 62 images.
The empty sky remains marginal, although it is often a very wide margin, in Attard's landscape; the typical centrepiece of the lithographs is lithic. For instance, one of the most positive pictures in the album is that entitled "Journey of Discovery"; here, the aerial space has been totally eliminated, stones - huge boulders - occupy almost the whole of its upper half, leaving the nether part to water swirls.
Yet every stone in this world is a sort of aerolith. Even if it is not literally of meteoric origin, nor was it launched like a projectile form the springy depths of volcanic space, at least it has crossed great abysses of time. Catapulted into our mortal midst, the human mob for whom a century is an unhoped for age, each block of stone, like Hermes or an angel, conjures up, a strange sense of syncopated immensity. It rests before our eyes, a mute receptacle of fossilized life, a silent ambassador of the Empire of Matter. Now a pickaxe blow, and it opens up its coffin treasure, harking us back to the dawn of time. We break the stone apart, as though a loaf of bread, and out of it there emerges the mystic fragrance of the long mineral night of cosmic history. Here, packed with the small compass of each segment of stone is the colossal, multi-episode, adventure-loaded saga of its atomic components, the thrill-filled encounters of neutron and protons, battles bitterly fought between elementary organism as well as intimate exchanges foreshadowing love. Their outcome has been fixed forever in fine nuances of shade and colour, the tragic conclusion solidified in splendid, accidental traits. Energy has turned into heat, cooled down and life becomes immobilised in petrified matter. Huge chunks of the past become wretchedly tangible to us. Our finger tough the compromise solutions of many an arduous confrontation. These hard-won peace-pacts, sealed millions of years ago look solid enough to be still faithfully adhered to long after man has met the fate of the dodo. They will last, because they lack life. The flagstones of victorious Entropy are the tombstones of the defeated forces of Evolution: the telluric graveyard where the troops of Possible Future Life have been laid to eternal rest.
Stones are to men as Parmenides to Heraclitus. Be it noted, passing: if sky is air, and stones are earth, and sea is water, and sky, stones and sea are the most conspicuous signs in Attard's language, then, by virtue of any European's ancestral Hellenic heritage, fire can't be far away. Lithograph No. 11 is aptly named: Heraclitus' River, i.e. that into which no one can step twice. Hence, I find, in this instance, unconscious irony in Cutajar's catalogue-note: "the sky and sea" (what about the stones?) "Of Norbert Attard's art have inextricably merged and returned to their original flux" (my emphasis). Can't one take a look (through the thick, black, geometric lines of the gridded window) on to the primordial past? Most often the stones get themselves erected into walls. The list of the titles of Attard's lithographs contains a kind of mural litany from the Walls that don't exist, through Bastion Walls, Quarry Walls, Sea Walls, to Church Walls. Walls, without figuring in the title, are also a (or the) main feature of many others, just about half (if my count is correct) of the 62 prints.
At first, one might suppose that a wall is just the thing to expect stones redolent of Entropy's dominion to add up to. As the saying goes: when something has managed to halt your progress, you've come up against a wall; and when you can't see eye to eye with a fellow man, there's a wall between you. "O wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss!"
But these walls often enough bind nothing, confine nothing: they are boundaries between nothing and nothing (Only one Man, Maltese Islands, Floating Islands, God I, Options). The Monuments of Entropy are replete with emptiness. Even when they envelope a town, they are labelled "Walls that don't exist", or the town itself is empty.
Stones also get built up into stairways. This, the atomic signs of Entropy are integrated by man the artist into the molecular sign of Evolution. By incessant, if not faultless, transitions and transmissions, life ekes out and works its way up the cosmic ladder, from saltwater to algae, from earthly soil to clambering tree, from sweating body, to sweating body, for so long, so very long, that even the insides of rocks and stones preserve the traces and imprint of its passage.
As long as each picture is taken singly, the artist may appear, like Death, to be fixing its image in a kind of unchangeable stasis. But as they unfold in series (like the very space, swollen or swelling to infinity it represents), meanings gradually meander into slow motion. Elisions and elusions - perhaps illusions - collisions and collusions multiply as abundantly as in the proliferation of the many forms of life itself. Meanings get constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, sometimes even at a rate that risks seeming feverish.
At any rate, creative man, now the propulsive force within Evolution, having read his genealogy in the palimsest of stone, now uses that very matter as the material with which to form the images that can orient and magnetically draw him towards a future in which Death itself will boomerang.
By faith (and the last resort of Attard's art is undoubtedly religious), man manages to express his certainty, or at least his hope, that what is now living and increasing and concentrating in the cosmic tree - himself - is its main trunk: despite the surface appearances to the contrary and the many misadventures he will outlast the stationary, dead weight of all the elements fossilized or fossilizing into stone, decolouring into a black horizon, melting into the ice-cold ocean of Chaos.
The series culminates in a stylistically unique print, called "Options", which tempts me to repeat Demetruis' comment to Theseus: "It is the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse, my lord." Instead of a "crannied hole or chink", it has four door frames, one wide open inwards, another outwards, the third is ajar, and the fourth shut. A semicircle of blackness carpets the floor, or the void on our side of the doors.
Beyond this image, a new series begins: the Mihrabs.
A mihrab is a usually ornate niche in the wall of Mosque set in the direction of Mecca, and its purpose is often said to be precisely that on indicating the direction in which to pray. Actually, the mihrab appeared for the first time (according to Oleg Grabar) in the Umayyad Mosque in Medina to mark the place where Mohammed used to stand, in his original house, to lead in prayer, or to preach. So the mihrab is a memory0sign of the presence of the Prophet as first inam, or spiritual guide. It is a kind of door, "with the possible mystical connotation of the way in which divine grace comes to the faithfully". It is clearly in symbolic continuity with its Jewish prototype, the niche for the Torah, of which the Christian tabernacle is another successor. Thus, basically, a mihrab is an honorific place and setting, an empty frame or opening in expectation of a saving presence. Abstracted, schematized and varied as it is by Norbert Attard, it becomes even more a mere indication of a place of passage to a higher world. As such it is not a conclusion, but a prayer for a transition to a higher realm of being that this earth.
From his abstractions from the Islamic mihrab, Norbert Attard moved eastwards on to abstractions from the Japanese kimono - approximately eleven metres of woven fabric, 28cm wide, colourfully dyed, embroidered with abstract patterns or stylised scenes of nature, and cut in strict geometric lines. They are shown in a diversity of foldings, as they hang unworn, so becoming icons for meditation, a more extreme and finely-wrought distillation of two-dimensional patterns of colour and line form a three-dimensional source, dress rather than architecture. The sacrifice of volume again exalts the essential character of the forms and motifs that emerge like pure jewels from encrusted stones. The effect is like that of a spiritual exercise to transcend time and movement and enter the realm of absolute stillness. It is an original path towards the assimilation of the concentrated delicacy that we associate with the peaks of Japanese culture. The reduction of material contingencies to the minimum, which the hallmark of the traditional Japanese arts, is here enacted by the lifting of chromatic and linear patterns into an existence which owes nothing of its fascination to the exotic folkloric context in which it is usually embedded in Western eyes. A man from the Mediterranean has hit upon an individual way of actualizing for himself the non-proprietory attitude way of actualizing for himself the non-proprietory attitude of the Japanese artist who chooses the most perishable material to work in, with distantiation form the space- and -time bound world as his object. Attard's kimonos conceal nothing that can be embraced and convey only glimpses of a fugitive, eternal beauty.