I never had any doubts about what I wanted to be doing, and I’m still doing what I started many years ago. Art has always had a prominent place in my life,” says Luciano Micallef, one of Malta’s most prolific abstract painters and artists, whose astonishing career spans 40 years and various continents.
“I was privileged to have a father who was very interested in art – he was what we used to call a Sunday painter, so the idea of painting was introduced to me from an early age.” I meet Luciano at his personal art gallery, adjacent to his home, in San Pawl Tat-Targa. He launched Gallery 5 in 1996, and with its plain white walls, wooden flooring and an abundance of natural light, has served as the perfect space for the artist to work and display his enthralling work.
Luciano's personal art gallery
Delving into his introduction to this world, Luciano says that, as the only one from his eight siblings to pursue a career in art, being exposed to it from a young age wasn’t enough – “there has to be something within the individual that sparks that interest.” At the age of 10, Luciano’s father sent him for private tuition to renowned Maltese painter Joseph Briffa, who the artist describes as “one of the very best classical artists known for his church paintings, who was phenomenal.”
Later, Luciano was awarded a scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, which set him on the path he’s been on ever since. Before we even begin discussing his work, Luciano makes a bold statement that sets the tone for the rest of the interview: “there’s this idea that anybody who draws is basically creating art – it’s completely wrong to believe that art simply has to do with making pictures.
Art is primarily an intellectual activity, not the gesture of the hand, and sometimes, that is delivered through the making of a painting, a sculpture, through dance,” he explains. “The hand only captures a small part of that mental activity. It took me many years to come to this sort of understanding, but I find it very frustrating hearing art being defined as making pictures.”
Luciano's personal studio
Further still, the artist asserts that a painting must initiate some form of conversation, a dialogue between the artist and audience – this is the most important legacy of a painting, “and if a work of art doesn’t generate any of this, then I think it fails.”
Luciano’s style is distinctive and recognisable – his colourful canvases and abstract style have made him synonymous with this art movement, although he tells me that his work has evolved from the early days. “My earliest paintings were not at all colourful – they were almost monochrome, black and white, which showed me that I was immediately searching for a basis, the beginning of something,” he says.
“Before understanding colour, I had to understand the two shades that constitute day and night – without light we cannot see objects, but without darkness we cannot see the light.”
“The early paintings were also black and white because I was not cheerful enough to understand the beauty of colour,” he continues.
At the start of his artistic career, Luciano’s paintings were also different in style – they were realistic and figurative, composed within a context that often started as abstract, but with realistic, almost classical references, especially during his years at the academy in Florence.
“I was, and still am, very interested in classical paintings, but I was drawn to the philosophical approach used for abstract painting for various reasons,” he asserts. “First, I was against the idea of reproducing what I already know, whether people, architecture or objects. I wanted to shift myself away from the physical world of objects to a world where objects do not exist, a space where nothing is defined.”
Luciano says he also found abstract painting to be more challenging. “An abstract painting has this extraordinary process that, within itself, has no boundaries and evolves and changes according to the day, the moment, the time when you work on it. Even your own perception of it changes – things you thought were exciting about it one day might not remain so the next day, or you might discover something you hadn’t noticed before.”
Complementing the artist’s abstract approach is his use of colour, which has also become an intrinsic part of his work.
Complementing his vast range of abstract works is an impressive portfolio of portraits – which includes some well-known faces. Luciano says people fascinate him, and he still enjoys doing portraits because he likes to draw.
“I wish to remain in contact with the ability to reproduce a face, which is challenging,” says Luciano.
“Also, portraits are a way of understanding the psychology of the individual you’re depicting. If I had to examine the various portraits I’ve painted, the approach has changed drastically over the years, from realistic and figurative examples, to semi-abstract. Often, the approach corresponds with the individual being painted, and I’ve had the opportunity to create some interesting portraits of well-known faces throughout my career, such as Roberto Benigni, Luciano Benetton, and actress Ornella Muti.”
Throughout the years, Luciano has experimented with various media, including copper, wood and glass, and he considers this to be a crucial part of learning and growing. “In order to learn we must experiment and explore the unknown, and so the primary reason for me to renounce the method, medium and technique I know is to understand something unknown to me – this is fundamental.”
Luciano plans to host an exhibition at his gallery soon, with works that explore something new to the artist. And since he won’t be sharing any details about that yet, I ask if he could share his most satisfying artistic accomplishment so far.
This is an excerpt of an interview which featured in the September edition of the Commercial Courier.