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Art Discussion Group - Malta


Homage to Wirth and Cavarra

An art of escape or the poetry of solitude is the impression given by the work of Lewis and Helen Wirth. Both contributed to the cult of beauty, to a classical ideal though romantic at heart with a great attraction to realism and naturalism. The Wirth escaped from their urban environment and from the monotony of everyday living into the countryside to be one with nature.

They loved the tranquillity, serenity and peace open countryside provided and they reflected about such beauty and expressed it in painting. The harmony between the duo, as they worked in tandem, was enhanced by the harmony in nature; a sunset, a sunrise, a reflection in water, clouds passing by and fine weather (never a storm). Their sole desire was to create a utopic vision of life, create a Garden of Eden, where beauty, peace and quiet stood still. Their common interest and love was flowering plants. Both loved botany and sketched and painted flowering shrubs to their great contentment. Lewis loved sketching and drawing trees as some of his pencil drawings portray.

These drawings of flowers express a velvety delicacy, a gentle touch, a meticulous, clean and formal approach capturing the essence of the plant’s physical resemblance without resorting to a textbook sketch or illustration.

Lewis Wirth was an incurable romantic and a poet of bucolic bliss. He was a patient, studious artist whose work is the result of meditation. He was inspired by a sweet melancholy, a mood explicitly captured in a felt female portrait, an image used for the exhibition poster. His calm and contained nature sublimated his expressive vision yet he was expressive, emotive and welling with feeling. Twenty years after Helen’s demise Lewis still felt her loss. And the pain of loneliness was so intense that he received an intimate letter written with the intention to assuage such hurt with therapeutic balm.

The Wirth believed in academic study: in sketching, drawing the basics to acquire composition, balance and harmony. They studied still life, the nude and anatomy. Lewis studied at the local School of Art for 5 years and his early palette point to the somewhat dark and sombre colours of Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950). Helen even ventured outside our shores and attended a short course at Heatherly Art School in Chelsea, London in 1948. She studied life classes there. Her drawings of female nudes document this course.

This academic discipline was auxiliary to their classical orientation to drawing. With time and patience Louis became an expert draughtsman and a competent graphic artist. In painting he practised the same reserve and restraint of graphic works with consummate brush strokes, prudent and cautious in application using a palette of pastel gentle colours. Possibly Lewis was very shy and reserved or had very little self-confidence and self-assurance. His expression might be a direct result of his gentle spirit, his quiet nature and phlegmatic character.

Lewis was completely involved in his art. He painted with enthusiasm and passion and loved landscape as a genre. His work documents his haunts at St. Julians, Balluta and especially the bay with boats, Dingli cliffs, Rabat and Chadwick Lakes. He documented his fairly long stay (18 years) in Tripoli. His Tripoli sketches remind me of the painting by Amadeo Preziosi (1816-1882) during his stay in Constantinople as there is a common nostalgia for the Orient – the mood, the atmosphere, the texture – a feature of Romanticism. He left for Tripoli in 1951 with Mr. Paul Manduca to work as professional bankers at Barclays Bank, D.C.

Lewis loved archaeology with passion He enthusiastically painted classical architectural features, sculpted stones and ruins captured from plein air sketches of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. He loved these ruins so much that he used to take Mariz, his daughter there, and along the ‘Lungomare’ in Tripoli and to the top of Garian mountain to enjoy the panorama from such a belvedere. He was a loving father and took great care of his daughter and grandchildren Michelle and Robert. He accompanied Mariz quite often to the studio of George Fenech (1927-2011) in Mellieha. Lewis had convinced George Fenech to attend the local Art School. He literally took him by the arm and led him to the premises.

The best interlocutor for Lewis is his grandson Robert. For Robert, his grandfather was his mentor and friend. He speaks warmly of him and mentions above all his humanity, his greatness and goodness, his caring and gentle nature, his disposition to teach and help others, his precision and experimental qualities in art, his creative talent and serene disposition. Lewis inspired Robert to become an architect but as his grandson puts it: ‘Art was his life’. He was a great teacher.

Lewis was no chronicler. He was a historian as he documented life around him by interpreting situations and events like World War II. Impressive are his sketches of the war years and the painting of a grim helmeted soldier in an expressionist palette. His sketches, drawings and paintings of his stay in Tripoli narrate a colourful period in his life while his love of Rabat, Malta, resurfaces during his years at the residence for the elderly there, in his recollections with his daughter Mariz. Possibly his family were evacuated to Rabat during the war.

The team work Wirth-Cavarra produced a rich and varied heritage of sketches, pencil and charcoal drawings, watercolour and oil painting together with collages, sketches for stamps and prints. Very impressive are graphic images in bold chiaroscuro. Focussed, intelligent, passionate, enthusiastic, romantic and sentimental they left behind them an invaluable treasure. It is a pity that they died almost forgotten and unsung. Perhaps it is the fault of the artist’s caution and low profile or perhaps the local mentality and orientation that completely ignores the creative genius and the frugality in reserving the honours to a single personality in any period of time: one individual dominating the scene. Whatever the reason facts are sacred and opinion is free.

Through the advice of Mr. Lino Borg, Mr. Tony Sciberras, and Dr Paul Vassallo, Mariz Cassar decided to organize a retrospective exhibition of her parents’ work. Thanks to generous help by a team of researchers an inventory of works was taken in hand and finally a publication written by Dr. Joseph Paul Cassar will be published at the inauguration of the exhibition: Wirth-Cavarra, on Friday 25th of July 2014 at the Auberge d’Italie in Merchants Street, Valletta.

Both the exhibition and the publication will surely give due homage to a deserving couple and redress initial inertia. The bond Wirth-Cavarra is our inheritance, a rich treasure of artistic works.

E. V. Borg

29. 06. 2014