A foreword by Prof. Ġorġ Mallia
This is the full unedited version of Prof. Ġorġ Mallia’s foreword for the first Malta Illustration Annual 2019/2020.
“The Illustrator’s job,” said Andrew Hall, “is to create a something from a nothing, to encapsulate an idea that communicates to an audience in an innovative way that is also articulate.”
This quote is loaded in a number of ways. Even the word ‘job’ is significant, because an illustrator is often for hire … something eschewed by those who have an idealised image of what art should be, forgetting as they do the Renaissance, patronage and everything else that kept art alive throughout the ages. But there lies the long standing controversy about whether illustration is an art form in itself. I think the rest of Hall’s quote pretty much answers that.
There are four points made. The creation of something from nothing, which is what any artist does, filling the canvas with fantasy, imagination and skill. But Hall is also touting communication here. So an illustration also needs to communicate a message of some sort, and to an audience, continuing to populate the concept that this is an art form that is also a potential mass medium. The innovation part of the quote sums up the argument in favour of this being an art form. The good illustrator cannot be an imitative regurgitator of clichés, but an artistic innovator who creates art. Then again, not for that illustrator the hermetic poetry of abstraction, because there needs to be understandable articulation.
The tug-of-war among the critics with their back and forth arguments about the artistic quality of a medium that also communicates seems to me to be pretty useless when illustrators can provide brilliant work the likes of which can be found in the book you hold in your hands.
Of course it’s art. A particular type of art that narrates stories and sells ideas; that makes you think and inspires you; that instructs, informs, satirises, fills in details, creates a visual dimension for what would otherwise be purely symbolic text.
Zeegen puts it in a nutshell when he writes that “It is illustrated images that capture the imagination, that remain with the viewer and that inextricably tie moments in one’s personal history with the present.” From our favourite children’s book as kids, to the vinyl or CD cover of our youth, to so many wonderful images throughout our lives. I like to think of illustration as an art that lives with us, hiding in the books we read and the comics we sometimes thrill to; in the magazines we like and even that occasional PowerPoint presentation we sometimes have to sit through.
The illustrator wields the power of the innovative, creative artist and that of the able visual communicator, creating a hybrid that is both functional and pleasingly artistic.
I have followed the illustration scene in my native Malta for most of my adult life. We’ve had some excellent illustrators going as far back as the beginning of the last century. Some were quite rudimentary, like Willie Apap’s almost child-like line drawings for Aldo Farini’s Fiabe, tradizioni e leggende Maltesi (1934–1936), others much more elaborate, like the satirical drawings by the likes of Robert Caruana Dingli (about whose cartoons I wrote an analysis) who also illustrated the main textbook in schools at that time, E.B. Vella’s Ġabra ta’ Ward, also published in 1936. And eventually the one who stands head and shoulders above the rest, the great Alfred Gerada, whose cartoons, portraits and illustrations filled the papers in the first half of the twentieth century.
It was, of course, children’s books that made illustrations flourish, and my first memories of them go back to the seventies, with Trevor Żahra’s first books, illustrated in cartoonish, line drawings in, of course, black and white. Colour was just too expensive to consider. That was still the age of letterpress, with deeply etched blocks providing for illustrative content. And even when offset slowly rolled in, Bureau-separated colour cost the heavens and was not cost efficient in a very small book market. Also in the seventies, other illustrators were slowly making inroads even as the children’s book market slowly grew thanks to writers like Żahra himself, Charles Casha, Carmel G. Cauchi and a few others.
Joe Mallia was the pre-eminent illustrator at that time. He was probably the only full-time illustrator employed to draw text books like Id-Denfil, Ġrajjiet Malta and others, all in the mid-seventies. They were the mainstays of many childhoods and were only discarded by Maltese schools just over a decade ago. His was a researched, very detailed, if somewhat repetitive style, but which was technically very good. Illustrators like Salvu Mallia (working within the Tandem brand) and Frank Schembri added diversity. I illustrated the Maltese version of Grimm’s fairy tales at the end of the seventies, adding myself to the small list that eventually grew exponentially. Anybody interested in the history of children’s book illustrations in Malta from inception to the end of the twentieth century, and can read Maltese, can look at my short treatise on it, published in 2002.
The children’s magazine Sagħtar, that I had the honour to edit and produce for fourteen of its years, was a constant source of illustration as from its first issue in 1971 containing Mario Azzopardi’s outlined drawings and caricatured figures.
In the first editions we saw Luciano Micallef’s first steps as an artistic innovator, which set the stage for the magazine being the trying ground for a large number of different illustrators during its long life. The magazine stopped publication in 2015. The list of illustrators who began their career in it is much too long to even hint at here.
Desktop graphics systems, offset printing and an acceptance of illustration as an academic field of study, among a large number of other factors, slowly developed Maltese illustration and brought it up to par with that produced outside our shores. Colour was now the order of the day, and a second wave of illustrators, particularly in the nineties, brought diversity, innovation and a very fresh feel to the genre. People like Marisa Attard, with her almost grotesque anatomical deviations, but whose figures were, nonetheless, incredibly aesthetically pleasing; Victor Pulis with his historical illustrations and cartoons; Mikiel Galea with his UK juvenile comics inspired dynamic; Ġorġ Apap and his atmospheric, cross-hatched drawings; Victor Falzon’s anthropomorphic animal images; and Andrew Micallef’s incredibly detailed constructions. To name a few. And of course, the old guard was still at it, innovating, finding new technological ways of improving the product, from elaborate dark room work in the eighties and early nineties, to digital exploration as computer technology and desktop digital tools developed in the naughties.
In fact, the third wave of illustrators were sons and daughters of on-screen technologies. Not just armed with pen and paper, but also with stylus and tablet, iPad and Pencil, with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator often replacing the splashing of watercolour, acrylic and ink. But technology was only the tool to bring some incredible talent to the fore. Artists like Mark Scicluna and his dynamic presentation of caricatured figures in action; Lisa Falzon’s tremendously beautiful evocation of atmosphere; Moira Scicluna Zahra’s constant experimentation with styles and materials, together with digital comic artists like Audrienne Degiorgio, Daniela Attard and Fleur Sciortino, led the wave with gusto.
There were lots of others, of course. A resurgence of comics fandom in Malta instigated by a group of young fans organising an annual Comic Con, also led to a lot of new talent surfacing in that particular area. And book publication increased, in spite of the tiny market, particularly in the area of children’s literature, creating a demand for which there was a constant, talented supply. Leading publishers like Merlin and Klabb Kotba Maltin were on a constant lookout for new illustrators and the field was quickly populated with new styles and fresh looks.
Moira Scicluna Zahra’s idea to start a Facebook page for (originally) Malta-based illustrators was brilliant. It got so many people together I had not heard of before and who were massively original in their approaches and enormously inventive. Most of them where young and here was clearly another wave of illustration in the making.
Many of the illustrators on the page saw illustration as an end in itself, literally communicating a point as a standalone, which was not the main onus in the past, though I’ve never agreed with the definitive definition of book illustration by Whalley and Chester, that is, that it “cannot properly exist outside its text”, since I believe that book illustration can be a continuation of the text, particularly if the illustrator is also the author of the piece. But even they admit that pictures are independent works and can stand by themselves.
The Facebook page turned into a Community of Illustrators, which led to a website, an Instagram page, and others. It spawned a poster campaign casting a critical eye on the Maltese landscape which was very well received and got a lot of media attention. And the community grew. I lecture in illustration in the Bachelor of Fine Arts course at the University of Malta, and used the FB page to show off some of my second year students’ better works. They in turn flocked to the community, which is not just bringing together those who already work as illustrators, and instigates discussions on payment, techniques and other bread and butter issues, but is also helping to foster the next generation of illustrators.
And then came the brilliant idea of this book. The first of its type. An annual event, one hopes, that showcases the best work of some of the best of those illustrators, spanning most of the waves I mention above (apart, perhaps, from the first one, of which I am the sole representative here, with words, rather than with images. Fair enough.) The approach to the selection of illustrations to be featured in the book was professional to the extreme, with judges hailing from lots of areas related to illustration … from publishers to actual illustrators and art directors … going through the impressively large number of submissions in order to choose the final set.
And I must admit I love their choices, though, admittedly, there were a few left out that I would definitely have included. But subjective selectivity is what is at the base of judging this type of thing, and it works well. I would love to just single out a few favourites here, but that would be very unfair on the rest, so I’ll content myself by zipping through the selection and taking it all in. And, boy, what a tour de force it is!
The themes and functionality of the different illustrations vary. They go from standalone cartoons commenting about some aspect or other of society, to advertising illustration with everything in between. Some clearly illustrate text and are probably part of books, but some seem to have been done for the love of it, only their graphic nature distinguishing them from any of the fine art one finds in Museums.
Most are digitally created, with that clean feel of the digital hard to hide. Others have gone the way of traditional drawing and painting on paper. So you get the faces with birds for eyelashes, cleanly painted on watercolour paper, and then it’s a brightly delineated cockerel, cut out from the background, with sharp edged patterns overlaid to create it digitally. There is vector art, of course, sharply crafting posters and at the same time, Photoshop painted images invoke oil painting in all but the oil paints. There are poignant comments about society and its ills (hunting, overbuilding and all the themes so dear to a Maltese environmentalist’s heart). There are beautifully crafted, infinitesimally detailed architectural drawings that boggle the mind at the skill and patience of the craftsperson involved, and on the opposite end of the scale, there are what seem to be naif, vector images in flat colours that simplify views of the Maltese lifestyle. Such incredibly wonderful diversity.
And there is more. 3D programs are used to generate fantasy scenarios that demand both skills and a platform-game steeped imagination to create. I love the abstract surrealism of some of the work here … the huge glass ball slowly crawling down disembodied stairs, for example! But I also love the collages, and the found object collations that demand an incipient understanding of balance to convey an aesthetically pleasing result. And there are watercoloured in drawings of people, and evocative, purposely rough edged images of places in Malta (like Valletta). There are art nouveau inspired swans, and seemingly pre-raphaelite detailed landscapes. There is minimalism, and then there is overworking. There is light-and-shadow play, and then there is the ligne claire style, eschewing all depth for the sake of instant clarity. There is bright colour in the main, but there is also grayscale and black line, and, where needed, monochrome.
Admittedly I can’t have enough of them. And all of this in a pandemic year, when lockdowns brought on depressions and fears and a fast-changing society overwhelmed us. And the artists hit back by producing some of their best work … by channelling the angst into glorious images, many of which you are seeing here. If I’m permitted a tiny personal aside, my own personal life went through a monumental upheaval before the pandemic hit, resulting in destructive grief … and, perversely, my creativity just exploded. It led to three books of prose, an exhibition of paintings, a twice-weekly comic strip in Malta’s most popular newspaper, a book of poetry… and the pandemic, admittedly, exacerbated the depression that, nonetheless, seems to have fed my artistic output. And I know this was true for a lot of visual artists that I am acquainted with.
So, out of the darkness have come these bright flashes of gorgeous light, and you get to enjoy them here.
Congratulations to all of those represented here. Thank you for your originality, skill and ability to communicate so brilliantly with your art, on cerebral, emotional, and intellectual levels. Thank you for grasping so well the concepts that provoke illustration and for being successful, forward-thinking illustrators who, as Alan Male has said, are “educated, socially and culturally aware communicators utilising a breadth of intellectual and practical skills.”
There can be no doubt that all of those represented in this collection are just that. And they’ve also produced an enormous amount of beautiful pictures. And who does not love to look at beautiful pictures?
Andrew Hall (2011). Illustration. London, UK: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
Lawrence Zeegen (2012). The Fundamentals of Illustration (2nd ed.). Lausanne, SW: AVA Publishing SA
Ġorġ Mallia (2016). Robert Caruana Dingli’s Cartoons from the Early 1920s. Giovanni Bonello (Ed.), Robert Caruana Dingli: Letters, Caricatures and Other Works, p.p. 139–158. Malta, MT: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
Ġorġ Mallia (2002). Illustraturi tal-Kotba Maltin għat-Tfal. In T. Żahra, C. Briffa & Ġ. Mallia, Il-Kotba għat-Tfal. Pietà, MT: PIN.
Joyce Irene Whalley and Tessa Rose Chester (1988). A History of Children’s Book Illustration. London, UK: John Murray with the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Alan Male (2007). Illustration: A Theoretical & Contextual Perspective. Lausanne, SW: AVA Publishing SA
Ġorġ Mallia is a communications academic, author and cartoonist working on the island of Malta. He is an Associate Professor and the Head of the Department of Media and Communications at the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences, University of Malta.