|Sunday, 30 March 2008
An honorary Maltese, a visionary artist
Artists, art critics and friends unanimously gather to remember the impact and value of Ebba von Fersen Balzan’s work and her strong connection with the Maltese islands
Ebba von Fersen Balzan will be chiefly remembered for her art - characterised by intense, vibrant colours - and her work towards the German institution Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. She has taken part in a large number of both collective and solo exhibitions while in Malta. She also had a number of successful exhibitions in Germany. More recently, she opened the ‘Galerie 2230’ in a renovated Catholic school found in the village of Plussien, Brittany, where she held two exhibitions.
Dennis Vella, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, points out her tendency towards two common elements: working with “other women artists of quality, including such names as Isabelle Borg, Jeni Caruana and Olaug Vethal. Her work, which besides landscape and other subjects, was particularly notable for its regular reference to themes from Maltese Neolithic art and religion.” This emphasis on the essentials of the Maltese landscape and the focus on the Neolithic temples leads Vella to conclude that “after a few years in Malta, Ebba was no longer an outsider passing through, but had become truly a part of our art scene. We, too, considered her one of our own and shall feel her loss.”
To artist, art critic and lecturer Raphael Vella Ebba was also a fellow Maltese. “My most vivid memory of her is of a short three-day stay in Sardinia in 1999, where she was participating in an outdoor landscape painting competition, with other Maltese and Italian artists,” Vella, who was judging the competition at the time, says. “Ebba worked a lot, painting in her typically personal hues, which helped to set her work apart from everyone else's. I distinctly remember this middle-aged, female painter from Cagliari who gazed at Ebba's work when it was presented at the end of our stay, and said, "Gosh, look what powerful colours these Maltese artists are capable of using!" I couldn't bring myself to reply that Ebba was actually German. To us, she had become one of us, a Maltese.”
Ebba’s connection to Malta, however, extended beyond just a naturalised citizenship - the island had left a strong impression ever since she first arrived in 1986 and motivated her artistic productivity throughout her entire life. Critic Louis Laganà recalls her immediate fascination with the “intense light of the Maltese landscape and the colour of the Maltese stone. Her first exhibitions in Malta date back to 1989. The first one was in aid of Alternattiva Demokratika, held at Hotel Phoenicia, which was followed by another exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. The works in these exhibitions were about the Maltese prehistoric temples, in which she expressed her fascination with our ancient heritage, mostly depicting the morphological qualities of the bas relief and sculptures found in the temples.”
Indeed, many of Ebba’s friends are quick to point out the passionate, impulsive nature of her painting style; a style which emerges as a visceral response to inspiration in a burst of intense, vibrant colour. Artist Isabelle Borg, who had befriended Ebba soon after she had settled in Malta, talks about Ebba’s insistence on painting ‘in situ’, something that Borg shared and which recalls Ebba’s genuine connection with the temples and the need to be in touch with the source while painting, rather than relying on prosaic tools and tricks. “Ebba and I got to know each other in 1989. We actually used to go out and work together. She was one of the few to portray landscape in an expressive manner rather than a conventional one. Both of us loved drawing from observation. We were both trained in the method and neither of us liked the idea of working from photographs. So we worked live on the landscapes.”
“Creativity poured out of Ebba’s hands,” says artist Anna Grima, who was also one of the painters in the ‘Seven Temples’ exhibition. “In my eyes she was a channel for colour. She was always an artist’s artist. I admired her gift and skills. Her colours pulsated with the ebb and flow of life. This unique talent was a source of inspiration for all of us.” Grima believes there was an undeniable bond between Ebba’s work and her personality, “A gifted woman of substance and values, her works are a reflection of her: a balance between the exciting patterns of texture and the broad power of colour, patient and sensitive, bold and direct. This is the essence and beauty of art, the fine line of harmony that exists between our conscious and subconscious.”
Indeed, artist Vince Briffa, a close friend of Ebba’s, believes that there was more to her experimentation with vibrant colours than just formal artistic concerns. “I believe that her use of colour was more than just a style - it was an extension of her character. She would always speak enthusiastically on anything having to do with art or literature - she would treat animals and good food with the same amount of intensity. Her work gained a conceptual richness through her involvement in not just the field of culture but humanitarian initiatives as well. This is the reason why she would stick to certain subjects in her paintings and not flit from one thing to another - she was convinced that the themes she chose were of ample importance and so deserved her full attention.”
The primitivism of Ebba’s artwork also garners mutual appreciation amongst her artistic peers. “Ebba used raw colour as in the 'fauvist' approach without emulating their style,” says artist and photographer Patrick Fenech. “She had her own distinctive style and I loved her primitive approach on the canvas where perspective and depth of field are omitted to make way a 'new objectivity'”.
Ebba von Fersen Balzan passed away at 50 years of age. In spite of physical difficulties, she still took on a 35 painting commission, 32 of which she managed to complete in December. The rest remain semi-finished.
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