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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.”
The fascination with Malta’s prehistoric temples was to culminate in 1999, when Ebba participated in a collaborative exhibition entitled ‘Temples - Malta, Seven Women - Seven Temples’. The artists worked ‘in situ’ at the various temple sites and Ebba felt charged by the spiritual energy of the ruins as she worked. Laganà refers to particular works in the exhibition that evoke her connection with the place.
“If we look at her works: ‘Deep Inside’, ‘Look Through’, and ‘The Message’; they all evoke the "energy" felt inside the temples. Maltese writer Victor Borg described her paintings as "bold brushstrokes of reds, purples, dirty browns, blacks, but she tenderly expresses the curvaceous qualities; the megaliths overlapping one another like folds leading deeper into some living organ."

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'”.
Speaking about her 2006 collaborative exhibition with ceramicist Julie Apap, entitled ‘Creation’, Laganà pinpoints certain key elements to Ebba’s artwork that betray her primitivist leanings. “In this exhibition, Ms von Fersen Balzan has works which include the female nude and which are composed of vegetation and floral motifs. The artist here is trying to show us women's identification with nature through her symbolical imagery, which is an essential element in primitivism. It is also a kind of "animistic sensibility", which is an attempt to return to a "primitive" way of seeing nature. Artists like Ms von Fersen Balzan seek to experience and express the essential forms of nature in a simple and spontaneous manner.” He emphasises her channelling of an archetypal, primordial aspect of the Maltese land and landscape, through her interest in the temples as well through her female figures, which she connects inextricably to the land. “Recreating ancient symbols brings back the lost feeling that humans had in relation to nature. Ms von Fersen Balzan has a commitment as an artist to bring the lost ancient culture alive and to develop a visionary approach to nature though her work.”
A counterpoint to this primordial and archetypal subject matter was Ebba’s work, in collaboration with Jeni Caruana, on the Malta Jazz Festival. The two painters would paint the musicians live, capturing the festival’s mood in assured and intense brushstrokes. “In these works, spontaneity and improvisation are the most important aspects of Ms von Fersen Balzan's working method, and she tries also to express how she feels while listening to the music. Works like Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Emily Bezar, and the Original Blues Brothers convey the whimsical spectacle of the performers,” Laganà says.

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.
Her funeral was held on March 19. The decoration of her coffin involved the melding together of five of the artist's works, all layered on top of each other. 
Last year saw the publication of a collection of illustrations focused on Ebba’s love for her first ‘kelb tal fenek’ entitled ‘…life according to Oskar’. A similar love-letter to another animal will be on sale in bookshops soon, entitled ‘Oreste fluff: The adventures of a Maltese cat’.


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