Joseph Calleja, visual artist and a veteran of the Modern Art Group, has passed away in Toronto at the age of 94 years, on the 21st December, the day of his birth. Calleja was highly regarded among Canadian art critics and curators; he was also admired and loved by his Maltese friends, artists and colleagues from his School of Art days, but few Maltese people knew about him before the retrospective exhibition organised by Bank of Valletta plc earlier this year.
Calleja had been one of the founding members of the Modern Art Group in Malta. He pursued his art studies in Oxford and later in London, where he met his future wife Gina Gadsby, also an art graduate. Although he left for Canada only four years after the formation of the MAG, he continued to form part of the Maltese art scene indirectly by regularly keeping in touch with his old School of Art colleagues, through the steadfast friendships he enjoyed with Antoine Camilleri, Frank Portelli, Joseph Caruana, Samuel Bugeja, among others. Later, during his 1996 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Calleja made other long-lasting friendships with the curatorial staff, which he renewed with each visit to Malta together with his wife Gina.
Calleja spent a lifetime dedicated to art, as painter and sculptor, and as art teacher, first in Gozo, and later in Canada. In Hamilton, Ontario, Calleja’s art classes left a profound impression on his students, some of who went on to lead successful careers in the visual arts. There Calleja also found a stimulating art scene, aided by its proximity to New York and its exhibition centres. Calleja came to the fore with the kinetic art movement of Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as acknowledged by the inclusion of his art in the major exhibition OP! L’Art Optique, Ici et Aileurs, 1960-1975 held in Quebec in 2016. He continued to research and experiment in art, creating original pieces well into his 90s.
Calleja’s personal exhibitions in Malta were few. The first was held in 1951, at the Malta Society of Arts. He pursued his long-held wish to hold an exhibition in Malta following his retirement from teaching in 1984. This was realised in 1996-7 at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta and at the Ministry for Gozo in Rabat, where he showed his paintings and sculptures to wide critical acclaim. In 1997 and again in 2014, Calleja made two major donations of his works to the NMFA, including his some of his ground-breaking kinetic sculptures.
In 2017, Calleja was invited by Bank of Valletta plc to hold a retrospective of his life’s work. This time, at the BOV exhibition held in Valletta, Calleja exhibited the full range of his oeuvre, including prints, drawings and photographs, besides paintings and sculptures, as well as his expressionist paintings in the series ‘Sacrifice of the Lambs’ which was premiered on the occasion. Following his BOV retrospective, Calleja once more generously gave a large number of his paintings and sculptures to MUZA, Heritage Malta. He also donated his prints and photographs to the Library of the University of Malta, and the ‘Lambs’ series to the Archdiocese of Malta.
In May 2018, when he travelled to Malta for the inauguration together with his daughter Anna and her husband Allan Killin, Calleja thought of the exhibition as his swan song, knowing it would be his last visit to his homeland.
With art by Joseph Calleja in major Canadian collections as well as in Malta and Gozo, the artist’s life and work offer a challenge to the traditional repertory of Maltese art history. Calleja’s legacy deserves no less, for he was a man who was far-sighted and consistent in following the road less travelled, who persevered in taking art to previously unknown limits, and who thereby made his name among the greats.
Joseph Calleja, born in Xewkija, Gozo on 21st December 1924, died in Toronto, Canada on 21st December 2018. He is survived by his daughter Anna and his grandsons, Antoine and Marcel.
Dr Theresa Vella
Art historian, curator