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REVIEW: Bellum in Mundum: When Beauty Succumbs to War

A new series of paintings by Tonio Mallia reimagines a world shaken beyond its tipping point, where the tensions between the human and natural world are no longer at play, and beauty has devolved into war.

The world is going through a crisis not unlike that experienced by an entire post-war generation over a century ago, the disillusion and sterility of which cling to the haunting verses of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The poem, which turns a hundred this year, offers, in one critic’s analysis, ‘a vision of desolation and spiritual drought’, and exhales, according to another, a ‘sigh for the vanished glory of the past’, encompassing the ‘plight of the whole generation’, as yet another commentator puts it. A hundred years on, these unheeded utterances have found their way into the Camerone at MUŻA, Valletta, where they hang about ominously, full of dread, announcing the foreboding ethos of a series of new paintings by Tonio Mallia in an exhibition called Bellum in Mundum.  

Tonio’s previous offering to the public, however, presented a very different view of the world, as if in its primordial days of creation and habitation. For seven years, the artist receded from view, while the world evolved according to its natural order and entrusted all to the human race. Now, in the eighth year, nature trembles at its tipping point—its dying point—rebelling violently, pleading and yearning to be cleansed of the cancer that plagues its beautiful body: the land, the air, and the seas. We have instead a terrible face, grimacing at mankind—the cause and victim of the unprecedented war it wages on the world, and which nature knows is final. So, what happened to mankind that it should forget its place as steward of the world and, as it were, of itself—that bello (beauty) should succumb to bellum (war)?  

To be sure, there is still beauty in the world, and it often surfaces and dwells in places which are hardly of note: nature will always be able to surprise, to instil an indescribable and ungraspable sense of awe, and humanity, too, is still capable of producing works of immense beauty, of being a cause of beauty. And yet, we know only too well the innumerable lives nature has claimed, and the immeasurable damage man has inflicted upon the world, gradually turning it into a wasteland and, indeed, discarding one another as if they themselves are made of waste. Despite all the beauty man can create and offer, history shows us in many tragic ways—the holocaust, Chernobyl, the exodus of all asylum seekers—that man is just as capable of the greatest brutalities and horrors ever witnessed or heard of. It is precisely this tension which plays across the surfaces of Tonio’s paintings in Bellum in Mundum, the same tension which troubles Death as imagined in Zusak’s The Book Thief, perplexed as he is by humanity, by ‘how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, its words and stories so damning and brilliant’. Here is the interplay between beauty and war, between creating and erasing, building and dismantling, staying and fleeing, dying and living, that haunts and unsettles the beholder, victims of their own crimes.  

Every day offers a memory of something that is no longer there: a place, a person, a moment. In August alone, we remember the thousands of Sinti and Roma murdered in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the millions stripped of their dignity and life under tyrannical regimes; we remember the barbaric atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the toxic smoke that spread and the rain which poured death instead of life; we remember the families forced to separate and flee, as they still do now, pushed out of their homes because of another toxin that always threatens to poison the human heart; we remember, too, those who sought a freedom, to fight back and not abandon that fragile thing called hope.  

And so it may be, in nature as in the world of man, that life marches through the dry and arid grounds, through the stench of rot and the fragile, cracked earth, so as to give witness to it and will that a new beginning might emerge from the detritus and mistakes that have been made.  

Bellum in Mundum’ will be on show at the Camerone, MUŻA – The National Community Art Museum, Valletta, until the 11th of September. 

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