Interview: Fiona Galea Debono
Photos: Eddy Wenting

Dutch artist Peter Korver’s walls can talk… They speak not only of the flora and fauna that inhabit Malta as featured in his botanical wall paintings in San Anton Palace’s Grand Salon, but they also convey other messages. These subtler details are not the subject of the panel and ceiling artwork, so they may go by unnoticed, but they are part of the “internal anatomy” of it all, of its intensity, just as much as its colour, or the quality of the brushstrokes.

How did you, a Dutch artist, end up painting the panels and ceiling of the Grand Salon of the redecorated San Anton Palace, Malta's 17th century Presidential Residence ?

During the summer of 2015, I received an e-mail from Lisa Carson at the Malta/Milan-based design firm DAAA Haus, inquiring about some ceilings and paintings for their restoration project at San Anton Palace, which was just getting started… The idea grew silent and I later understood they had been under quite some pressure getting the first stages of the project finished in time for the Commonwealth Summit later that year. We got into contact again almost two years later and the request was now much more clearly defined, focusing on a botanical theme for the Grand Salon.
It is a field I have been specializing in for over a decade. Working from an academic background in biology, history and art, I design new decorational programmes for historical monuments, telling their stories by using painted botanical and zoological imagery.
From then on, the process developed quite rapidly; a year later, the first set of painted panels for the palace walls was flown to Malta.

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As compared to all your other commissions, how important, different, or challenging was this particular job? Does the official residence of a country’s president come with a particular responsibility ?

Yes, it certainly does, but then again, working in monumental historic interiors always comes with that responsibility. They really raise the bar, as there is often a lot of formal and architectural quality present and many stories that can be brought out.
You have to match the quality, though, or enhance it. If you can’t do that, or even worse, if you’re not able to see the difference, it’s probably better not to touch things. I really feel that moral obligation, or ethical responsibility. Well, let’s say this ‘matching the original historical quality’ is what I aim at. It is the ambition.

Does working in a presidential palace, a place of national and political importance, have an impact on the way you approach your work due to the sensitivity ?

Certainly, in a national and political setting as this palace, everything tends to acquire a stronger meaning. This being a very powerful tool, it also comes with a certain responsibility. All subject matter you bring to the surface here and into the images is immediately articulated and comes into view in a political sense.
If you put a painting on the walls of a house, this says something about the person who lives there. If you put up something here, it says something about this country, and so, by definition, it becomes political.
But I am an outsider here; I have my opinions, ethics and affinities of course, but I don’t have any role or say in the political discussions of this country. So, yes, this is quite a delicate position.
Also, in my work in general, I do not see it as my role to make judgments or statements about the history of any of the houses I work in. It is tempting sometimes though, for instance with houses that came into being through the often violent accumulation of colonial fortune. I bring those histories to the surface, yes, yet I don’t think it is, let’s say, ‘healthy’ for the house if I were to add any judgmental labels or political statements to that.

The Sunday Times

Were you given carte blanche on the subjects and colour schemes of these paintings ?

As I was making a first and second inventory of possible ways to compose the ensemble of wall panels, I e-mailed a presentation of sketches to the architect office in Malta. Only one day later, they replied it had already been shown to Her Excellency. As it turned out, at that point, she was already liking my approach, and so was Heritage Malta, so much so that, from there, the road turned out to be fairly easy. A certain amount of ‘trust’ had rooted from that moment on. That mutual trust is what I’m usually aiming at, but to gain it that quickly working from Amsterdam, after one or two visits to the palace, was definitely special…
Colour schemes, however, particularly the colors of the panels and woodwork in the room, were pretty much set beforehand in close cooperation with the designers of the whole renovation project, as they are an integral part of the bigger scheme of the rooms.

The end result is an array of plants and animals deeply rooted in Maltese soil. How hard is it to enter a foreign country and immediately understand what symbolizes it, apart from the obvious clichés ? What does it take to build this understanding? How much time, in fact, did you spend in Malta and what sort of research did you carry out ?

Immediate understanding would be impossible and an illusion, I’d say. Also, my altogether three months of staying in Malta were only a beginning. Having said that, everything I did in Malta was part of that research… from drawing plants and watching birds during a day’s walk over the cliffs around Dingli, as much as having dinner with the architects; long e-mail exchanges with a well-informed Maltese botanist, as much as having a beer with one of the palace’s soldiers after duty.

The Sunday Times

Having gotten to know Malta, would you have imagined anything other than ‘botanical’ as the subject for the Grand Salon paintings ?

That would be hard to say, I guess, in the first place because the botanical theme of the room was more or less set as the original point of departure. It is a consequence of the way the room is positioned in the palace’s wing, visually connecting the gardens on either side of it. Besides that, botany and zoological biology are in a way my language, as I often, if not always, translate historical and architectural subject matter using that kind of imagery.

How much did the gardens of the palace itself inspire you ?

The lovely gardens around San Anton did help a lot, but not so much in a botanical way. During my visits for research and installation, I had the privilege of being invited to stay as a guest at the palace. Of course, it was very convenient to be staying so close to the work. But in the first place, it allowed me to get a really good, almost intimate, feeling of the ancient atmosphere of this place.
This almost 400-year-old gem was originally built as a country retreat to escape the summer heat of Valletta and the urban buzz in general. Although that buzz today has grown closer to the palace’s walls than ever before, thanks to its surrounding gardens, some of the original atmosphere seems to be retained. There has been a wide variety of ways to get in touch with aspects of this country, but to really get in contact with this quiet, historic side of it, still present in a place like San Anton, was quite a unique experience. Apart from that, the daily contacts with the soldiers, household and technical staff of the palace have all been an honour and a real pleasure.

How important is it to have an intimate knowledge of natural life [and your biology background] when attempting to paint it and even choose what to paint? Is it as important as being able to draw ?

In my case, I think it is, but of course, I can hardly imagine a ‘me’ without at least some of this intimate knowledge.
I do know that when I paint flora and fauna, my paint behaves differently, more fluently, than when I attempt to paint humans or objects, and believe me, at art school we had to. I think it’s a matter of language; certain vocabularies just fit you better than others.
Apart from that, I do know that a bit of a broader overview in the fields of history, biology and art combined enables me to make quick cross connections, and that’s a game I really feel at home in…

The Sunday Times

Did you seek expert advice or just base it on your personal exploration and discoveries ?

Both actually. I contacted some very well-informed people in this field, who were all very forthcoming. They helped me get a deeper understanding of what the Maltese landscape is about and gave me much more insight into its myriad ecological problems.
The selection of depicted species in the end, however, came about through what I found on my cycling trips around the islands. Although many people strongly advised against it, I rented a mountain bike every time I was here [usually stored under the close watchful eyes of the palace’s soldiers, pretty much alongside the President’s SUV]. Please don’t listen too much to anybody telling you otherwise; I’d say cycling is actually pretty good here, and it brought me much closer to the Maltese landscape…
There was yet another aspect of the project I really couldn’t have done without the help of these Maltese experts. I liked the idea of having all the depicted species mentioned on gilded wooden information plates modeled after the ones used underneath most historic portraits in Malta’s palaces. All animals and plants are now named from left to right in Maltese, Latin and English. Finding the exact [where possible] Maltese names, however, turned out to be quite hard in some cases. Eventually, we got there.

What image did you create of Malta in your head? And how is this translated into the Grand Salon ?

I had visited Malta earlier… So when I first arrived for this project, based on those experiences, my ideas were already driven by the island’s history of deforestation, its building boom, water problems and the process of desertification, which have all been reshaping the landscape with increasing speed. I knew I had to make that shift into a broader and deeper view, immersing myself into the landscape, for instance, by days and days of cycling around the island.

What stood out as you worked on understanding the Maltese Islands, the landscape, their flora and fauna ?

That I had to slow down and visit the countryside at different times of the year… The oceans of flowering herbs in early spring were a revelation as opposed to what I had seen earlier; as were the bright green stems and intricate pink-based leaves of the giant fennel [ferla] in March, which I had only known from their dry flower heads as dark iconic silhouettes in the landscape during summer. I also recall having spent the best part of an afternoon gazing at the cautious movements of a chameleon in an orchard somewhere around Birżebbuga.

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The fig cactus, for example, would appear to be a national icon, and yet it is an invasive species. How did you resolve the dilemma of what to include and why in this important room ?

The fig cactus is a good example, indeed. The first time I came face to face with one, I simply couldn’t resist its beauty. In Qrendi, I saw some magnificent examples too, cascading from the walls of Il-Maqluba. And I think it was somewhere around Miżieb on the valley road to Mellieħa where I noticed one with a large Maltese cross boldly cut into the rough bark of one of its lower segments. It was like a heart and some initials cut in a tree, but also like a scar.
I was aware that it had recently been declared an invasive species, ironically, as you say, as it could very well be one of Malta’s national icons. And to add another detail to the irony, how about being declared an alien or illegal immigrant after doing centuries of service as a basic means of fencing property.
I had originally intended to use only native or even endemic species in my paintings; plants and animals that are only found on these islands. I dropped this idea not so much because of its environmentalist message [most endemic species are threatened], but because it seemed to resonate something of today’s fast-growing popularity of isolationist sentiments. Once I immersed myself in the landscape, I realized I just couldn’t ignore something as obvious as this omnipresent Mexican cactus… in much the same way that the agave wriggled its way into the palace’s paintings.
The original plan was not entirely overthrown though. I balanced it. These two invasive plants have now taken up permanent residency on either side of the salon’s fireplace, paired with animals that are symbolic in other ways – turtledoves and a peregrine falcon, and even a pair of Malta’s endemic wall lizards.

Where does the traditional lace come into the botanical aspect of the work ?

Exactly there… in what we just discussed. Lace is as intricate web of connecting lines. I described it at some point during the inauguration this way: “All plants and animals depicted in the room are connected in one way or another; connected by ecological relations, as they live ‘on’, ‘from’, or ‘with’ each other. They are also connected by stories, by history, or simply because they share the limited space of these islands together, with each other and with us. Together, we make up ‘the Lace of Malta’, or, as the Maltese title of the work reflects, Bizzilla ta’ Malta.

But that is lace as it is used as a symbol in the title of the work. There is also its formal presence in the room. Lace had originally been part of a plan for one of the other rooms during the first talks some years earlier. Later, these plans were changed, and I was asked to do the Grand Salon. At that point, however, the lace had already stuck in my mind. I come from a family of costume makers; almost everybody on one side of my family has a very close affinity with fabrics, tailoring and textile, and so have I. Besides that, I always include some sort of grand linear structures in my work and the lace would provide just that.

I used it differently, however; lace handkerchiefs were transformed into cartouches around the panel paintings on the ceiling, with small floral details taken from the lace’s design added below, as a sprinkling cascade of flowers and leaves. A superimposed ground of bobbing lace stitches was added to the ceiling as a diagonal grid structure, which brings to mind the lattice work of a botanical conservatory.

Visiting the palace some weeks after having made these decisions, I noticed builders on site chiseling away at some loose plaster-work in the corridor leading up to the Salon. In some of the holes they had made, I could clearly see the remains of old paintwork showing fragments of the brightly colored diagonal grid of what once, in the distant past, must have been a faux painted treillage gallery.
I really love it when things like that turn up; it usually tells me I’m on the right track.

And you even managed to get the symbolic Maltese cross into the picture… Tell us how.

One evening, just before nightfall, I was walking along the belvedere overlooking the palace’s gardens when a heavy insect passed me by. With that size, sound and distinct silhouette, at that time of day, it could only be a hawk moth [baħrija], one of my favorite insects since childhood. This was one of those ‘meetings’ that in the end defined my work for the Grand Salon. In this case, I decided to put this endemic Maltese insect in one of the four lace cartouches on the domed ceiling. In the other three, I experimented for a while with other sky- and tree-dwelling animals before I decided to add the three closely related Mediterranean hawk moth species, all attracted by the light of the ceiling’s antique Murano Glass chandelier. All four moths are stunningly beautiful, and all are found on, or regularly visit, these islands.
Recent DNA research has shown that Malta’s endemic is a hybrid between the other moth species depicted here, one from North Africa and one from Southern Europe. I didn’t know this when I painted them, but I really like the idea that it, in a way, reflects the mixed language history and culture of this country. A mix, yes, but with its own very distinct identity.
And then it got even better when I saw that the combined outline of all four moths subtly echoed the shape of a Maltese cross. A loose gathering of different species now defines the ceiling, adding another perspective to one of this country’s most cherished symbols.

Is there a particular animal or plant you painted that you are attached to and why?

The affinity with the hawk moths already existed, but some others came into view during this project. Capers [kappar] are one example, with their spectacular one-day flowers, of course, and their strong lilac colors, almost airy, hovering around the tips of the stamens. I’ve grown to like the use of more capers in the kitchen too, by the way.
Another plus about capers is that they tend to grow from walls and so this gave me the opportunity to have a plant entering the painting from the center, as opposed to the other paintings where stems and leaves enter from the bottom or the sides of the panel.
Two iridescent carpenter bees [bomblu iswed] have been added to this panel. One of these I saw hovering around the caper bushes during an evening walk in the woodlands around Verdala in the company of a Maltese biologist. The first one I saw, sounding like a small propeller airplane, had caused panic on a Sunday evening terrace I visited a month earlier in Balzan. Strikingly beautiful and completely harmless, just by their sound, these insects can leave a pretty strong impression.

When you carry out such commissions, are you influenced by surrounding situations – in the case of Malta, over development, the wanton destruction of the natural environment, the ruthless chopping of trees? Do these matters concern you ?

Yes, my work is by nature a reflection of the relation of a place with its history and its surrounding situations.
And in this case too, how could it not? Because of its limited size, Malta is a living illustration of the finiteness of economic growth and urban development. In some places, you can really imagine the last tree having been cut down. And so, all sorts of ‘ways of being’ are lost; not only of ‘being a particular tree on a particular spot’, but also as ways of being Malta itself.
When I had just got home last summer, I read about the plans concerning the trees on Rabat road, and it really got to me for a couple of days…

The same goes for language. I was brought up in a coastal village, where half the population switched to speaking German during summer for the comfort of tourists. So, I always had some ambivalent feelings there. But in Malta, I could really see that when Maltese people switch from speaking English into a conversation in Maltese, they also seem to switch to another way of being and thinking.
In the beginning of the project, I heard a discussion about the pros and cons of Maltese being one of the official languages of the EU. I have grown into a very strong supporter of this. If we lose this, we lose a part of European thinking and being. But the same thing goes for Malta itself and for the way it treats its own landscape.
This is also one of the main reasons why I wanted to add the information plates to the paintings and why the names have been written in this particular order.
By the way, all these details we are discussing here are not the subject of the work, so I don’t expect people to consciously notice them. They are, however, part of the internal anatomy of it all; its intensity, just as much as its color, or the quality of the brushstrokes.

Do you feel that your panels have an eco-friendly message that is so important in today’s Malta ?

I see them, in a way, as portraits of the ‘other’ residents of Malta. If you will, according to their size, as State portraits; portraits of non-human, but equally rightful heirs to this country – any country for that matter.
I do not intend this as a political statement; it’s just a logical observation, which does have some far-reaching ethical consequences though. And from that, you could probably draw the conclusion that, in today’s world, the simple act of painting an animal or a plant has by definition become a political act.

During the course of the project, do you recall any anecdotes that affected, influenced and inspired you along the way ?

In a way, you could say that the whole project came together as a reflection of experiences along the way. One particular event even provided me with the very basis of the work. One evening, I was walking over the rocky boulders along the coast between Paceville and Pembroke. When I looked into the quiet waters, I saw sea urchins slowly crawling along the bottom. Then I turned around and noticed the same animals in the limestone rocks all around me, frozen in time, fossilized millions of years ago.
All of the encounters I had on Malta left their traces, but seeing these sea urchins at once alive and encapsulated in the rock, just a few minutes outside this heavily urbanized area, left me with an overwhelming feeling of continuity. It later led me to develop a paint made with pulverized Maltese limestone, which I subsequently used as background color for these paintings. ‘Meetings on Malta’ was the project’s working title for a while during the process, and in a way, it still is.

Do you often work with particular elements that have a deeper connection and how hard is it to create your own paint concoctions ?

Making paint from what are usually called earth pigments – very fine soil, with its own natural color, mixed with any kind of binding material – is a basic procedure as old as cave paintings.
As for the concoction of all the ingredients in the room, the connections between the imagery on the paintings, the linear structures of the lace used as ornaments, the use of different languages on the plates beneath the paintings, and so on… and then all the new connections and stories emerging from there… this is hard… But I seem to be getting a little better at it every year. Actually, for me, it might even be the most inspiring aspect of what I do.

What would you say about your painting technique and style and the overall look and feel ?

It’s a subtle presence. These walls are so high – almost six meters – that paintings with more contrast would have blown you out of the room. I really like the soft warm color effect of the limestone paint. But the most striking part for me is the proportion of it all… These plants have been superimposed in different percentages. The bajtar cactus is just a little over life-size, while the spiraling leaves of Malta’s miniature irises have been enlarged a hundredfold, bringing to mind the complex curls of the rococo. The result is that all sense of proportion in the room seems to be lost.
When shooting these pictures, the photographer had the hardest time trying to give an impression of how large this room actually is. I didn’t intend this effect, and at first it puzzled me. But now I really like it.

Moreover, visiting Heads of State have been planting a tree in the San Anton Gardens to commemorate their stay at the palace for at least a century. Installing these paintings of smaller and larger herbs on the scale of the trees Malta so urgently lacks, somehow felt like doing something similar.

Did you actually paint on site ?

The six, wall-sized, 3.6-meter-high paintings and the panels for the 70-square-meter ceiling were all done in the Amsterdam studio in a process that saw the space painted in some of the basic colors of San Anton Palace for a while to closely control the continuity of color and light in the project. After completion in Amsterdam, everything was disassembled and transported to Malta by air to be installed at the palace. But of course, after that, there are always some finishing touches to do on site, and when everything has been put together, some adjustments need to be made to the space itself to make it all click and work.

Were there any particular challenges; things you set out to do, which did not work exactly as you intended ?

One of the challenges was of course the differences in the way we tend to over-organise things in the north, and the more Mediterranean approach. A friend advised me to go with the flow… ‘You’ll experience other things that way,’ he said. I took his word for it gratefully, and it changed everything.
Apart from that, there was this idea of transferring the Maltese cross motifs of loosely gathering butterflies of the Grand Salon ceiling to the ceiling beams of the corridor in that traditional Maltese way of subtle painted ornamentation. The idea came up quite late in the process, and we all really loved it. There was just not enough time left to get it executed before the official inauguration of the rooms.

What about the room itself, the Grand Salon? What can you say about it before your intervention and how its layout may have inspired you? How would you describe the Grand Salon after your touch and how does it compare to, fit in and sit with the rest of the rooms and decor of the presidential palace ?

Being positioned in the palace’s wing in a special way, with windows on two sides, it seems to visually connect the gardens on either side of it. We have tried to enhance and underline that.
Through the color scheme and the textile, almost tent-like appearance of its domed ceiling, the room now has become a breathing space, where fresh air appears to flow freely in and out. This as opposed to most of the other rooms, which have a much more ‘interior’ quality and atmosphere.

One of the last days I was there, just after the inauguration, this happened: Two of the garden’s peafowl had flown up to the belvedere, taken a stroll over the gallery, and then cautiously stepped inside through the open doors of the Grand Salon. They stayed for almost 10 minutes.
I decided to take it as a compliment…

Your paintings will become a part of Maltese history and will be studied just as we look at frescoes from the past in other historical places? How do you want to be remembered and considered by future generations? What would they learn about Malta and art in 2018 from your work ?

I don’t know about the future. I just hope that when Maltese people walk into the room today, they get the feeling it touches something fundamentally Maltese, something of this soil… that they recognize something they didn’t know consciously before.
At least that is what this project has done for me…

Interview: Fiona Galea Debono.