I’m no art critic so I will not evaluate the technical or artistic qualities of Patrick Dalli’s portrait of Joseph Muscat. My concern is the subject matter. A portrait of Genghis Khan can capture the character, be a masterpiece of contemporary brush techniques, immortalise a posture never before seen in its genre. It will still be a picture of a bloody tyrant and not one I would want hanging in my living room, or for that matter, in the office of my prime minister.
History has not yet appropriately judged Joseph Muscat. Sometimes it takes time. Christopher Columbus had squares, cities, even countries named after him. His mug was carved gloriously atop columns exceeding the needles of the Nile in loftiness, his arm outstretched pointing over the ocean as if he made it.
For five centuries he was a hero. And now, at last, we are re-assessing the world’s history and Columbus’s place in it is being re-assessed alongside with it. He’s still dead. He’s done nothing for our opinions about him to change. The fuss of 5 centuries and the precipitous demotion from the historical pantheon is still about a man who looked for a quicker way to the cinnamon market and stumbled on an island he could not place.
What’s this got to do with Joseph Muscat? Just that tyrants think they can manipulate everything, even the way they are remembered.
There was once a memo during the early years of the Third Reich that recommended that public buildings erected by the Nazis should be built with marble and other materials that would look attractive as ruins to tourists visiting Berlin in two thousand years like we visit Rome’s fori imperiali. Concrete would be grey and the metal frames that hold it up would rust. Marble ages beautifully.
History has a way of shitting over that sort of hubris.
Some commented today when reporters published a picture of the Muscat portrait that he looked his part, ‘the father of modern Malta’. He may well be. To him the credit of siring a country disgraced in the eyes of the world for pervasive corruption and for a toxic relationship with the truth. For this, alas, is the Malta of our time.
Joseph Muscat has arm-twisted his successor to hang his picture in Castille, a ghostly reminder of the loyalties Robert Abela still owes him. But history is not made of months. History is made of what people feel about their past and that may yet change.
This portrait is supposed to write the picture book version of Muscat’s legacy. Some said he looked “business-like”, “dynamic”, “youthful”. I think he looks like what he is: the most corrupt prime minister in Malta’s history, a dilution of the value of all his predecessors and a cautionary tale for his successors.
Christopher Columbus would have had to live 500 years to see his legacy wane. Joseph Muscat is 47 now. He’ll live long enough to see the country’s understanding of what he inflicted on it overwhelm any effort he might make to continue to look good in its eyes.
One day, and it won’t be long, a prime minister with more personality and self-awareness and less obligations than Robert Abela, will relocate Joseph Muscat’s picture to somewhere they will call more appropriate like they’re doing these days with statues of General Robert Lee or Cecil Rhodes or, indeed, Christopher Columbus.
The cellar perhaps?