The Formative Years
Malta, early seventies.
From Left to Right: 
Norman Lowell
Victor Pasmore well known English artist
Charles Sewter Prof. History of Art, Manchester Univ.
Gabriel Caruana

Malta's leading ceramist and artist. The author's benign coach since the sixties.

Chev. Giuseppe Gatt Expert on rinascimento art
Life on the edge
The Times - Weekender Saturday, November 15, 1997

Whether it's teaching martial artists how to overcome their fear or painting a picture in under two minutes, Norman Lowell lives dangerously. MARK WOOD paid him a visit.

Years ago, there was a story doing the rounds of Norman Lowell's karate classes about the way he taught his advanced students. According to the rumour, Norman, an instructor in a special form of martial art known as Ch'uan Shu, would make his aspiring black belts do their moves along the top of a wall below which was a sheer drop of many feet.

One slip and.... The technique, apparently, was aimed at helping students overcome their fears and learn how to be solidly 'rooted' to the ground. At the time I didn't quite know whether to believe the story. And as a beginner barely surviving my introduction to Karate, I was not sure if I wanted to.

Now, I do. Only an extremist would take the risk - someone like Norman Lowell. An example is his radical opinions. He is, in his own words, an unashamed racist. He has just completed a 400-page book called Credo: A book for the very few, in which he details his beliefs about the supremacy of the white race and its "alarming" decline in numbers. "Whites are the creative minority of humanity. Without us, everything would stop," he warned me. The Maltese, he said are the only Europeans not to be talking in an Indo-European language. "Maltese is actually a low form of Arabic, a slave language. It is like a millstone around our necks. It is too limited for proper dialogue." Then there is his art. Plenty of extremism there.

Delirious Delights!

As he began to guide me around his paintings, which seemed to occupy most of the wall space of his Attard house, I tried to hide my initial sense of alarm. "This one is called Maho mesmerises masochist," he said pointing to the first of a long row of paintings that lined the stairs. "It depicts the type of Spanish he-man who, you know...some females like to be beaten." Five eau de cologne bottles stuck out of the painting, encircled by a white line that represented woman. The background was black. It was all very abstract. "This one is Zarathustra... It is about the man who keeps gaining in strength into the future, the superman..."

We went up on the roof. A battered, old, drum stood at the far end. "This one is called Here I stand...battered but still standing." Down we went into the garage. The hood of an old Bedford van was lying on the floor, painted mostly red with a circle of black at its centre. "That bulge," he said, "You know, when John Travolta looked into the mirror in Saturday Night Fever..." He made a vague motion over his crotch. "At the exhibition, the girls were gaping at it." He was, of course, referring to his work of art. By now he was showing me the works he had exhibited for three weekends last month at Tattinger's, the Rabat night club: the painting called Glow - of passion, he explained; Eruption!...of feeling and creativity; Male dancer mesmerises female; Yes to nobility; Magnanimous in victory...and many others.

The throbbing, primeval music, frenzied dancing, flickering lights, and general atmosphere of inebriation must have been the perfect setting for the paintings. Their wild lines would have leapt out at the wide-eyed viewers from their 'canvas' of discarded wood, metal, bamboo and the other materials he chose to paint on for the occasion. The name of the exhibition? Dionysian Dithyrambs. My perplexity must have been evident. But I was beginning to see the method in what looked to me, an art-illiterate, like madness.

It was easy enough to detect the powerful passion behind the works, an almost frightening intensity of emotion that must have been rooted, in a pretty far-out philosophy of life. Too far-out for me, though. As Norman talked, it was as if he could barely keep the residue of some kind of creative frenzy from breaking through. No wonder. "I paint in a state of delirium," he said, adding that he used alcohol to help him get there.

"I experience a crest of creativity which lasts for no longer than two minutes, by which time I have finished the painting. "It sometimes comes at a very unexpected moment and it just takes over. I could be at a wedding, all dressed up, and suddenly I tell my family and friends: 'I've got to rush'. I get to my studio and barely have time to change my clothes. I have ruined dozens of suits with paint like that.

"When I'm finished I'm in a state of nervous exhaustion. I have done martial art for 28 years and can do a 12-mile run. But the great outburst of energy still leaves me exhausted." He does not use a brush. "That would come in between me and the painting. I use anything - a half-lemon, a banana, the straw wrapping of a bottle of Chianti...I have to be at one with my art." He pointed to a spoon embedded in the paint of one of his works. The connections between Norman the artist and Norman the martial artist were becoming clearer: "at one with my art" is a very Eastern concept. There is a strong correlation, he explained, between the type of martial art that he practices - the internal kind, based on the merging of thought and action - and his style of painting.

It is "Dionysian Action Painting", an ancient Greek art form based around "intoxication, frenzy, ecstasy, barbaric instincts". On the opposite end of the scale was Apollonion art, founded on imagination, balance and restraint.

His art and his martial art had the same approach, he said: spontaneity and a direct tackling of the problem, meeting the 'attacker' head on.

And underlying them both is the same unseen, inner tension, "just like a duck on the surface of the water that looks serene but is paddling like crazy underneath". "My martial art has given me strength and fearlessness. My  paintings are crude but there is no fear in them. They portray a vivid and violent emotional feeling which has an immediate impact on the viewer. There is no technique involved. I am painting feelings, not figures." Why show his works at Tattinger's of all places, I ask. "A couple of years ago I used to attend art exhibitions every week in stuffy, old museums, with the same incestuous crowd. After opening day, no one ever turned up. "Abroad people are bombarded with art, and that's how it should be. Art should be a living thing. It should be put in offices, banks, bars, restaurants, night clubs...wherever people live." The young people at Tattinger's enjoyed his work a lot, he said.

Norman defines art as an expression of our innermost feelings and the way we perceive the world around us. He also believes "art is decadence" and when it peaks, civilisation then collapses. Inevitably, art declines because man is innately nihilistic - he pushes himself until he self-destructs. True art is highly dangerous. "An artist lives on the edge," he said.

Yes, I could see that, because so do his poor students.

Visit Norman Lowell's gallery of over 300 paintings.
Wander through the gallery of Dionysian Action Painting - and own the one you fall in love with!


Norman Lowell
 has an exhibition of his paintings permanently on display at:
The Last Touch Gallery
Grognet Court
Main Street
(500 yards, on the right side, up the street leading from Mosta church towards Naxxar)
Malta - Europa