‘[The artist] is the only man, the world, a recorder of things in the raw ... He follows very closely the despair of our time, watches over it and sews up its wounds; he records it in the scream from the deepest hole’
‘If I had chosen a different career, I would have been an archaeologist … I used to go to the museum in Las Palmas to see the mummies or to copy the Guanche ceramics. I was fascinated by the wrappings on the mummies, which were of sackcloth’
Torn, bandaged and paint-splattered, Manolo Millares’ Cuadro 64 (3) hovers before the viewer like a gaping wound: a primal, visceral vision haunted by the faint, barely-discernible trace of a human figure. Executed in 1959, it is a powerful example of the sackcloth creations that stand among the artist’s most important works. Like an ancient relic excavated from the depths of the earth, Millares’ caustic terrain bears the scars of an unknown past, bruised and weathered by the passage of time. Begun in 1954 – the year before the artist moved from his native Canary Islands to Madrid – Millares’ sackcloth works are the product of a lifelong fascination with archaeological and anthropological remains. As a child, the artist visited the museum in Las Palmas, where he was struck by the mummified remains of the Guanches – the island’s original inhabitants, who had been driven to extinction by conquest and invasion. ‘In the Canarian Museum I discovered what man is and, above all, the “finitude” of man’, he explained. ‘I realised that what I saw – the extermination of a race – had been an injustice. That was the original starting-point for my sackcloths’ (M. Millares, quoted in J-A. França, Millares, Barcelona 1978, p. 94). As time went by, the ghostly presence of the human form – the so-called ‘homuncule’ – began to assert itself in the textured swathes of material: a flickering illusion submerged within a dense black void. The frailty and vulnerability of mankind – but also its immense potential for endurance – would become a definitive theme for Millares, and is poignantly articulated in the present work.
When Millares first began his sackcloth compositions, he was unaware that, in Europe, Alberto Burri was making similar use of the medium. In purely visual terms, Cuadro 64 (3) certainly invites comparison with the Italian master’s torn burlap creations, exuding the same raw energy from its ragged contours. Ultimately, however, as José-Augusto França explains, ‘[Burri’s] universe is totally different from that of Millares, both externally and internally. His glued and sewn sackcloth would never permit itself to explode; and instead of shrieking wounds they soberly present scars. In Burri’s work the “accident” has occurred before the curtain goes up; in Millares it is the “accident”, in the form of a catastrophe, that interests us: it presents itself to our eyes and forces us to share the great repugnance it expresses’ (J-A. França, Millares, Barcelona 1978, p. 181). Though often associated with the Arte Povera and Art Informel movements, Millares’ artistic concerns went straight to the deepest, darkest depths of humanity. Best known for his founding role in the Spanish avant-garde group ‘El Paso’ – along with artists such as Antonio Saura, Manuel Rivera and Pablo Serrano – Millares and his comrades sought a new aesthetic suited to a world ravaged by the horrors of the Second World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the Spanish Civil War. ‘[The artist] is the only man, the world, a recorder of things in the raw’, he wrote. ‘He follows very closely the despair of our time, watches over it and sews up its wounds; he records it in the scream from the deepest hole’ (M. Millares, quoted in J-A. França, Millares, Barcelona 1978, pp. 132-33). In Cuadro 64 (3), Millares gives form to this very conviction.