‘I realised that what I saw - the extermination of a race - had been an injustice. That was the original starting-point for my sackcloths. It is something that belongs to the past, of course, but something that enabled me to enter the present and become conscious of it’
With its tactile, caustic surface of torn burlap, bunched and stitched together like bandaging, Untitled (Composition) Painting no. 4 is an outstanding large-scale example of Manolo Millares’ distinctive abstract works. Stretching two metres in height, the work confronts the viewer like an ancient ruin: an archaeological relic from an unknown civilization. Like a fossil, weathered by the scars of time, its abstract surface quivers with hints of figuration: traces of human-like forms that emerge momentarily before receding into the black void. Executed in 1959, four years after the artist moved from his native Canary Isles to Madrid, the work owes itself in part to Millares’ response to his encounter with the strange, mummified remains of the islands’ original inhabitants, the Guanches. This essentially extinct race, whose traces had been largely removed by conquest and assimilation, was preserved in the form of ancient bodies in the museum in Las Palmas. ‘In the Canarian Museum I discovered what man is and, above all, the “finitude” of man’, Millares 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. It is something that belongs to the past, of course, but something that enabled me to enter the present and become conscious of it’ (M. Millares, quoted in J-A. França, Millares, Barcelona 1978, p. 94). This vision of mankind’s vulnerability in the face of history, as well its immense potential, had a profound impact on Millares’ work, and his work would increasingly be defined by the presence of ghostly homuncule elements in his vast, tattered swathes of burlap. Shortly after its creation, the present work was included in the exhibition 13 peintres espagnols actuels at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Millares first began making collages in 1954, using a combination of sackcloth, ceramics, wood and sand. Following his move to Madrid in 1955, he began to engage with the influence of Alberto Burri, working with material punctuated by holds and burns. Though tangentially associated with the development of Arte Povera, as well as the Art Informel movement propagated by artists such as Antoni Tàpies and Jean Fautrier, Millares is best known for his founding role in the Spanish avant-garde group ‘El Paso’. Along with his friend Antonio Saura, as well as artists such as Pablo Serrano, Manuel Rivera, Rafael Canogar and Luis Feto, Millares 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. Writing in the group’s manifesto, Millares explained, ‘We are trying to attain a revolutionary plastic art which will include both our dramatic tradition and our direct expression, and be our historic response to a universal activity. We are fighting for an art that will lead to the salvation of individuality within the framework of our age. Our goal is a great transformation of plastic art in which may be found the expression of a new reality’ (M. Millares, quoted in J-A. França, Millares, Barcelona 1978, p. 64).