Cuadro 116, 1960, is a distinctive work by Manolo Millares exhibiting the rough textures and austere colours that are so emblematic of his work. Torn sackcloth has been tied into knots and stitched together, creating bunched and bandage-like swathes that partly obscure furtive voids. Flecks of white and red paint protrude against the black and grey surface. Recalling the mummified remnants that fill so many museums throughout the world, it speaks of the deeds and lives of long disappeared civilisations, teetering on the brink between ancient and modern, the archaeological and the contemporary.
The deliberately ragged appearance of this work originates from Millares’ childhood fascination with the mummified remains on display in the museums of Las Palmas. These were the relics of the original inhabitants of the Canary Isles, the Guanches. Contemplating the remains of a vanished civilisation that were removed by conquest and assimilation had a huge impact on Millares’ art. ‘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).
It is these notions of the vulnerability of man to the forces of history, as well as to the immense potential of mankind that play a part in Millares’ collages. Cuadro 116 dates from soon after he founded the movement called El Paso along with Antonio Saura that sought a vivid aesthetic suited to an age that had been exposed to the Second World War, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and the Spanish Civil War. The artists involved in the group were dedicated, as is stated in the manifesto, to ‘creating a new state of the spirit within Spanish art’ together with ‘the moral need to do something within their country’ (Manolo Millares, exh. cat., Auditorio de Galicia, Madrid, 1998, p. 147). There is a trace of the ravaged land of war-torn Europe in this work, while the sackcloths recall the material in which rations were wrapped and transported throughout the continent. Motivated by a search for the ethical in art and reflecting the consequences of the Spanish civil war and the difficult post-war times, Millares’ work is an expressionist Cri de Coeur. By using such humble materials as sacking, the artist sought a new earthy way to create art that was opposed to sumptuousness and idealisation. With its tears and voids, its bear and brutal materiality, Cuadro 116 is an extremely powerful but ultimately enigmatic presence.