'The torero always talks of distance, of space, but these are invisible spaces, a sort of phantom geometry, and this is very close to painting with this idea of perspective... But the most important thing is what happens on the sand. In a bullfight, you can read what happened in the sand; it's a beautiful metaphor of painting because my paintings are like traces of what has happened there, all that happens in the head, in fact. The picture object is a bit like the sand of the arena, a sort of detritus of what took place there'
(Barceló, quoted in Miquel Barceló: Mapamundi, exh. cat.,
Saint-Paul, 2002, p. 98).
Tres Equis belongs to one of the most celebrated series of paintings by the Spanish artist Miquel Barceló, his arresting images of the corrida, or bullfight. In Tres Equis, the arena itself, the heart of the action, is a pool of deceptive calm, thrusting the torero, with the fleck of his blood-red cape, and the bull into relief; this action takes place at the centre of a maelstrom, and Barceló has added to its drama by creating the painting as though the clash between man and bull had a centrifugal force, the thick impasto of the stadium itself accumulating towards the edges, gaining a palpable mass. The vortex-like appearance of the painting is emphasised by the elliptical swirls of the rows of seats, where any spectators have blurred into insignificance in comparison to the contest that lies at the beating heart of this painting.
Tres Equis - the name means 'Three Xs', taken from the marks on the entrance arches in the lower left - shows the torero alone in the arena with his muleta, the red cape that he uses in the final phase of the bullfight. During the previous Tercios, or thirds, the bull has been pierced by various lances, weakening him before the climactic confrontation when the two main protagonists are alone within the arena, building up to the kill. During this period, the bull charges repeatedly, but is increasingly tired and increasingly controlled by an accomplished matador, whose feints with the cape allow him to place the bull in the position he desires in order to make the final killing thrust with a sword.
Barceló is an incredibly erudite artist, highly versed in the history of art. By the time he painted his series of bullfight pictures while staying in Majorca during the Summer of 1990, he had also travelled extensively and had spent a great deal of time in Africa. The sights and experiences of life abroad allowed him to see the rituals of his homeland from a new perspective and with a new fascination. It comes as no surprise, then, to find that he turned to the bullfight as a subject. The corrida remains an important part of the Spanish national identity, as demonstrated by the recent outcry when it was banned in devolved Catalonia. Over the centuries, it has played a central role in Spanish art and culture, appearing in the Tauromaquia of Goya, in many of the pictures throughout the career of Pablo Picasso and as a recurring theme in the work of the Surrealists, especially Salvador Dalí. The romance, spectacle and machismo of this contest between man and beast has captured the imagination of many people, among them artists and writers such as Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway. Many of the toreros who still draw crowds in the arenas in Spain, Portugal, the South of France and Latin America are superstars, revered for their bravery and for their ability to control the beast that charges at them with infinite grace. It is that grace that is evident in Tres Equis, underscored by the delicacy of the depiction of the figures of man and bull within in comparison to the raging torrents of paint that surround them.
For Barceló, the theme of the bullfight is all the more personal as he sees it as a parallel to his own vocation, painting, and has often referred to the similarities between the two. For him, the canvas is his own arena, the act of painting his own corrida, the paint recalling the traces of the torero's movements etched in the sand: 'I put myself in the middle of the picture, making turns, with the same movements as a bullfighter. The sand in the ring is full of footmarks and becomes the setting in which to paint. The arena takes up the whole scene, almost leaving out the crowd from the picture' (Barceló, Miquel Barcel: Obra sobre papel 1979-1999, exh. cat., Madrid, 1999, p. v). The composition of some of his paintings is a direct result of the position he himself takes up at the centre of some of his canvases when they are painted on the ground. Likewise, the way in which the torero creates poetic movements that are based entirely on his own instincts, beyond the world of thought or preparation, reacting in an instant to the situation before him, finds its reflection in Barceló's incredibly instinctive manner of painting. 'As in bullfighting, I believe, one doesn't paint with ideas,' he has explained. 'The painting happens outside ideas, in contradiction to ideas even, generating ideas' (Barceló, quoted in Miquel Barceló 1987 1997, exh. cat., Barcelona, 1998, p. 112).