'Wherever he may be, Miquel Barceló surely seems to be embarked on a voyage without an end. Behind him he leaves a wake of fragmented visions, sparkles that gleam in the night. This Southerner from the Mediterranean shores, with a mind full of dreams like any islander, mixes the present and the past, sails though the sea of painting and discovers worlds’ (F.C. Serraller, ‘Miquel Barceló‘s trace‘, Miquel Barceló: Paintings from 1983 to 1985, exh. cat., Boston, Institute of Contemporary Art, 1986, p. 21).
‘[Barceló] represents himself as Ahab in his small boat drifting on the seas’ (C. Flohic, ‘Miquel Barceló’, in Ninety, no. 6, 1991, p. 10).
Rendered in a rich palette that contrasts cool blues and greens with warm ochre and umber, Llaüt (Boat) is a wonderfully textured example of one of Miquel Barceló’s iconic African paintings. Executed in 1991, the same year as the artist’s epic voyage by canoe along the Niger River, Barceló’s African paintings stand along with his Bullfight paintings, executed at the same time, as his greatest artistic achievements. These travels to Africa, which he began in 1988, represent a pivotal moment in Barceló’s practice as his work turned to engage with vibrant colours and coarse, structural textures that are so masterfully depicted in the almost sculptural Indian red fishing boat in the present work. Returning to Europe from Africa, Barceló executed this striking series of odes to the African river, distilling onto canvas its sights, sounds and sensations through his mastery of colour and material. Reflecting upon the cultural vernacular of his own country, in Llaüt Barceló interestingly conflates his own Majorcan culture with that of the West African landscape by entitling the work Llaüt, the name for a traditional Majorcan fishing boat, whereas the other works in this series depict slender wooden pirogues – indigenous hand crafted boats native to the Niger River. The figures and their makeshift craft depicted are animated out of rough sheaves of dry plants, bathed in luxuriant pigment and impasto paint. The water itself takes on texture, rising up from the surface of the canvas like the surges of waves ready to overturn the intrepid boatmen. Sweeping brush marks and freely poured paint proliferate, the work bearing witness to the artist’s deeply physical act of creation.
Deeply influenced by his surroundings, location has always had important implications for Barceló’s paintings and perhaps nowhere more evidently than in his African work. In heading to Africa, first in 1988 when he spent six months making his way through Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, Barceló was seeking a new emotional and creative outlet. Having lived in Paris, Barcelona and New York for a number of years, the mixture of Western convention and urban living had left Barceló pursuing fresh engagement with new material. As the artist remarked, in going abroad he was seeking a new approach: ‘[Africa represents] a kind of overall cleansing. The first reaction I always have when I arrive in Mali is to realise the uselessness of things. One paints out of pure necessity there. In Paris or here (in Mallorca), by always painting in the same studio, you come to forget the essence of the affair. In Mali I get back in touch with the essence of the act of painting’ (M. Barceló, quoted in Miquel Barceló: 1987-1997, exh. cat., Barcelona, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1998, p. 19). This renewed spontaneity and engagement with the environment is evident in the rich surface of Llaüt.
Less a search for a lost paradise, Barcelo’s trip to Africa was more about the challenge of a new setting. As the artist explained, ‘I went [to Africa] because my paintings had become white, not by not putting anything on them, but by erasing everything. The white was not due to absence, but came from avoiding excess. I went to the desert because my paintings seemed like a desert, even though I was painting them in New York. Once in the desert I began to paint with colour again’ (M. Barceló, quoted in P. Subirós (ed.), Miquel Barceló: Mapamundi, exh. cat., Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, 2002, p. 18). In Llaüt Barceló has reinvigorated his palette, incorporating vibrant, richly coloured deep marine blues swirled alongside mossy greens, incorporating mixed media to physically emulate the sculptural qualities of the tumultuous waters.
The notion of a lone, small boat drifting away also draws parallels with the sublime experience of unharnessed nature that Theodore Géricault depicted in his seminal work The Raft of Medusa. His journey also initiated his use of texture, establishing the intense physicality of the rugged terrain on canvas as strikingly rendered in the present work. With his spectacular attention to light in the everchanging tones of water, he reflects the chiaroscuro contrasts of old master painters such as Caravaggio and Tintoretto that he encountered upon his travels to Naples in the early 1980s. As Pep Subirós once concluded, ‘the images and themes are not as important as the dust, the land, the hunger, pain and laughter, the guts of time, the fragility, the conflict between what endures and what changes. Barceló confirms what he had intuited from the beginning. Everything is at once old and new again. Africa is everywhere. Africa is the grandeur and drama of natural forces, the intensity of experience, the direct confrontation with the basic dimensions of life and death’ (P. Subirós (ed.), Miquel Barceló: Mapamundi, exh. cat., Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, 2002, p. 25).