Spanning two meters in width, the present work is a powerful large-scale example of Manolo Millares’ extraordinary burlap creations. Bruised, scarred and weathered as if by the passage of time, these raw mixed-media visions lay at the heart of his practice, capturing his fascination with archaeological and anthropological remains. Executed in 1959, the present work has been widely exhibited, featuring in group shows at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (1959) and the Palais du Louvre (1960). Rendered in a reduced, visceral palette of red, black and white, its stitched, torn surface confronts the viewer like a gaping wound, infused with lingering shadows of a humanoid form. Inspired by the dark history of his native Canary Islands, as well as the various conflicts that ravaged Europe in the mid-twentieth century, Millares sought to create an art that reflected the frailty and vulnerability of humankind. At the same time, the anthropomorphic qualities of his works offered a glimmer of hope: a faint suggestion that, from out of the rubble, humanity would rise again. This notion finds poetic expression in the present work, where life flickers within a dark abyss.
Best known for his founding role in the Spanish avant-garde group “El Paso”—along with artists such as Antonio Saura, Manuel Rivera and Luis Feito—Millares belonged to a generation whose upbringing had been marred by war. The Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the Hiroshima bombings were all deeply ingrained in his psyche, leading him to conceive art as a vehicle for redemption. “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). At the same time, these works looked back even further: to his childhood, during which he visited the Canarian Museum in Las Palmas. There, he was struck by the bandaged remains of the island’s original inhabitants—the Guanches—who had been driven to extinction by conquest and invasion. “I discovered what man is and, above all, the ‘finitude’ of man,” he explained. “I realized that what I saw—the extermination of a race—had been an injustice. That was the original starting-point for my sackcloths” (M. Millares, op. cit., p. 94).
Begun in 1954, the year before the artist moved from the Canary Islands to Madrid, Millares’ burlap works played an important role in his rise to acclaim. On one hand, they formed a compelling dialogue with the works of Alberto Burri, who made similarly powerful use of the medium in his celebrated Sacchi (Sacks). As José-Augusto França explains, however, there were important differences between the two artists: “[Burri’s] glued and sewn sackcloth would never permit itself to explode,” he writes, “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” (J-A. França, op. cit., p. 181). As well as resonating with Arte Povera and Art Informel in Europe, his work also chimed with American audiences: particularly after his appearance at the 1957 São Paulo Biennial, where his works featured alongside a pavilion dedicated to Jackson Pollock. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchased one of his works, subsequently including Millares in their major group exhibition New Spanish Painting and Sculpture in 1960. Indeed, for all its humble materiality, the present work certainly captures something of the physical grandeur that characterized art-making on the other side of the Atlantic, infused with a message of transcendence that was—and remains—universal in spirit.