'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'
(M. Barceló quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), Miquel Barceló: Mappamundi, exh. cat., Fondation Maeght, Saint Paul 2002, p. 98).
'As in bullfighting, I believe, one doesn't paint with ideas. The painting happens outside ideas, in contradiction to ideas even, generating ideas. That is why such silent art forms spawn so many words. This is where painting and bullfighting resemble each other, in the verbosity which accompanies them, as though their own silence was so unbearable that it needed pasodobles and infinite pages. Exorcisms for the bedazzled. After all, it is a simple exercise, like a bird eating ants from a skull'
(M. Barceló, quoted in Miquel Barceló 1987-1997, exh. cat., Barcelona 1998, p. 112).
One of the very largest of this famous cycle of Bullfight paintings by Miquel Barceló, Areneros y muleros announces the grand finale of the fight. With the edges of the arena painstakingly and intensively built with thick, sculptural texture bursting out of the confines of the canvas with bulbous protrusions, the eye is drawn to the intense swirling haze of the sandy arena itself, seen from a bird's eye view. Glowing like the mid afternoon sun which surely accompanied the fight, the centre of the spectacle is painted to literally reflect its origin with sand incorporated into paint to build up the texture. Here Barceló focuses directly on the ballet of the bullfight as a metaphor for painting itself, as we see the marks left by the duel between bullfighter and bull in the sand directly replicating those left by a painter on canvas. With its thick accumulation of ochre, gold, charcoal and red, we can trace the evolution of the fight through the marks left in the sand, just as Jackson Pollock's drips show us his own passage across the canvas. Just like the artist, the bullfighter has left the ring, but here we see the bull being carried by a procession of 'Muleros' out of the thickly carved exit in the lower left hand corner, a trail of blood soaks the sand in its wake. Meanwhile the eloquently picked out, thickly impastoed details of the four 'Areneros' figures are dwarfed by the scale of the ring as they go about their work sweeping the sand. This is a poignant finale, on a grand scale.
Swirling with a dizzying, centrifugal energy across its expansive surface, Areneros y muleros is one of the largest examples of Miquel Barceló's most celebrated series of bullfighting paintings. Accentuating the heart of the arena is the sanguine red of the kill, as the bull is ceremoniously taken away from the arena by a procession of mules. Small figures are seen sweeping the sandy stadium floor, preparing for the next challenge between torero and bull. A feverish crowd spins around the now concluded bullfight; the heightened tension and energetic atmosphere of the corrida channeled through the artist's practice. With his use of yellow ochre and ferrous tones, Areneros y muleros evokes the smouldering heat of the Mediterranean sun beating down on the stadium. The concentric rings of the arena have an extraordinary sculptural and textured quality, recalling the tradition of Catalan artists Antoni Tàpies and Joan Miró. The relief of the painting escalates from the dusty floor of the bullfight, to the upper echelons of the seated crowd, ascending in height with an abundance of richly impastoed paint and mixed media on canvas. For Barceló, the bullfight is analogous with his experience of painting, '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' (M. Barceló, quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), Miquel Barceló: Mappamundi, exh. cat., Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul 2002, p. 98). These parallels and the bullfight's cultural resonances have been illuminated many times in Spanish art history as well as in literature by artists such as Francisco de Goya, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, as well as in the writings of Ernest Hemingway. Areneros y muleros forms part of this cultural legacy, crafted with Barceló's own unique practice and mastery of paint on canvas.
Barceló is an erudite and well-versed artist, deeply aware of his artistic and literary antecedents, yet his particular interest in the bullfight developed not directly from art history, but through his commission to create a poster for the Nîmes bullfighting festival in 1988. Subsequently, the artist began a series of prolonged travels outside of Spain, most notably in Africa. These trips were to act as a turning point in his practice, with works from 1988-1990 including the African paintings and the bullfights standing as his greatest achievements to date. Literally travelling across the desert, Barceló formed a deep relation with the cultural and physical landscape of West Africa that made him reflect upon the cultural vernacular of his own country. His trip was less to do with the search for a lost paradise or any sense of exoticism, but more about the challenge of the new environment. 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 interview with S. Alameda, in El Pais Semanal, Madrid, 3 March 1996, quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), op. cit, p. 18).
Barceló's vibrant application of media to canvas and the near sculptural quality of his painting bears important resonances with the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies whose Art Informel was deeply preoccupied with the physicality of painting. Speaking in 1989, Barceló described himself as the heir to Tàpies and Miró and the tradition of Catalan art, with its richly textured and ferrous palette, evocative of baked earth. Indeed, the artist recounts stories of having met Miró as a teenager and the marked impression his idol had upon him. In Areneros y muleros, the parallels between Miró's earthy works from the 1930s and his ability to relay the quality of Spanish land into his paintings is strikingly apparent.
Areneros y muleros is a scene replete with spectacle and machismo, a violent contest between man and beast that continues to incite public fervour in Barceló's native Spain. The corrida represents an important part of Spanish national identity as evidenced by the mass protest over its ban in devolved Catalonia. Many of the matadors who still draw crowds to the arena are regarded as superstars, revered for their bravery and graceful manipulation of the bull. Over the course of history the bullfight has fascinated many great masters of Spanish painting, including: Francisco de Goya in his Tauromaquia, the Surrealist Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso. Twentieth century writers such as Ernest Hemingway have also looked to bullfighting as a means for understanding the quintessence of the Spanish national identity. In his non-fiction work, Death in the Afternoon (1932), Hemingway famously celebrated the tragic heroism of the sport: 'bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour' (E. Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, London, 1932, p. 80).