The Body of Painting


Life is not exactly a cake – although we appreciate its sweetness from time to time; we have to be aware of all possible consequences and hope that the appeal of difficulty does not become something removed from art and life. If we do not feel that itch inside ourselves then the hour has surely come to give life a decent burial and a medal to art for his part in its downfall.

Manolo Millares, Madrid, 28 January 1968

The Body of Painting

Emmanuel Guigon, Director of the Picasso Museum – Barcelona

This body, meaningful or otherwise, constitutes a fundamental presence in Millares’ work from 1956 onwards, when he began to methodically use this form of representation in an attempt to capture the excesses of movement at the end of which the material thinks for itself. From that moment he truly did invent a new medium: simple sackcloth, raw and untreated which he stuck, sewed, knotted, lacerated, dirtied with blacks, whites and reds, highlighting evermore the twists in the fabric upon which mutilated bodies were depicted, on the very point of exploding, in the hope of putting a stop to the unbearable violence. The fascination that these paintings inspire is derived from that which turns a work of art into an entity that seems to fulfil some of the same functions as a living organism. On occasions, from the beginning of the sixties onwards, he incorporated specific elements that referred to the human body – old shoes, a shirt, a bra… The material that acts as a support for them becomes an almost turgid element in the relief, turning them into truly autonomous objects, wrapped up as if they were bizarre foetuses. “In the basis for these new materials,” wrote Millares in 1963 in the catalogue for an exhibition of his at the Ateneo de Madrid “in the sense that they are used for the first time as elements with artistic meaning […] experiences take shape that are closely related to man’s visionary and evolutionary process in which he seems to find a natural and necessary vehicle to spew forth (pardon the overused expression) his anguish into the vast cavities of his own decomposed, temporary, yet extremely palpable image.”

Through his painting he claims that he has tried to reanimate the body that feels and perceives, to give the body “the form that is understood as painting.” The nature of this body has still to be defined. It is clearly not the realistic representation of the human form, a pretend body that goes no further than its own limits, the skin, or possibly the silhouette – that is to say yet another absence, an abyss of absence. Without the body in that very point that makes it a body, its organic density, with its cavities (where, inside the body, resonance is produced), the rips and tears multiply to the point where they literally pass through the fabric to destroy the emptiness, the wounds, the figurative abyss of the paintings of the past. There can be no doubt that the definitive history of the use of the hole in contemporary art has yet to be written: holes created by the artist, or holes that are the result of aggression or accidents (Millares’ paintings have been the victim of acts of vandalism, as Antonio Saura points out in the first journal of the El Paso group in November 1957). The experience of the hole staged in the body is the experience of the entire body, they make everything vibrate. Perforated and inhabited by emptiness, the fabrics of Millares are shown to us as subjects that are marked by their own faults. For the artist, for his technique, the difficulty in considering space is tied in with its relation to emptiness, to the opening. The medium and the surface suddenly take on an evident necessity. The canvas ceasing to be the background upon which tradition is painted, becoming instead the material, torn and holed, that takes the form of the body.
At the same time, alongside this interplay between the full and the empty, what captures our attention is the use of black and white, each one split apart from the other. And the interruption of reds, thrown around, pulled apart, turned inside out, that leave their violent mark on the surface of the painting. Art is the place where memory comes alive once more, because it can only affirm itself in its relationship with that which is real. Millares’ painting, recorded “in the raw” as it were, involves us in this body of memory in which the only point of reference is life and the reverse life, at the same time its splitting apart and its reconciliation. Life, however, is thus, in all its hybrid, second-hand, patched-up glory, with all its hidden death. And it returns to us in dramatic tones that affect each and every one of its spectators. Millares frequently writes that his work is interwoven with reality, that it has the power to imitate our own memory. For example, in “The Homunculus in Current Painting” published in Papeles de Son Armadans in 1959 he states: “Art follows the desperation of our times very closely, it watches over it, tending to it wounds […]. Our homunculus is not lacking in vital tragedy, in the Spanish sense of death.” Or in the previously mentioned catalogue for the exhibition at the Ateneo in Madrid: “…Today’s art (and this is what interests us) bears witness to reality, and what can be seen or rather judged is not the morality of art, of its forms or even of the artist. We see and judge this very reality in which the morality and immorality of the society in which we live is judged…”

For Millares, all works of art have some connection to death. He affirms this when he cites as the origin of his materic pieces the contemplation of Guanche mummies in the Museo Canario de Las Palmas. Is it possible that one of the functions of painting could be the acceptance, reacceptance and representation of death, as Millares himself did at the end of the sixties when he painted a series of paintings he called Sarcophaguses: Sarcophagus for an Undesirable, Sarcophagus for a Prince, Sarcophagus for Felipe II, and Sarcophagus for a Feudal Character? With reference to these mummies, sarcophaguses and other method of protecting the human body from decomposing, the custom should be mentioned of decorating the skin of those bodies that were not dressed. Is this not a symbolic form of painting, embalming us and wrapping us in material, in some way changing our skin? With his curious way of confusing organs and waste matter, germination and decomposition, Millares’ paintings are aware of this kind of violence, pointedly directed at the body in an attempt to make it talk through torture. Undoubtedly this is because, as Hans Bellmer points out, expression is displaced pain. Displaced to another body, as expressed in ancient mythology: a body that, in order to assume form must first submit itself to the trial of the abyss, of chaos. In an autobiographical film from the winter of 1970, as mentioned elsewhere in this catalogue he intercuts images of his paintings or shots of his workshop with photographs of war and concentration camps, of arms raised in fascist salutes or dead bodies piled up against a wall. Every one of his images is marked by the violence of an action and the uncertainty that is present when thought meets fact. However, in spite of this violence, his work cannot be reduced to metaphorical displacements of real violence. The body in his paintings is not an anatomical one, it is a body shaped by wounds, by violent confrontation. It is the same body that Jean Genet spoke of: “The only origin of beauty is that singular wound, different for each person, hidden or visible that all men conceal inside themselves that they preserve, and to which they return when they want to abandon this world and shut themselves away in a temporary yet profound solitude.” The violence that is brought into play in artistic expression is effectively an untamed dynamism that engenders the work – a collection of symbols in hand-to-hand combat with the material forms. The true knowledge of the painter does not lie in knowing what to paint. He always knows this even though it might be in hindsight. It lies instead in knowing why he paints, where he is coming from, from what suffering, what emptiness. Millares’ answers to these questions have always been pictorial. And if painting is in question throughout his work, then it is also the only answer that can be expressed.

How does one paint a scream? An impossible question. Obviously: an interminable scream, almost devoid of sound, as we are talking about painting. This is the question that the poet Lasse Sörderberg poses, referring to one of Millares’ paintings: “Torn / the scream. / Keep / Screaming. / Knock it up. / Rub it out./ Keep screaming / Cover it in quicklime / Let it set / Tear it up / Keep / Screaming./ Deafening / Our eyes.” Painting as scream, violence and cruelty: all that naturally shakes things up. As if art were to smash itself to pieces on the rocks of catastrophe below, like a supreme leap when everything is on the point of going under. Or as a last resort. For in its origins, painting was this – a story, a myth, that appeared like the staging of a play about the dislocation of a body and it subsequent reconstruction. As if painting, on re-assuming the same gestures, the same postures could be considered from this perspective, like the circulation of scattered organs, extractions of blood, tests, transplanted territories, that derive the history of art according to the economy of a repeated fragment. It is the story of the Caliph written by the cadi Ibn Khaldun around 1380: He ordered a woman from his harem to dance for him and to remove her veils during the dance. However, he wanted her be yet more naked, so he ordered that her skin be ripped off. In one of his stories Alphonse Allais tells a similar tale, of a pasha that was dying of boredom. One day he was brought a woman from his harem whom he observed with disdain. As was the custom he ordered his guards to strip her naked. With their sables they cut the ribbons that tied her veils. Each time a piece of clothing fell to the floor the pasha said with indifference “More!” After a short while the young girl was completely naked. “More!” shouted the pasha and so the guards skinned the poor girl alive. This would be painting, the representation of a nude form that is naked to the point of showing its bowels. It could get underneath the skin, to reveal all that is inside us that masks us. It would be there, revealed in the depth of the abyss. However there is not, on the one hand, an invisible depth to the body, with its muscles and entrails and on the other, the exterior part, the kingdom of appearance, the part that is visible, that is not the body. Millares’ work is always to be found in the overlapping of these two elements. As he wrote in one of his most important writings, “The Homunculus in Modern Painting”: “Art should not be art because it pleases; these are not, after all, times for joyous gluttony, for laughter for the sake of laughing. Art should be art because it is excruciatingly painful. No explanations, no concessions. Art must not be the comfortable armchair of the intelligible. Instead it must be a terrifying bed of nails upon which we all must lie, once in a while to embrace its hidden death.”