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When the sky still drags the ashes of the night to other nights and other dreams
Manolo Millares
(“Annotation 30” from Report on an Urban Excavation (Fragment of a Diary) and Other Writings)

I have always pointed out the somewhat disturbing numbering of this strange book, of in occasion of the publication of the “Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings by Manolo Millares” (2004)[1], which Elvireta Escobio and Guillermo de Osma are now re-publishing, in bilingual version for the first time. This publication features forty-seven annotations, precisely the number of years that Manolo Millares Sall (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1926-Madrid, 1972) was never to reach. “A strange thing to relate”, Millares begins, writing in this book, which he endows with the vestige-like subtitle of “Fragment of a Diary”, and concludes with the legendary and startling Annotation Forty-Seven, which is almost a sentence: “in reality –everybody knows this – my body is quite happy there, thousands of metres under the earth and I believe this is the place from which it should never be removed”. I feel a sense of stupefaction.

This was written by Millares in January 1971 and presented posthumously in Barcelona by Gustavo Gili in 1973, as part of his collection entitled “Letras del arte” (“Art Writings”), in which he had already published slim volumes by Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso[2]. This encounter, consisting of a trio of writings produced by Gris, Picasso and Millares, was a happy coincidence, one that helped to mark the passing of the Canary artist’s brief life. At around that time, Millares had engraving his exquisite portfolio of etchings entitled “Antropofauna” (“Anthropofauna”) (1969-1970) for the Collection known as “Las Estampas de la Cometa” (“The Kite Prints”) at Gili’s Barcelona atelier[3].  Furthermore, the same publishing house had produced a book on Millares by José María Moreno Galván[4], together with a posthumous engraving in a portfolio that recalled the friendship between the artist and the publisher, featuring a beautiful introductory text by the latter[5].

Let us recall that, as a creator, Millares had been linked since the nineteen-sixties with the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York[6]. Those were extraordinary years in terms of his recognition as an artist, having also enjoyed early access to an outlet for his work at a gallery in Paris, the Galerie Cordier[7]. We should also bear in mind that, when the publication was produced, an exhibition of his latest works was being organised at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, an event that was inaugurated in 1971[8]. It was precisely this catalogue, written by Jose-Augusto França, that declared – and we can use it as a point of reference – that the artist’s thought constitutes “a universe in which life and death merge, a dangerous game of images and allusions”[9].

When Millares wrote this “Recollections of an urban excavation”, the transcriptions for various images that were to appear in the book would seem somehow to coincide with the portfolio of silkscreen works that were conceived almost simultaneously for the Spanish Abstract Art Museum in Cuenca entitled “Descubrimiento en Millares 1671” (“Discovery in Millares 1671”) (1971)[10], whose subtitle, in turn, is almost an explanation for our book: “Diary of an Imaginary Baroque Archaeological Excavation” … archaeological excavation again. Our text is Baroque and imaginary, excessive and Millaresque, taking us on a journey by means of a fictional boring downwards to the very stratum – the argument for the excavation – and from there to the rawest description of himself and his work. This is an irremediably autobiographical work, starting with the encounter in the fourth-floor apartment and the view of the Madrid mountains, which recall the home in Argüelles where the Millares family lived: “I live in a fourth-floor apartment in a building in this city and I have a strange collector’s zeal. Kraters and skyphos are no strangers to me. And nor are unguent jars. Or the crooked smile of Maecenas”. The “Report” is written in the first person, an almost reiterative monologue based on a style that sometimes recalls certain writers who have explored the realm of anguish; here I am thinking of the archaeological accounts of Lovecraft or the dense universe of Poe, and even certain intimidating pieces by Cortázar. We might also cite certain obscure literary musings on tunnels, wells and excavations by Sábato, Onetti and Roa Bastos and, of course, the existential grief of Sartre and Camus, not to mention the cruel literary noise of Artaud. At the end of the day, as occurs in this inciter of chaos, all art embodies and intensifies the complexity of living.   And when contemplating the world of literature, I often think of certain monologues by Samuel Beckett, with his solitary rooms and holes amidst the debris. There is a certain anguish in the words when I recall the images in this book by Millares.

Let us have no doubt, it is Millares himself who appears in the “Recollections”,  the creator of a “world of sacks and more sacks, broken and full of holes” (Annotation 13); the admirer of Van Gogh (Annotation 21)[11]; the artist who sees the Guadarrama Mountains from his home, or who cites the biographical wound hidden on Atlantic soil (Annotation 21), there on the island (Annotation 25); the hospital visitor (Annotation 42) and the one who never leaves the house (Annotation 46). He is the most contradictory monologist, this being a new battle undertaken by Millares; some of his annotations seem to refer to the possibility of remaining silent in the midst of such as absurd outpouring of words and, thus, the half-hearted consolation of a return to silence in Annotation 47: “I am further removed, – he was to write in Annotation 14 -, with the unexpected, some twenty metres down, in which respect I find any unsatisfactory form of written or spoken expression quite annoying”. And silence again: amongst the complaints and ongoing reproaches of these words, we find some “well, and that complaint?” (Annotation 13).

Gustavo Gili provided a brief introductory note, written by Millares, which provides the foreword for the published text; these were the “words of the artist himself”[12]: “These writings, sometimes incoherent, linked to the verbal destruction of dull grammar and with their feeling of a Baroque past smuggled in by the back door, are nothing more than desires, passions, longings and frustrations of men (contemporary Man) that end up drowning in absurdity and alienation. A beginning full of fight, featuring more or less licit aspirations, and an ending full of confusion and madness, that slow death that runs through our veins so rapidly”[13]. Eduardo Westerdhal, perhaps the most authoritative voice on Millares in his day, referred to this disturbing book in 1980 as “brief fragments for us to become familiar with his style and this existential anguish (…) the story consists of a man who begins an excavation in his own room, like a prisoner who is trying to escape, with the difference that his escape is towards the very depths of time and this time presents no possible exit, although he feels at ease ‘thousands of metres under the earth and I believe this is the place from which it (my body) should never be removed’ (…) and he continues going down into and coming out of this hole. And we come across an array of figures such as Mussolini and Ramón Novarro. This is a delirious chronicle that goes beyond our origins. It possibly represents a return to the uterus, to nothingness.  These pages are undoubtedly autobiographical, featuring a degree of sincerity that makes your hair stand on end. These are disturbing pages from a great writer who offers us his confessions, and they are absolutely key in terms of understanding his graphic work”[14].

This is the truth of the word, but the sleep of reason produces monsters, such as this “Recollections”. This is a book that the author himself declares to be Baroque, a delirious book, and I now think of Borges, whom Millares had just read at the time, the Borges of Infamy: “I would define the Baroque as that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its possibilities and that borders on self-caricature”, Borges wrote in his “Universal History of Infamy”, a book – another book with notes – that, according to his “Memoirs”, the Canary artist had read shortly before, in 1969[15]. But I also think, following what Westerdhal has written, that this is a book that represents Millares in his purest state; that is to say, his forty-seven annotations contain all of Millares’ ideas, ideas featuring an excessive number of words, perhaps less hopeful than some of the writings of his youth, and more given to the vitriol of a writer such as Peter Weiss, or the sadness of Miguel Hernández, or the crazy journey of Cash, Faulkner’s fictional character, who buries himself each day: this is Millares the destroyer-builder[16].  Exalting free will, in the “Recollections” we find an angry Millares, one who almost emits a certain negative theology, which is to say, a voice like a wind that sweeps away all before it, a necessary destruction. For this artist, truth, rather than being a place of rest and repose, is a long and violent encounter. This is the irate, almost Mannerist version of Millares, who felt no fear because things were beyond his understanding; it is the indecent Millares, exalting in destruction and love, running hand in hand through disjointed landscapes in around 1959[17]. And alongside this, giving in to melancholy, we come across the torpor of childhood, as in Annotation 29 and the discovery of a series of faded playground cards[18]or his reflection on the dreams of children in the following annotation. And we can detect another moment of weakness, a moment of lamentation, in the irony of someone who, nearing the end, recalls that “they said I was healthy, a strong man with seven lives, I, buried in any landscape in whatever time”[19].

This is an apophatic narration that explores the extremes once the light of day has faded; it is a journey into the depths of the night, insomnia and its opposite, “the night of the abysses”[20] or “why sleep, why navigate, why live?”[21], or its illusion, “no longer when the illusory noise of the night returns”[22], life and suicide[23]. These lines are written accompanied by the permanent falling of rain, which beats down, wetting[24] some of these annotations; they constitute a never-ending feature within a syncopated eccentricity, the dull grammar in the words of the author in the text by Gili. This is the Millares of frustration and rubbish-dumps, of disproportionate eyes, of dented shoes and tins, of things thrown away, of mummies’ ragged bandages, of the attraction of horror and the trenches; this is the “Report” that Millares provides himself with. It means touching the certainty of the words[25] of a Millares who is not good-humoured, a Millares who is tragic and Unamuno-like, as his great friend, Moreno Galván, posthumously reproached him[26]. As a registered dead man[27], this is a Millares who praises the changing putrefaction of Gaspar Becerra or Valdés Leal, the denunciating swearword of Goya[28]. And always writing, writing: the important thing, Millares had told Zóbel, is to fill the void.

However, if there is a twin text that accompanies our “Report”, it must be Fyodor Dostoyevski’s “Notes from the Underground” (1864), another monologue from a “man underground”, consisting of numbered fragments featuring a forty-year-old man, one who is wounded and in pain, an antihero … so Millaresque! The final lines, as in our “Report”, once again refer complacently to the end: “we are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it”[29]. Praise for suffering as an exaltation of consciousness … this is Dostoyevsky and Millares, hand in hand: “Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness!”[30] Who wrote that?

Excavation, the voice of the archaeologist Millares (now, in hindsight, some of the “discoveries” in this “Report” seem to be on the shelf), was a term that was often explicitly used in the nineteen-seventies. “Report on an Excavation” (1970) was the first volume with this title, a painting created out of pigeonholes, a hopscotch of fragmentary elements, arabesques, annotations and writings. And various other volumes throughout the same year of 1971 would also bear this title: “Excavation” or some variation, such as “On an Excavation”. At the end of the day, it had been all about the hole since the artist took up a blowtorch in the nineteen-fifties, in a desire to go beyond vision and find the other side; an excavation that had been a constant feature in his painting, especially if we think of his relish for making holes in his pictorial planes, as in his compositions “with lost dimension”, those “infinite holes of mystery” that Cirlot claimed brought him close to a form of ghostly figuration[31], a “fissure towards the infinite”, the hole[32].

But, of course, the question of excavation is nothing more than a mere pretext or instrument of the word, given that, at the end of the day, Millares, in this delirious chronicle (as Westerdhal calls it), tries to bore into time, this and all time, and his task is to constantly mention this time and its history, which forms the core of Millares’ thought. It has been known of old – in this sense, this book has something of the there and back again -, and we know today that “the worst thing of all is the return”[33]: the Canary Museum, the guanche mummies, the aboriginal ceramics. And now that we are considering the depths, let us not forget the cave, mines and galleries and the pictures featuring references to the abyss, such as pez abisal.

“And a light, and a light and an underground light”, Alberti wrote about the Canary painter[34]. Like Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal, the eccentric Millares, in the sense of being far removed from the greyness of his time, seems to have made the end a grand kind of place. This is his truth.  Ah, Millares reached the bottom of his excavation in the end; thus we eventually find the “I feel fine” of Annotation Forty-Six, the arrival of the “deep hole”, with “the natural warmth of a fertilised womb”.

As Dostoyevsky concludes: “And so, long live the underground!”[35]


[1] DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. Catálogo Razonado Pinturas. Manolo Millares.  Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Fundación Azcona, 2004. Based on a prior work by Juan Manuel Bonet and Miriam Fernández Moreno.

[2] In 1971 the Collection already included a short book by Juan Gris entitled “Regarding the Possibilities of Painting and Other Writings”, as well as “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” by Pablo Picasso. By courtesy of Mónica Gili, recorded in a conversation with the author on 8th October 2015.

[3] Five etchings on Arches paper printed at Gili’s chalcographic engraving workshops.

[4] MORENO GALVÁN, José María.  Manolo Millares.  Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, Colección Nueva Órbita, 1970.

[5] We refer to this work as the “Millares Portfolio” (1970), consisting of a dry-point engraving on Arches paper. It features an explanatory text by the publisher.

[6] With Pierre Matisse he staged solo exhibitions in New York in the years 1960 (“El Paso”), 1965, 1974 and 1987.

[7] Daniel Cordier presented his work at a solo exhibition in Paris (1961) and Frankfurt (1960).

[8] Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Millares, « Antropofaunas », « Neanderthalios » et Autres Œuvres recentes de 1966 à 1970, Paris, 23rd November 1971-9th January 1972.

[9] FRANÇA, Jose-Augusto. Les monstres et les autres. In the catalogue op. cit., n.pag. The translation is ours.

[10] Twelve silkscreen prints on Guarro watercolour bond paper, printed by Abel Martín. They were created in April 1971.

[11] In 1950 Millares read the biography of Van Gogh and the artist wrote that “it made a very big impression on me. Of all the painters before Picasso and Matisse, he was by far the one who interested me the most, in spite of Cézanne’s importance. His life and his work provide living testimony of a human passion that burned out due to its very strength and brilliance” MILLARES, Manolo. Manolo Millares.  Memorias de infancia y juventud. Valencia: IVAM  Documentos, Vol I, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, 1998.  Transcription by Juan Manuel Bonet, p. 117.

[12] They precede the words that we reproduce here and we cite certain lines later on.

[13] GILI, Gustavo. Memoria de una excavación urbana (Fragmento de un diario) y otros escritos. Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, Colección “Letras del Arte”, 1973, p. 7. Featuring eight illustrations by the author. In addition to this text, the original volume also included various others, in the following order: “Sobre los muros” (1966-1971), the poem “Cuadro sin número” (1964), “Viaje a la Guayana” (1966-1971), “Sobre Picasso” (1971) and “Ante un dibujo de Eva que le salió igual a J. R.” (1966). The book was re-published, featuring a foreword by Juan José Armas Marcelo, produced by Madrid: Tauro Producciones, S.L., Colección “La Condición Insular”, 1998. (Without illustrations, edited by Alfonso Meléndez). And the text was reproduced in fragmentary form on various occasions, including the catalogue for the artist’s exhibition: Galería Vegueta, Millares, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1975. It also later appeared in: WESTERDAHL, Eduardo. Manolo Millares. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Colección Guagua (Canarias y lo Canario), nº 20, 1980. Finally, in chronological order, it appeared in: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Manolo Millares, luto de oriente y occidente, Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior, Madrid, 2003.

[14] WESTERDAHL, Eduardo. Manolo Millares, op. cit. pp. 36-38.

[15] MILLARES, Manolo. Manolo Millares.  Memorias de infancia y juventud, op. cit. p. 138. The quotation comes from the introduction to the 1954 edition of Borges’ book.

[16] “But meanwhile, I, like Cash, Faulkner’s character, make and remake the black box where all the rotten things that I denounce are born and lie and I bury myself each day”.  MILLARES, Manolo. Destrucción-construcción en mi pintura. Madrid: Acento Cultural, nos. 12-13, 1961. He is referring to Faulkner’s novel, “As I Lay Dying”.

[17] “(…) The homunculus is the expected consequence of the exceptional beauty that the rag can evoke when laid out bare in its obvious indecency. Destruction and love run hand in hand through disjointed spaces and landscapes. It does not matter that Man is broken if, from him, emerge roses of slime and principles of renewal as strong as fists”. MILLARES, Manolo. El homúnculo en la pintura española actual.  Palma de Mallorca: Papeles de Son Armadans, Año IV, Tomo XIII, nº 37, April 1959.

[18] “Look – because I looked – and I only found faded cards of Ronald Colman, Jean Harlow, Ramón Novarro, Jeannette McDonald, inducements from cigarette packets that flew about, vanished into thin air, and there was no wind, not a current of air, but I must have been in a different time, on a road bordered by eucalyptus trees, with their strong aroma, and a constipated child”. GILI, Gustavo. Memoria de una excavación urbana (Fragmento de un diario) y otros escritos, op. cit. pp. 23-24.

[19] Ibid. p. 33, Annotation 42.

[20] Ibid. p. 21, Annotation 25.

[21] Ibid. p. 15, Annotation 34.

[22] Ibid. p. 27, Annotation 15.

[23] Ibid. p. 28, Annotation 34.

[24] The rain “falls” in Annotations such as (25), 26, 39 and 45; water is also present in different forms throughout the book.

[25] GILI, Gustavo. Memoria de una excavación urbana (Fragmento de un diario) y otros escritos, op. cit. p. 16, Annotation 19.

[26] MORENO GALVÁN, José María. Arte: Homenaje a Millares. Madrid: Triunfo, nº 540, año XXVII, 3/II/1976, p. 46.

[27] GILI, Gustavo. Memoria de una excavación urbana (Fragmento de un diario) y otros escritos, op. cit. p. 33, Annotation 42.

[28] These are the textual words of: MILLARES, Manolo. El Paso, acta de presencia. Vich: Inquietud Artística, Año V, Nº 15, VII/1959, pp. 4-6.

[29] The edition we consulted is: DOSTOYEVSKI, Feodor. Apuntes del subsuelo. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2000, p. 147.

[30] Ibid. p. 49.

[31] “Some of his compositions from this period maintain a rigorous abstract and tectonic meaning, in spite of the pathos of the elements that make up the structures, replete with holes, inter-crossing elements, swirls of rough canvas with rigid and irregular profile like scars. In these works, Millares has gained access to a form of ghostly figuration, consisting of rag-like mummies in the storm”. CIRLOT, Juan-Eduardo. Informalismo. Madrid: Ediciones Omega, Colección Poliedro, 1959, pp. 45-46

[32] AGUILERA CERNI, Vicente. Millares. Madrid: Punta Europa, nº 12, XII/1956

[33] GILI, Gustavo. Memoria de una excavación urbana (Fragmento de un diario) y otros escritos, op. cit. p. 30, Annotation 41.

[34] ALBERTI, Rafael.  Mutilados de paz. Madrid, 1965 (Poem that accompanied the graphic portfolio of the same name).

[35] DOSTOYEVSKI, Fyodor, op. cit. p. 51.