LONDON.- The Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction taking place on 28th June 2011, will feature an exceptional range of works dating from the early Post-War period to the present day.
Swirling with a dizzying, centrifugal energy across its expansive surface and beholden of the thick sculpted painterly surface which creates it, Faena de muleta is by far the largest and most important example of Miquel Barceló's most celebrated series of bullfighting paintings ever to come to auction. Accentuating the heart of the sandy arena is the sanguine red of the matador's unfurled muleta or cape as he prepares to enter the final stages of his act and kill the bull. The beast is poised to charge, whipped up into a passion by the torero's provocative footwork, the flourishes of his cape, and the all-encompassing feverish crowd that spins around it. Barceló leaves the conclusion suspended, an equivocating and gory intrigue cast into the minds of his enraptured viewers. This heightened tension and energetic atmosphere of the corrida is channelled through the artist's practice. With his use of yellow ochre and ferrous tones, Faena de muleta evokes the smouldering heat of the Mediterranean sun beating down on the stadium, torero and frenzied bull. 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' (Miquel Barceló quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), Miquel Barceló: Mapamundi, 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 Dáli, as well as in the writings of Ernest Hemingway. Faena de muleta forms part of this cultural legacy, crafted with Barceló's own unique practice and mastery of paint on canvas.
'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' (Miquel Barceló interview with Sol Alameda, El Pais Semanal, Madrid, 3 March 1996 quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), op. Cit, p. 18)
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' (Miquel Barceló interview with Sol Alameda, El Pais Semanal, Madrid, 3 March 1996 quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), op. cit, p. 18). Not only did Barceló's sabbatical reinvigorate his palette, it also initiated his use of texture, establishing the intense physicality of the arid, rugged terrain on canvas as strikingly rendered in Autour du Lac Noir (1989-1990). In Faena de muleta, the sandy colours and rugged textures of the Sahel pervade the composition. As Pep Subiros has elaborated, 'the images and themes are not as important as the dust, the land, the hunger, paint 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. This Africa exists in the bullfights' (Miquel Barceló quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), Miquel Barceló: Mapamundi, exh. cat., Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul 2002, p. 25).
Faena de muleta is an energetic and expressive painting that perfectly captures the aura of the bullfight. In Catalan tradition the corrida entails a progression of pageantry, moving from the ceremonial pasello or parade into the ring, the tercio de varas or 'the lancing third', the picador's charge on horseback, the tercio de banderillas or 'third of banderillas', and finally the tercio de muerte or 'the third of death' where the matador commits the final act. All of these chapters are carried out in bright, gaudy costumes, colours and adornments, with the matadors themselves easily distinguished by their gold traje de luces or 'suit of lights'. In Faena de muleta, the wealth of texture, flourishes of paint and spiralling, centrifugal velocity, evokes the intoxicating momentum towards the bull's death at the hands of the torero. The matador is seen in the centre of the stadium beguiling the bull with his crimson cape, his lance carefully concealed behind the colourful diversion. Barceló draws comparisons between this act of the matador at the heart of the arena and his own practice of painting: 'I put myself in the middle of the picture, making turns, with the same movements as a bullfighter. The sand in the ring is full of footmarks and becomes the setting in which to paint. The arena takes up the whole scene, almost leaving out the crowd from the picture' (Miquel Barceló quoted in M. Barceló, Miquel Barceló: Obra sobre papel 1979-1999, exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 1999, p. v).
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. As Tàpies once explained, 'I was obsessed with materiality, the pastiness of phenomena which I interpreted using thick material like a kind of inner raw material, that reveals the 'noumenal' reality which I did not see as an ideal or supernatural world apart but rather as the single total genuine reality of which everything is composed' (Antoni Tàpies, Memria Personal, Editorial Critica, Barcelona 1977, p. 184). Barceló could easily have uttered these words himself in describing his own practice. From his early days, the artist can remember being consumed by the materiality of his work. 'The backpack I would take to school was always full of bird dung, of shit collected from everywhere' he recalled, 'I realized right away that I couldn't even use a pen without making a mess and getting stains all over me. Real painting is something that stains: in adolescence I realised that it was something inevitably dirty' (Miquel Barceló interview with Ramón F. Reboiras, El Independiente, Madrid 26 January 1990, quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), op. cit, p. 12). Speaking in 1989, the artist 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 Faena de Muleta, 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.
'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' (Miquel Barceló, 'Notes for a talk on Tauromachy in Sevilla 1991' quoted in P. Subiros (ed.), Miquel Barceló 1987-1997, exh. cat. Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1998, p. 112).
Faena de muleta 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 Dáli, 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" (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, London, 1932, p. 80).