Raúl Milián in his small space

The singular painter.

Espacio mínimo (Minimum Space) is the title of the exhibit by artist Raúl Milián (Havana, 1914-1984) that the Museum of Fine Arts has put on display on the occasion of that enigmatic creator’s centennial. The exhibit comprises a group of inks on paper that cover from the initial moments of his visual work in the 1950s until the following decade, structured in three sections: Figurations, Abstractions and Flowers.

Milián has been an uncomfortable figure for art critics and historians. The fact that René Portocarrero, with whom he had a long and complex intimate relationship, guided him at the start of his pictorial work does not mean that in the work of Raúl there are visible signs of the aesthetics of the creator of Flora. Close for some to the poetry of the group Los Once, centred on abstractionism, closer, according to others, to the emergence on the island of the “new figuration,” it becomes very difficult to label him or to associate him to any gregarious affiliation. He was a solitary man who paid no attention to programmes or manifestos, someone who did art as a singular extension of his philosophy or simply as marginal illustrations of those notes with which he filled numerous notebooks.

Compared to Portocarrero, in his work there is no literature. He leaves no space for biographical or historical interpretations, nor does he seem to take from the poetic creation of the friends who visited his apartment. Lezama dedicated to him a strange sonnet in Dador and in 1951 Milián offered him an illustration for the cover of Orígenes, but that magazine’s poetry never won him over as it did with the author of angels, cities and ornate women.

According to tradition, when René welcomed Raúl in his space in the Carreño building, his only belongings were 400 books on philosophy. These accompanied him throughout his life. He left proof in his notes about his continuous dialogue with the great philosophers. In one of them he affirms: “According to Marx, when the imbalance disappears, when harmony reigns in the world in the full consummation of communism, all men will be artists.” But in the same page he notes: “It is convenient to meditate on the conception of Heidegger according to which the successful work is the result of the struggle between the earth and the land.”

Such interest in the philosophical path approached him to an artist like Paul Klee, the German-Swizz creator for whom the reflexive and theoretical work was as or more important than the concrete fact of painting. Both shared that magical mark that comes from the fact that representing something, a flower, a face, becomes an action that fills the object with implications, with subjectivity and makes it part of a conjure to withstand time and death.

An unprepared spectator could describe Milán’s inks as monotonous. Once and again, during years, he returns to the sunflower, the vase, the anonymous and tense face, those abstractions that take us to desert-like horizons or human figures degraded until they have become shadows. It is an art in which the visual matter seems to become philosophical or musical, with the minimum drop of possible sensuality, because the creator has more of the expert ascetic than of the Picasso anxious for pleasures.

In 1966 Alejo Carpentier wrote a page of interpretation on Raúl’s work. He gave it the title of lIuminaciones. Such a title comes from the counterpoint between two conceptions born in small format: the illustrations of the hour books of the Middle Ages and the visionary poems of Rimbaud. The novelist discovers the concentration, the eloquence of an art that deliberately chooses a restricted space and a frugal use of colour, to force the person who looks at it to find wealth of sense not in what is overabundant but rather in what is suggested.

Because the universe of Milián has its monuments, its documents and epitaphs, as well as its faraway armies, its mysterious fleets, its scaffoldings, machines and ruins, within a climate that at times defines the passage of its seasons by a slight and always timely touch of colour. But that universe is much stronger when the colour exists without existing; when it is suggested by the very qualities of the structures; when it is born of the infinite graduations of the white and the black; when the ink, under the artist’s hand, becomes light and becomes night. “Can a space of this type become bigger or smaller?”

According to a certain legend, Milián rejected even the extreme of appearing in public and when he decided to exhibit a sample of his work it was Portocarrero who had to take charge of curatorship and the montage. Raúl only went to the gallery very late at night, to watch out for the running of the works. I don’t know if it occurred exactly like this, but the anecdote allows us to discern the counterpoint between a daytime artist, extroverted and even carnival, and another nocturnal, withdrawn, dramatically lonely.

Suffice it to contemplate the faces he drew in the early 1960s to understand his obsession with lack of communication, associated to his constant questioning of the human condition. The individual is lost in those faces, they are deformed in grimaces, smudges, they are diluted in ink stains. Only thus can a cynical philosopher or the survivor of a disaster see. Raúl was both things.

Espacio mínimo comes to bring back too many questionings on this author that does not finish inserting himself coherently in the history of Cuban visual arts, because he doesn’t seem totally a painter, nor did he seek the Cuban in the matter, nor in the colour, nor in the strategies to communicate with his compatriots. For us Milián is a sort of William Blake. In both the visions of hell or paradise are complements of the fragmented writing of a system built as holy.

When someone reminds us that it was Raúl who designed the cover for the first edition in Cuba of Kafka’s short stories, they are undoubtedly giving us valuable information. That helps us to verify a secret tuning in to the closed and absurd world of the author of The Castle, but I believe he would have preferred to find his truth in the diaries of Kierkegaard or in aphorisms of Novalis. When he took his life on April 16, 1984 he took with him too many secrets. He was a man whose only religion was philosophy. His inks try to explain that drama and prolong it. (2014)

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