Miquel Vilà has consolidated his presence on the contemporary Catalan painting scene. The nearly one thousand five hundred paintings included in the present catalogue of his work objectively attest to Vilà’s considerable weight. But one thousand, five hundred, though it is a lot, is just a number and art cannot be evaluated quantitatively, though a significant number of pieces always serves to emphasize, if nothing more, the magnitude of an artist dedication and the density of a professional career.
Everyone is conditioned by the times, but the painter Miquel Vilà belongs to a generation particularly marked by its time period, a complex and uncertain one which -let’s not forget- has not yet been brought to the sort of close that would allow it to be viewed as something complete.
Vilà is one of the painters appearing on the Catalan art scene from the very beginning -even slightly earlier- of the decade of the 60s, precisely shortly after several Catalan artists of the previous generation had achieved resounding and, until then, unprecedented international success, that of the painters forming the group “Dau al Set”, who had ended up embracing Informalism. Therefore, when Miquel Vilà and his colleagues, at the time very young began painting, many people considered that nothing could be done in art -and even worse- with the dogmatism prevailing at the time, that nothing should be done- other than Informalism, a movement which continued to produce international recognition for Catalan art while the young newcomers tried almost heroically to do different things.
Informalism at the time was the unexpected trump card of new art in this country, and in addition, for us it had undeniably positive political connotations that made it specially valuable. Indeed, it was like a sort of strictly pictorial yet nearly explicit manifesto against the Franco regime that had been monopolizing and oppressing the country for some twenty years. It mattered little that the very same non-conformist art was used repeatedly by the dictatorship to wash his image internationally by officially supplying this type of works to international art biennials, and that the artists creating it were not very diligent in disassociating themselves from the operation. Despite all this, Informalism had become a dogma of progress, and it is well known that dogmas are indisputable and only admit assent.
But the fact is that Miquel Vilà and some of his young colleagues ignored the dogma and dared to seek their own, different solutions when they embarked on their personal creative careers. Nor did they ever consider ending up within any of the traditional pictorial trends, absolutely valid in their own right and in many cases still quite alive but that, from what they were concerned, had already expressed everything they could express. So they move on, into another direction. That was indeed a problematic decision, as beyond Informalism it seemed there was no possible “salvation”. Furthermore, the maîtres-à-penser (I’ve always asked myself why people with a functional brain would ever need anyone to tell them what to think) were prophets of a religion that, like every religion, did not admit heterodoxies. And on the political front, it was also endorsed, because it was perceived as the ultimate line of the international avant-garde at the time.
That daring move towards real heterodoxy was something Miquel Vilà paid for, and continues to pay for, even forty years later since, in not aligning himself with the prevailing forces at the time, he came to occupy the uncomfortable position of “independent”. And independent he continues to be, many years later, for having dared not to place his bets on the winning horse at the right time.
But the fact is that, while in this country there seemed to be no real salvation beyond Informalism, in Europe and the rest of the Western World, there was much more variety of artistic possibilities, even from positions at the extreme avant-garde. Here, there was an intense dispute between the advocates of figurative and abstract art, in which everyone acted in an extreme fashion: the artists coming from the consolidated pre-war tendencies were for the most part irritated by the young advocates of “abstraction”. However, the painters who represented the latter, instead of at least defending the validity of any avant-garde creation, only emphasized the non-figurative aspect, as if this factor was essential for and exclusive of artistic renewal; and many of them seem to ignore or underestimate, for example, the fact that perhaps the strongest of any new painters arriving to the international scene, Francis Bacon, was precisely a figurative artist who used conventional pigments to express himself in his creations.
When the mainstream demanded one thing, Miquel Vilà and a handful of other artists in his milieu had no problem doing other things. And it must be said that it was truly difficult to dissent in those times, in any case, a price had to be paid for doing so. It is always safer to travel in the company of those who have a papal bull than to travel alone or with others who are as disparate as yourself.
From a very early stage, Miquel Vilà was assured that he wanted to take up painting. And painting is practiced with pigments that were invented many centuries ago and have the advantage that they respond materially much better than other, rather poor substitutes that condemn the paintings made with them to visit the restores workshop after a few years to arrest their inexorable deterioration.
Vilà knew from start that, in order to narrate things in color on a flat movable surface, such as oil on canvas -or on panel or cardboard- provided unsurpassed performance. Therefore, as he didn’t need to re-invent the wheel, he was able to dedicate his genius to creative matters.
Another thing that Miquel Vilà was assured from scratch was that, since Maurice Denis time, the subject of the painting had been relegated to the background in order to grant the leading role to the painting itself, to its pure and simple plastic values, he did not want to relinquish the evocative and therefore expressive effects that objects, places, and specific situations have as nuclear elements in the poetry of a piece of art.
Miquel Vilà studied at the Conservatori de les Arts del Llibre (Conservatory of the Arts of the Book) and at the Escola Superior de Belles Arts (Fine Arts School), both in Barcelona, and began his artistic career with several paintings created between 1959 and 1961. None of these earliest works were commonplace, nor did they participate in any of the established languages of the acclaimed avant-gardes.
Soon though, he moved from painting to concentrate on printmaking. Engraving is an intrinsic part of Miquel Vilà’s artist creation -he has always worked with it and on his early period, until 1968, it was nearly his only activity.
Vilà defined his mature pictorial style around 1974. Before, he was searching, following a path not far from the one he would eventually took, yet more receptive to far-off Surrealist influences and nearby pop art stimuli. From the start, Rafael Santos Torroella, an art critic and great intellectual, yet whose carisma as an arbiter of criticism was not recognized -probably due to certain contemporazing postures he held in the political field- backed Miquel Vilà and his colleagues -students of Santos in Fine Arts- who were neither happy with becoming the epigones of Informalism once it had become the official line. The fact that Vilà exhibited at new independent galleries, away from any established movements, such as Ianua and particularly Sala Adrià in Barcelona, is also a significant factor that helps to define the profile of the emerging artist.
Some sentences by Santos appearing at newspaper “El Noticiero Universal” in October 1971, describe the essence of Miquel Vilà’s artwork at the time: “It is a Surrealism that should be quantified as magical, filled with more or less geometrazing and esoteric signs, and always imbued with a grave and melancholic atmosphere suggestive of of oneiric realms, possibly with disturbing childhood nostalgias”. If we remove the references to Surrealism, this portrait of Miquel Vilà’s artwork can be applied to all of his subsequent mature works.
From 1974, Vilà’s painting became increasingly purified, focusing on the essential, which does not at all mean that it became schematic or simplified. There was an evident will to eliminate elements that perhaps were more exterior than intimate, owing more to trends than to “inspirations”. And for a painter who does not want to dispense with these evocative effects of objects and places which I mentioned above, what this purification does is making precisely these “figurative” elements emerge unconsciously, elements which he is never tempted to describe in a naturalist manner, rather translating their forms always to produce a sort of archaic air.
Miquel Vilà belongs to a rare category within Contemporary Art, an unlabeled category which hinders the taxonomy that seems facilitate the job of an art analyst while, at the same time, places its members -as diverse in time and style as Regoyos, Pidelaserra, Feliu Elias, Ottone Rossi or De Pisis- in an unstable, creaking classification, never acclaimed by the administrators of plastic orthodoxy. They could be called the “unsettling authentic painters”, and this category would include those painters who, acting from the most profound depths of creative sincerity, refused, since the end of the 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century, to join consolidated movements or incorporate mechanisms of refinement that could erode the strong, unusual and primal expressiveness of their works.
The anti-naturalist and yet figurative Vilà’s art style has another surprising characteristic: the light. It is very obvious that the painter does not pretend to trap the viewer with illusionism but, at the same time, he refuses to relinquish the above stated well-recognizable references, which he bathes in a special light obtained through techniques that other painters reserve for results at the service of superficial fidelities but that, in his case, serve a symbolic or expressionist attempt rather than an a one into Realism.
Thanks to this light, Vilà make us to believe that many of these industrious and even dismal places filling his canvases are painted at dawn, when in fact, they are products created in the mind, in the solitude of the studio, who knows whether as a result of that disturbing childhood nostalgia that Santos Torroella detected so early in his work, that only use “realist” resources to play with the viewer in a game that the latter can only intuit.
It is in this game that Miquel Vilà’s art resides: Trying to explain it, if this was possible -I have stated before that painters are better explained through the brush and not the word-, would be a betrayal to him. It would be like disemboweling his art, an act not only unnecessary but one of poor taste.
The important thing is that his work will remain, a silent witness of a time that was richer than school books say. And perhaps, volumes such as this one will help to rewrite the art history of the 20th Century such that it is more in keeping with reality, which is what all serious history should aim at.