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A completely pure, thin line suffices to depict everything

It is not usual but in some creators of plastic arts, it is a constant, a medium that leads to an open palace of splendour. Such is the case of Ruibal, who is not just an artist, although that is what he is best known and revered for. A magician with lines, he uses them to embrace the world around the waist and make it his, while his brush strokes appear like flocks of birds moving rhythmically in harmony across the paper and cloth!

Every human being is made up of a cumulus of complementary angles, some more abundant and with different intensities than others. Nobody is so simple as not to consist of a spectrum of components, even though, on the outside, they may not seem so.

In this catalogue-booklet, which covers a good deal of Ruibal’s work, a testimony of his career, this point should be recalled and reflected in the different outlines he depicts. In order to truly describe this creator, his different skills as a plastic artist – sketcher, artist, sculpture – need to be analysed, as do his writings, both as a poet and an Aphorist, with his “flights”, as he calls them, that identify, ennoble and distinguish him: “Drawing is the profile of the world – once colour is added, it becomes the perfect state of life”.

Mention should also be made of his Bohemian attitude, his dreams and sensitivity, his existential, apolitical defence of Galicia; his approach as a man and as an artist towards life; his joie de vivre, his passion, his Pythian and magic hedonism; his tenderness and his lucidity – the mirrors in which he contemplates his madness, like that other visionary poet, Hayden Carruth. So many qualities!

Quite some time ago, in Alain, I read the conviction that serves as the basis of this analytical essay, filled with evocations, reflections, thoughts, ponderings, notes and quotes from other texts about this artist. I have spent months looking for the book containing that conviction but to no avail, because it is not correct to quote from an author without giving the exact source. But I can assure you it belongs to him.

Why bring that up now? Who is Alain? We cannot avoid taking a quick look at his life and work as possibly, without being aware of it, Ruibal echoes many of his thoughts. Alain, a pseudonym for Émile-Auguste Chartier (Mortagne-au-Perche 1868-Vésinet 1951), was a French philosopher, journalist and teacher, a staunch defender of pacifism, a radical militant and teacher hell-bent on teaching how to think and not just by accumulating thoughts.

In the schools where he taught, his personality always left a trail of admiration and distinguished pupils. He wrote many significant works, such as “Idées” and bequeathed us with a school of thought, close to Aphorism, which reflect meridian clarity. From 1903 onwards, he started writing in newspapers under the name of Alain. In 1906, he published his short articles, filled with fine wisdom and thought, called “Propos”. “Aucun possible n’est beau; le réel seul est beau”, or, in other words, “nothing possible is beautiful; only reality is beautiful”.

“A completely pure, thin line suffices to depict everything”. Was Alaín thinking about Matisse or Picasso? I have thought about them, but also about Ruibal, given the direction in which his work has gone, the synthesis that he is able to achieve, the sobriety and scarcity of media he uses to express his drawing. On numerous occasions, it is not just a line but rather a sketch or swarm of sketches that pour with exquisite subtlety onto the paper, pastel flying in a rigorous frame of mind.

Drawing is fundamental in Manolo Ruibal’s expression, both in his stand-alone works of art and in how he articulates the composition of his paintings or his sculptures. Once cannot compose, which in turn is to find balance, without the sketch drawing.

In Pontevedra in April 1994, the Sala de Caja de Madrid staged a magnificent exhibition of the artist’s drawings, commissioned by Mª Lourdes Martínez-Sapiña, of the Torres Abalo collection. He has always cultivated his drawing with excellent results, dispersing them either individually or in fantastic series like the one on animals, with abounding subtlety, in which he achieves exquisite, pure, uncluttered and amazing degrees of synthesis.

The Pontevedra exhibition illustrated a dialogue between landscape and human figures, between still-life and objects, between stones and trees, an iconic display of the ritual of the artist’s journey, his crystal-clear creative impulse expressing a process that decants into the essential.

In the collection on animals, the purity of his lines is taken to the extreme, with a fine thread of colour that marks extremely precise and acutely-defined territories, turning Ruibal into an Oriental master that does not depict reality but rather its essence. A splendid series of inspired, guided and rewarding flashes. Another of his flights clarifies the matter: “Only those that have it believe in inspiration”.

Like Hokousai, “the madman of drawing”, he has been able to break freed from the ties of calligraphy to depict essence and presence. Ruibal releases and distinguishes his expression in these transparent structures that resemble a ribcage, that serve to denote his preferences, the influence of New York, his devotions and his offerings.

His plastic art, its music, its syntax, the structure on which it emerges, none of this can be examined except by regarding all three techniques, which he produces, each with its own dynamics, single-handedly with an air of family bonding that permeates a single unit, even though the subject of each one varies.

We have seen the drawing; Alberto González Alegre writes a text about the sculpture in this book, which he analyses with great care, following the flight of its vibrations like gigantic, prehistoric birds that have made nests of their dreams buried in the timberlands. González Alegre’s unbiased and truly balanced appraisal does not allow or recommend any reiteration, while Francisco Moldes signs a text, written with a smooth narrative that reflects closeness of their friendship.

Therefore, I shall endeavour to refer to the full scope of the work of this large-format intimist artist. With a background that stretches from lyrical figurations to the identifying line, because very few works of art identify their author so closely, so dependently – that is the man, the life of the man that has painted this picture and which appears in every corner and shape.

In 1979, Ediciones Rayuela in Madrid published “El libro de la vida de Manuel Ruibal” by José de Castro Arines. The book covers everything from the outset and development of the artist’s work, who always had a clear notion that art was the dream he had had and wanted to make come true. In the title, he confesses to Castro Arines: “…if one day I stop dreaming, I will have to stop painting”.

His vocation was nourished on things he could not see, until one day in the chemist’s shop in Porranes, he saw an almanac with prints of pictures that had him immediately skipping off to Madrid. He reached the capital and, guided by his instinct, headed directly for the Prado Museum, where he was to discover the scent, the aura, the magic halo of art that enlightened him. And in Madrid, a brighter city than the green pastures of his homeland, his wings grew stronger until he sauntered off to Paris.

In pre-1968 Paris, he visited the Louvre and returned time and again in search of a catch; he lived under a bridge but maintained an air of extreme elegance to conceal his misfortunes, and after days of hunger, Bohemia and roses, he returned to Madrid like a prince returning from a golden exile. He was to try his fate again in the capital of France but again hardship would put an end to his fantasy.

From Madrid he went with a commission to Benidorm and from there to Murcia, where he held his first individual exhibition in 1966. He had won his first battle, the first significant earnings, and he decided to make them good with trips abroad and to Galicia, so that soon his resources dried up again.

His travels to Switzerland and to Rome set him on the road to modern art, which he discovered in the works of El Paso, Hartung, Dubuffet, Goya. But as he clarifies: “From 1972, my painting started to belong to me”.

His impressionism was the first to give way and his early schematics appeared, flat erasures, Chinese inks and egg-based temperas; automatism and linear graphism, Zen influences and a more and more intense preponderance towards poetry. In his “Motivos”, José María Eguren states: “Poetry is the revelation of mystery by the truth of feeling”, page 81, published by Signos/Versión Celeste, 2008.

Armed with several of those paintings dated in 1979, he disembarked in the Atlántica collection, in which he did not participate although he did form part of its spirit, as the professor and art Xosé Antón Castro, one of the top authorities on Manolo Ruibal’s work has remarked on numerous occasions.

In 1980, he moved to Palma de Mallorca and from there to New York, which was to be the first of his trips to America in his early attempt to settle there. Upon his return, he went back to his poetic figurations, the spell of Matisse and the essence of Galician avant-garde, which he would never lose and which he interprets with Mozart-like sweetness. There exists a period of five years, from 1984 to 1989, in which we see evidence of an aristocratic disposition, when he took to painting with Florentine elegance. Alluring nudes, coastal images of seaweed and mist, dreamy figures bending to the rhythm of distant, melodic music!

His environmentalism, which is not a social convenience but stems from his roots as a man from the country, that lives in a village and shares nature as his natural surroundings, became more obvious in a series of exceptional works, influenced by forest fires and burning trees. Red and blue hues form the background of enigmatic black entwined with superstitious shades and beautiful, mysterious Chinese calligraphy.

A change in his work can be seen from 1990, both in his technique and icons, new elements that consolidate his language. He started a new process in which he prepared cloths with a coat of glue and then of sand to create a lumpy, rough surface that made the background vibrate and on which his gestures were organised into subtle geographical bodies or inspired cartographic lines. Furthermore, in anticipation of expanded painting, he went beyond the canvas to also paint the frames, that way making them an inseparable part of the picture.

His short, fertile and clean lines became the protagonists of his work, representing a formal code that was equally expressive to depict both human forms and inert objects. A rainfall of brush strokes fall onto the cloth and settle into profiles of the essential shape he intends to create, because there is no exact depiction but merely an accumulation of presence.

In 1989, he went back to New York and stayed there for four years. There, his vocational essentiality would define his drawing and give style to his figures, in which reduction was to reach the point of extreme. Flat colours on sandy backgrounds would vibrate to create vibrant painting, like areas covered with neon lights or fields of fuchsia, perennial green, metallic blue, red …as if the sea were slithering in the hottest fire, as if gold where stripped of its aural fleece: I am thinking about works such as Imagen transformada, 1998.

And many more memorable paintings were to come – Chimneys in Queens, The Manhattan Twins, which we will no longer be able to see. A surprising economy of media appeared in his work, in which the volume of the countryside could be depicted with a single line – an example would be La idealizada montaña, 1996: a germinal line on a black background depicting a mountain, a groove that embraces space to position it in the picture. Many are tempted to ask: Is that painting? To which I reply: It is not only painting, it is the essence of painting!

This was to be the forerunner of further purification which became noticeable in 2005, when with a single line, like a fine wisp of frail smoke, an immense territory is delimited, which comes nearer by using a thicker brush stroke. There it attains the maximum expression, inaccessible to some viewers with their anxious intentions to understand everything, when really it is a matter of feeling.

After the USA, he returned for a while to Galicia and then again to Madrid, where he opened a studio in La Libertad Street, working passionately, compulsively, drawing while he prayed, producing pastels seeped in orientalism and soaked in sensitivity. There we used to have memorable meetings with Oroza, Barnatán, Alcántara which allowed for permanent debates!

In January 2000, he held an exhibition in the sumptuous and open space of the Port Station in La Coruña which caused a great sensation, so much so that it was then moved to Lisbon under sponsorship of Lusitania,. Banco Santander and the Spanish Embassy and set up in the Torreao Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional, where the greatness of its intimacy was exhibited with splendour.

With its special set-up, Ruibal achieved one of his greatest successes at the Portuguese exhibition. The large format of his works stood out in those huge premises like fragments of a militant life in the heart of time. He painted a few details on the walls and drew lines and milestones to mark a route through the exhibition which were so remarkably integrated that in the end, everybody wanted to keep them, when that was not possible, because their fate was ephemeral, an action that was to last only for the duration of the exhibition.

Thos exhibitions included a series of painted stones, a base material that has gained capital importance in Ruibal’s plastic art since 2001. His first painted stones date back to 1991 and were initially small sized, but the surface area and weight have grown to such an extent that his most recent works weigh 78 tonnes.

Although Alberto González Alegre speaks about sculpture, he nevertheless refers to certain circumstances that I too have felt, a curious one in particular: the attraction that Ruibal’s small painted stones emanate, so powerful that two of them were stolen at the exhibition in La Coruña – one was returned while the other disappeared into the hands of dark shadows. I said ‘stolen’ but that is not quite accurate, now that nobody can hear us, I have to admit that I think that was a sign of tremendous praise: somebody could not resist the temptation of taking something that fascinated him/her, regardless of the monetary value.

As far as the big items go, I have seen some of them being set and I have witnessed the paraphernalia required to move them and set them up, with special trucks, powerful, oversized cranes, streets being closed to traffic while crowded with onlookers, as occurred in Tres Cantos at the head offices of Construcciones San José.

My words lead us to a clear deduction and certain reflections. Somebody who is not acquainted with this artist, who approaches his work for the first time, will have noticed his tendency towards transhumance. Ruibal is  a true Galician, devoted to his homely roots, but at the same time he is a nomad. Every man is a foreigner on his way, as Saint-John Perse says in his songs, and his peers fill his hands with sweet or bitter berries with the intention of holding him back, although our mission is to keep passing, as Machado states in his music.

Manolo Ruibal has been a traveller who only takes roots in the wind, in the homeland of his plastic art and poetry. It is a strange thing but when sculpture became such a fundamental part of his work, his nomad instinct seemed to decrease. I believe that it is not only because his sculpting calls for special facilities, workshops, machinery, assistants, but also because that piece of stone, which he extracts from the heart of the mountain, huge boulders of an earlier age that he turns into subtle granite stones of the present, transfixes him, like a spell that adduces, seduces and induces him.

In the early days, if painting was the people with whom he communicated, in this new century sculpting has taken preponderance and is only interrupted occasionally to produce a painting of sheer beauty, a drawing on paper of schematic content and enigmatic destiny.

Ruibal is an emotional, vocational and self-taught artist who was able to surround himself with those items he required to enable his instinct to come to the surface in his eternal voyage in search of confines, the discoverer of altars on which he always lays white cloths for each new sacrifice. An artist that persists, that seems to be in the same place at all times without ever changing his targets, his rituals or his myths. For many wise men, beauty has become a hindrance. However, no artist fails to long for beauty? José Maria Eguren, in his “Motivos”, page 63, states: “Art is the instrument with which it is externalised”.

In his early days, his lessons came from the Prado Museum, his amazement for Saura and Millares, the spell cast on him by Nonell. Paris and his learning of the works of Matisse, Derain, Modigliani…Maside, Colmeiro, Torres, but above all, as Castro Arines points out, from “his way of feeling”.

I said that he was self-taught but that is only partly true, because even though he did not go to a school of art, he did not arise through an academy, he never failed to look and learn in search of the expression that would do him justice and redeem him. He stands in the tradition of true painting, which he shapes and moulds so that it unfolds in the palace of his dreams, which is a wide-ranging, open, clean cosmos full of light, perfume and tenderness.

Poetry makes him draw those things that make his language unique, the signs of his identity and charisma, his Galician origins that grow at a distance, that realm beyond fantasy that make some of his works more diaphanous.

Over the years, in permanent dialogue with time, his work has cleansed itself of highlights, becoming thinner, reduced to its most secret structures, in pure presence, without any elements of support and no references other than his sensitivity.

Having been in direct contact with this artist and his work for a long time, I am drawn to certain conclusions, which are not the same as ten years ago, because he has changed, with a stronger approach.

I should speak of his style, because the Ruibal style does exist and differs from others, a style which includes reverberations of Azorin and the Orient.

Nowadays, there is less talk of style, beauty and language; instead we talk of brand, market and trade. Nevertheless, rivers of ink have been written about style. Azorín, who Ruibal used to see walking around Madrid, calle de Zorrilla, that great master of Spanish style, the modern classic par excellence, the great poet of prose, in his book “Una de hora de España”, states: “And style, in its final outcome, is no more than the reaction of the writer to the things he faces … the first step in style is clarity. He who thinks clearly writes clearly”, pages 38 & 39, Espasa-Calpe edition.

What the master from Monovar in Alicante says is also valid for plastic art. What is true for the written word is not normally valid for a picture, but in this case it is. The work of Azorín cannot be translated into other languages with solvency – it has such a fine, hard weave, it is so realistic and ascetic that when turned into another language, it becomes cork, something that is left floating. It is a style shaped by him and thus serves his expression and no other, it does not accept imitators, who become plagiarists. Its simple expression is born and dies with him, it is genuine, unique, easy, distinct, aloof, forged with a sober elegance of exultant simplicity. Does not all of this serve to identify Ruibal’s style?

Does Ruibal have a style? Of course he has a style! So, what is it like? Subtle, clear, noble, direct, bare, realistic, poetic. It is his reaction to things facing him; his approach, presented in an elemental archetype with no adornments other than the essential. It is a way of expressing, with accurate clarity, complex things. It is a fringe style; it follows its own harmony, its undeniable vocation of essentiality.

In his text written in 1922, “El secreto profesional”, Jean Cocteau states: “Style cannot be a starting point. It is the result. What is style? For many people, it is a complicated way of saying the simplest thing. In my opinion: a very simple way of saying complicated things”.

Such is the status that our artist has reached – a simple way of saying complicated things. The process has been a long one, it continues and never stops, because everything changes and we also change. There is no overpowering simplicity but rather an outcome, a synthesis, a relinquishment of everything that is not precision, accuracy. The artist could exclaim the same as Juan Ramón Jimenez, Oh intelligence, give me the exact line to identify every feeling, every thought!

Style is a perennial intelligent search. In each work, the artist starts his search again. He gropes to find the way knowing what he is looking for, he values what he finds but he never stops probing, questioning and that bond with doubt is what leads him, on occasions, to find gold where he did not expect to. The artist simply walks on a thin rope, which is liable to break and does indeed break sometimes. Painting is a dream that has to be dreamt, but one has to have the ambition of dreaming it.

The idea that the artist does not know what he finds is false. In that case, he would no longer be an artist! If he were not surprised, even before other are, he could not produce art but rather random conjuring tricks!

Ruibal is an author with many faithful collectors who he charms but also confuses with changes in his proposals and who “disconcerts, offends”, says Cocteau. The spectator wants continuity and not to have the designs which he believes he can handle safely changed. In another sense, the same thing occurs with the specialist. Nobody wants the questions to change when he is sure he has the answers. Thus, every new stage in the artist’s career meets with effrontery, until the next stage comes along and picks up the baton.

Style is clarity, it is not repetition, there is nothing as sad as the artist that has become his own slave, who has found a key to success and repeats it ad nauseum for fear of disappointing the market. In this work, the resources of the heart define the resources of the spirit, the fortunate way of finding the light after the blindness of each commencement. An Azorean perfume, in arrears, in miniature, in the “elegance of vulgarity”, entertaining detail, where the minimum makes more of a statement; and orientalist. Two notes that contribute to the illusion and approach. According to Guy de Maupassant: “great artists are those that impose their personal illusion on mankind”.

At a significant moment in history in the Pre-renaissance, in the times of Giotto, Masaccio or Cimabue, painting was influenced by the essence of Byzantine, filled with orientalism and nature, but instead of continuing down the painting-painting road, the Pre-Renaissancists turned to reproducing reality in accordance with the whims of their benefactors and thereby started a new type of painting that highlighted references, conventional reality, while forgetting all the “rest”, when very often all the “rest” is precisely the most interesting part.

Braque used to reiterate with calm insistence that the most interesting aspect of Art is all those things that cannot be explained. The mystery it contains and which generates widespread polysemy. While the Western world set itself the target of searching for a model to reproduce, the Orient was geared towards essence and presence, alien to the referential. Free of mystery, exempt of magic, emotionless, other things remain: decoration, trade, fashion, and brand names… other things that have little or nothing to do with Art.

Although Ruibal lives in the Western world, he is not alien to this idea of essence rather than depiction. Fernando Huici made note of this trait in the catalogue about the Ruibal exhibition that travelled through La Coruña, Vigo and Pontevedra in 1987: “His precise reduction to the essential line and colour, which give the work an almost Oriental rhythm, has now adopted a subtle and hypnotic elegance”.

Coinciding with this point, in his text written for the exhibition at the Severo Pardo Gallery in 1991, the Portuguese professor Bernardo Pinto de Almeida wrote: “Over the years, a series of works with a subtle Oriental flavour (highlighted at times with drawings in an almost calligraphic style) and a delicate sense of chromatic enveloping and atmosphere have gradually been replaced by an increasingly sharp explicitness that naturally stems from the artist’s lexis”.

From imagination to the line could be the title of both the framework and the content of his plastic art, his development, his process, in their various aspects. The author’s fortunate inroad that the spectator should feel, perceive and share in order to complete the work from a point of view of fulfilment. “Beauty is a synthesis”, says Eguren; and the name of Ruibal cannot be uttered without referring in the same breath to beauty, synthesis, knowledge, thought, sensitivity, purity.

In this painting that is so bare, so lacking in subterfuge, so distinct, so convex, a great oxymoron that brings together contrary forces but not to confront each other but rather to account for the artist’s contradictory personality, sometimes sensitive, sometimes rebellious, sweet and sour, dynamite and silk.

In another of his ‘flights’ he says: “Those that say that Art is not an essential article have never felt hunger except in their stomachs”. He writes in Castilian Spanish but speaks in Galician – not that he has any claim to make but simply so as not to be misunderstood, he is not a great conversationalist, he is clean water that smiles or feels melancholic, that is joyful or homesick, but is always rigorous in his words.

In 2003, an author’s edition of 12 copies of a book of Aphorisms by Manolo Ruibal was published in Pontevedra under the pseudonym of Eulogio de Segismundo, a book of 140 pages with 746 numbered aphorisms. This is an event that perfectly defines this artist of both the written word and the painted image, this hunter of enigma, romantic, passionate, simple, profound, cyclothymiac, whole and brittle, made of glass and steel, a foreigner of rain, mist and lavender; solitary and transparent, who shies away from fame and the media circus, who caresses the line until he makes a spectrum of light, until he outlines happiness and, in eternal silence, draws greatness.

An edition of just twelve copies! Mallarmé had an edition of just seventeen of his last sonnets and poems. What is somebody who is not after money looking for? Notoriety? What Pablo Sarasate was looking for when he wrote his “Variaciones sobre un tema de Martha de Flotow”. Beauty, the sublime rendering of expression, gracefulness, which “is a flame, foamy and celestial”, “like the essence of Beauty”, as Eguren wrote in his “Motivos”, pages 104 & 105, Signos/Versión Celeste, Madrid 2008.

Such is the work of the author if this anthology. Pure painting! A Galician, Spanish, poetic artist that emerged in the 1970s and has consolidated through a never-ending process of purification. This is his plastic art. His written works, his poetry, his flights, take another road. Traces of the wild, compulsive, sybarite artist; an uneasy, forceful anarchist, a calligrapher of the structure of fire and snow.

This is the kingdom of the line, sketch painting, colour outlines that gleam with manifest brightness, displaying the full presence of art based on formal purity. The line, akin to sculpture, that traces its fine instinct like subtle petroglyphs that condense the whole of time into an endless present.

The artist, this singular, generous, as well as jealous, capricious, vulnerable, expert in sap and colour-chrome, a potter of the clays of the sun and the mirrors of the sea, a white, heavenly poet that nurtures the dialogue of existence while life continues its pace and time looks on from the belvedere of eternity.

His 1979 exhibition in Rayuela, Madrid set a milestone in his life and his professional career. His appearance in “Arco’84” represents his return to Madrid twenty-five years on and he is back in force, consecrating his dimension, offering us his pure painting and tendering his natural ways with which we have become accustomed.


Tomás Paredes
President of the Madrid Association of Art Critics