Monday, June 18, 2012

The Mystery Of Ritch Miller

Twenty-one years ago the newspaper "El País" published an obituary to an American painter who had been resident in Mallorca since the 1960s. Appropriate for the memory of a painter, the obituary was extraordinary in the vivid language it used to paint its own picture of the painter.

"Alone in his world, filled with absence and silence, he was attentive to the hidden voices of nature and the echoes he had left in the past." "The solitariness and anguish of this man were translated to the figures (of his paintings), contorted with horror and the hopelessness of amnesia." "He didn't live an isolated life, but he was tremendously lonely."

The painter was Ritch Miller. His work wasn't always easy to comprehend. He is perhaps best known for a Harlequin montage and a portrait of a child holding a balloon, though the child could as easily be an adult of either sex, regardless of the blue dress. The obituary made reference to the work of Francis Bacon, one of the art world's greatest drunks and cross-dressers, who died in Madrid a year after Miller's death. In Miller's at times tormented, figurative imagery, there is indeed some hint of similarity.

The history of art is littered with the bodies of those who lived very odd lives in pursuing creativity born out of some inner torment bordering on psychosis. Another American, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart), was an extreme example. He took himself off, or rather back, to California's Mojave Desert to engage in artistic, expressionist weirdness with the same obsessiveness that had driven him to imprison and humiliate the musicians of his Magic Band during the making of the truly weird "Trout Mask Replica" album. 

But whereas Bacon and Beefheart were both a couple of brushstrokes short of the full canvas, Miller wasn't. Or at least didn't seem to be. He looked and appeared to be perfectly normal, and a film made for the culture ministry when he died features testimonials to his having been not just a great painter but also a good bloke. Yet the obituary suggests an altogether more complex character, one who lived a life of self-imposed solitude at his finca in Santa María del Camí and who died in solitude at the finca; he hanged himself.

The mystery of Ritch Miller has influenced attempts to find out more about him. These have included a publication by the culture ministry and now includes a documentary, presented in the Ca s'Apotecari museum in Santa María, based on correspondence between Miller and Eliane Koeves who used to live in Santa Margalida before moving back to the US. The correspondence lasted from 1982 until Miller's death in 1991.

Miller hadn't intended to come and live in Mallorca. He was on his way to find a Greek island when he came across Mallorca, was taken by it and so stayed. He wasn't the first artist from overseas to be captivated by Mallorca and to make it home. Yet what was curious about Miller was that, unlike artists who used Mallorca as their theme in creating landscapes, he didn't specialise in them. He wasn't necessarily seeking inspiration from Mallorcan or Greek scenery, which makes the real mystery of Ritch Miller what he was in fact seeking and what it was that he was trying to forget and leave behind in America.

In a different way, however, Miller wasn't so curious. Mallorca is a home to those who, for various reasons, have something to forget. It is a home also to those who can turn this forgetfulness into a revision of their own histories. They become other people. Their pasts are inventions or, as with Miller, they are just blank canvasses waiting for someone, after their death, to attempt to paint in the missing pieces.

Nowadays it isn't quite so easy to make the breaks with the past. In the early '60s when Miller arrived in Mallorca, it was. Whatever his past was, and what little seems to be known is that at one point he had been a TV presenter in New York, it is what the future held for Ritch Miller once he had settled in Mallorca that is as intriguing and perhaps even disturbing. The extraordinary obituary makes the point that increasingly Miller portrayed a sense of self-destruction, "each work was part of a long goodbye".

Maybe this is the solution to the Ritch Miller mystery and to what he had really been seeking. He came to Mallorca to seek his own death and eventually he discovered it.

Any comments to please.

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