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Henry Miller the Painter

By Bea Aaronson


Henry Miller paintings

Very few people know that the famous author of Tropic of Cancer was also a painter. Like his writing, painting was a metaphor for living life to the fullest. Miller belongs to this fertile earth of artists who used the verbal and the visual as the systole and the diastole of their becoming. The image is always at the core of their plural identity, whether dressed up in words, lines or colors; the image builds the creative soul and resonates within its infinite potential. Miller belongs to the likes of William Blake, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Lorca, and Cocteau, all of whom were projecting their inner selves through novels, poems, plays, movies, and also the visual arts.

“Henry Miller the Painter, ‘When I Write, I Work, When I Paint, I Play’”
Mon, Sep 22, 4:30 and 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde Annex
San Jorge 45, Colonia San Antonio (off Refugio Sur)
130 pesos
Reservations: 121-1026 or

Miller actually began painting in the 1920s, before writing! It was Turner who turned Miller on. After seeing some prints in a Brooklyn department store window, Miller was enthused, intoxicated by the English master’s use of light and color, the power of his cosmic fluidity. Other artists who opened his soul to the visual dimension of creativity were Matisse, Rouault, Klee, Chagall, Picasso, Grosz, Michonze, to name but a few.

If I had to characterize Miller’s artistic endeavor, I would have to say that the surrealism of dreams, the expressionist power of the primitive, the Fauve exultation of color, the moving simplicity of naïve art, the Dadaist sense of humor, the unsoiled sincere playfulness of children’s art, and the poetic fluidity of Japanese Sumi compositions, are all present in his imaginings. As he said, “When I write, I work, when I paint, I play.”

Totally infused with the Taoist philosophy of WuWei –which I shall explain in the lecture- it is no wonder that Miller chose watercolor as his medium of predilection: “The watercolor has affinities with the sonnet, or the haiku, rather than the jeremiad. It captures the flux and essence, the flavor and perfume, rather than the substance. Ambience that is what the watercolor renders par excellence” (To Paint Is to Love Again.)

Miller created more than 3,000 of them, together with etchings, lithographs and serigraphs, which he would stack on his beloved ping-pong table (his other passion, with writing, women and playing the piano) in order to sign them. The fact he did not know how to draw did not hinder him in the least. Au contraire, art was not about rules, formalism, structure, dramatic unity or mere savoir-faire; it was about passion and imagination. And this, he had plenty of!

Miller had many shows during his lifetime —in the US, Japan, Paris, Uppsala in Sweden- but sold very few paintings. He often bartered them for art supplies in New York, cups of coffee in the streets of Paris, and for food and clothing in Big Sur, but he mostly gave them away to friends and fans throughout the world. What would he say today, as his daughter Valentine is finally letting go of and selling her father’s artistic legacy, at prices ranging from US$3,000 to $32,000!

Miller the writer-painter wrote extensively about art: To Paint Is to Love Again, Paint as you Like and Die Happy, The Waters Reglitterized, The Painting Lesson. These books are all about his love of painting: “To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with the eyes of love that we see as the painter sees…” (To Paint Is to Love Again).

I invite you to discover or re-discover Henry Miller the artist, and savor his whimsical imaginings. You will not be disappointed!


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