Joan Miró at the Tate Modern

Joan Miró Exhibition Poster

I recently went to see the Joan Miró exhibition at the Tate Modern. I have long liked what I have seen of Miró’s work, but, before the exhibition had not seen a lot of it. In addition I knew very little about Miró as an artist. It is, I think a sign of a good exhibition that I left not only having seen a lot more of the artist’s work, but feeling that I had learned a bit about what made Miró the artist and the person he was.

The early rooms explore his relationship with Catalonia and his identity as a Catalan. It is worth noting that Miró always insisted upon using the Catalan ‘Joan’ rather than the Spanish ‘Juan’ as his given name.

I felt that some of his earliest paintings had a vaguely Moorish feel to them especially House with a Palm Tree. This my be down to my imagination. Possibly Miró was influenced by the Moorish tradition in Spain, or to be honest, more likely, the work came out that way because of the fact that he was still painting in a realist, representational manner, but was trying to use symbolism and incorporate what he had learned of cubism on his trips to Paris. Also interesting was to observe his move from representation and realism to abstraction and surrealism.

The Farm
The Farm 1921-22© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Looking at The Farm, painted in 1921 at his family’s farm at Mont-roig, and completed 1922 in Paris, as an example (Miró considered to be his most important work from this period). We see him still working in a realist manner, admittedly informed by cubism. We can however, detect the beginnings of surrealism.

Moving on about two years later and looking at the The Tilled Field and Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) both painted in 1923-24 we see that the details of earlier landscapes have been reduced to colour fields and the objects have been abstracted and symbolised.

The Tilled Field
The Tilled Field
Catalan Landscape (The Hunter)
Catalan Landscape(The Hunter)

The second room concentrates on the development of his series of paintings featuring the emblematic figure of the Catalan peasant. For Miró the Catalan peasant had come to represent a symbol of the place, an ancient direct connection to the land. On one level the series can be seen as a displaced self-portrait, but it can also be seen the suppression of Catalan autonomy and the use of the Catalan language which the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera had imposed. As such they can be seen as celebrating a cultural identity under siege

By this time Andre Breton had published ‘The Manifesto of Surrealism’. Miró spent time in Paris with the Surrealists, and the series was partially made during that time.

Head of a Catalan Peasant
Head of a Catalan Peasant© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Everything has been abstracted, the red barretina hat, the eyes, the beard, the mouth has been reduced to a thin horizontal line that appears to have been drawn with ruler. The nose has been similarly reduced. His friend Michel Leris the Surrealist writer, compared the paring away of detail in the series to a meditative process getting rid if the superfluous leaving only the essence to be contemplated.

As we move into the years before the election of the Popular Front government and the Spanish Civil War we see Miró returning to his earlier Mont-Roig themes but using the language of Surrealism. Ladders – escape ladders – start appearing in his work. Linking earth and sky, terrestrial and celestial these became symbols of the dichotomy that Miró was aware of throughout his life. He seemed to live in a tension between wanting to be grounded and involved politically and the desire to escape to a place of creativity and personal freedom.

Dog Barking at the Moon

The 1930’s in Spain were a time of political unrest and upheaval and Miró’s art reflects this. He made a series of large pastel paintings in 1934 that he called the savage paintings. In 1935-36 he made another series, some painted on Masonite, some on copper plate, depicting highly coloured, minimalist, figures set in a bleak landscape echoing his and Catalonia’s anxiety about where the Spain was heading.

In 1936 the Popular Front government was elected, followed shortly afterwards by the General’s mutiny which led to the civil war. Miró was at Mont-roig at the time of the out break of the civil war. While his sympathies were undoubtedly with the Republicans, he climbed the escape ladder, and went into exile in France in late 1936.

The Civil War still dominated his work. Still Life with Old Shoe is the iconic piece from this period. The return to realism, and the use of everyday objects and they way they are depicted leave the viewer with the sense of disjunction that Miró himself felt. The apple is stabbed by the fork. The loaf is dried up and half eaten. The old shoe looks discarded and out-of-place. The bottle of wine, bleeding its electric colours into the black ground brings an apocalyptic feel to the whole work.

Still Life with Old Shoe
Still Life with Old Shoe

By 1939 Franco was  in power in Spain and the threat of war hung over Europe. During this period between his exile and the declaration of war on Germany many of Miró’s works show signs of despair. Savage pointed teeth and escape ladders become even more prominent around this time. The language used in his titles becomes violent. His fears about the threat of arial bombardment are shown in his “Flight of a Bird Over the Plain” paintings.

It was during the period known leading up to the German invasion of France that Miró began his Constellations series. Started in January 1940 whilst in exile in France and finished in September 1941 on return to the family farm Mont-Roig.

To me this series, which I love, symbolises Miró’s sense of being caught between political engagement and the desire to climb the escape ladder to a place of creative fulfilment. The tension was not necessarily helped by the fact that half-way through he was forced make the choice between further exile, probably in America, or an uncertain return to Spain where Franco was now in power. By Aug 1940 he had chosen to return to Spain and live in internal exile with his wife’s family in Mallorca, where he resumed the series.

Escape Ladder
The Escape Ladder

These dense and complex gouache and ink paintings are almost childlike on first viewing, but closer inspection reveals a complex mixture of playfulness and terror
Looking back on the period , Miró told an interviewer, in 1948, that in France in 1939;

“a new stage in my work began which had its source in music and nature. It was about the time that the war broke out. I felt a deep desire to escape. I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music, and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings.”

The immediate post war period seems to have been a period of reassessment for Miró. He, and his family made an extended trip to New York in 1947 and he resumed his trips to Paris. He made a series of paintings in which he reworked the imagery from the Constellations on a larger scale. These paintings appear much calmer, more ordered, and generally less frenetic. This in all probability reflects the place that Miró found himself in the late 1940’s compared to the period in 1940-41.

Self Portrait
Self Portrait 1937 1961

Some of the works that I found most interesting were the re-paintings of the canvases he had been forced to leave in storage in Paris when he left in 1940. one in particular Self portrait 1937 23/02/1960 I found particularly fascinating. The base is a pencil on canvas copy of a painting Self Portrait1 which is now in The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The original is surrealistic and complex,which may be how he saw his identity in 1937. The repainted work has the pencil base overlaid with a child-like representation of his current identity.

After a decade in which he concentrated mainly on ceramics, Miró returned to painting and sculpture in the 1960’s. About a dozen of his smaller sculptures are on show in Room 9. There is something in the way that he made his sculpture even more than in his painting that brings to mind Gaudi. This is not really surprising, Miro was born and brought up in Barcelona, Gaudi was almost built into his DNA.

Following his trips to New York in 1947 and again in 1959 when he met and absorbed the influences of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky Miró returned to Mallorca and began work on the first of his Triptychs, which to me fuse Miró’s surrealism with a restrained essence of Abstract Impressionism. Blue I/II/III are hung on three walls of an octagonal room and provide for me the contemplative immersive experience that some people, but unfortunately not me, find in Mark Rothko’swork.

Miro Blue I/II/III

The sixties and early seventies sees Miró return what is sometimes described as savagery, with paintings such as May 1968, dedicated to the student uprisings of 1968, and his ‘burnt’ paintings. I think that the term should be understood from the French sauvage – wild rather than the English savage. There is a wildness an almost reckless abandon about the paintings.

May 1968
May 1968

The second octagonal room holds two white triptychs Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse and The Hope of a Condemned Man painted in 1968 and 1973 respectively. The latter triptych, although preparatory sketches exist dating back to the 1960’s, Miró specifically linked to the execution of the Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich

Even as he moved into his eighties Miró still was one of the most innovative and experimental artist around. One of the last works in the exhibition Fireworks was made by taking black acrylic paint in various dilutions and flinging it at a canvas in upward arcs, giving the impression of fireworks exploding, foretelling the collapse of Franco’s regime following his death in 1975. Miró lived to see that and the transition to democracy. Miró expressed the artist’s role like this;

I understand that the artist is someone who in the midst of others’ silence, uses his own voice to say something and who makes sure that what he says is not useless, but something that is useful to mankind

It could be argued that Miró too frequently climbed his escape ladder to be truly effective in saying something effective and Christine Lindey makes the case quite well in this article. Ultimately though Miró left us with a body of work that lifts the spirit of the viewer, and that is something that is useful to mankind.

This video features interviews with people who know Miró and tells of how the exhibition was put together.


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