By Richard P. Townsend
There are a lot of moving parts to the exhibition Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, an international loan show organized by the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona; Tate Modern, London; and the National Gallery of Art (now at the latter venue for its final showing until the 12th August 2012). While not claiming to be a retrospective, it functions like one, comprising works spanning his entire career. The title proclaims its intent to be a show about the artist’s social and political concerns. And ultimately, as I see it, it serves well as an exploration of artistic and cultural identity. It succeeds on all those levels and it was especially providential as it paired—briefly—with the recently closed early Picasso drawings show. For those lucky few who saw both at once on the sole overlapping day (the 6th May), this was an extraordinary opportunity to examine two Spanish artists, contemporaries who were extremely different, but both of whom fiercely identified as Catalan (although Picasso moved to Barcelona only at the age of 13) and were their most Spanish during their respective French sojourns. Furthermore, the irony is not lost on us that Picasso and Miró preferred to title their works in their adopted language of French (one with which Picasso was not comfortable for quite some time). Most importantly, as I see it, the side-by-side exhibitions provided a window into how these two artists–the most important Spanish painters of the 20th century–redefined received ideas of artistic representation. Picasso of course, with his groundbreaking work from 1907 on (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the development of Cubism) and Miró with his increasingly reductive pictoglyphs (and his exploration of Surrealism).There have been a number of exhibitions and countless publications that have dealt with these themes, a cottage industry surrounding Picasso and his work; a sweeping, highly important exhibition devoted to context—2007’s Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudí, Miró, Dalí and more recently, last year’s Picasso, Miró, Dalí. Angry Young Men: the Birth of Modernity at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. This Miró exhibition amply demonstrates his ability to simplify or distill the essence of things, as it traverses his entire career. This reductive method may explain Miró’s influential career: his ability to effectively communicate his ideas to other artists and ultimately his popularity with the general public.
The exhibition opens with a group of early pictures from 1917 until 1922—the so called detailist style—that owes much to ancient Catalan art, Fauvism, Expressionism and above all, an initial approach to Cubism. Extraordinary precision given to certain motifs provides a lucidity, all the while the paintings’ spatial organization is rigidly cubistic (flattened and schematized motifs, perspective tilted toward the viewer). This includes paintings of Mont-roig (“Red Mount”), a family retreat; a vegetable garden (in a 1918 painting now in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm); and his early masterpiece, The Farm (1921-22), a picture bought by none other than Hispanophile Ernest Hemingway and given by his widow to the National Gallery of Art (see above). In The Farm for example, Miró manages to convey the theatricality of a stage set littered with references to Cubism and its tropes, such as the flattened newspaper along with a watering can and pail in the foreground, everything a still life.
Just a few steps away we see Miró go from there to distillation of the simplified in two hugely important paintings, both of 1923-24: La terre labourée (The Tilled Earth) and Paysage Catalan (Le Chasseur) or Catalan Landscape (The Hunter). The effect is not jarring but relevatory. In the former, Miró has composed a hymn to his idealization of country life. With the political negation of Catalan culture with Dictator Primo Rivera in the 1920s, seemingly innocuous depictions of country life (Miró called Mont-roig “the most Catalonian place of all” in an interview in 1928)—of Catalan life—may be seen as implicitly political statements. And interestingly, these works were being painted, exhibited and published in Paris. Miró attained his ambition to be an “international Catalan” (Miro to a friend, 1920). The sentiments are both nationalistic and traditional, but the visual vocabulary is indeed international. Abstracted, simplified, all sense of perspective and spatial organization upended, figures are distilled to their essence, represented in abbreviated motifs, some flattened and schematized while others are simultaneously depicted modeled in acid arbitrary colors and given depth and volume. The effect is contradictory and, yes, surreal. These are his first surrealist paintings, seemingly irrational and weird, but truly representing complete thoughts, the life of the mind and the subconscious.
One of the great services of this exhibition is the opportunity for the collective impact of these pictures to inform the eye. As a result, once in the galleries we are acclimated to looking, the paintings are readily legible. In The Hunter, the protagonist is to the far left, simplified to a stick figure with identifying ear, smoking pipe and beating heart (this painting was purchased by André Breton, the father of Surrealism, who soon after would call Miró, “the most ‘surrealist’ of us all.”). In the center foreground, underneath the fantastic sardine, is an organic red swirl of a shape, which must be a barretina—a Catalan peasant’s cap–although here it reads as an incipient bio-morphic shape, a Surrealist motif which interested Miró; Salvador Dalí, the third Catalan artistic genius of the age; and later artists like Yves Tanguy and Henry Moore.The red barretina leads us to the next gallery and the year 1924. Here we have a near comprehensive treatment of his series of portraits of a Catalan peasant. The earliest of these, from the National Gallery’s own collection, is the ultimate reductive portrait, with two bisecting lines (based of couse on traditional draftsmanship, as an artist drawing a face begins with dividing the head into four quarters) and at the end of each of these “cardinal” points two eyes, a schematized beard and at top, the barretina. The other pictures from Madrid, London, Paris (here it is shaped like an artist’s palette, making the portrait autobiographical) and Stockholm are variants all displaying the identifying marker of the red cap. (Miró probably knew a slightly earlier painting, the striking portrait by Modernista artist Ramon Casas of Pere Romeu, 1897; private collection, Barcelona. Romeu looks directly at us, on his head the flaming red barretina. Romeu is most famously known as the proprietor of Els Quatre Gats, the Barcelona tavern cum gallery where he gave Picasso his first show.)
With the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War came the most explicit politically charged work of Miró, involving the further development of the Catalan peasant imagery. A design for a French stamp which later became a poster, Aidez L’Espagne (Help Spain) of 1937 shows an angry man shaking his upraised fist, wearing the barretina. Miro’s audiences would have understood the association of the barretina with the centuries-old symbol of liberty, the Phrygian cap. This political poster led to his monumental mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, the Spanish Second Republic’s cry to the world in the midst of its civil war. Here these politically progressive forces gathered the best in avant-garde art. The pavilion was designed by Josep Lluis Sert: inside were Picasso’s Guernica and sculptures by Julio Gonzalez and Alexander Calder. In the Pavilion’s staircase, Miró created a searing image of Le Faucher (The Reaper) or The Catalan Peasant in Revolt, sickle in one hand and wearing a barretina, its top curled up like a fist. Miró, like his compatriots Picasso and Dalí, was keenly aware of received artistic tradition. His monumental peasant has its predecessors in the long line of country folk and farmers aggrandized and immortalized in painting from Poussin in the 17th century to Millet and Breton in the 19th. Miró’s mural—now lost—is represented in the Washington exhibition by a large photomural. The Catalan peasant as revered by Miró represents not only his search for identity but a link to his past, his culture, all the while living in a foreign capital. Similar concerns had also preoccupied Picasso, just ten years before.
One of the special pleasures afforded us at the National Gallery of Art—a mark of its status as one of the world’s great museums, and feasible at few other institutions—is the opportunity to see simultaneous multiple major exhibitions. I fondly recall the once-in-lifetime experience of viewing simultaneously Titian: Prince of Painters and Anthony van Dyck in 1990. These two monographic shows, independent projects in their own right, nevertheless allowed us to explore the connections between that towering genius of Venetian Renaissance painting and the 17th-century Flemish artist who perhaps best understood Titian’s legacy. Likewise, to see the Miró exhibition at the same time as Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition (closed the 6th May) was an amazing opportunity to see at once these two Spaniards re-inventing the depiction of the human figure.
Picasso and Miró had a lengthy and respectful association; in fact, the former’s life-long friend and later secretary, Jaime Sabartés, was a cousin of Miró. Although both artists grew up in the artistic circles of Barcelona, Miró was twelve years younger. They did not become friends until February 1920, when significantly, Miró visited Picasso’s studio on the younger artist’s first trip to Paris. In fact, Picasso acknowledged the younger Miró’s importance and his impact on himself.
Susan Grace Galassi, senior curator at the Frick Collection, which originated this show of sixty drawings, gives a clear, concise overview in the catalogue, following in the exhibition, of the first decades of Picasso’s production in drawings. Beginning with their sources in the Antique and Old Masters, she and co-curator Marilyn McCully limn his innovative draftsmanship ranging from redefining representation with Cubism to new approaches such as the papiers collés (paper collages) to works created after the First World War and its “call to order” in traditional media like pastel, his gorgeous neo-classical works.
In Picasso’s Drawings this redefinition of the representation of the human figure is expressed nowhere more eloquently than in the suite of drawings of the standing female nude, truly a Cubist trope. Marks and cross-hatching, pen-and-ink, broken planes and volumes, outline the “idea” of a classically posed nude model. These works of 1910-12 are further reductions of the more fulsome figure in the handsome watercolor of a standing female nude (see far left). Likewise, Miró begins the reduction of the figure to the esssential in his Catalan peasant head series a decade later.
Even more to the point is a papier collé (more precisely, here a papier épinglé or pinned as opposed to pasted down) that Picasso made during one of his summer breaks from Paris in the Catalan countryside, at Céret outside Barcelona. The Spaniard (1913; private collection) shows a mustachioed man in a hat with a dot for his right eye with line connecting it to a drawn left eye, the face framed with a parallelogram. Ten years later, Miró in his Catalan peasant series would reduce these essentials even further. Another superb example of a papier collé in the exhibition was The Cup of Coffee made in Paris just before The Spaniard, with its tension between illusionism and flattened space, charcoal lines with cut-out wallpapers and artist’s colored papers (see immediate left).
In July 1936, General Franco led the Nationalists in armed conflict against the Spanish Republic. The pointed artistic response on the part of Spain’s artistic leadership—Picasso’s Guernica and Miro’s The Reaper among them—would be amply on display at the Spanish Pavilion a year later. However in that first month of the Civil War, Miró began a series of paintings on masonite which he gouged and spackled with tar and sand. These transgressive paintings would seem to echo the artist’s proclamation some years before, “I want to assassinate painting.” Dalí was captivated—as one might expect—by this sensationalist statement, saying in a 1928 essay, “The assassination of art, what a beautiful tribute!” The masonite paintings are certainly responses to the political situation and the extreme violence and uncertainty of the age. Interestingly, Miró had already violated the traditional rules ten years earlier, in the National Gallery’s own Catalan Peasant (1924; see above). It is there he first rebels against the traditional idea of painting on canvas by piercing the canvas twelve times, presaging Lucio Fontana’s challenge to the Western tradition and its concept of the illusion of reality contained on canvas.
The penultimate moment in the Miró exhibition is an entire wall of the series the artist called the Constellations–paintings in watercolor on paper created in 1940 and 1941 (see above). With these surprising works we reach the apogée of Miro’s style, his personal vocabulary of simplified pictoglyphs of humans, birds and animals, celestial arrays, articulated in primary colors. The Constellations series was painted in the midst of war, indicated no doubt by the aggressive forms and dark night sky set with stars. Nevertheless the graceful, attenuated forms, extraterrestrial imagery and rich colors seem to foretell a happier time and a world interested in progress and the future. The paintings created a stir when exhibited first at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in January 1945 and would influence the New York School (Miró meeting Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, among others, on his first trip to the U.S. in 1947).
The Washington exhibition ends with two galleries that condense Miró’s work from the last three decades of his life. This last section addresses the Miró Otro (Other Miró) exhibition of 1969—an anti-establishment political statement against his official 75th birthday celebration put on by Franco regime. As a part of Miró Otro , the artist, in a performance-like act, painted with his signature shorthand a long vista of glass windows inscribed with Catalan freedom verses (and months later then scraped it off). The result was very much what we would call street art, or graffiti art, today. This project, combined with Miro’s other large-scale public works, a number created for patrons in the United States beginning in the 1940s, provides the opportunity to consider his impact on public art and more largely, popular culture. As far away from Barcelona and Franco’s Spain as is Kansas, I myself grew up with a late Miro mural, an outdoor glass mosaic—Personages Oiseaux—commissioned for the façade of Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art in 1978 (see http://webs.wichita.edu/?u=ulrichmuseum&p=/Art/MiroProject).
The current Miró exhibition is a worthy endeavor with a genuine point of view. It goes a long way to help explain Miró’s influence in high culture for his political and social sensibility and as well as his influence on popular culture. In the end, however, perhaps Miró’s work was too reductive. Thanks to focus and astute curatorial editing, the exhibition triumphs over the ubiquity and over-simplification present in much of Miro’s late work. Joan Miro’s legacy lives on in his large-scale public works and the impact that his entire output has had both in the popular imagination and on artists ranging from the Abstract Expressionists to Keith Haring and Walt Disney to the 1990s animated television series The Ren and Stimpy Show. As the artist Roy Lichtenstein—himself indebted to the popular culture doubtless shaped in part by Miró—said in 1983, the year Miró died, “There is a relationship between cartooning and people like Miró and Picasso which may not be understood by the cartoonist, but it definitely is related even in the early Disney.” Miró’s impact on what we understand to be modern and popular culture’s place therein should not be underestimated.