Andrew Lambirth

Free spirit

Joan Miró (1893–1983) was a great imaginative artist and a pure painter of genius.

Free spirit
Text settings

Joan Miró (1893–1983) was a great imaginative artist and a pure painter of genius.

Joan Miró (1893–1983) was a great imaginative artist and a pure painter of genius. He produced a huge body of work over a long life, and this excellent selection of it transforms the uninspiring galleries at Tate Modern, which have rarely looked so good.

This exhibition offers the political interpretation. You can see Miró as a surrealist, as a formalist or as a political artist. Actually, he was none of these, but allowed each to touch upon the wellsprings of his creativity and have some sort of relationship with his art. His identity as a Catalan is of far greater moment than most other issues, and this fundamental approach to life (his passionate concern for the Catalan nation, its people and traditions) is deeply intertwined with his political attitude. For those who wish to view Miró through the political prism of his times, the essays in the catalogue (£24.99 in paperback) will assist. Revealingly, even the editors of this book admit that Miró’s political response was ‘sporadic’. For those who simply wish to look at superb examples of his art, concentrate on the exhibition.

The show is arranged chronologically, with the first room given over to the exquisite pattern-making super-realism of the early work. ‘The Farm’ (1921–2) is here, a famous painting once owned by Hemingway and gifted by his widow to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and always held up as a chapter on its own in Miró’s development.

How good to see it in a room of similar but far less familiar images, particularly beautiful and evocative being ‘The Rut’, ‘Mont-roig, the Church and the Village’ and ‘House with Palm Tree’. Here, in the context of a heightened, magical realism, are the basic elements of mature Miró: the potent colour combinations — exultant pinks, yellows and greens, blue against dun — the dots and wiry lines, and the recognisable forms beginning to metamorphose into something fantastic. Here, too, is ‘Catalan Landscape (The Hunter)’ of 1923–4, in which the transformation has already occurred and the canvas has become a gymnasium of cabbalistic signs and near-geometric symbols, a system of checks and balances in which line both anchors and disorientates form.

As Robert Hughes has observed, Miró was ‘unquestionably the best pure painter among the Surrealists’, besides having one of the most original and haunted imaginations among that self-regarding bunch of fantasy-samplers — both good reasons for them wanting him to star in the movement. But Miró preferred to keep his distance, even when he was starving, saying afterwards that hunger gave him useful hallucinations, perhaps rather like the fasting mystics of the early Christian Church. Certainly he invented his own very personal language and imagery, full of animal vitality and lyricism, greatly indebted to his native folk tales, eroticism and relish for absurdity. His bestiary of mutating forms owes something also to Romanesque frescoes and sculptures, and something to the Art Nouveau of Barcelona, as epitomised by Gaudi’s magnificent architecture.

Miró’s abilities as a pure painter manifest themselves early in the second room (see ‘Painting’, 1925, from the Reina Sofia in Madrid), with the keynote wandering line making its determined appearance. A more extreme example appears in ‘Painting (Head)’ of 1927, in which the wicked wit of the man is signalled in the whisker-like spiders’ legs over a roughly brushed white circle for the head: minimal, but precisely evocative. Room 3 sees the move to abstraction completed in ‘Painting’ (1927), from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in which black and white forms (like a sail and a cloud) are hung from a red blob and quartered by a frail but intransigent black line. Here is the Tate’s very own ‘Painting’ (also 1927), the blue one with a white form on the left-hand side like a sniffing or pointing dog’s head or a fist cocked in the shape of a pistol. Watch out for the scrawling line which is coalescing into a ladder (hence the exhibition’s title), such as appears in ‘Landscape with Rooster’, again 1927, evidently a bit of an annus mirabilis for Miró.

The ladder of escape symbolised Miró’s need to withdraw into his artistic world, away from the pressing demands of those who would like to take over and harness his art. As he said: ‘One must resist all societies...if they aim to impose their demands.’ His work kept him sane and it had to be isolated from daily existence.

Room 4 contains a group of smaller and wilder works: ‘Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement’, ‘Nocturne’ and ‘The Two Philosophers’ — this last particularly good — are hung provocatively together. The human is distorted into what can only be called semi-humanoid, and personnages (perhaps a better word) get mixed up with mountains. One of the personnages, a pastel drawing on velours paper, has big pink hams for legs: it’s funny, inventive and a brilliant orchestration of colour and line. The famous fluorescent ‘Still-Life with Old Shoe’ (1937) comes next, with its radioactive glow and pulsing anxiety. More easily categorised as a political painting than most, it is invariably interpreted as a statement about the Spanish Civil War and even called ‘Miró’s Guernica’. I find the four brown paintings, done in casein, tar and sand, more indicative of the artist’s anguished response to current events.

This is a large show of 13 rooms, and there are many high points in a vigorous flow of more than 120 works. For once, this doesn’t seem too many, though one exhibit, the Ubu-esque ‘Barcelona Series’ (1944), actually comprises 50 black and white lithographs. Hereabouts we are offered nine examples from the small, complex and densely worked ‘Constellation’ series. These are too hectic and frenzied for some — they swarm with non-naturalistic imagery as the early work abounds in observed detail.

Miró made a great many objects which were cast in bronze to make highly saleable sculptures. Not all of these bear close inspection, but the group in Room 9 is succinct as well as playful and each piece reinforces the effect of its neighbours. I particularly liked ‘Bas-relief’, ‘Woman’ and ‘The Ladder of the Escaping Eye’. Around the walls is the famed Miró brilliance of painted texture, gesture and placement — so daringly simple but so difficult to achieve. Look at the big green ‘whale’ from the Tate, ‘Message from a Friend’ (1964), or the ravishing ‘Drop of Water on the Rose-Coloured Snow’ (1968).

Miró is often cited as a forerunner of radical American 20th-century painting, and you can see the justification for this as you move deeper into the exhibition. In fact, it’s clear that the relationship was reciprocal. Room 10 is, to my mind and eye, the best room in the exhibition, containing two vast triptychs: a blue one (with red and black encroachments) and an orange-green-red one. These great walls of colour, articulated by the trailing lines of unquenchable directness we’ve come to expect, with their absolute rightness of length, direction and placing, are as exciting as any Rothko temple. Finally, the ‘Fireworks’ triptych from 1974, which comes in the last room, not only enters a dialogue with Chinese painting and Abstract Expressionism, but has pertinent things to say too about contemporary English painters such as Ian Davenport and Callum Innes.

I also found myself thinking of those English 20th-century artists inspired by Miró, ranging from John Craxton (whose early work der ives a great deal from the Catalan) and John Piper (who pointed out in one of his seminal modern art essays the similarity between an aerial view of Silbury Hill and a Miró painting), to John Hoyland and Allen Jones (who took heart from Miró’s freedom of colour and imagery), to Ken Kiff and Eileen Agar (both of whom made holes in their pictures, just as Miró did so dramatically with fire). Perhaps a new generation will learn from his prodigious example. The exhibition travels to the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona (13 October 2011 to 25 March 2012) and then to the National Gallery of Art, Washington (6 May to 12 August 2012). It deserves to be a great success at all its venues.