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Joan Miró: Of Passion and Politics

May 11, 2011

The artistic career of Joan Miró flirted with an array of modernist influences drawing on, among others, aspects of Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and (Semi) Abstraction. His manipulation of these influences, coupled with his prolific output, earned Miró a reputation as one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished artists.

Born in Barcelona in 1893, Miró reserved a fierce Catalonian pride that reflected the region’s prevailing desire for autonomous identity and political independence from Spain. Tate Modern’s current retrospective Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape seizes on this ideology as the starting point from which to explore Miró’s oeuvre in relation to his political sensibilities. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, artworks that hold connotations to the social and/or political landscape of their time form some of the most exciting and ambitious contributions to art history: Michelangelo’s David is ensconced in the flux of Florentine power-politics; Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii is a stylistically austere reflection of French social excess; Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is a haunting response to the bombing of the Basque town by the fascist forces of Germany and Italy during the Spanish Civil War. Accordingly then, given that Miró lived through two Spanish dictatorships dissected by a failed attempt at Republicanism, as well as two world wars, a politically-inspired re-examination of his work is a greatly appealing premise for an exhibition.

Head of a Catalan Peasant, 1925

Designed to trace Miró’s career chronologically, the exhibition begins in somewhat underwhelming fashion with the display of a selection of his earlier canvases. Amongst these are works from Miró’s Catalan Peasant series including the painting Head of a Catalan Peasant (1925) – for me a painting that fails to make any sort of impression, compositionally or emotively. In the context of the exhibition, however, this series can be seen to establish the artist’s inherent Catalanism. Set against a history of political instability in Spain with the military coup of Miguel Primo de Rivera occurring in 1923, followed by the subsequent subjugation of Catalan autonomy as the General sought to centralise his dictatorship, the Catalan Peasant series can be interpreted as the representation (effectively or otherwise) of a suppressed people.

Flight of a Bird over the Plain III, 1939

As we progress through the exhibition it becomes clear that Miró’s reputation is not built upon his ability as a draughtsman. His formal imagery is largely incomprehensible and consists, more often than not, of an amalgamation of loose lines, assorted symbols and blobs of paint. One particularly intriguing trope that reappears in numerous artworks is the depiction of birds (in the loosest figurative sense), reflecting, as we are reliably informed by the curators, Miró’s concern at the spread of war across Europe and, as a visual metaphor for bomber aeroplanes, the race for aerial dominance in the skies. Birds can be found in Flight of a Bird over the Plain III (1939), reoccurring in his Constellations series in Women Encircled by the Flight of a Bird (1941) and Awakening in the Early Morning (1941) – the latter, its heightened colour insinuating a cautious optimism perhaps, reinforces Miró’s comparison between bird and plane with a more distinct resemblance.

Women Encircled by the Flight of a Bird, 1941

Awakening in the Early Morning, 1941

Whilst on a pictorial level Miró’s birds are little more than rudimentary symbols, it is increasingly evident that his works are infused with expressive, emotive weight through his adept manipulation of colour. Still Life with Old Shoe (1937) is a joyous union of this talent with the exhibition’s political subtext. Painted a year after General Franco had launched his military rebellion against the Spanish Republic (established in 1930 after the fall of Primo de Rivera), Still Life with Old Shoe is imbued with an unshakable sense of tragedy that embodies the anxiety of the Spanish Civil War: the fluorescent colours contrasted against voids of dense black disorientate; its otherwise apathetic iconography appears unhinged. Miró himself would later reflect on the symbolism in his painting describing: “the tragedy of a miserable crust of bread and an old shoe, an apple pierced by a cruel fork and a bottle that, like a burning house, spread its flames across the entire surface of the canvas.”

Still Life With Old Shoe, 1937

In contrast to the emotional turmoil of Still Life with Old Shoe, perhaps the most impressive work in the exhibition is representative of a happier period in Miró’s life, one of artistic inspiration and innovation. Having visited New York and been inspired by the ambition and scale of the works of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement, Miró painted a triptych of unprecedented size and serenity. With its three panels aptly titled Blue I, Blue II and Blue III (1961), the triptych offers a blissful immersion in a sea of blue pigment. It possesses a calm majesty that surpasses even the Rothko canvases – celebrated for their meditative qualities – on the floor below. The kind of artwork that (literally in my case) stops you in your tracks, the triptych holds you captivated, motionless, as the intensity of colour washes over you.

Blue I, Blue II and Blue III, 1961

As an exploration of the relationship between Miró’s art and politics, Tate’s exhibition is ambitious in scope offering an intriguing and largely successful platform from which to re-examine his art. The enduring impression of the exhibition, however, concerns Miró’s eminent colour work, making political connotations appear auxiliary by comparison. Writing for the Evening Standard, the acerbic (though often magnificently so) art critic Brian Sewell questioned the legitimacy of Miró’s standing in the pantheon of modern art, labelling him “naive, childish and even infantile… an amiable idiot”. Certainly as a draughtsman Miró is found wanting: his utilisation of line is particularly fraught. Yet when it comes to expression by colour there are few who traverse the emotions like Miró. From the depths of fear and political anxiety to the lucent intensity of hope, he lays bare his soul through his paintbrush.

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape runs at Tate Modern until September 11 2011 before touring to Barcelona and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It does incur an admission fee.

Click here for more information.

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