Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Other Miró

From the Tate in London to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the works of Joan Miró are travelling with the exhibition Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape. The text at the entrance makes it clear, the visitor will discover a politically engaged artist, an often ignored side of Miró's work.
The National Gallery of Art's website provides a detailed overview of the exhibition, with an outline of the    different periods presented by chronological order. What strikes the visitor is the rapid maturation of the artist. The Portrait of Vincent Nubiola, 1917, inspired by Cézanne, is followed by naive, primitive paintings depicting Miró childhood's surroundings, among them The Farm, 1921-22 (bought later by Ernest Hemingway). The styles collide with obvious influence from Cubism (which Miro found too bourgeois) and Surrealism like in The Hunter, 1923-24. After meeting with André Breton, Max Ernst and other members of the surrealist movement in Paris, the artist assimilated their theories and put them in practice. His subjects stayed regional with the Catalan peasants series which became a symbol of oppression. The message is subtle with its description of peasants: red hat (the barretina which alludes to the red phrygian hat worn by the sans-culottes during the French Revolution), mustaches, eyes and pipes. The shapes are getting leaner with stick like bodies. A closer look shows symmetrical lines built on a grid lightly delineated on the background. The canvas is pierced several times with a blunt object, a call for rebellion?
In the same room, three Animated Landscapes look peaceful and poetic with their monochrome backgrounds animated by a few floating objects, moon, hare, dog and the symbolic ladder, a way to escape from reality to an imaginary world.
Following these, the political message becomes louder. Wars, politics, social upheavals influence paintings like Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement, 1935 or The Two Philosophers, 1936, clouds gather on the horizon with the start of the Spanish civil war which lasted till 1939. Miró uses bright, angry colors, convoluted shapes to create beastly creatures and an hallucinatory landscape. Across these, the "savage" pastels, which sounds like an oxymoron, works of small format on paper, oil on copper, collages, masonite, tar, caseine and sand, six Metamorphosis dark, with a rough texture. Then, several symbolic paintings like Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937 introduce new objects: a fork piercing an apple to represent oppressive regimes, bread, a shoe to represent the people. The colors are screaming on a black background and express violence, anguish, destruction. The artist's use of simple symbols  evokes propaganda posters. The following paintings made in 1939 are dada in their absurdity. This is the end of a terrible war...and the start of another. The Constellation series made in 1940-41 is a nice break after these dark works. The automatic drawings, a total of twenty-three, are of small format, cosmic with stars, abstract symbols, ladders, eyes, birds, female shapes on soft colored backgrounds. 
 But the painter's preoccupation with war, dictators, is always present and The Barcelona series (1939-1944) line up a wall, threatening lithographs in black and white. Suns are black, shapes have teeth, angry features, sexual appendages hanging of noses. In contrast, across the room, the gigantic triptych Mural Painting I-III, made in 1962, in the Color Field painting technique, is blinding with the uniformly saturated canvas orange-yellow, green and red with a few cryptic signs, a dot, a line.
The last room erupts with protests: May 68 inspired by the French riots is a colorful green, red, orange, yellow, blue painting defaced by thick black lines.
The painter is all action, splashing grey paint on the canvass for the triptych titled Fireworks,1973, a firework of doom and ashes. Two works from the Burnt Canvases series (five total), made also in 1973 conclude the exhibition. In a dramatic gesture of despair, the artist well-known by then, burned five paintings. His message never changed just got stronger. The visitor leaves the exhibition with these few words from Miró:
"When an artist speaks in an environment in which freedom is difficult, he must turn each of his works into a negation of the negations" (1979)...The artist became very good at this.

photographs were not allowed
"The Farm", 1921-22, Wikimedia
"Head of a Catalan Peasant", 1925, Wikimedia
"The Morning Star" (from Constellations series), 1940-41, Wikimedia
"Persons in the Presence of a Metamorphosis", 1936, photograph by the author: permanent collection, New Orleans Museum of Art

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