Tate Modern, London
14 April–11 September 2011
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
The exhibition will travel to Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Employing a language of innocence, simplicity and joy, Miró has long been presented as a child of Surrealism, and it is precisely the apparent pleasure that his work evokes that has side-lined him for a more political stance than his contemporaries. The Tate show, which groups his work in to three main groups: during and immediately after the first world war; during the Spanish civil war and the second world war; and the period surrounding the 1968 uprisings, reveals that Miró was clearly a politically motivated artist. An excellent catalogue accompanies the exhibition with essays from Tate curators, as well as Miró scholars.
Although Miró famously stated that he had come, “to assassinate painting”, most people associate the artist with enchanting, surreal and increasingly abstract works of a distinctive and original style that evoke energy and freedom. His early work is marvellous for its complex patterning and dreamlike juxtaposition of people, animals, objects and natural phenomena, and although one knows that he worked through the turbulence of the Spanish civil war, it is only through the awe-inspiring suite of 50 lithographs, the Barcelona series (1944) or the great triptych The Hope of a Condemned Man (1974) and the burnt canvases where the true extent of his political engagement is clear. Unlike Picasso who with numerous intellectuals and artists vowed never to return to Spain under General Franco, Miró chose an internal exile, living for the most part on the island of Mallorca, while all the time gaining an international reputation as one of the 20th-century’s greatest artists.
Tate Modern’s superb exhibition, Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape is a marvellous experience, which begins with the artist’s engagement with political ideals by way of his Catalan identity. Paintings depicting rural life, where the peasant is heroicised, conjure up the writings of Leo Tolstoy or Anton Chekhov, who in Russia contributed significantly to the politicization of the landscape. In numerous passages of Tolstoy, the author writes with a particularly painterly sensibility. In Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, “Harvesting was in full swing. The brilliant yellow field was bounded on one side only by the bluish forest, which seemed to me then a very distant and mysterious place beyond which either the world came to an end or some uninhabited regions began”.1 For the most part, the landscape in painting in 19th-century Russia, served to create national pride and unity. For Tolstoy's Constantine Levin, “... the country was the background of life – that is to say, the place where one rejoiced, suffered and laboured”.2 Miró departs radically from 19th-century Russian painting, and yet one feels a link with the work of artists such as Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, (1832–1898).
Russian artists paid lip service to literature, where farm labourers, the noble peasants with whom Tolstoy so identified, were presented as a symbol of honest purity. Their relationship with nature was central to their integrity. Shishkin’s paintings become a song of praise to Mother Russia – the human presence is insignificant against the vastness of nature. The sheer scale of his paintings ensures monumentality in spiritual terms. Miro’s first masterpiece The Farm (1921–22) in the first room of the exhibition was once owned by the artist’s friend, Ernest Hemingway. He wrote: “I would not trade it for any picture in the world. It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint those two opposing things.” Essentially a modernist picture, The Farm has a trenchant vitality, a primitive energy making references to Spanish Romanesque frescoes, cubism and the dramatic palette of the Fauves; it contains his visual lexicon: a cloudless sky, creatures including a cockerel, goat, snail, the back view of a horse and a child defecating. Mysterious and romantic, its hallucinatory quality is explained by Hemingway as due to the artist practically starving to death in Paris as he worked over nine months to complete it. Miró himself described the painting as, a “résumé of my entire life in the country”.3
Dog Barking at the Moon (1926), painted also in Paris, described as a Surrealist work is painted with a black night and brown earth where a comet shoots past, a moon on which a heart is painted and a red nose applied, is the focus of the strange but endearing multi-coloured creature. In Paris, Max Ernst was Miró’s neighbour and Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard were close friends. It has also been suggested that the small dog is the artist as a young man, finding his voice as a beautiful ladder from the earth to the heavens and so represents his aspiration to create an art that will ascend life on earth. By the time of Miró’s death in 1983, at the age of 90, his pictorial language was immediately recognisable: ladders, stars, eyes, dots, darts, insects, body parts, sperm, strange animals, all uplifting, humorous and joyous, firmly inhabiting life on earth but with access to the greater space of the cosmos.
Brought together skillfully by Matthew Gale at Tate Modern, Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape orchestrates every part of Miro’s oeuvre, where humour plays an important role. A tension grows as one walks through the galleries, for humour and the sparkling effect of a series such as Constellations, where twinkling forms, exquisite draughtsmanship underpin the freedom of adroit lines that dance across canvas or paper or board, for they also evoke a serious attitude. Laura Cumming, The Observer critic, doubts Miro’s political power, finding the burned canvases to be more like dolls’ house windows than artistic dissidence; the expressly political works seen as weak: “But [the exhibition] also wants to make him into something he is not – a political artist responding to contemporary events with polemic and protest. One sees the nominal evidence, to be sure – the memorials to the assassinated anarchist, the titles referring to martyrdom and torture. But the expressly political works are so weak the best one can say is that Miró's sincerity is not in doubt. Enormous canvases in which a small point is writ too large, tiny sketches that offer no thoughts. The case for Miró as a modern Goya goes against the visual evidence ... It is quite hard even to spot a mood swing in this show. This emphasis on politics, moreover, feels slightly apologetic, as if one had to find a more serious claim for Miró than the exultant beauty of his work.”4
“Empty space, empty horizons, empty plains, everything that is stripped has always impressed me”,5 Miró explains. A duality between openness and detail, abbreviated signs and large areas of flat colour, isolated forms with an escape route implied by the ladder, visual or poetic clues. This is hardly the stuff of political engagement that was debated furiously at times during the 1930s and 1940s around the world, between a form of art that sought internal logic, that often represented an escape from reality as opposed to an art that engaged with the anguish of people in a state of war. Social realists argued that the representation of the plight of the underprivileged would indeed convey universal ideas about human experience. But in the tradition of Daumier and Goya, realism was chosen over abstraction, as the most powerful visual language. Abstraction was considered by politically radical artists to address, not the horrors and injustice of war, but rather the effects of war on the individual and the artist: that the artist had a responsibility to the rest of society, that society as a whole could benefit if artists committed themselves to outstanding social issues, rather than remaining introspective and subjective and engaging in a private symbolism.
Although Joan Miró had strong political views, his work is not political as such; rather he was in favour of more individuality and with making work that was informed by knowledge of 20th-century art, especially those movements in Paris that he had experienced first hand. The Two Philosophers (1936), is a strange work in garish colours, where the artist seems somewhat torn between philosophical engagement and formal preoccupation, where order is not imposed, hierarchies and coherent narratives, or cause and effect are all conspicuously absent. In this, one is reminded of the physical discomfort evoked by Sartre’s Nausea (1938). Jean-Paul Sartre 12 years later wrote eloquently on the dilemma in Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) of being both an intellectual at the same time as politically engaged.
In the same year, as The Two Philosophers, Miró wrote to his dealer, Pierre Matisse, telling of his preoccupations. He was also completing his set of paintings on masonite, some of his strongest works, in my experience:
As you predict clairvoyantly in your letter, I don’t deny that one day I will plunge in again and set out on the discovery of a profound and objective reality of things, a reality that is neither superficial not Surrealistic, but a deep poetic reality, an extra-pictorial reality, if you will, in spite of pictorial and realistic appearances. The moving poetry that exists in the humblest things and the radiant spiritual forces that emanate from them.6
In Normandy for a spell during the second world war Miró created modestly scaled rhythmical works in oil and gouache whilst listening to Bach. His response to war all around was to make a journey into an inner world where redemption through form for the artist could act as a metaphor for the wider world. He thus presents an almighty plea for humans to transcend the horror of war, the relentless misery and impoverishment that gripped Europe over the first half of the 20th century, with an escape. In doing so he was using art to explore and define a better place, where watchful eyes, crescent moons, aspects of life on earth and the heavens could achieve harmony. But his work in the 1950s and 1960s carried the weight of existential philosophy, which expressed the futility of life and the hopeless predicament of humanity. A retrospective tone thus characterises the later work, hence weakening the visual tension that the work in the 1920–1950 period had possessed.
[Sartre, Heidegger and Camus] expressed in philosophy and literature what post-war European people felt in their bones – the fact that the traditional and familiar world of moral and social values had collapsed, that life was “absurd”, that God was not in his heaven and that all was not well with the world. This was the age of what has been called “the end of ideology”.
Post-war European man found himself in a desolate and featureless landscape without any signs to guide him, without any hope that he could by his efforts bring about a better world; he found himself with an existence and a responsibility foisted upon him which he had not chosen and did not particularly want. In this context the questions – “Why is life worth living; why go on living; why not commit suicide and end it all?” were real and urgent ones.7
Against this worldview, Miró’s late works ought not be dismissed as some have done, as a parody of his early work, but perhaps the inevitable product of a diminished faith, of an energy that had inexorably waned. He explained his Catalan identity in 1951, “my nature is actually pessimistic. When I work, I want to escape this pessimism”.8 When asked in 1975, the most important thing he had done to oppose Franco’s regime, he said, “Free and violent things: the works themselves, through their violence and their sense of liberty. That has touched people, I feel that now very clearly”.9 Previous retrospectives of the work of Miró, have for this reason stopped at the end of the 1930s, but that is not adequate today, and it is to the credit of Tate Modern that they have taken on the more difficult task of exploring Miró’s political or ideological engagement through the key early decades and beyond. Indeed, it reminds one that there are parallel issues in contemporary art today of great urgency the world over, and at times the issues become blurred and at worst scrambled due to the expanded lexicon of visual devices available to artists. For, in the use of ready-mades, performance, conceptual art, the meaning for a wider audience can become somewhat compromised, even though the breaking down of hierarchies in the arts, to achieve accessibility to a wider audience was often the driving force of conceptual art movements since the 1970s.
Antoni Tàpies, who has succeeded Miró in Spain in artistic terms, wrote on the political nature of Miró’s art, describing, the “infinite flux of nature [through which] he showed us that we are all equal because we are all made from the stars themselves. He made the wretched see that they carried all the riches within themselves”. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Tàpies spoke in terms that truly recall Tolstoy’s deep connection to Russia, his country, to rural life and the landscape.
It’s about him constantly bearing witness on behalf of his country, about his love of the country and his belief that you need to be as deeply rooted as possible to do something great. Miró, personifying the highest spirit of Catalonia, was the first to achieve this. He, like no other, has given expression to the solar, anguished cry of our people, our loving and free exuberance, our rage, our blood … And thus, like our spirit, he has created something totally universal.10