Monday 23 May 2011

Homage to Catalonia

The Tate Modern in London is running an exhibition at the moment dedicated to the work of Joan Miró, who along with Dali and Picasso is part of the triumvirate of genius produced by Spain in the previous century, shapers not just of their own unique art but the art of the world. But Miró had a unique identity of his own, Spanish, yes, but Catalan, the region to the north-east of the country which had such an influence on his paintings, through its landscape, its folklore and its traditions.

Of the three I far prefer Miró, not just because of the quality of his work, the joyfulness and exuberance, but because he was far less of a political artist than his contemporaries; far less of a communist than Picasso, far less of an eccentric than Dali. Under the title Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, the organisers of the exhibition have certainly attempt to give his work a certain political narrative, and those who want to follow this path can do no better than read the essay in the catalogue; otherwise just enjoy the joyfulness of the art.

There really is only one sure thing one can say about Miró – he was passionate about his passion for Catalonia. He may have been linked politically with communism and artistically with surrealism but he was clever enough to keep his distance from both, always following his own independent path.

And what a path it was. I must have stood in front of The Farm, a painting once owned by Ernest Hemingway, for ten minutes or more absorbing all of the wonderful detail. Painted while he was still in his twenties it marks the lifelong engagement of the painter with his land and his home. You will find it in the same room as other less familiar works, including The Rut, Mont-roig, The Church and the Village, House with a Palm Tree and Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), a wonderfully exciting combination of colours and images. One can also see the progression in his work, from the early realism to a more abstract combination of symbols and signs.

It seems to me that there is a unique and personal language in the work of Miró that defies the straightjacket of politics, something that makes him far more interesting than Dali or Picasso. In Dog Barking at the Moon, painted in 1926, the symbolism is as mysterious as it is beguiling. The series known as the Dream Pictures say nothing about external affairs and the outside world and everything about the artist's own personal consciousness.

There are paintings that make a political statement, the most obvious here being Still-Life with Old Shoe painted in 1937, a brilliantly glowing piece of work, and Untitled (Head of a Man), usually interpreted as statements about the Spanish Civil War, as well as the Constellations series painted in the 1940s. But these are the exceptions and, in contrast to Goya and Picasso, more obvious political painters, Miró is far more of a mystic and a visionary, far more poetic in the way that he sees the world.

There is a steady process of simplification, of breaking complexity right down to the most basic elements, simple lines and primary colours. The message is stark and easily deciphered. I look at Painting (1927) and what do I see, a random collection of lines and colours? No, I see desire, I see sensuality.

Over the thirteen rooms you will find more than one hundred and twenty works, not just painting but also lithographs and sculpture. With reference to the latter I particularly liked The Ladder of the Escaping Eye. The ladder, the motif of the whole exhibition, the ladder of escaping, is appropriate enough, though not perhaps in the way that the curators perceived. The escape is in the art itself, the gateway beyond history, the gateway to a parallel universe. It’s Miró’s triumph.


  1. Are you sure he isn't a political painter? That's the last thing I would have thought about an anti-Spanish zealot.

  2. thanks for sharing these. very interesting/thoughtful interpretation of miro. the paintings you show here are all new to my eyes. i like the first one very much.

  3. What a coincidence!!! I just read about Miro, a couple of days back in Paulo Coelho's Eleven Minutes and since then, I have been reading about his works..And now your post! Seriously, a renowned political artist..! Your post has inspired me to research more about his work!

  4. Duot, there are some political overtones to his work, as I have said, but not nearly as obvious as Picasso. Why do you describe him as an anti-Spanish zealot? As a Catalan he obviously retained sympathies with his region out of keeping with the centralism of the Franco period. Even so he returned home in 1940 and lived in Spain for the rest of his life, mostly on Majorca.

  5. Yun Yi, as I mentioned on Blog Catalogue this exhibition travels to Washington next year. It's worth seeing if you can.

  6. Fiducia, I'm so glad. That makes it particularly worthwhile. :-)

  7. No artist can help at some time or other getting dragged into the messy world of politics. But at bottom Miro is just an innocent, a child who loves to paint.

  8. I so agree with those sentiments.