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Miro: Ladder of the escaping eye
The Ladder of the Escaping Eye 1971
Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona
Photo: Jaume Blassi
© Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS
London 2011

Climbing Miro's ladder of escape

Review by Corinna Lotz

Long before Spanish dictator Franco’s demise in November 1975, Joan Miró’s art projected a vision of a Catalonia, a Spain and a world future free of oppression.

His grandson, present at the opening of Tate Modern’s show, sees it as the most important exhibition so far of his grandfather’s work. At the opening of Joan Miró – Ladder of Escape Joan Punyet Miró welcomed the “accent on this political reading” that sheds new light on Miró as an artist and political animal.

“My grandfather was an committed revolutionary, a man who really brought a revolution,” he said. “He was fighting for freedom in Catalonia while Picasso did it in France.” Vincens Villatoro of the Ramon Llull institute for Catalan Language and Culture, also speaking on that occasion, said he felt that the artist’s true political and social message came across for the first time.

In this first London retrospective of Miró’s work in 50 years, paintings, sculpture and works on paper from six decades of the artist’s career are brilliantly laid out. It is an inspiring overview of how Miró held on to his origins, whilst at the same time being receptive to the interplay of art and 20th century movements for freedom.

We are swept from early works from 1917 onwards right through to the spectacular Fireworks canvases made by the 81-year old artist in 1974, a year that saw the execution of Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich and ended with Franco’s death.

A brightly-coloured still life at the outset shows how the young Catalan sought inspiration abroad - his love of the German poet Goethe and the influence of the Parisian avant-garde. Nord-Sud (1917) refers to a avant-garde literary review launched by the French Cubist poet Pierre Reverdy in 1916. A bird in an open cage, a flower pot, a book by Goethe, a pair of scissors and a painted vase, a strange striped oval shape are all set in motion by broad green and red brushstrokes. After completing his military service – during which his unit was ordered to fire on strikers - Miró co-founded the Courbet Group with colleagues, named after the revolutionary French painter in February 1918.

The style switches abruptly to precisely defined objects and strong contrasts - the strong ochre of the tilled fields pitted against dazzling blue skies. The greatest of these rural scenes is The Farm, painted, as Tate curator Matthew Gale notes “in Parisian penury”, eventually to be purchased by the writer Ernest Hemingway. It is bathed in a magical crystalline light, a curious combination of Cubist sophistication and a child-like delight in depicting each leaf on a tree, and the sprouting plants in regular furrows. They (to quote Paul Auster’s description of Reverdy) “combine an intense inwardness with a proliferation of sensual data, bear in them the signs of a continual search for an impossible totality. . .. The result is at once beautiful and disquieting as if Reverdy had emptied the space of the poem in order to let the reader inhabit it".

Miró now moved on to “empty” landscape in which, blob like squidgy shapes cavort across planes of colour, sparsely punctuated by stones and cavities. Small vulnerable creatures - cockerels, insects and dogs - inhabit surreal spaces alongside moons and pared down faces, with vestigial beards and pipes. In two paintings from 1927, even colour has vanished. White clouds float, with the sparest of lines defining what we may or may not identify as a face.  In the Head of a Catalan Peasant (1925) a tiny red hat, two stars and a few black “holes” float on an sea of brush strokes into which the viewer can interpret images at will. The black and white Painting (1927) takes the reduction process still further.

The squeezed and amorphous shapes of the 1920s become darker, more menacing and agonised. Strangely elongated figures with huge feet inhabit dreamscapes akin to Salvador Dalí’s nightmare visions. The artist’s fears were concentrated into the fetishistic sculpture, Object of Sunset (1935-1936). A truncated tree stump is painted a deep shiny red. It looks like a severed body part with a black vulva-eye-insect shape that Miró used throughout his life as an ambiguous symbol. The gas burner has become a figure with two legs and a round orifice at its centre stands on top, chained to the stump, while a bed spring rises up in a kind of pointless optimism.

Miro: Still Life with Old Shoe
Still Life with Old Shoe 1937
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

By this time the Spanish revolution was moving into high gear – and towards civil war - as land was seized by workers and peasants across the country. Miró and his family fled to France following Franco’s Nationalist mutiny against the Republic in July 1936. Perhaps the best-known work from this time is the Still life with an Old Shoe (1937)  which Miró painted in Paris and some have called Miró’s “Guernica”. It radiates an electrifying visionary effect, whereby in the long tradition of Spanish still-life, the simplest of inanimate objects acquire hyper-real powers.  Miró later explained the way in which he was influenced by the events of the time:

“I later realised that without my knowing it this picture contained tragic elements of the period – 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.”

That same year he designed the brightly-coloured print Aidez L’Espagne to raise money for the cause of the Republic. The Reaper, a gigantic mural which was shown alongside Picasso’s Guernica at the Paris Exposition of 1937, is now lost. Photographs show the neatly attired Miró, perched on scaffolding, dwarfed by his now lost creation, explosion of form, a strange bulbous head, a huge dancing star and other cosmic shapes. In contrast to Guernica, Miró’s Reaper is an assertion of revolutionary power rather than a protest against the horrors of Fascist bombardment.

Miró scorned the notion that art must adhere to surface description. He opposed the Stalinist dogma of Socialist Realism which he called “social painting”. Indeed the style of Aidez L’Espagne and The Reaper takes no prisoners. While Miró’s message of defiance - the raised fist, the symbolic red peasant cap - and his glowing reds, blues and yellows are elemental, expanding, even volcanic – conveying the power of the masses confronting the power of counter-revolution.  This message is reinforced by the artist’s handwritten words:

“In the present struggle I see, on the Fascist side, spent forces; on the opposite side, the people, whose boundless creative will gives Spain an impetus which will astonish the world.”

Fascinatingly, while making new forms drawn from the subconscious, Miró continued to work directly from reality. Not for the first time, he returned to art school, assiduously attending life classes at Paris art academies.  This constant flow and negation of the “inner” and “outer” allowed him to tap into the deep forces of the subconscious which he sought to express. No wonder that the Surrealists claimed him as one of their own. His contribution in this respect has undoubtedly become as subversive and long lasting as that of any Surrealist artist or poet.

As German occupying forces threatened France, Miró took his family to live in to the relative haven of Palma on the island of Mallorca.  It was here that he made his Constellations series in 1940-1941.  Miró had spoken of the “deep necessity that makes him [the artist] take part in social upheavals, that attaches him and his work to the heart and flesh of his neighbour and makes the need for liberation in all of us a need of his own”.

Miro: Escape Ladder
The Escape Ladder 1940
Museum of Modern Art, New York © Joan Miró and Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

These musical all-over paintings have textured smoky backdrops on which shapes drawn from Miró’s repertoire of symbolic forms dance and move about. Gale tracks the complexity of their genesis and how they are connected to Miró’s war time experiences  - for example, the swooping birds symbolic of bombers over Spain and the desire to escape.

Some reviewers have focused on Miró’s earlier periods and scoffed at his post-war production. But the great eye-opener of this retrospective is quite the opposite.  He kept his eye on the ball politically and as an artist throughout his later career. Far from repeating his early styles, he worked in ceramic during the 1950s and made sculptures and even puppets in the 1960s and 1970s.

Miro: Blue
Blue I-II-III 1961
Centre Pompidou, Paris
© Collection Centre Pompidou, Dist. RMN / Philippe Migeat
© Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

Inspired by the American Abstract Expressionists and by his spacious new studio in Palma, beautifully designed by his friend Josep Lluís Sert, he made several sets of triptychs. These canvases, which must be seen in the flesh to be truly experienced, are arranged in specially constructed spaces at the heart of the Tate installation. Neither their unassuming titles, nor reproductions convey their overwhelming and uplifting effect. Like Pollock and Rothko before him, Miró enlivens large areas with the sheer power and energy of his brushwork. But unlike them, he infuses his colourfields with a sense of depth, of infinite internal space, an organic sense of life, movement – and above all, joy in being alive. His triptychs bring to mind Miró’s Waterlilies series, with their ability to bathe your eye and mind in a cosmos of the artist’s own making. Miró was to deploy this new format for political ends in The Hope of a Condemned Man, made in response to the execution of a young Catalan anarchist in 1974. 

Miro: Hope of a Condemned Man
Hope of a Condemned Man I-II-III 1973
Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona
© Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

But before that time, he was inspired by the revolutionary upsurge of 1968 and the resurgence of the anti-Franco movement within Spain itself as his painting May 1968 demonstrates unequivocally. Joan M Minguet Batllori and William Jeffett’s essays in the exhibition catalogue show how the artist aligned himself with younger artists in carrying out high-impact political actions – as well as exquisite art works. His Burnt Canvases (1968-1973), brilliantly displayed in Room 11, evoke Jimi Hendrix’ guitar-burning performance of 1967 in their passionate destructive power. Miró spoke of the burnt canvases as “anti-painting”, in which he had sought to “paint with fire and by fire”. His superb minimal triptych Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse 22 May 1968 is consistent with his desire to “assassinate painting”. He was hostile to the commodification of art. The destructive impulse was  “another way of saying shit to all those people who say these canvases are worth a fortune”.

Miro Burnt Canvases
Installation view of Burnt Canvases

Miró identified with new generations desperate to free themselves from decades of isolation under Franco. In a statement made in 1979, he summed up how he saw the role of the artist – to give voice to

“the majority of people [who] do not have the option of being able to say something themselves... To be, in a certain sense, the voice of its community. For 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, in an untying of all oppressions, all prejudices, and all the false established values”.

As that dictatorship drew to its end, Sert’s Fundacion Miró overlooking Barcelona became a symbol of a post-dictatorship Barcelona and a mecca for contemporary art lovers around the world.

Not too surprisingly this inspired presentation, which shows the whole person, the uncompromising Modernist who opposed dictatorship under and beyond the Franco years, has stirred up controversy in the UK, with a number of critics huffing and puffing. The Sunday Times’ Waldemar Januszczak (writing before even seeing the show) joined the Financial Times in attacking the late work.  The Guardian’s Laura Cumming accuses the curators of “making him into something he was not – a political artist responding to contemporary events with polemic and protest”. In fact, not only did he respond, but he did so in a way which retains its relevance to today.

For Joan Miró the ladder was a symbol of human striving – rooted in the ground, but always reaching up to the stars. As Oscar Wilde put it, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Well, Miró is the man who helps us look up. And as Vincens Villatoro has said: “Miró doesn’t need us but we need him.”

26 April 2011

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape is at Tate Modern, Bankside until 11 September 2011.
Open daily, late nights Friday and Saturday. Admission £15.50 /£13.50.

The Institut Ramon Llull is co-sponsoring a programme of Catalan cultural activities in London and around the country. It includes 50 years of the Other Spanish Cinema and Pere Portabella, dance and music at Sadler’s Wells, Cargo, the Barbican, Wigmore Hall, plus events in Yorkshire, Liverpool, Salisbury and elsewhere.

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