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I had long suspected, since the time of MoMA’s ‘High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture’ exhibition in 1990, that there was less to the art of Joan Miró than meets the eye. Once I had learned that many of his cryptic forms were in fact abstractions of vacuum cleaners or silverware that he found in mail-order catalogues, Miró moved way down my shortlist of favourite artists.
The current show at the Miró Foundation reverses that opinion. In what may prove to be the definitive Miró exhibition, the artist is redeemed as a kind of painter/poet who found himself trapped in the events of history but managed to rise above them. Hence the metaphor of ‘the ladder of escape’. Here also on full public view is ‘Miró the quintessential Catalan’, which will certainly endear him to local audiences.
The museum’s permanent collection has been cleared out, with its galleries almost entirely turned over to this installation, which means that familiar works such as the artist’s enormous hanging tapestry and Calder’s great mercury fountain, are not on view. But the trade-off is worth it.
A gallery full of early works from Miró’s rural getaway at the family’s farm in Mont-roig introduces the young artist who worked in the early Twenties in an almost timid, high-key palette, rendering his forms in a primitive two-dimensionality. (Miró was born in Barcelona, a stone’s throw from the Ajuntament, but he felt rooted in this small town 140 kilometres away.) So genteel are these early works that the sudden transformation of his palette in the first Paris paintings, starting in 1925, comes as a shock! All at once his backgrounds are black, and his abstracted figures glowing reds and blues. Altered though he may have been by the time spent with the Surrealists in Paris, Miró continued to return to Catalunya, even after the military uprising of 1923 began to transform and suppress his beloved homeland. The goats on his farm are by now surreal shapes on a background of Yves Klein ultramarine.
By the time of the ‘October Events’ in 1934, when the Generalitat of Catalunya was condemned and imprisoned, Miró’s production responded in kind. His ‘Savage Paintings’ are a product of this period, with his palette ever more intense as he experimented with the slick support of copper panels. With the military uprising against the Republic in 1936, Miró, with the rest of Republican Spain, had reached a sense of bewilderment. A subject as seemingly mundane as the Tate’s Still Life with an Old Shoe becomes a harrowing expression of internal tension. Following the fall of Barcelona and Madrid, and rise of Franco to power, Miró left for exile in Varengeville-Sur-Mer. However, when the Germans occupied France, he self-exiled back to Spanish territory, taking refuge on Mallorca, where he lived off and on for the rest of his life. There he reworked earlier paintings, giving them double dates, and found an uneasy peace in the post-war years, as reflected in such contemplative paintings as Woman and Bird in Moonlight (1949).
The high point of the show for me is the thrilling installation of the enormous deep blue 1961 triptych from the Centre Pompidou. By this time his work shows the inescapable influence of the American Abstract Expressionists, and it is one of his strongest periods, where the reductive process has created large works of great power. After that things fall off a bit, and the subsequent white triptych (Paintings for the Cell of a Recluse, 1968) is a particular disappointment because its somewhat grubby condition detracts from the purity of its forms. (Where are the Foundation’s conservators when you need them?)
The exhibition ends with a quote from Miró who gratefully outlived Franco and survived peacefully to a ripe old age. The artist, he said, “is someone who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something and who has the obligation that this thing not be useless but something that offers a service to man.”