Text by Elizabeth Holdsworth
The sky is wide in Wakefield, or at least it appears so. Shouldering this weight of blue, Joan Miró’s bronze sculptures trample the neat lawns of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the glossy black of polished bronze a slick upon amorphous and primal bodies.
Split between the Underground Gallery and the outside Gardens, the exhibition spans the entire career of an artist perhaps more primarily known for his paintings, examining his sculptural output in a first major UK exhibition. In the open air, Miró: Sculptor highlights the Catalan artist’s predilection towards ancient figurative forms: earth mother totems prising open cavernous clefts containing within the origins of the world. Although also known for his use of colour, sun soaked primaries outlined in black and bleached out chalky white, these polished bronze outdoor sculptures reflect another side to the artist in the more muted yet crystal clear air of Yorkshire.
It was from the mid 1960s to the end of the artist’s life which saw his most intense period of sculptural production. The result, over two hundred bronzes, loosely fall into two distinct categories: those moulded from clay and those assembled from scrap or found objects. The moulded works form the smooth and rounded lady lumps of figures on show in the open air, while the assemblages are more often rough and jagged in texture, many painted in bright pop colours. These bright assemblages in bronze instil a greater sense of the phantasmagoric than that which the artist claims to be his more “conventional” approach to painting and printmaking. However, the prints displayed alongside sculptural works in this exhibition hold no less striking and fantastic a power than the sculptures, being specially selected to reflect and complement the works on show.
The first room of the Underground holds a number of similar amorphous ebony figures to those seen outside, the 1966 twin works Oiseau Lumiere and Oiseau Solaire emphatically occupying a corner each. On the walls, the black, red and blue examples of the artist’s lithograph prints resemble childlike daubings in poster paint, further emphasising the sense of the primitive, the naive and the pure. With a focus on the return to nature, Miró’s sculptures are as much about simplifying elements to purer forms as they are about fantasising and dreams.
The exhibition makes the opportune connection between Miró and the Surrealists in its “project space” at the end of the line of galleries in the Underground. An educational room offers an extraordinarily large amount of material for students to engage with all aspects surrounding the artist’s practice, displaying his sketches and objects with audio-visual information and a bewildering amount of wall text. The tradition of Surrealism was, however, too restrictive for Miró, so although there were corresponding tendencies he could never himself be categorised as a Surrealist artist. So much the better, as to make this classification would in fact be performing a disservice to an artist whose vision was entirely his own.
As the work in Miró: Sculptor is not displayed chronologically visitors are presented with a delightful contrast of techniques and finishes. The smooth, finished bronzed are displayed in conjunction with the round, assembled ones. These collaged pieces, cobbled together in deliberate crudeness then immortalised in bronze, contain an amusing array of everyday, worthless objects. On this first occasion were spotted parts of a broken doll, a used bar of soap, a tap, a wooden spoon and a set of false teeth.
In an interesting yet rather blunt estimation from Jacques Dupin, poet and friend of the artist: Miró “shows no skill or ingenuity in the manipulation and combination of objects. His instinct saves him from cumbersome superfluity occasioned by manual skill and the tricks of the trade.” In other words, these works highlight a particular method of making which demonstrated a new kind of artistic gesture. Undeniably goofy, yet strangely and contrarily elegant, the works on display in Miró: Sculptor indicate the breadth of work of one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Split between inside and out, and as with all exhibitions at YSP, the work has the drama of rolling landscape and open sky to contend with and is perhaps in danger of being overshadowed by its dramatic cloudscapes.
Miró: Sculptor, 17/03/2012 – 06/01/2013, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield, WF4 4LG.www.ysp.co.uk
Copyright Successió Miró ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012
Photo: Jonty Wilde