Review by Ruby Beelsey
The latest in a string of blockbuster shows at Tate Modern, Joan Miró needs no introduction. As one of the defining protagonists of the surrealist movement Miró also fused Fauvism, Cubism, magic realism and abstraction with his own surroundings and wild subconscious over his illustrious 60 year career. Profoundly defined by his Catalan identity, and living through the tumultuous events of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, not to mention an “internal exile” from occupied Paris during the Second World War, it is a testament to his art that Miró’s works have long been viewed as essentially internationalist. During his extended trips to New York he was impressed by the freedom and gestural liberation of the Abstract Expressionists and, while his mid-century works undoubtedly referenced this school, they always shy away from such a place-specific identification. Even the surrealism that defines him in many a soundbite is peppered with myriad elements from elsewhere in art history to the extent that his work, while undergoing a vast evolution over the years, is essentially unique, based on a life-long pictorial language of stars and line, which can be used to represent any and every figure in his boundless imagination.
Arranged roughly chronologically Matthew Gale, Kerryn Greenberg and Marko Daniel illustrate the myriad progressions and unifying idioms of Miró’s career. His early works in the first room focus on the rural surroundings of Mont Roig, where he spent his formative years and where the seeds of the repetitive motif of Catalan peasant were sown. Inevitably the most notable piece is The Farm, once owned by Ernest Hemingway and a burden for the artist to sell, it now serves as a precursor to Miró’s monumental career. It is a work of figurative fantasy, each element identifiable, and yet somehow out of place in the rustic surroundings of Tarragona. Miró eliminates perspective, but the painting inexplicably draws you in, each flat layer of colour creating a depth of field that climbs sharply up the canvas. In The Farm it feels like every element tells its own story and is a discrete autonomous unit destined to re-surface in Miró’s later works, but on the other hand it presents an revealingly honest glimpse into Miró’s inner pscyche, and we see the virulent imagination of an artist who would be liberated by his first encounters in Paris with the pre-manifesto Surrealists in 1920. Rather than confining itself to any particular genre however, The Farm represents the freedom with which Miró would approach his entire career, and traces of Henri Rousseau and magic realism can be seen in the early works as well as fauvist and cubist experiments.
In this open-mindedness Miró’s work flourishes, and beginning with this exceptional painting the exhibition runs from strength to strength, spanning over 150 works in the first major retrospective in 50 years. But while the curation is well informed and allows the works to breathe (as well as an escape, to an extent, from the suffocating crowds that plagued the Gauguin exhibition), the exhibition forces the point of context, where sometimes the only context seems to be the artist’s fervent imagination. It is true that occasionally, and this is where Tate has chosen to focus its efforts, Miró’s works are ambiguously political, darkly reticent and as uncertain as their times, but these openly political works are, quite rightfully, not where the artist has built his reputation. The Barcelona series spans one long wall of the exhibition, its tyrants explicitly referencing the despots and dictators of his day and the works are sinister and grotesque. While fine examples of political satire however, the inky scrawls deny the colour, childishness and humour of Miró’s finest works and serve more as a point of historical reference than a balanced insight into the artist’s oeuvre.
In contrast, a small room devoted to Miró’s paintings on copper and his brief liaison with collage represents an experimental formalism which is often overlooked in favour of the more easily recognisable visual motifs of his art. The more intimate size of these works, coupled with their absurd titles and barren landscapes, have a luminosity that transcends any political concerns. By painting onto copper Miró infuses these pieces with light, creating an otherworldly quality to match his fantastical compositions. Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement displays spectacular night skies, ethereal deserts and almost psychedelic figures which are simultaneously childlike and erotic through their paint box colours and exaggerated sexual organs, to an extent that it becomes an astonishing display in Miró’s virtuosity with his materials.
In short, Miró’s experimentation, both formally and compositionally, is what retains his legacy today. Despite his Surrealist connections, André Breton describing him as “the most surrealist of us all,” Miró refused to be confined by the genre. The Ladder of Escape showcases a wonderful collection from a remarkably fertile artist and perhaps the best work with which to reference him is not The Farm representing his routes, nor The Hope of a Condemned Man representing his political frustrations, but in the self portrait of 1937 and 1960. To see the full scope of his productiveness it is important to immerse yourself in his surreal compositions but you’d do well to end your experience here. In the intricate and soft pencil shading and the graphic, expressive line of Miró’s trademark compositions, this single canvas represents so much of the evolution of this fantastic and fantastical career.
Miró continues at Tate Modern until 11 September. For tickets visit www.tate.org.uk
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The Escape Ladder 1940
Museum of Modern Art, New York © Joan Miró and Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona