Joan Miró's creative life spanned the entire period from Dadaism, through Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism, and a further 30 years beyond that. Yet last year's spectacular survey of the years 1917-1934 at the Centre Georges Pompidou was the first of its kind in France since the retrospective at the Grand Palais, in 1974, in which he himself had had a shaping hand. This seems strange given the influence that Miró exerted on postwar American art and the lively market for his early work, much of which has found its way into the world's leading museums. One of the principal obstacles to a wider fame, as Jacques Dupin recognises in the opening paragraph of the present study, is that "Joan Miró's existence was so lacking in adventure, so utterly devoid of anecdotal interest, that it is almost as though he had deliberately planned to make things difficult for his biographer".
Part of the problem appears to have been the size, and unevenness, of his output - particularly in his final years, when he came to the attention of a wider public - while the outstanding imaginative quality and meticulous craftsmanship of his best works have always guaranteed his status as an "artist's artist". More serious, in the present climate of social and political awareness, is the accusation that he was somehow too bound up in his aesthetic concerns to take a wider interest in the issues of the day - an accusation it is possible to refute in light of his artistic indictment of the Franco regime, in the 1930s, and espousal of the Catalan cause, in the euphoria following Franco's demise.
Dupin was an old friend of Miró, whom he first visited in Spain in 1956 and with whom he collaborated closely on the many print-making and publishing projects they executed together, under the aegis of the Galerie Maeght. As he describes it, Miró's creative existence revolved around Barcelona, where he was born; the farm at Mont-roig, in Tarragona, that his parents bought when he was a young man; the island of Majorca, where Josep Llu!s Sert built a studio for him in 1956; and the artistic mecca of Paris.
Miró came to live in Paris in 1921, after training as a painter and serving his apprenticeship in avant-garde artistic circles in Barcelona, where his first exhibition had been a flop. By then, he had already determined on his future course, as an "International Catalan": "Definitely, never again Barcelona. Paris and the country until I die." The catalyst was his encounter with Andre Masson and the future Surrealists at the Rue Blomet.
Miró's first public success came with his 1925 exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, which was heavily promoted by the Surrealists. However, his relationship with the latter was never entirely straightforward. As Masson once said: "To him, going to one of the Surrealist meetings was rather like paying a visit to relatives on a Sunday afternoon - merely one of those things a well-bred person does." He tended to keep his own counsel in their noisy company, and they, for the most part, treated him with a mixture of condescension and respect.
For Andre Breton, Miró was the perfect embodiment of what he described in the First Surrealist Manifesto as "the future resolution of the two states, seemingly so contradictory, which are dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality... ", but Breton became increasingly impatient with Miró's refusal to intellectualise his problems, which he ascribed to "a certain arrestment of his personality, at an infantile age".
Dupin covers the years of Miró's artistic maturity chronologically, taking every opportunity to highlight the inner consistency in his life, his work and the "colour of his dreams". Of particular interest is the attention he devotes to the neo-Dadaist junk collages of 1929-30, which represented a crisis in his creative consciousness, leading to the "cataclysmic paintings" of 1934-38, and to Miró's relationship with Kandinsky during the same years, when both artists were developing a new form of biomorphic abstraction. He also gives detailed consideration to Miró's technical inventiveness and pictorial skill, leading to the creation of a personal language, for which Raymond Queneau once proposed establishing "a Miróglyphic, and Mihieroglyphic dictionary".
When it comes to the late period and the accusations that were levelled against Miró of self-plagiarism and a loss of direction, Dupin dwells not so much on the loneliness and impotence of an ageing man, nor on his occasional deficiencies and lapses of taste, but on his redoubtable capacity for self-regeneration and childlike capacity for reinventing the world in his own "egalitarian vision of things". The book's closing chapters highlight the gusto with which Miró now branched out into new areas of experimentation, in sculpture, monumental art and architectural environments, such as the collaborative open-air project he completed for the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the early 1960s, and the monumental ceramics for cities as far apart as Tokyo and New York; and the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into the "minor" arts of ceramics, print-making and theatre design.
The final chapter, on "Painting, poetry", presents a summation of the artist's work and his collaboration with over 50 writers and poets. Miró himself declared that "I make no distinction between poetry and painting" and he read poetry every day - mostly by his French and Catalonian contemporaries, whom he illustrated, in addition to his heroes from an earlier age: Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Mallarme and, above all, Jarry. From 1924 onwards, words were an integral part of Miró's visual imagination, from the poem-paintings, through the "poem titles" (for example, The Flames of the Sun Make the Desert Flower Hysterical , 1934), and the Constellations of the 1940s, to the orientalist calligraphy of his final works on paper.
Dupin is himself a poet of distinction, and his comprehensive and sympathetic study is well written and translated, despite some carelessness in the use of tenses in this revised and expanded version of an earlier text. It is lavishly illustrated, in colour, with a full chronology and bibliography. Weighing in at some 5kg, it affords good value, if you can find room for it on your bookshelves.
Henry Meyric Hughes is a curator of international art exhibitions and president of the International Association of Art Critics, in Paris.
Author - Jacques Dupin
Publisher - Flammarion
Pages - 479
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 2 08 030450 X