Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

The Catalan artist lauded for his colour, language and playfulness was also, Alex Danchev writes, deeply if quietly concerned with the matter of liberty

April 21, 2011

Credit: Joan Miró/May 1968/Joan Miró and Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

Tate Modern, London, until 11 September

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, 13 October 2011-25 March 2012; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 May-12 August 2012

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

Edited by Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale

Tate Publishing, 240pp, £35.00 and £24.99

ISBN 9781854379405 and 771

Published 25 March 2011

In art and life, Joan Miró (1893-1983) was an escapologist. He took everything the 20th century had to throw at him, wriggling free of all entanglements, ideological and other. His heart beat on the Left, with the people, yet he lived much of his life in exile. He left his mark on the cultural imagination - handprints, blobs, squiggles and signs. The Miró-world is much loved, and strangely weightless.

"Critics rarely talk about his subject matter, save for the fact that he loves his native Catalonia," wrote the artist Robert Motherwell, a sympathiser, in 1959. "His main two subjects are sexuality and metamorphosis, this last having to do with identity in differences, differences in identity, to which he is especially sensitive, like any great poet." Miró is the poet of sexual liberation. As Motherwell remarked, nothing is repressed or described circumspectly - "penises are as big as clubs, or as small as peanuts, teeth are hacksaw blades, fangs, bones, milk, breasts are round and big, small and pear-shaped, absent, double, quadrupled, mountainous and lavish, hanging or flying, full or empty, vaginas exist in every size and shape in profusion, and hair! Hair is everywhere...dancing with ecstasy."

What do critics talk about?

They talk about his colour. In Miró's archive from the 1960s, there is a clipping from a local newspaper, with little more than a phrase by Victor Hugo, "L'art c'est l'azur" (roughly, "art is blue"), highlighted by the artist. Of the five late triptychs brought together for the first time in a thoughtful exhibition at Tate Modern - the triptychs are the piece de resistance - the first is Blue I, II, III (1961). The second is Mural Painting I Yellow-Orange, Mural Painting II Green, Mural Painting III Red (1962). These vast canvases are saturated in colour. They are also punctuated with Miró's characteristic black blobs and red exclamations. Miró was the master of the red and the black.

They talk about his line. Or perhaps his doodle. Miró was the Michelangelo of the doodle. Klee famously took the line for a walk; Miró gave it a workout. If the meandering lines in his paintings sometimes seem to have a mind of their own, it may be because there was an element of automatism in his practice: the line went where it will, in a kind of free association, which is not at all to suggest that the artist did not know what he was doing or surrendered control of the outcome. Miró mastered the doodle, as Jackson Pollock mastered the drip.

And they talk about his language. Miró was fluent in Surrealism, above all in its sign language, which he helped to codify, but also in its revolutionary rhetoric, as unhinged as that might be. By the late 1920s, he was professing the "assassination of painting". His imagination was profoundly Surrealist, and his inventiveness outpaced most of his peers. The Pope of Surrealism, André Breton, called him "the most 'surrealist' of us all", and even bought his work.

These qualities, together with his elfin persona and playful streak, tend to limit his stature as an artist, or at any rate to condition how he is seen. People may love and adore Miró - many do - but he is not widely regarded as an homme sérieux. Miró is fun. Fun is what he is for. He gives pleasure, which is not to be underestimated. For the pantheon, however, that is a restrictive field. The proposition of the Tate show is that he was also a witness. The proposition is put with delicacy and discrimination, but it is still a stretch. Miró as moral witness is a leap of faith. The Hope of a Condemned Man is not The Disasters of War. Miró is no Goya. The Reaper is not Guernica, whatever a sickle may say. Miró is no Picasso. Pejoratively cast: Miró is shallow. That is the charge.

Along the way it has been levelled by some formidable authorities. In 1941 Breton qualified his admiration for Miró's "spontaneity of expression" by identifying "a partially arrested development at the infantile stage". A decade later, the well-connected Christian Zervos, editor of Cahiers d'art, feared that his work might "have gained more in facade than depth, more in embellishment than in solidity".

The Tate show and the accompanying catalogue attempt to complexify the assessment. On one count, the presentation is conclusive. Miró was intensely serious about his art. Spontaneity of expression was achieved by long premeditation. The little leprechaun worked like a dog. What is more, along with the sensitivity, and the humanity, there was a strain of grandiosity. In 1940 he contemplated an enormous painting, ostensibly in memory of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), but really in response to Picasso's Guernica (1937). The painting did not materialise, but we have his working notes:

"Produce a large canvas (like Pablo's) but in a different spirit, one of escape and looking to the eternal side of life. Make use of the injured child I did on one of the sides. In the background some half-ruined houses in flames. In the foreground a terrified peasant, also like the one I've done before. On the rubble a cockerel like the one I've done. In the sky a plane in the form of a phantasmagorically shaped bird, in the spirit of Breughel or Hieronymus Bosch. A barking dog. On the other side of the canvas a man with a mule or ox ploughing the land, the eternal side, a plant coming forth from the land and growing. Birds in the branches of the trees playing instruments, reminiscent of Marc Chagall. The furrows of the ploughed land. A blue sky. Some men-monsters emerging from the phantasmagorical bird and throwing bombs."

In 1940, there was every reason why such a project did not come to fruition, but the conception is revealing. As Europe collapsed about his ears, a designer masterpiece according to Miró was to be a cross between Hieronymus Bosch and Marc Chagall, after Pablo Picasso. This was beyond doodle: it was flapdoodle.

Miró could talk. Normally he preferred not to; his statements are evasive. In 1979, four years after the death of Franco and the liberation of Spain from dictatorship, and three years after the inauguration of the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, he was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Barcelona. In his acceptance speech, he found his voice. "I understand the artist to be someone who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something," he declared. "For the fact of being able to say something, when the majority of people do not have the option of expressing themselves, obliges this voice in some way to be prophetic...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."

That is magnificent. The words themselves do him honour: they are perhaps his greatest late work, together with the glorious, shrine-like foundation. Asked what he considered the most important thing he had done in opposition to Francoism, he replied: "Free and violent things. The works themselves, through their violence and their sense of liberty."

All his life, Miró delighted in the conundrum. At his death, he posed a new one. Do the works match the words?

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