Miro   National Gallery of Art  

 

When you hear the name Joan Miró (1893-1983), what springs to mind? Playful shapes in red, blue, and black, floating free of gravity? Stick figures, naked and distorted? Cursive letters moving across barely brushed canvases? Suns, stars, and flowers? Fields of color?

But there is another Miró – not Miró the childlike inventor, the daring Surrealist, the poet of few words, or the lyrical abstractionist (although they are all here), but rather Miró the artist of his times. In his 90 years, he lived through two world wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the rise and fall of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Through it all, he remained deeply tied to his homeland of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, a region with a distinct culture and proud spirit.

This exhibition traces the arc of Miró's career while drawing out his political and cultural commitments. The first two rooms explore his early work, rooted in Catalonia and then transformed in the 1920s under the influence of Paris and the surrealists. A large middle section is devoted to the terrible years of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and its repressive aftermath, when Miró developed his mature vocabulary. The last two rooms cover the final decade of Franco's rule, when Miró turned to making monumental paintings, both calm and explosive.

The story that unfolds is a complex one. Was Miró an activist, a fantasist, or both? Did his art emerge despite or because of difficult times? Miró always kept a figurative "ladder of escape" – one of his favorite images – with him, and he would scale it to flee from harsh conditions into the freedom of his imagination. Yet his ladder was firmly planted on the ground, and he often climbed down to decry oppression. These two impulses, however different, were resolved in Miró's powerfully simple definition of an artist as "one who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something."

This exhibition was organized by Tate Modern, London, in collaboration with Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, and in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

Additional support is provided by Buffy and William Cafritz.

The Institut Ramon Llull is an exhibition sponsor in Washington and London.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

  Self Portrait
Self-Portrait, 1937-1938-February 23, 1960, oil and pencil on canvas, Collection of Emilio Fernández, on loan to the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona


The Farm
The Farm, 1921-1922, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mary Hemingway, 1987
 

Early Years

At the turn of the last century Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, was a dynamic city, rediscovering its own culture while taking its place on the world stage. Born there in 1893, Miró had a natural love of art – and a father who wanted him to go into business. By the age of 18, Miró had suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to the family farm in the village of Mont-roig, in the dry Catalan hills along the seacoast. For the next few years, protected from World War I by Spain's neutrality, he lived between city and farm, absorbing the latest in European art while developing his own style.

The first room unites a series of paintings inspired by the farm buildings and plowed fields in Mont-roig – "red mountain" in Catalan. As you turn around the room, you can watch Miró turning around his motif. These works culminated in his first masterpiece, The Farm, which he called "a résumé of my entire life in the country." Painted in Paris, where he had moved in 1920, it combines his memories of Mont-roig with elements of cubism, abstraction, and primitivism in an original style that would be called detailism.

The first room also features two slightly later paintings, The Hunter (Catalan Landsacape) and The Tilled Field. They reflect not only the liberating influences of surrealism and the art of Hieronymous Bosch (whose work he would have seen in Madrid's Prado museum), but Miró's own maturity. In a mere five years, his approach to landscape had traveled from observation to invention, and he had found his own artistic language.



Animated Landscapes

In sharp contrast to his earlier, crowded depictions of the Catalan countryside, Miró emptied the compositions of his "animated landscapes," leaving only fields of rich color and a handful of forms. Drawing upon the surrealists' interest in free association, Miró juxtaposed animals with unrelated objects: a hare with a spiraling sphere, a dog with a ladder. In these early appearances, the ladder motif suggests a bridge between earth and heaven, between reality and imagination.

  Dog Barking at the Moon
Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection, 1952


Head of a Catalan Peasant
Head of a Catalan Peasant, 1924, oil and crayon on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1981
 

Catalan Peasants

The second room contains five paintings Miró made in 1924-1925 on the theme of the peasant. Borrowing the principal figure from The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), Miró filled these canvases with the hunter alone, reducing the depiction to a few signs: a barretina, the traditional red cap of the Catalan peasant, a wispy beard, and a pair of eyes. Head of a Catalan Peasant (1924), the first in the series, can also be read as a full body, the crossed lines making a stick figure. With those lines, Miró seems intent on acknowledging the bare essentials of his medium: a flat canvas backed by the perpendicular crossbars of a wooden stretcher. But at the same time, he rebels against the medium, piercing the canvas 12 times at lower right.

These paintings may also be an indirect political statement. In 1923 Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a military coup in Spain. One consequence of his ensuing dictatorship (1923–1930) was the suppression of Catalan autonomy.



Prelude to War

Miró married Pilar Juncosa in 1929. The happy couple settled in Paris, and their daughter was born the following year. Nonetheless, it was an unsettling time. The hardships of the Depression led Miró to return in 1932 to Barcelona, which was enjoying greater independence following the resignation of Primo de Rivera. Under the new democratic government, Catalonia gained some autonomy, but in October 1934, in a disturbing prelude to the Spanish Civil War, the nascent Catalan Republic was violently suppressed by the Spanish army.

Perhaps indirectly reflecting the unsettled times, Miró spent the 1930s pursuing his avowed desire to "assassinate" painting. None of the works in this room employ a canvas: instead, there are "savage" pastels (as Miró called them) on thick paper; small, garishly colored oils on copper; collages combining pieces of newspaper with spilled ink; and – most aggressive of all – paintings made by smearing and gouging Masonite with tar, casein, and sand. These last were started in July 1936, just as the Civil War began.

  The two Philosophers
The Two Philosophers, February 4-12, 1936, oil on copper, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mary and Leigh Block


Still Life with Old Shoe
Still Life with Old Shoe, January 24-May 29, 1937, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of James Thrall Soby, 1970
 

War

As the 1930s wore on, the balance of power in Spain continued to seesaw. In 1934, a right-wing coalition gained control, but just two years later a socialist-communist government was elected. Francisco Franco and other conservative generals reacted to the victory by launching a military coup in July 1936, beginning a bloody civil war. Miró and his family spent the next four years in Paris, following the news from afar. Resistance was fierce, but with support from Hitler and Mussolini, Franco prevailed, declaring victory in April 1939. The following year, just days after the German invasion of France, Miró, his wife, and their daughter fled back to Spain, settling with his in-laws in "internal exile" on the island of Mallorca.

More than any others in his career, the works that Miró made during his French exile depict war and violence. Twisted bodies cry out in anguish, flee from fire, and raise defiant fists. Even a still life evokes the perilous era: acidic colors burn across the canvas of Still Life with Old Shoe, his masterpiece of the period. An apple is pierced, strangely, by a fork; the objects huddle together, as if in a fiery blackout. As Miró explained, the painting embodies a "realism that is far from being photographic."



The Reaper

Coming in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, the 1937 Paris International Exposition was a chance for the embattled Spanish Republican government to garner respect and support from the international community. Some of the country's greatest artists participated, including Pablo Picasso, the architect Josep Lluís Sert (who would later design Miró's studio in Mallorca and his foundation in Barcelona) and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Miró contributed a two-story mural, since destroyed but seen in the photograph reproduced here. Titled Catalan Peasant in Revolt, it was known informally as The Reaper. Hanging near Picasso's famous Guernica in the Spanish pavilion, the painting depicted a Catalan peasant raising a sickle, ready to combat fascism.

  The Reaper
Joan Miró painting The Reaper at the Paris International Exposition, 1937. Courtesy Archives Successió Miró


Toward the Rainbow
Toward the Rainbow, March 11, 1941, gouache and oil wash on paper, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998
 

Constellations

Started at the beginning of 1940 on the Normandy Coast and finished in mid-1941 in Spain, the series of small works on paper known as Constellations was, Miró believed, "one of the most important things I have done." In a Europe convulsed by war, and a Spain governed by dictatorship, the Constellations provided a lyrical escape. Miró sustained his poetic effusion, steadily producing one work every two weeks or so. "I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets of paper with no preconceived ideas," he recalled. Soon human figures, animals, and stars emerged, filling the sheets with dazzling, extravagant pattern.

Exhibited in New York in 1945, the Constellations secured Miró's reputation, and their energetic, all-over compositions influenced the course of postwar American art. Two years later, Miró himself traveled to New York for the first time, and was welcomed as one of the great figures of the modern movement.



Late Work

When exhibited in New York in 1945, the Constellations, with their packed surfaces and all-over patterns, helped to feed the energies of abstract expressionists. The young Americans in turn inspired Miró to risk larger formats and bolder gestures – whether in the serene color-fields of the three-part Mural Painting or the thrown paint of Fireworks I-III.

As usual, Miró's work also reflected turbulent times. Franco's last years were marked by mass unemployment and a rhythm of protest and crackdown, culminating in the execution of a Catalan anarchist, Salvador Puig Antich, in 1974. The tension reached a fever pitch in Miró's Burnt Canvases. Splashing paint from the can, adding thick brushstrokes, torching the canvas, and walking across its surface, Miró attempted to harness what he called the "inventive force" of fire. There was drama and exuberance as well: May 68 paid homage to the student protests that swept the world that month.

Miró died in 1983, eight years after Franco. He had lived to receive Spain's highest cultural honor, the Gold Medal for Fine Arts, and to see Catalonia regain some autonomy and Spain move to democracy.

All images © 2012 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

  Still Life with Old Shoe
Mural Painting I Orange-Yellow, May 18, 1962, oil on canvas, Private collection


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