Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Miró: Ladders of Escape

Joan Miró, Nocturne, 1935, is a small oil on copper
from the Cleveland Museum of Art.  A jumping man,
crescent moon and spiral suggest the artist ability to
leap above problems of life.

"We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump into the air"

In 1948, Joan Miró used these words to describe the Catalan mentality.  Like Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudí, giants of modern art and architecture, Miro came from Catalonia, the area of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea near the French border.  Catalans had a language and cultural identify different from the rest of Spain. Washington's National Gallery, which hosts a Miro exhibition until August 12, completes the quote on a wall label:

 "The that I came down to earth from time to time makes it possible for me to jump higher."

Joan Miró: Ladders of Escape is the appropriate name for this exhibition which captures the flying spirit of this Surrealist artist.  From beginning to end, the exhibit relates him the times and places he lived. His lifespan was long, from 1893 until 1983. As the world changed so much during the the 20th century, politically, artistically and technologically, his art also changed but kept some continuities.

Vegetable Garden and Donkey, Moderna Museet, Stockholm,
1918, reveals Miro's roots
Miró's family had a farm in the country town called  Montruig, "red mount" in Catalan.  The earliest paintings show his roots in an agricultural land which launched him.  Some of the animals, particularly the rooster, will recur in his art, after he moved to Paris in 1920.

The National Gallery of Art's large painting called The Farm, 1921-23, in a style at times called detailism, shows a compulsive need to fill up the painting. Miro considered it autobiographical and Ernest Hemingway, who owned it, thought it represented both the artist and Spain in the midst of change. Meticulous and precise, The Farm has two ladders, 4 rabbits, 2 roosters, other birds and crops, buildings and a tree in the center.  There is "earthiness" on the ground, but the animals are perched on top of various launching pads; In this painting, we witness a Miró who is ready take off as an artist. 

By the time Miró painted the National Gallery's The Farm, 1921-23, his art began to change.   Shown above is a detail of the painting has farm animals and other symbols such as the ladder which will remain  most of his life. 

in 1923, he joined the Surrealist group of artists led by André Breton. He adopted a biomorphic Surrealism which is more abstract than realistic. He began to use repetitious motifs, such as a "Catalan Peasant," ladders, roosters. Surrealism put the subconscious mind on equal par with the conscious mind and Miró's images appear as symbols. A painting of 1926, Dog Barking at the Moon, gives insight into Miró's thinking.  If the barking dog is chasing the moon, his dreams, the ladder suggests a way to get there.  
Joan Miro, Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926, is from the Philadelphia
Museum of Art is an early example of his Surrealism.
During this time in Paris, Miró was working with free association.  He even said, "Rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting.........and the paint begins to assert itself."  In style and in working methods, we can also associate him with Antoni Gaudí, who was constantly revising and changing his drawings for the Sagrada Familia as he worked.  The ladders of Miró are like the towers of Gaudí, leaping points into an imagined world. The ability to escape proved to be a good tool to use in hard times. 

The state of affairs surrounding Miró got worse. The economy in Europe became very difficult and Miro returned home to Catalonia, to the city of Barcelona.  Peace in Spain was shorl-lived; the Depression hit in 1932 and in 1934, the Catalan Republic was suppressed.  In 1936, The Spanish Civil War began and lasted until 1939.  Still Life with an Old Shoe, a painting from this time, has a fork going through and apple.  Miró described the painting as having a "realism that is far from photographic."  

Still Life with Old Shoe, 1936 is in MoMA's Collection.  Miró managed to find
color in the depressing conditions of the Spanish Civil War.
Morningstar, 1941, is the in the Fundació Miró of Barcelona,
one of two European museums which has hosted the exhibition.
By 1933, Miró grew apart from the Surrealists, as he did not support Communism, and they did not respect him working with popular art and designing tapestries.  During the Spanish Civil War, he did a series of dark paintings and, like Picasso, did a piece for the Spanish Republican Pavilion in the 1937 Paris exhibition (The Reaper was political, but is not in this show.) When Franco triumphed in Spain's Civil War (with the help of Hitler and Mussolini), Miró did not support his regime.  He went back to Paris briefly, but the Nazis would soon invade Paris and he left again.  During his self-imposed exile to Normandy and the Spanish island of Majorca, he did a "Constellation" series of gouaches, combining black lines with solid colored shapes. Stars, towers, and human forms dance in patterns of optimism expressing his hope in dreary times.  Miró's vivid color and organic forms solidify his artistic identity. Each painting has a star as he visualizes a dream for something better, but the work is still grounded, and never "flighty."
Message to My Friend, 1964, is in the Tate Modern Museum.

The late paintings of Miró get even simpler and more symbolic, for example, Message to My Friend, 1964.  Since the 1920s, he had been a friend of American artist Alexander Calder who had developed the mobile as an art form.  Washington's Phillips Collection in held an exhibition to highlight the artistic connection between these artists about 7 years ago. As the curator explained, they shared an incredible ability to compose line in space.  (Calder's playful circus figures remind me of the Constellation series.)

I am thankful the curators of this exhibition presented a consistent view of an artist who is able to fly and dream in the face of a pessimistic world.  The exhibition does not include some of his most famous paintings, such as Harlequin's Carnival, which would not fit into the theme.  Of all the "automatic" and playful artists of the Dada and Surrealist eras, Paul Klee is my favorite because he remains truest to an automatic, childlike, form of communicating in his art. However, Miró also draws upon an honest, open and ingenuous vision. Perhaps some of his ability to look for greater heights was shown to him by an older and endlessly imaginative countryman, Antoni Gaudi.  Joan Miro: Ladders of Escape will be at the Gallery until August 12th.  It has already traveled through Europe, starting at the Tate in London and the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.