An exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum explores Miró’s later, lesser-known works, while telling the story of a peaceful artist living in a politically turbulent world.
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In 1968, Francisco Franco was still in power in Spain and would be for another seven years. The regime was the last fascist holdout in Europe. At the time, the Catalan artist Joan Miró was the most celebrated artist in Spain, with the exception of Picasso. That year, the Ministry of Information and Tourism, in an effort to exploit Miró’s popularity, organized the first official Miró show at the Hospital de la Santa Creu in Barcelona, using work from a previous retrospective at Fondation Maeght de Saint Paul de Vence in France. After learning that Miró chose to be a no-show at the event’s opening, a group of young radical Catalan architects approached the artist about staging a rogue exhibition. What was initially called ORIM (Miró spelled backwards) became the show Miró Otro. The Association of Architects of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands (now the COAC) commissioned Pere Portabella, a Catalan filmmaker and friend and collaborator of Miró’s, to create the documentary Miró l’altre. The COAC had the idea that Miró should construct a special mural at their headquarters in Barcelona to correspond with the exhibition. Portabella however, had the thought that Miró could create a more memorable work by destroying a work. And thus, the documentary tells the story of Joan Miró, a celebrated and successful artist at the ripe age of 76, painting a mural through the night on April 27, 1969, only to remove it with a spatula, a broom, and solvent in broad daylight on June 30.
Miró’s deconstruction of his own work and Portabella’s documentation of it were very much in line with the “happenings” of the conceptual and performance art movements of the day. It was also a big middle finger to the Franco regime, which Miró spent years trying to get away from, not only because of its oppressive tendencies, but also because it attempted to utilize the artist’s work for its own benefit. Miró’s act was also seen by some as an affront to the art world. It was thought that the viewer was being denied beauty and the potential buyer an investment. Despite its detractors, a positive review by art critic Alexandre Circi put it in perspective by calling it “a work that defies good manners, financial speculation, the mythical idea of the artist-priest, and that is an image of violence on the street. It is a radical departure from the system of established values.” All this from a geriatric artist who is still primarily remembered—even by ardent fans—for a mid-career period when he was considered a Surrealist.
The Seattle Art Museum will be screening Miró l’altre and another of Portabella’s films about Miró as part of its exhibition “Miró: The Experience of Seeing.” The works in the exhibition, which runs February 13–May 25, are on loan from the collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. The focus of the show is on paintings and sculptures from Miró’s later years, from 1963 to his death in 1983. This mature Miró is also a largely unknown Miró in the United States. His later work is a culmination of all his ever-evolving styles and interests dating back to the 1920s, and a perfection of the signic language for which he is famous. But it is also a deconstruction—much like in Miró l’altre—of the conventional or expected Miró, of the venerated “artist-priest,” and perhaps even of “good manners.”
Miró’s career took off just before the beginning of the ’20s, inspired by the Fauves and Cubists exhibiting around Barcelona, as well as by van Gogh and Cézanne. A pivotal work of this era was The Farm, painted in the summer of 1921 at Mont-roig del Camp and finished later in Paris. Miró called the painting “a summary of my entire life in the countryside.” The depiction of the homestead’s scenery and objects has the eerie mix of practicality and sentimentality of an Etruscan tomb, with a frontally oriented style that nods at Cubism. Earnest Hemingway, a one-time owner of the painting, said, “It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint these two very opposing things.” The artist would return to Mont-roig often for the summers up until Franco’s takeover, and a strong nationalism would remain henceforth a part of his spirit, artistically and otherwise.
After moving to Paris he became aligned with the Surrealists in 1924, though he was never an official, “card carrying” member. The dream-like automatism of the group, which served to bring the visions of the inner mind onto the canvas, had an influence on Miró, who began to create canvases that featured less representational detail and more poetic symbology. He said in an interview in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure in 1933, “It is difficult for me to talk about my painting, since it is always born in a state of hallucination, brought on by some jolt or other—whether objective or subjective—which I am not in the least responsible for.” Yet, hallucinated or otherwise, Miró’s ubiquitous symbols were the product of laborious process. He used preliminary sketches to develop signs and spatial structure before creating his paintings. He began to experiment with collage and assemblage, both utilizing a painterly quality, to further explore non-traditional structures when working on canvas. Inspired by the poetry of the Surrealist group at 45 Rue Blomet, the artist began to create paintings with monochromatic backgrounds with his symbols strewn about and hovering above in the foreground. The symbols seemed to hang in the air like the notes of an experimental score, or like the sentiments of a poet if he could spit the meaning of his words out visually in front of his face.
“He uses symbols and signs throughout his work, but they are always universal symbols that seem to exist out of time,” says Catharina Manchanda, the Jon and Mary Shirley curator of modern and contemporary art at the Seattle Art Museum and a curator of the show. “For instance, he often uses the figure of the woman, a sign of fertility and also for Miró a symbol of being grounded to the earth, and the symbols of stars and of birds. He saw them as the symbols of a more poetic universe.”
This schematic language that develops in his early work, and certainly a sense of a “poetic universe,” comes to a breakthrough point in his Constellations series. The set of 23 gouaches, which were made at the height of his career in 1940 and ’41 in Varengeville, Palma and Mont-roig, placed celestial imagery and objects over a background of color fields. Miró would say later, in Twentieth-Century Artists on Art (1958), “The spectacle of the sky overwhelms me. I’m overwhelmed when I see, in an immense sky, the crescent of the moon, or the sun. There, in my pictures, tiny forms in huge empty spaces. Empty spaces, empty horizons, empty plains.” The works bear a sense of both emptiness and meaning; the infinite nature of space and the finite nature of reality.
During the Spanish Civil War and then World War II—though he was experiencing both critical and popular acclaim, Miró fell prey to a sense of isolation and displacement. After Franco came to power, the artist felt he could not return to Spain, especially given the Republican government had commissioned his 18-foot anti-Franco mural The Reaper, for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. He moved out of Paris, where he had lived and worked on and off since the ’20s, because of the rising threat of German occupation. The uncertainty bred by this political strife led Miró to another turning point in his career. “During the war he starts making notes about what he’d like to do if he had a big studio and the freedom to work again,” says Manchanda, “And then, when he relocates to a studio on the island of Palma de Mallorca he has the opportunity to see a lot of his old work and to reassess his own career.” In his notebook he writes, “I will make work emerge naturally, like the song of a bird or the music of Mozart, with no apparent effort, but thought out at length and worked out from within.”
Fast-forwarding to the 50 or so paintings and sculptures featured in the Seattle show, Miró has further refined his style and created works that are increasingly about the process of making art. He had visited New York in the ’50s and become interested in the way that the Abstract Expressionists create their work. He ahd also begun making sculpture in earnest—not as a preliminary effort or an experiment, as with his assemblages in the ’20s, but rather as a means to project his visual language out into space. In the sculpture Woman in the Night (1967), on one side of a linear form is a woman’s face in profile with wisps of hair and on the reverse a familiar carving of a star. In his essay “Miró Projects” in the exhibition’s catalogue, art historian Charles Palermo writes, “Rather than depict the woman as a form set against the night sky (you can’t see the figure of the woman and the star simultaneously), Miró has used this slablike form to unite in its thickness the form of the figure with the space of the night sky. It represents something like their continuity with one another and an absolute separation between them, like the separation between two sides of a wall.” Woman and Bird (1968) features a bulbous, almost totem-like female torso, with a bird-like form perched on her head, and wing-like arms extending from her sides.
Both sculptures, as well as many of the others featured in the show, are made up of found objects cast in bronze. “These sculptures are still assemblages, in the sense that when the found objects are cast together in bronze you see the individual history of the materials,” says Manchanda, “yet they are still all linked as a whole.” Miró began working with foundries—one in particular in Barcelona—in 1966. His casting process allowed for unexpected occurrences along the way, as well as the opportunity to work with artisans, which he was particularly excited about. In an interview with Portabella published in the exhibition’s catalogue, Miró is quoted as saying, “I need to work slowly with the professional dignity of an old workman, for only in this way will I achieve the beauty and consistency of the material.”
Using found objects was a way for Miró to extend the layering and overlapping techniques he had developed as a painter for decades. “Miró has a treatment in painting that is cumulative, and the sculptures are similarly built and stacked,” says Manchanda, “Things are balanced, and yet like his paintings, there is a way that they are also falling apart.” The painting Woman, Figure, Bird (1973–74), which is featured in the show, is a combination of India ink, wash, wax and graphite pencil on Arches paper. There is a large projecting form that is almost like a tear drop leaking through kohl eyeliner, a reddened eye, a handprint, and wispy, squiggly celestial orbs, among other forms. As Manchanda notes, things are coming together as they are falling apart, and forms are smothering and nudging one another.
What the museum is hoping is that this exhibition will expand the conversation to include these last couple of decades of Miró’s work, especially now with Modernism pretty far in the rearview mirror. “There are young artists today who are creating assemblages from pop and material culture, youth materials,” says Manchanda. “I’m interested in how these young artists and contemporary artists see Miró’s use of found materials and casting.” Miró, who worked right up until his death in 1983, had a keenness for change and a desire to move forward. As it turns out, he had a fascination with youth that puzzled Portabella: “Strangely, despite his penchant for modernity and the avant-garde, Miró’s interests gravitated towards popular culture…the world of dance, theater, and film, fields in which he found the most driven members of the young cultural scene in Barcelona.”