Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape (2011-12)

Miró: Femmes encerclées

(Tate Modern, 14 April – 11 September 2011)

I left it late to come to this exhibition, the first major retrospective of Miró’s work in the UK for 50 years, but I’m glad I caught it.  I don’t often venture to Tate Modern, but this is an unconscious prejudice that I’ll have to change in the future.  What struck me most about the exhibition was how completely ill-equipped I was to understand what Miró was trying to achieve in his work.

Steeped in the world of the Old Masters, I just didn’t have the conceptual tools available to look at Miró’s work in the right way, and so the exhibition wasn’t just a stroll around some intriguing paintings, but also a struggle to reevaluate my assumptions about form, symbol and meaning.  I had decided beforehand that I would leave my preconceptions at the door.  I came, wanting to understand.  Once again I took the audio guide, which I have to say helped enormously in this case.  Without it I’d have floundered even more.

The show splits Miró’s career into three sections: the late 1910s and 1920s, when he was beginning to move from representative art to surrealist symbolism – the 1930s and 1940s, when he felt crushed beneath the weight of the Spanish Civil War and World War II – and finally the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, when his work became even more pared down, to the point of minimalism.

Miró: Vegetable Garden with Donkey

Joan Miró, Vegetable Garden with Donkey (detail)

The curators constantly draw your attention back to the importance of Miró’s Catalan nationality and the key role this plays in his work – not just in works like the Catalan Peasant series, but even in things like his Animated Landscape series, where he still took the Catalan landscape and people as his inspiration.  These latter works are very dark and pessimistic in spirit, much more than his earliest works such as Vegetable Garden with Donkey (1918), which I liked because there was something charming and naive about it – as well as it being very clear what it was meant to be.  The speed of his transformation into a surrealist and symbolic painter was remarkable.  By 1923-4, when he painted Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), the very way he saw figures and objects had changed almost beyond recognition, simplified into crossed lines for a body and similar totemic forms for other objects.

While I can appreciate the skill of the Animated Landscape (1926-7), there was something very weird about the combination of the brightly-coloured, almost cartoonish forms (like the dog in Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926) and their dark, rather nightmarish surroundings.  Even more disturbing were the series of brightly-coloured paintings on copper which he painted in 1935-6, where everything looks distorted and twisted – again, according to the curators, an analogy of the political situation in Spain at that period.  His agitation seems to come to fruition in the series of fifty lithographs of the Barcelona Series, which I think Miró executed at the beginning of World War II.  This is again nightmarish – a collection of hideous figures simplified into snarling, cartoonish monsters.  If you see one on its own it’s difficult to understand what’s so horrible about them – they look like a child’s doodles – but to have them all together, staring down at you… you begin to feel as oppressed as Miró must have felt during his exile in Paris.

Miró: Catalan Landscape

Joan Miró, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) (detail)

My favourite room, and my favourite works among all those I saw, were The Constellations.  These were painted as Miró and his family fled Occupied France and went to live in Mallorca.  This group is a gorgeous set of very abstract paintings, dream-like rather than nightmarish, with curling lines, bright colours and shapes scattered (like stars) across the surface of the canvases in intricate rhythms.  The one which fascinated me most was Femmes encerclées par le vol d’un oiseau.  It didn’t trouble me any more that I hadn’t got a clue what Miró was trying to represent here.  I could just stand and wonder at the richness of colour and shape in the painting, with the central strange bird-like shape with its vibrant white eye.  I think I finally felt that there was some sense of order and balance in the paintings, which had been lacking before; clearly I can’t shake off all of my assumptions about what makes art good.

The final rooms departed once more into unfamiliar territory for me, with three triptychs standing out – the White Tripytch, each panel with its single, searching, quavering line – the Blue Triptych, where the overwhelming wash of calming blue was slashed with red – and the unexpectedly moving Hope of a Condemned Man, where the three panels show respectively red, blue and yellow blots (blood, sky and sun) above a black line which begins by looking something like a man’s head in profile, and then dissipates into formlessness and freedom in the final panel.  It brought to mind The Ballad of Reading Gaol: ‘I never saw a man who looked / with such a wistful eye / upon that little tent of blue which prisoners call the sky.‘.

I came the exhibition half-unwillingly, leaving my familiar world of saints and myths and Madonnas for an artistic landscape that was foreign to me.  By the time I left, I appreciated Miró’s work more thoroughly and deeply than I could ever have imagined I would.  It’s another one to recommend, if you can get to the Tate before 11 September.  Truly mind-opening.

Buy the catalogue

Miró: Femmes encerclées

Joan Miró, The hope of a condemned man

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