Burning Down the House
Miró at the Tate Modern
Exploring the more than 150 works in the retrospective of Spanish artist Joan Miró at the Tate Modern, I was reminded of the series of 11 lithographs of a bull that Miró’s friend Pablo Picasso produced in the winter of 1945. In that series, the realistic image of the massive animal slowly progresses to the minimalist outlines of the bull’s shape, each successive lithograph a more precise rendering of form until the final image is only 12 thin pen strokes. The Miró show evokes a similar meditation on the force of destroying one kind of image in an effort to capture another.
We see this in the trajectory of Miró’s creativity. His work moves from modernist and surrealist treatments of the Catalan countryside toward a unique vocabulary of symbols and signs that erases any sense of realist representations, offering instead an art of figures and symbols composed on small works of paper or large abstract canvases. Over the years, Miró’s work moved far beyond surrealist intentions but remained deeply grounded in the natural world.
The show, subtitled “The Ladder of Escape,” traces the beginnings of Miró’s creative work in the early 1920s to his death in 1983. Born in Barcelona in 1893, just five years before defeat in the Spanish-American War would tear away Spain’s colonial empire, Miró witnessed much of the political violence and social transformations that have shaped the modern country. The show foregrounds this history of violence and regime changes, of dictatorships and partisan debates, as it presents Miró’s work as engaged with and, at times, motivated by his dedication to Catalan identity and the political upheavals of his time: specifically his opposition to the Fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco who came to power after the bloody Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The war prompted Miró to remain in exile in France, but as the Germans were marching toward Paris, he returned to Spain to live the rest of his life in “internal exile.” The ladder of escape ultimately led back to Spain.
Curators Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale remind us in each gallery how exile infused Miró’s art with a vision of political engagement and critique. While they admit that the ladder of escape “signals [Miró’s] desire for withdrawal to his own artistic world,” which he ultimately created in a large studio space in Palma de Mallorca, the show is organized with a concern for what the curators call “Miró’s sometimes uncomfortable confrontations with social and political concerns.” While Miró refused inclusion in official Spanish exhibitions — refused to even represent Spain in international shows — his reputation grew steadily after World War II beyond the borders of Spain.
Yet, aside from the “Barcelona Series” — 50 black-and-white lithographs completed in the 1940s that present stark, violent images of ogres and dictators and their victims — the show often struggles with defining Miró’s work as politically confrontational. Words like “perhaps” and “may” are often used to suggest the links between politics and the motivations for his art. Despite this limitation, the show does well at engaging the political potential in Miró’s art, asking us to consider his canvases and ceramics against the historical context of war and nearly four decades of dictatorship.
But the show quietly evokes another Miró: the paradox of an artist whose creativity rests on destruction. Early in his career, when he was inspired by the revolutionary fervor of the surrealists, Miró professed a desire for the “assassination of painting.” And as you move through the many decades of his work in just a few hours, you get the strong sense that Miró remained committed to destroying art — or rather to destroying the ways art had been defined, experienced, and valued.
“The Farm” (1921-02) marked that moment when Miró’s canvases broke from the illusions of perspective to the flat cosmos of colors, lines, symbols, and shapes for which he is so often recognized today. The painting anchors itself around a large, stylized tree that is surrounded by a collection of animals and farming implements. The brown, sun-drenched earth compliments the well and yellow stone buildings off in the horizon. Beyond the well, the land is lush and green and rises up toward the deep blues of an evening sky with a full moon hovering in the corner. The colors and lighting create a strange paradox where the foreground feels like midday while the background turns to evening. The objects of the paintings are juxtaposed not for the purpose of any realistic details, but rather as a catalogue of memories and experiences all imagined within a singular, framed moment in time. “Landscape (Landscape with Rooster)” (1927) echoes this earlier painting — the sandy-brown earth and dark blue evening sky create a flat surface where land and air mix. The colorful geometries of the rooster direct our gaze upward to the thin, uncertain ladder that rises vertically into the evening blue, enticing us toward something.
The mix of experience and imagination become the reality of Miró’s paintings from the 1930s to the ’50s. In this period, he moved away from perspective and the representational imagery of surrealism, leaving you helpless in front of his art, searching for something certain amid the intense colors and mysterious shapes that appear both natural and alien at the same time: human bodies distorted and twisted, and enlarged penises and engorged vaginas (or the other way around). Floating alongside them are animals of similar confusions and marvelous distortions. Each shape, body, or disembodied eye or animal figure is connected to the others through simple lines that flow across a flat canvas.
"The Escape Ladder"
His “Constellation Series,” a group of 23 works on paper completed in the early 1940s, illuminate the energy and complexities of his imagery. These are the works that so often get reproduced on coffee mugs and T-shirts. They are small and delicate, seducing you to look closely and directly at the forms of animals and humans crafted with the simplicity of black outlines that flow into one another, each connected to a larger universe. Boundaries and borders disappear in these works. Like the cosmos itself, Earth and sky, plants, humans and animals are all tied together.
Increasingly, the images dissolve from the complexities of tightly composed, inter-connected worlds to large canvases of flat colors and isolated objects and lines. In the 1950s and ’60s, after an extended stay in New York and encounters with the work of the Abstract Expressionists, Miró complete a series of large canvas triptychs, which fill separate, octagonal galleries at the Tate. In “Blue I/II/III” (1961), deep azure canvases with rough and uneven brushstrokes serve as a background to circular black shapes and a singular red gash of paint. In “Blue II,” this red gash is a long, dagger-like stripe along the left side. These works echo the flat, stark canvases of Mark Rothko, but these are much less aware of themselves as paintings. To sit for a while and stare at Miró’s canvases is to forget you are looking at paintings at all.
This was especially true in “Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse, I, II, III” (1968) where the murky whiteness of each life-sized canvas is broken by a thin black line meandering upward or across the canvas. All symbols and signs are gone now, and we are left with an unsteady line that looks like a pathway, like some conceptual map leading you from point A to point somewhere else. The galleries for the triptychs are designed to surround you with these canvases, such that you don’t simply look at them but rather experience them and almost inhabit them for a while. The boundaries between the viewer and the canvas disappear and you’re left staring at that thin, uncertain line. Eventually the art itself begins to disappear.
In 1969, Miró participated in a privately sponsored show in Barcelona in collaboration with a group of architects. The focus of “Miró Otro” was the artist’s politically engaged works; it also aimed to question the conventional exhibition formats that contain such art. Just days before the official opening, Miró painted an elaborate mural across the large glass windows of the exhibition building. His mural was a kind of palimpsest, for behind the glass the architects mounted a collage of slogans and images advocating Catalan independence. When “Miró Otro” closed two months later, Miró and the others scraped the mural off the windows, much to the dismay and frustration of many (it even provoked a day-long university conference). In a world where Miró’s market value was quite high, destroying his own work defied both the emerging logic of the contemporary art market and the importance his work had in symbolizing a modern, democratic Spain in the waning years of the dictatorship.
The heart of the show for me comes near the end: Miró’s five “Burnt Canvases,” made for a 1974 retrospective of his work at the Grand Palais in Paris. These paintings resist easy definition. Their appearance is that of powerful wreckage. The burned holes reveal each work’s blackened stretcher bars, the paint harshly applied in primary colors of red and yellow mixed with thick strokes of black. Two paintings are suspended from the ceiling, as they were in 1974, revealing both sides of the canvas and removing all illusion that the canvas is anything more than a crafted object. In commenting on such display, Miró said, “Both sides were living, the front and the back, and the void in the middle, through which anything could pass.”
At the Tate, a spotlight directed toward one of the suspended paintings, projecting an eerie silhouette against the white wall. The silhouette looks like the profile of a fragmented burned corpse. While these paintings recall Yves Klein’s “Fire Paintings” of the early 1960s, they are much different in intent, for unlike Klein’s use of fire as a brush, Miró was intent on using fire as a force. “Fire has unforeseeable consequences,” he wrote. “It destroys less than it transforms.”
In his catalog essay, William Jeffett relates Miró’s process of creating these canvases. “First the canvases were cut with a knife and punctured with sharp objects; paint was then applied and petrol was poured over them and ignited. Further paint was applied and again burned with considerable care; a wet mop was used for control and a blowtorch for concentration on specific areas.” While Jeffett claims the inspiration for these canvases rests in the shattered facades and street chaos of the youth protests of the late 1960s, he also admits that they represent an “attack on art itself…on the bourgeois reduction of art to elite culture or economic commodity.”
In an interview, Miró made clear the intentions behind these works: “I have burned these canvases on the level of form and profession, and as another way of saying shit to all of those people who say that these canvases are worth a fortune.” The “Burnt Canvases” anchor a fundamental quality of Miró’s later works, where his confrontations with Fascist Spain were intertwined with his critiques of an international art market that he saw as powerfully corrupting in its own right.
Just days before I attended the retrospective, I read that international auction house Christie’s reported record profits in their global art sales. The Guardian quoted Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie's president for Europe, who explained: "At times of financial weakness, there is a flight towards quality, as people seek out security and real value that reside within works of art." Seeing Miró is difficult enough without the specter of the “global rich” breathing down your back. Civil wars and dictators are the least of the problem. The intrigue of “Miró: The Ladder of Escape” rests not only on how the artist may have confronted the political conservatism of his times, but also how many of his works remind us of the caustic effects that marketplace thinking can have on art itself.
Leaving the final galleries of the show, I pushed through the heavy doors that led into the cafe and the Tate bookstore, filled with the usual offerings of T-shirts, coffee cups, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, calendars, tote bags, and pillows all decorated with Miró images. These are the reproductions and art objects those of us outside the global rich can afford. I would have bought a reproduction of the “Burnt Canvases” but there were none for sale. I started to imagine the possibilities of burned and painted T-shirts, or postcards scratched and charred, or even a cut up tote bag with its center burned through to the inside. But then, they probably would not sell very well. • 2 August 2011
James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
Images courtesy of the Tate Modern.