by Roderick Conway Morris

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Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Joan Mirò's 'La Terre Labourée' (Ploughed Land), 1923-24

Miró: Driven by abstraction but tied to the Catalan soil

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 18 April 2008


Perhaps it is inevitable that the more an artist moves in the direction of abstraction, the more diverse, contradictory, and often abstruse, the commentaries on the work will become.

Each major new exhibition of Joan Miró over the past 30 years or so has produced new interpretations of his œuvre. Tomás Llorens, chief curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, argues that the key to understanding Miró lies in his attachment to the land of his native Catalonia as the abiding inspiration of his work throughout his very long career. Llorens is the curator and author of the catalogue of 'Miró: La Terra' (Miró: The Land), a show of more than 80 paintings, sculptures and ceramics, spanning more than 60 years, which continues at Palazzo dei Diamanti until May 25.

Llorens puts his case clearly and vigorously in both the well-documented show and catalogue. He cites plenty of evidence from what Miró said and wrote that the artist himself saw this communion with the Catalan soil and soul as fundamental to his output. To what extent the artist managed to translate this into visible form in his most abstract productions will remain a matter of debate.

All but Miró's earliest pictures lend themselves to a plethora of readings. Even the essentially figurative 'La Terre Labourée' (Ploughed Land) of 1923-24 on show here defies definitive interpretation. When the French critic Georges Raillard, for example, asked the significance in that picture of a black creature with a tail, claws and conical head, to his eyes 'a devil,' Miró replied that as far as he was concerned it was not a devil at all, but 'a lizard on the head of which I have put a hat.'

Born in 1893, the child of craftsmen on both sides of his family, Miró had aspirations to become an artist, but submitted to his father's wishes that he study for a qualification in commerce. After Miró contracted typhus in 1911, he was sent to convalesce at Montroig, a small country estate the family had just acquired outside Barcelona. This both put an end to his father's insistence on a business career and exposed Miró to the age-old cycle of rural Catalan life, heightening his awareness of the seasons, sun, moon and stars. Thereafter, Montroig was to be a fixed point to which the artist regularly returned to spend time and from which he drew constant inspiration even when far away.

Since 1907 he had attended the art school known as La Lonja, where Picasso studied a dozen years before, and in 1920 followed his footsteps to Paris. One of Miró's teachers in Barcelona registered his acute natural color sense, but also his difficulty in drawing forms. To help overcome this, he blindfolded Miró so that he could feel shapes and mold them in clay purely by touch.

The artist's first one-man show in Barcelona in 1918 was a total flop in terms of sales. By this time he had developed a kind of magic-realist style avant la lettre. He continued to paint in this manner after the move to Paris, where he encountered the full force of the artistic ferment taking place there. André Breton later famously remarked that Miró was 'the most surrealist of us all.' But he never formally joined the movement, although exhibiting at nearly all its exhibitions, and gradually came to distance himself from it. His early Paris shows were as unsuccessful as his Catalan debut.

The transitional period in the mid-1920s, when Miró struggled to abandon representational art in favor of greater abstraction, produced some of his most characteristic paintings. 'Still too real!,' the artist wrote from Montroig to a friend in the summer of 1924, expressing his desire to free himself of 'all pictorial conventions.'

This struggle finally bore fruit in a successful show in Paris in 1925 and an invitation to paint scenes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Some classic examples from this phase of tension between the figurative and abstract are on display here, including 'Landscape with Rabbit and Flower,' from the National Gallery in Canberra, and 'Landscape (The Hare)' from the Guggenheim in New York. Despite Miró's protestations that at this time he sought to liberate himself 'absolutely from the external world,' he recalled in later life that 'The Hare' was triggered by a specific moment in the particular landscape of Montroig, when at dusk he caught a glimpse of a hare running at high speed across the plain into the setting sun, 'into the infinite.'

By the end of the 1920s, Miró's work had become almost entirely abstract and he contemplated giving up painting altogether. He made pictures out of colored papers, cardboard and other materials employing collage techniques. He also began to construct sculptures out of wood, bits of metal and other 'found' objects. But this did not constitute a final farewell to figurative elements, which he returned to and renounced serially for the rest of his career.

Miró was never as directly politically engaged as many of his fellow artists in Paris and Catalonia. His most overtly political work was a colorful handbill 'Aidez L'Espagne' (Help Spain) of a worker with a clenched fist, produced in 1937 to raise money for the Republican government's fight against Franco's insurrection. In the same year he was commissioned to do a large mural, the 'Segador Catalan' (The Catalan Reaper) for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle. This work was lost when the pavilion was dismantled.

The fact that Miró had not been a prominent member of a leftist party made it possible, if not wholly safe, for him to return to Spain when Germany invaded France in 1940. He spent the first winter in virtual hiding in his parents-in-law's house in Palma de Mallorca, only moving to Barcelona in 1942.

During the 1940s Miró's fame spread to the United States, where he began to exhibit regularly, and exerted considerable influence on abstract painting in America. It was not until 1978, after the death of Franco, that the artist had a comprehensive retrospective in Spain, in Madrid.

It was also during the 1940s that Miró began to experiment with ceramics, with the aid of his old friend the ceramicist Joseph Llorens Artigas. Their long-term collaboration culminated between the late 1950s and early 1970s in a series of commissions for large-scale ceramic murals, first the 'Sun and Moon' for the Unesco building in Paris, followed by works for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Barcelona Airport and the Kunsthaus in Zurich.

The extent to which Miró was still active into his 80s is demonstrated in this show by some of the 32 etchings he did in 1975 illustrating St. Francis of Assisi's 'Canticle of the Sun.'

Also here, from the Pompidou Center in Paris, is 'Personnages et oiseaux dans la nuit' (Personages and Birds in the Night), an enormous oil of 1974, which Miró painted flat on the ground. The prints of the artist's shoes in bright red are clearly discernible trudging diagonally across the canvas, as he continued his own idiosyncratic path 'into the infinite.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024