The centenary of Joan Miró’s birth is being celebrated in high style. A “year of homage” has been declared by the Generalitat of Catalonia, and Barcelona is ablaze with posters and banners, thus keeping up some of the euphoria induced by last year’s Olympics. (The beautiful and undervalued Catalan composer Federico Mompú, also born in 1893, is being accorded lesser honors.) In Majorca, where Miró spent the last thirty-seven years of his life, a permanent collection of his work was inaugurated last December and opened to the public in March. Tenacious Miró fans can generally gain access to the large and beautiful studio next door, designed for the artist by Josep Lluis Sert, which is kept as it stood on Miró’s death.
Of the three major exhibitions that have been mounted, the first was at the new Reina Sofía museum in Madrid and was built around Miró’s Constellations, the series of small-scale works on paper begun at Varengeville in Normandy in 1940 and finished in Majorca the following year. Miró titled his work in French, but the Spanish Campo de Estrellas conveys more vividly the freedom and beauty of these little pictures. The vast exhibition at the Fundació Miró in Barcelona included a high proportion of the works that are currently on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but the exhibitions were differently conceived, and of the two the American version, which includes sculptures and ceramics, is the more challenging. There has been a flood of literature on the artist.
Miró, who died in 1983, would have been pleased by all the commotion, although he would probably have denied it. He had an almost morbid dread of commercialism in art and attacked artists who painted to sell. On the other hand his letters of the 1930s to the dealers Pierre Loeb and Pierre Matisse, who at that time were sharing his production, show that he was career-conscious to a degree. In 1926 he told a reporter from Barcelona’s La Publicitat, “I had told Pierre [Loeb] that I wouldn’t enter the ring unless it was a championship bout, that I didn’t want a friendly sparring match, that now was the time to go for the title.” In 1934 he confided to Loeb, “I completely shared judgments about certain persons [presumably the Surrealists]…but that doesn’t prevent them from being useful to us at certain moments.”
In 1975 the Miró Foundation’s Centre d’Estudis d’Art Contemporain opened unofficially in a beautiful building (designed by Sert) in Barcelona’s Parc de Montjuic. This is in effect Miró’s private museum. The following year he donated to the foundation some five thousand items including not only drawings, sketches and notebooks, but also newspaper clippings invariably about himself, photographs, postcards, letters, lists of books to read, things to be done. The material arrived in bits and pieces, following some crazy but inexorable logic of Miró’s own, and was of necessity catalogued not chronologically but as it reached the foundation. The result is a nightmare for the researcher. The poet Pere Gimferrer has spent some sixteen years working on the material and in his beautifully produced The Roots of Miró1 he has unveiled many discoveries; but as far as much of the documentary material is concerned he tacitly admits defeat. This is artistic monomania on a grand scale.
The first painting of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is an early self-portrait from the winter of 1917. It shows Miró in his Sunday best, and throughout his life, when away from the studio, he was a natty dresser. Despite some concessions to Cubism (he had visited the “Exposició d’art cubista” at the Galeries Dalmau in 1912) Miró looks plump, totally bourgeois, and in control of things. As so often with Miró’s art, first impressions can be deceptive. He was born in Barcelona in 1893 and came from a line of skilled craftsmen. His father was a successful goldsmith and his family life was happy; but when at the age of seventeen Miró announced his intention of becoming a painter his father dismissed the idea and found him a job as an office clerk. The following year, 1911, Miró suffered a breakdown and became severely ill. He convalesced at the small farm at Montroig (Red Mountain), just south of Tarragona, recently purchased by his father. This was to become Miró’s spiritual home. The parental decision was revoked and Miró now entered the progressive art school run by the painter Francesc Galí.
Nord-Sud of 1917, the liveliest and most revealing of the early still lifes, shows him broadening his artistic and intellectual horizons. The title refers to Pierre Reverdy’s avant-garde periodical, a copy of which is placed at the center of the composition. The picture tells us that besides his interest in Cubism Miró has been looking at Fauvism and at the Orphism of Robert Delaunay (on view at the Dalmau Galleries in Barcelona), and that he has been reading Goethe. The volume of Goethe is unidentified, but certainly Goethe’s theory of the way in which the universal can be represented through the particular was to influence Miró deeply. Miró must also have been aware of the thirteenth-century Majorcan philosopher Ramon Lull (Miró’s mother came from a Majorcan family), who likewise believed that every individual substance, down to the smallest grain of sand, contained within itself a replica of the universe.
Miró’s first one-man show, held at the Galeries Dalmau in 1918, was indifferently received; the Catalan intelligentsia was on the whole receptive to modernism from abroad but suspicious of Miró’s odd mixture of Post-impressionism, Cubism, and local Catalan imagery. Miró once again retreated to the farm at Montroig and into himself.
He now entered what the critic Rafols labeled his “detallista” phase, which showed an extreme, even an excessive, attention to detail. In these works Miró marries styles that seem totally disjunctive: photographic illusionism, abstract, curvilinear bands of Fauvist color, and an angular Cubist compositional substructure. Unbelievably, out of this unlikely conjunction of sources Miró creates a style that is totally his own. Every meticulously rendered object is obsessively slotted into its own spatial compartment, and despite the fact that they exert an uncanny fascination on the eye these paintings also betray and transmit a deep sense of anxiety. They are surely among the most anally erotic pictures ever to have been painted.
For reading matter Miró had turned to St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun. In a letter of July 16, 1918, to his friend the painter E.C. Ricart, Miró writes: “For now what I’m most interested in is the calligraphy of a tree or a rooftop, leaf by leaf, twig by twig, blade by blade, and tile by tile.” It was now that Miró also discovered Catalan Romanesque frescoes—originals and copies which the Commission of Barcelona had ordered in 1906 filled the city’s main museum.
In a slightly later letter he mentions Tokyo in the same breath as Paris. The reference to Tokyo is an indirect tribute to van Gogh and to van Gogh’s love of Japanese prints. And some of the same mystical fervor with which van Gogh had left Paris for the south of France accompanied Miró when he undertook the journey northward. He arrived in Paris in March 1919. Henceforth until the outbreak of the Second World War he was to divide his time between Paris, Barcelona, and Montroig.
Paris stimulated Miró intellectually, just as Montroig kept his feet on the ground, as he often observed; enormous feet figure prominently in his work and reinforce the earthier side of his art. Montroig and its surroundings furnished him with much of his iconography, and it was in the solitude of Montroig that he effected some of his most radical and startling innovations.
The Farm of 1921–1922, the culmination and masterpiece of his “detallista” period, albeit still a provincial masterpiece, was begun in Montroig and finished in Paris in his small studio in the rue Blomet, where he arrived back from Spain carrying not only the unfinished picture but also samples of grasses and twigs gathered from the Montroig farm. Later he said: “For me an object is always alive; this cigarette, this matchbook contain a secret life much more intense than certain humans…. I see a tree, I get a shock as if it were something breathing, talking. A tree too is something human.” It is this pantheistic intensity that saves his works of the time from being simply picturesque.
The Farm is a storehouse for much of Miró’s imagery during succeeding years: animals, insects trees, agaves, ladders, orbs, figures, footprints, symbols of sexuality and birth. After having been rejected by various dealers—one suggested it was unsalable because of its size and could be better disposed of it cut up into sections—it was bought by Ernest Hemingway, who was a neighbor and had seen the picture hanging in the local café. In 1934 Hemingway wrote: “In the open taxi the wind caught the big canvas like a sail and we made the taxi driver crawl along. At home we hung it, everyone looked at it and was happy. I would not trade it for any picture in the world.” One can’t help wondering whether he was aware of the Pandora’s box of potentially subversive subject matter he had acquired.
Miró’s studio in the rue Blomet was adjacent to André Masson’s, and it was through Masson that Miró met the poets who formed the “rue Blomet” group—Michel Leiris, Robert Desnos, Antonin Artaud, Georges Limbour. Soon Miró also made contact with the literary figures who formed the hard core of the Surrealist movement—André Breton, its leader, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and Phillipe Soupault. Throughout his life Miró aspired to the status of painter/poet. The influence of the poets on him was to be incalculable and he sought to emulate not only their effects but their working practices; his letters to Leiris in themselves acknowledge and testify to this.
Before coming to Paris Miró had already fallen under the spell of Apollinaire, and the imagery of Apollinaire’s L’Enchanteur pourrissant (first published in book form by D. H. Kahnweiler in 1909 with illustrations by Derain) informs Miró’s next major work, The Tilled Field, painted in Montroig in 1923 and 1924. The obsession with detail persists, but its detailed passages are now played off against larger, barer areas. A new dimension of fantasy informs the work: the tree sports an eye at the heart of its foliage and an ear at the side of its trunk, and some of the animals are composite creations. Miró had now entered the hallucinated world of Bosch. The hieroglyphic plowing farmer and his ox announce the presence of what was to be the greatest single visual influence on Miró’s art, that of Neolithic cave painting. “Painting has been decadent since the ages of the caves,” he was to declare. And again, “We must discover the meaning of things, the meaning they had for primitive people.”
It is characteristic of Miró, however, that his retreat to the primeval sources of visual creativity should have been coupled with inquiries into the most recent and sophisticated forms of modernism. Masson had introduced him not only to the poets but also to the work of Klee and Kandinsky, and their influence informs the fantasy of the painting as well as the more rigorous; formalistic pictorial means by which it is conveyed. Seldom have a larger and more unlikely combination of sources come together in a single work.
Although the literature on Miró persists in calling his illness of 1911 “a minor nervous breakdown,” it was clearly not minor at all, and at various points in his career Miró’s work shows marked signs of mental anguish and an accompanying aggressiveness that manifests itself in the recurrent violence of his iconography.2 The animals in The Tilled Field of 1939 in particular are engagingly psychotic and resemble therapeutic drawings executed by patients undergoing psychiatric treatment. But their activities are not as harmless as they might at first seem. Miró himself was acutely aware of this violent element in his makeup. He once said, “I’m a daredevil but I don’t want to kill myself. If I walk a tightrope it’s because I can.”
He did indeed walk a tightrope. But because of his latent mental instability he came to the Surrealists, who were intensely concerned with the border lines of sanity, as it were in a state of grace. They were fascinated by him and realized that he had entered territory they longed to explore; but they were also made uneasy by him because of his unremittingly bourgeois habits and because they weren’t quite sure where he might land if he ever fell off the hypothetical tightrope. His parents’ permission for him to resume his art studies had helped him to break through the crisis in which he had found himself in 1911. The Surrealist poets in their turn helped further to liberate his already overcharged imagination and hence to overcome the latent schizophrenia in his makeup.
The all-important “dream” paintings of 1925 and 1926 are preceded by a series of strikingly reductive pictures, most often executed on a monochrome ground and which show hermetic but often anecdotal imagery rendered in free calligraphic line. The hilarious Portrait of Mme. B, for example, shows the lady in question smoking a cigarette in the company of a male presence derived from Jarry’s own illustrations to his Ubu roi, while a female companion hovers insect-like in the background. Many of these paintings, however, are executed over rigorous geometric grounds or substructures, the counterparts of the obsessive spatial cells of the “detallista” paintings.
The “dream” paintings, however, break totally new ground. They are, superficially at least, the emptiest and certainly the most daring paintings of their time. Miró was at the time experiencing hallucinations, which have been described as “hunger hallucinations.” They were induced by the great poverty in which he was living; but they were also in keeping with artificially cultivated Surrealist procedures designed to provoke a heightened state of consciousness. He would stare at the stains and cracks of his studio walls until images started out from them. Similarly he was now staining his canvases, wetly and roughly, and eliciting fresh imagery from the accidental marks and configurations. Later he said, “Hallucinations replaced the external model. I painted as if in a dream in the most total freedom. The canvases of this period, particularly the series with blue grounds, are the most naked I have painted.”
I believe that these paintings are deeply connected with Michel Leiris’s conception of the void, which Leiris himself saw as being relevant to Miró’s work. Leiris wrote:
Today it seems that before writing painting or sculpting anything valid…one must acquaint oneself with an exercise analogous to that practiced by certain Tibetan ascetics with a view toward…what might be termed the comprehension of the void.
The stages described by Leiris through which the ascetic begins to subtract things from the environment around him until he can comprehend and contemplate the void could be graphically illustrated by lining up a series of Miró’s paintings, beginning with one of the “detallista” landscapes, moving through the first monochrome ground paintings into the blue “dream” paintings, and finally into his painting of the archetypal void. It is entitled simply Painting (Blue) and was executed at Montroig in the high summer of 1925. It shows a scrubby, modulated blue field, which is in effect a colored background or lay-in for a painting, with a tiny, subliminal orb inscribed in its upper right hand corner. It is hard to say what makes this painting so magical, but magical it is, and wholly memorable, too.
Masson had been experimenting with automatic drawings since 1923, and with them he had produced the nearest visual equivalent to the automatic writing the Surrealist poets had been creating during the “saison des sommeils” initiated in 1922. It has long been recognized that even Miró’s emptiest paintings have a lot of preparatory work behind them in preliminary sketches, the conscious purifying and purging of anecdotal imagery, and so forth. But on the surface of things the “dream” paintings appeared at the time to be the most automatic of all Surrealist pictures, and they must have induced Breton to write in his Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, which came out in book form in 1928:
There is in Joan Miró apparently only one interest, that of giving himself over entirely to painting, and only to paintings, with that pure automatism on which I for my own part have never ceased calling for…perhaps indeed on these grounds he may be regarded as the most thoroughly Surrealist of us all.
The suggestion that Miró was giving himself over to pure painting implied a note of censure, however, because at this point Breton would still have denied that Surrealism was an artistic movement. Rather he saw it as a campaign to liberate consciousness; and art was simply one of the techniques it used. Subsequently Breton expressed irritation with Miró, whom he found too elusive, too unusable for group and party purposes; and he complained, with a certain amount of justification, of “a certain arrest of his personality at an infantile stage.” But once again Miró was beating the Surrealists at their own game. Time and again from the 1920s onward the anally erotic or anally sadistic streak of Miró’s art breaks out in his fascination with the private parts of the body and their functions. But within this context the childish streak in his nature was to be a tremendous source of strength to his art, enabling him to treat without embarrassment to himself or the spectator such hitherto taboo subjects as ejaculation, bodily discharges of all kinds, flatulence, sodomy, coprophilia, and what have you, subjects that more doctrinaire and sophisticated Surrealists were forcing themselves to face in a spirit of grim dedication to duty. From 1925 onward the eroticism in Miró’s art becomes blatant. Again the Surrealists, and art, were rescuing him from himself.
By 1925 Breton had acquired The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) of 1923–1924, a pivotal work by Miró. It leads into the works executed on monochrome grounds and is one of the first paintings in which Miró tried to paint like a poet. It includes the letters SARD, a reference to the sardine about to be grilled for the hunter’s lunch. The hunter in the meantime smokes a pipe while nonchalantly pissing; behind him in the sky the aeroplane on its daily flight from Toulouse to Rabat passes over the Montroig landscape. The configurations of the hunter and the animal world by which he is surrounded owe much to Surrealist games and in particular that of the “exquisite corpse”—a version of the game in which children play with different pictures of head, neck, shoulders, trunk, and leg. (The importance of games for the movement has never been sufficiently stressed.)3
The painting left the Breton house-hold in 1936 and Breton never ceased to mourn its loss. Innocence is not one of the qualities one associates with Breton, but with the departure of the picture he seems to have realized that his own youthful optimism and idealism had somehow vanished with it. But it is deeply significant that in his lavishly illustrated articles on painting published in La Révolution Surréaliste from 1925 onward, which were to become the book of that title of 1928, he avoids the “dream” paintings and the works that immediately surround them. He had a keen eye and must have seen how beautiful they were, but he was afraid of them, primarily because the concept of the void alarmed him. Although he had declared that in matters of morality all the barriers were down he was in many ways a conventional man, even a prudish one, and some of Miró’s imagery alarmed him. The Surrealists were out to shock themselves, and that is one of the keys to the Surrealist mentality; but they liked to go about it in their own prescribed way. Then again Breton sensed the aesthetic orientation of Miró’s work. “I always paid attention to the plastic construction. That’s what distinguished me from the Surrealists,” Miró later declared.
It was in the works of 1926 and 1927 that Miró came most directly into the Surrealist orbit, and it was during these years that for a moment Surrealist art first gained a stylistic coherency. Max Ernst was looking at Miró and Miró at Ernst, and both were looking at the biomorphic language pioneered by Arp in Zurich during Dada days and then brought by him to Paris; this involved working with pliable, free-flowing forms which could be made to represent different things by altering them slightly or, for example, by the simple device of turning them upside down. Masson was touched by Arp’s art too and also by Miró’s. Breton should have nurtured this idiom. It was singularly adaptable to following “the dictate of thought” (a favorite phrase of the Surrealists), it could and did reveal that all-important goal, “the marvelous,” and it was ready-made for exploring the erotic.
Breton turned his back on the biomorphic style because it was too easily aestheticized, too beautiful, simply too stylish. But for Miró this moment of communion with fellow artists was a wonderful time. He had been an individual and indeed an original colorist from the start; and he had an instinctive and wonderful feeling for paint and texture. But it was now, working with a full, orchestrated palette, playing off brushy, vaporous areas against flat, blazing fields and against carefully and lovingly modulated passages that he emerged as the greatest colorist of the generation that came after Matisse. He had the ability to use black and white as colors and his handling of them is masterly.
The combination of visual opulence, partnered by an iconography that is challenging, and simultaneously lyrical and poetic yet violent and cruel, informs the Dutch Interiors of 1928, executed from postcards brought back from a trip to Holland. The third of these, which on first encounter radiates a carnival-like atmosphere, in fact depicts a woman, one foot staked to the ground, giving birth to a goat; the sumptuous shape below her is the afterbirth. A group of small, exquisite panels of 1932, executed on wood, acknowledge the influence of Picasso and of the fact that Picasso had anticipated the biomorphic idiom in his work of 1914 and was working in an independent variant of it; these works have the coloristic brilliance and intensity of Oriental miniatures.
The following year, in 1933, Miró produced a magnificent series of large-scale works executed from collages of mundane imagery drawn from catalogs of various kinds of factory and office mechanical equipment. These, too, are hallucinated works in which the banal machine imagery that provoked them has been transmuted into humanoid and animal presences engaged in playing out elaborate psychological dramas. These remain mysterious, but the clustered forms appear to be urgently communicating with one another. Miró’s virtuosity as a draftsman here comes to the fore: sometimes the linear configurations, seen against somber, stained backgrounds, are left to speak for themselves; at others they are filled with smudgy blacks and whites, or with brilliant unmodulated passages of color. It is with these works that Miró comes closest to joining a great tradition of Spanish as opposed to a more localized Catalan tradition of painting.
This series is complemented by sinuous, free-flowing drawings enriched by collaged elements—sentimental postcards of lovers, cutouts from catalogs of hats, and so forth; these are among the wittiest but also the most brutal images of our age. The paintings based on collage flow into the equally monumental and even larger scale paintings executed at the request of Marie Cutolli, who was trying to revive the tapestry industry in France. These in their turn are among the most sumptuously decorative of all twentieth-century paintings.
The geography of the exhibition spaces at the Museum of Modern Art, arranged on two floors, tends to make divisions or breaks in artistic movements or in the careers of artists seem more extreme than they often are. In the case of this exhibition, after the visual banquet provided in the upper galleries, there is a marked change in climate as one comes to the bottom of the stairs to encounter the second half of Miró’s career from the mid-1930s onward.
This is partly because one is confronted immediately with Miró’s sculpture. Some of the smaller objects built up from found objects are truly magical, for example in Object of 1932, a decorated pebble is suspended between two wooden plugs over a fragment of mirror which reveals a shell attached to the underside of the stone. But Miró’s gifts were above all for line and color, and the movement into three dimensions was, in my view, infelicitous. Even sculptures like Woman with Pitcher of 1970, which incorporate found objects (in this case a tree trunk and a spoon) look lumpy and inert and as if the artist was in competition with nature rather than engaged in dialogue with it. Woman of the same year, the most linear of his sculptures, is connected to her support in an embarrassingly obvious way; the exaggeration of the proportions of the feet in so many of Miró’s paintings has psychological and shamanistic implications, and they look right; but here the lumps of matter which anchor the sculpted figure to its base look like pure expediency.
It is astonishing that Miró, who in his paintings defied gravity and who produced the most spatially liberated canvases of his age, should in his sculptures have so totally succumbed to it. Even a group of small bronzes of the 1940s shows none of the sensitivity to surface that is one of the hallmarks of his painting; they look as if they had been worked not in clay but in a sort of synthetic plastic medium, and many of his works were indeed blown up into absurd proportions in synthetic resins. His ceramics, begun in 1954 in the workshops of the Artigas family in the village of Gallifa, are equally disappointing. Wet clay, one might have thought, would surely spring to life at his touch. It failed to do so; and his miraculous colors, altered by glazing and firing, flag and sag.
Miró’s work after his third trip to America in 1959 stands in many respects apart from what had gone before. The paintings from late 1934 until then pose problems. He produced many masterpieces and two marvelous groups of small-scale works. The series executed between the fall of 1935 and the spring of 1936 in oil on copper supports and in tempera on masonite confront the melting, precisionist imagery of Salvador Dalí and the deep illusionistic spaces characteristic of 1930s Surrealism, and once again Miró supersedes the art he challenges. His colors become sharper and drier, but they still enchant the eye. The figures in Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement, their putty-like limbs pulled and stretched to breaking point, recall configurations found in Dalí’s feverish odes to auto-eroticism; but Miró’s painting packs a greater punch, despite its minuscule size, and it is beautiful to look at, which the Dalís are not.
The Museum of Modern Art has succeeded in assembling all the Constellations of 1940 and 1941, and they are placed in a chapel-like space of their own. Rosamond Bernier in her delightful book of memoirs, Matisse, Picasso, Miró As I Knew Them,4 gives an insight into their genesis. When Miró had ensconced his wife and child in Varengeville in Normandy he was, like all his neighbors (Braque was one of them), subjected to strict blackout regulations. He said to Bernier, “I had always enjoyed looking out of the windows at night and seeing the sky and the stars and the moon, but now we weren’t allowed to do this anymore, so I painted the windows blue and I took my brushes and paint, and that was the beginning of the Constellations.” The Constellations are executed in gouache over vaporous atmospheric backgrounds achieved mostly by spreading oil and turpentine washes over moistened paper. The imagery is whimsical but riotous, and each mark seems to hold its own in an elaborate poetic dialogue which informs not only each individual work, but which also flows on from picture to picture. The Constellations lack the underlying aggression and the occasional viciousness that make the best of Miró’s work so challenging, but they mark one of the high points in his career, and some critics even see them as his consummate achievement.
The problems posed by many of the works which surround these two series in the lower galleries revolve to a certain extent around Miró’s uncertainty about scale. And this is strange, since the large paintings in the last of the upper galleries look so natural and supremely self-confident. Miró’s letters and his statements of the time suggest no loss of nerve; on the contrary, he seems more than ever aware of his achievement and of his importance, and he knew that he was by far the greatest of the painters to have been directly associated with Surrealism. I suspect that he now unconsciously saw himself as climbing into the ring with Picasso. (Earlier in the 1920s he had boxed with Hemingway although he only came up to the writer’s navel.) His attitude toward Picasso was reverential but nevertheless ambiguous. When Miró had first arrived in Paris he had gone directly to see Picasso, bearing messages from the Picasso family in Barcelona. Picasso was kind and encouraged him; and when Dalmau offered him Miró’s wonderful “detallista” self-portrait of 1919 Picasso was happy to accept it. In a letter of 1919 Miró spoke of “we, the young people who have had the good fortune to have been born after Picasso.”
A little later however, he complains that Picasso’s art has become too French and then that Picasso is too concerned with the commercial side of things. Much later, in a notebook of 1940, he reminds himself that his own paintings should have a “high poetic and musical spirit…like the singing of a song…made up of a conception opposed to Picasso’s canvases, that represent the end and dramatic balance of an epoch, with all their impurities and contradictions and facile strokes…” Great painter though Miró was, he was no match for one of the two greatest heavyweights of all times. (If Picasso had deigned to get into the ring at all, it would have been, of course, with Michelangelo.) It was surely because of Picasso’s example that Miró felt he had to move so disastrously into sculpture and ceramics.
But there was more to it than that. As early as 1927 Miró had spoken of his desire to “assassinate” painting. In a letter of 1928 he writes to a friend, “I believe I am attacking harder and deeper every day, so that my victims have a clean death, without nervous tremors in their death throes, a dry blow, like lightening.” He himself recognized that there had always been an element of aggression and violence in his art. When he first arrived in Paris Dada was in full swing and he almost certainly was present at the Dada Festival held at the Salle Gaveau on May 26, 1920, one of the most stylishly anarchistic of all Dada manifestations. Miró acknowledged its influence, and the collages of 1929 and the constructions of the next two years, which use abrasive materials such as sandpaper, tarboard, and burnt wood, are more Dada than Surrealist in spirit. Carolyn Lanchner in her essay in the exhibition catalog suggests that they may be an answer to Breton’s assertion that Miró “had no means at his disposal other than painting.”
Certainly in his talk of assassinating painting Miró was hitting out at the Surrealists’ concern with “the marvelous” which he was coming to find too intellectualized and too precious. And he was also hitting out at the aestheticizing of Surrealism that he himself had helped to promote. In 1931 he writes, “I am working very hard trying to make things worse and worse and create difficulties for myself and flee from good taste.” But he was also working off his rage against Surrealism’s vast storehouse of influences and against all the great art, that of both the past and the present, that he had encountered during his formative years and during the decade of his immersion in the Parisian milieu. In the process he produced a strong alternative to what he was rejecting, most notably in the two series of 1933 and 1934.
But after 1932, and with the exception of his superb small ripostes to the new Surrealist visual language of the 1930s, he was cutting himself off from his French connections. Now in his moments of rage and despair he could turn against only himself and his own art. “This need to destroy my own signs corresponds to my old desire to break the guitar of Cubism. Afterward, however, I applied this ascetism to myself,” he stated in 1962. This self assault didn’t always bear fruit and indeed at times it created a sort of short circuit in his art. In The Farmers’ Meal of 1935, for example, he attacks his own work of the 1920s, and although it is a fine painting it is not of the same caliber as the works under siege. The Rope and People works of 1935 have some of the old bite and poison, but the works of the same year that make use of abbreviated, calligraphic forms on monochrome grounds are not in the same category as the “dream” paintings executed ten years earlier.
In several of the dark paintings of 1938 some of the old mastery reasserts itself but in others the blacks now go inert, even dead. He was missing his old French poet friends who had, in the final analysis, given him more than his painter companions, and his own titles become more self-consciously poetic and less telling. Dancer Listening to the Organ in a Gothic Cathedral (1945) and The Red Sun Gnaws at the Spider (1948) are poor substitutes for Photo—Ceci est la couleur de mes rêves, or Etoiles en des sexes d’escargots (both of 1925).
Miró made three trips to America. He was in New York for seven months in 1947 and returned in 1952 and then again in 1959 on the occasion of his second retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. He had a great influence on emergent American art of the late 1930s and the 1940s, both because of the liberated spatial effects of his own work from the mid-1920s onward and because much of his work had an “overall” quality that was to become a touchstone for so many American painters of the 1940s. Arshile Gorky had paid tribute to Miró in his art, time and again. In 1944 Jackson Pollock, speaking of European art, touchingly observed, “The two artists I admire most, Picasso and Miró, are still abroad.” Even the dour and craggy Clyfford Still briefly fell under the magic of Miró’s spell. Miró met Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb during his first stay in New York, and he visited Pollock’s first solo exhibition in Paris at the Paul Facchetti gallery in 1952 and was excited by what he saw.
In the early 1960s Miró began to reclaim America’s debt to him. Red Disk of 1960 initiates a dialogue with Pollock and his vast Blue triptych of 1961 and the three Mural paintings of 1962 have something in common with Gottlieb, although they are infinitely more philosophical and profound; Miró once told me that Rothko was the American artist he most admired, and this fits.
This late phase of Miró’s is still controversial. Many feel that the paintings are empty and inflated and megalomaniacal. It is certainly true that from the mid-1930s onward Miró’s work was becoming increasingly uneven. But the best of the very large late paintings, the ones that are now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, are in my opinion sublime and among the greatest visual achievements of our time. And Miró was the only European artist of his generation to face successfully the challenge of new, revolutionary American art of the 1940s. He said, “What I seek in effect is a motionless movement, something that would have been the equivalent of what is called the eloquence of silence, of what Saint John of the Cross designated by the words, I think, ‘silent music.”‘ He achieved it.
It is unfortunate that at the Museum of Modern Art these late masterpieces are shown together with the “vowel paintings” of 1968, which are beautiful but which are less distilled and speak a different and impurer language. The very last paintings of all, from the Miró Foundation in Majorca came to me, at least, as a revelation; and I think that very few people can have seen them before it opened its doors. They are cries of protest, angry, ugly threats in the face of death. The last painting in the exhibition, untitled, a vast black canvas begun around 1970 and finished in 1980, is another masterpiece. It is also the most tragic and violent picture Miró ever produced.
The catalog’s introductory essay by Carolyn Lanchner, who also selected the exhibition, is an important work of scholarship and a major contribution to Miró literature. Lanchner has a thesis. She believes that the fact that Miró tended to work in series is the key to a deeper understanding of his art. Her theory certainly casts new light on his working methods; and Miró’s use of a serial procedure can validly be seen as an extension of his earlier compulsive slotting of things into spatial compartments and of the subsequent use of disguised geometric grids. Lanchner quotes the collector René Gaffé, who remembered receiving a note from Miró saying, “I am going to make six small canvases, then eight very large pictures. Then, I am going to get married.” In order to underline the serial nature of Miró’s work Lanchner has included a few pictures that are not of top quality and the hanging is a bit overcrowded. But it would have been easy to produce an exhibition which made Miró look totally seductive, and I think that Lanchner has done him a service by showing some of the rougher and more uneven side of his talent. The exhibition provides us with a real opportunity to reassess Miró’s achievement.
All Miró studies must start with Jacques Dupin’s monograph, first published in 1962 and now reissued by Flammarion in a revised and slightly extended form; but basically it is the same book and all the better for that. Dupin had all the qualifications for writing about Miró. He was a close friend and saw the evolution of much of Miró’s work at first hand. He is a meticulous scholar but he also recognizes that if Miró’s work is to be best enjoyed and understood it must also be allowed to keep some of its secrets. Dupin is also a distinguished poet; the poetic content in Miró’s work speaks to him directly, and he recognizes that it can be damaged if too ruthlessly analyzed.
The catalog to the Madrid exhibition contains an essay by Margit Rowell, a Miró authority, who here distills many of her thoughts about him, and how he purified his visual language through his study of the written and spoken word. Of the essays in the Barcelona catalog Christopher Green’s is the most telling, and it deals with Miró’s “assassination” of painting. In 1987 George Braziller published a facsimile edition of A toute épreuve, a collaboration between Miró and his favorite poet, Paul Eluard. Braziller has now brought the book out again in paperback. The poems were first published in 1930, and they show Eluard at his most lyrical and appealing. Miró began working on the illustrations in 1948 and the project took him over completely, so that eventually words and visual images acquired an exact equivalence, making this the most beautiful of all the works illustrated by him. The genuine innocence of Eluard’s verse does, however, at times make Miró’s images look a little wily. At its best Miró’s painting can provide as much instant pleasure as that of any other artist. But the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition demonstrates that at a deeper level it is sometimes hard to understand Miró because it is often difficult to identify with his thought processes. In the last analysis his mentality was that of a sophisticated peasant: a contradiction in terms, but that is how he was.
December 16, 1993
Rizzoli, 1993. ↩
This is particularly true, to take a single example, of the drawings executed in 1937 at La Grande Chaumière. ↩
Redstone Press/Shambhala have recently published Surrealist Games, a selection from a variety of surrealist texts, compiled by Alastair Brotchie and edited by Mel Gooding. ↩
Knopf, 1991. ↩