Surrealism art pioneer, Joan Miro, set out to ‘assassinate art’ as we know it, and he created more anarchy in his work the older he became. After a 50 year interlude, the Tate Modern has a major exhibit inviting a new generation of art lovers to step into the cerebral vortex of his rampant imagination.
It’s easy to see why Miro (1893 – 1983) has long been reputed as one of the greatest Surrealist artists ever; spanning six decades of his work, the Ladder of Escape exhibition at the Tate has 13 rooms, holding over 150 paintings, sketches, sculptures and prints.
Acclaimed as a trailblazer in his time, Joan Miro refused to adhere to one set style for critics to pigeon-hole, instead he ignited the way for the painting of unreal compositions; ones that turn people into objects or creatures and these into signs – creating a phantasm of mind-bending, abstract symbolism. His work carries implicit messages about the human subconscious and how he felt during the era in which he lived.
Miro was born in Barcelona, of Catalan descent, a unique culture and identity from mainstream Spain; it’s this heritage that would later be at the brunt of Dictator Francisco Franco’s clampdown on Catalonian demands for autonomy.
Miro’s early art depicted his family’s farm, nature and Catalonian peasant life. The pictures displayed in the first rooms of the Tate explore these influences. Miro’s creations were more uniquely abstract than other artists’ work. It wasn’t traditional painting, neither pure abstract, nor Cubism, nor quite Fauvism – it was filled with images relatable to reality but at the same time dreamlike.
Known as part of Miro’s ‘poetic realism’ phase, The Farm (1921-22), one of Miro’s first great paintings was turned down by dealers again and again, until the writer Ernest Hemmingway bought it, proclaiming it to be a masterpiece.
In 1921 Miro moved to Paris, his circle of friends were poets and writers and the scene’s subversive ideas liberated him. Miro dived into Surrealism and all the magic realism associated and he soon became a hit; along with Picasso’s, his paintings were displayed in the first ever Surrealist exhibition in Paris in 1925.
In 1927 he stated, “I want to assassinate painting!” Denouncing traditional painting as the reinforcement of bourgeoisie dominance, he added, “Surrealism takes me to the heart of poetry, where I can feel the meaning of detail in the painting grow inside me as I work.”
One example of this is Catalan Landscape ‘The Hunter’ (1923-4), at first glance the painting seems like a collage of strange symbols, look closer and you’ll see Miro’s ‘Hunter’, a stick man, a triangle shaped head smoking a pipe and his heart outside of his body; there’s something of obscenity and corruption in the picture.
The middle of the exhibition showcases work from the Spanish Civil War years in the 1930s. Miro’s work became an increasingly warped transition into the psyche. His style evolved into bold colours painted in violent swirls of nightmarish shapes, of harsh lines that shape into grotesque, terrified figures, their brightness juxtaposed against a black universe. Miro called this his ‘savage work’ as a response to his premonition of a catastrophe.
By 1936 all- out-war broke out, The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) tore his homeland apart, 250, 000 people bombed and killed, 50,000 of those savagely executed. When the Spanish war ended in 1939, World War Two started.
Miro escaped the Nazis invasion of Southern France back to Spain, now under the harsh dictatorship of Franco, stating he preferred to live in ‘inner exile’ in Spain than under Nazi rule. Yet yearning for freedom of expression, Miro’s world was in meltdown and he said, “Dreams, hysteria and even madness are the paths to truth.”
This brings us to the 23 Constellations, completed in the 1940s. Each painting or ‘constellation’ is a mass of tangled spider shapes and web-like lines. But when you look harder shapes of characters jump at you, there’s a crowd of strange figures, some even with huge arrowed tongues, all in a densely packed bedlam. Miro planned everything meticulously, yet the imagery retains wild spontaneity of childlike imagery, as if too intense to be depicted with realism; it was a time of nightmares not dreams and everyone was connected to it.
The final section of the exhibition explores the last years of Franco’s rule. Miro settled in Mallorca in 1957 and continued experimenting with art. His Series of Burnt Canvases (1973), hanging from the ceiling in Room Nine of the Tate, look like Miro has bashed, splattered and burned the canvas in a tantrum, but he was expressing his inner anarchy as trouble was brewing in his country.
Riots erupted, student protesters hurled fireworks and cans of paint at the Madrid Stock Exchange, breaking the windows in an act of defiance against Franco’s corrupt dictatorship. Miro wanted to join in, now aged 80 years old, his cry of protest was to paint canvases, douse them in petrol and set them on fire.
When each canvas was burning he’d paint more, letting the fire continue until a gaping hole was left in the canvas. He had a calm side too; he practiced Zen Buddhism and explored solitude, in this time he created massive triptychs, displayed in Room 10, each imposing canvas with one simple, jagged line running through like a pulse.
Miro’s prolific artistic output is mind-blowing. Art was Miro’s symbolic ‘ladder of escape’, and if he hadn’t felt so trapped maybe he wouldn’t have created such astonishing work. If you want to get a feel for the splendour of his inventive madness and why so much is paid for Miró’s work ( $16.7 million for Blue Star (1927) was forked up by a rich fan) go and discover for yourself what made the leader of the Surrealists, Andre Breton, call Miro ‘the most surreal of us all.’
• The Joan Miro ‘Ladder of Escape’ Exhibition is at the Tate Modern London until 11 September 2011:
• Originally published in Disorder Magazine: http://disordermagazine.com/tate-modern-joan-miro/art/
• Words: Jameela Oberman
*Information for the article retrieved from the Tate Modern Joan Miro Press Pack & the exhibition .