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Art review: A passage into Joan Miró's world

The imaginative exhibit in Washington, D.C. 'The Ladder of Escape' brings the celebrated artist's unshakable political commitments to the foreground.

June 10, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Joan Miró's "The Two Philosophers," February 1936, oil on copper.
Joan Miró's "The Two Philosophers," February 1936,… (Joan Miró, National…)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Starting in the summer of 1921, Joan Miró began to paint a large picture of his family's farm in the coastal village of Mont-roig, south of Barcelona, Spain.

It's a large picture, almost 5 feet wide and not quite square. Divided into equal zones of dusty brown earth and deep blue sky and centered on a spindly tree, its lean branches coming into leaf, it's an inventory of farmyard animals, plants, implements and buildings, including a big rustic barn and a small chicken coop.

He was 28 when he began to map the painting, all rendered in a delicate filigree infused with an even Mediterranean light, and he labored on it for six months.

The result is one of the great images of fecundity in Modern art. Now a prize in the collection of the National Gallery of Art here, "The Farm" is installed there on the entry wall of the lovely exhibition "Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape." The show has traveled to the museum from London's Tate Modern for its only U.S. presentation. (It continues through Aug. 12.)

The prominence of the picture is no surprise, since it represents the start of Miró's maturity as an artist. What's unusual is the role it plays in the quietly but determinedly polemical exhibition that follows.

We know Miró the Surrealist, painter of fantastic cosmologies. Ten nocturnal "Constellations" (1940-41) from his series of 23 small paintings on paper — arguably the greatest paintings on paper of the entire century — are grouped on one flabbergasting wall. (Miró knew they were great, telling his friend and dealer Pierre Matisse that they were "one of the most important things I have done." The show's title, "Ladder of Escape," comes from the ninth in the series.) Like astral maps, they congregate stars, moons, eyes, insects, female figures, birds, musical notations and more in drifting night skies of poetic delicacy.

We also know Miró the Modernist, inventor of a radical pictorial space that would become art's vernacular, especially for New York School painters after World War II. Space in a Miró abstraction is aqueous and atmospheric, an almost stained expanse of thinned color in which up could be down, right is indistinguishable from left and far is near. The nubby surface of the canvas or textured sheet of paper is its own tilled field for the spontaneous cultivation of shapes and forms.

What we don't know — or at least what has remained mostly in the background until "Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape" — is Miró the artist of unshakable political commitments. Landscape painting rose to prominence in the 19th century, carried along with the thriving emergence of nation-states in Europe and the Americas and providing robust images for a new consciousness of national identities. "The Farm" went one step further, rooting character in the humble daily workings of Miró's native Catalan soil.

A text at the show's entrance declares the artist's situation, reminding us that he was born at the cusp of a new and violent century and died almost at its end (1893 to 1983). In his life, he saw "two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the rise and fall of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975." He saw much else, of course, not all of it nearly so grim. But, "through it all he remained deeply tied to Catalonia, the proudly independent region of Northeast Spain where he was born."

That deep-seated independence is the ruling impulse in Miró's art. People often get nervous when art and politics are mentioned in the same breath, but Miró seems to have understood that politics is merely the means by which we organize our social lives together. Art has a role in that — in ways obvious and not.

The show includes some striking moments of pointed political intervention. The most blunt is a poster image — "Aidez L'Espagne (Help Spain)" — made in 1937 amid a tangled, bloody and divisive civil war. A silhouetted figure drawn with a map-like contour is dwarfed by an upraised arm topped by an enormous clenched fist.

Miró was not a propaganda artist. He never painted a work like "Guernica," Picasso's Cubo-expressionist blast of horror at the notorious 1937 Nazi bombing of a Basque town. That was made on commission that year for the high-profile International Exposition at the Paris World's Fair, where it would get maximum publicity — its black-and-white motifs suggesting newspaper clippings. (Miró contributed a two-story mural, destroyed at the exposition's conclusion, showing a Catalan farmer raising a sickle to fight fascism.)

But the beastly figures prominent in the lithographs of Miró's "Barcelona Series," which he began during World War II, are stark, black-and-white monsters that despite their menacing ferocity also seem poised to consume themselves.

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