The work of a master artist at the end of his life often anticipates the innovations of the next generation, even inspires it with more radical ideas than those generated in the artist’s youth. The sculptures of Michelangelo anticipated the optical theatrics of mannerism, the so-called “Black Paintings” of Goya inspired the symbolists, and the late works of Joseph Mallord-William Turner look remarkably like those of a young Claude Monet (who saw them in London as a refugee of the Franco-Prussian War).
The same could be said of Joan Miró. Though not as famous as some of his fellow surrealists, Miró’s long life afforded him the ability to keep working and innovating until the early eighties, while remaining true to his signature artistic style.
In 1963, Joan Miró was finally able to access the art he’d hidden in storage before fleeing, along with many other artists, Nazi-occupied France. Instead of selling these pieces–unseen for close to 20 years–Miró installed them in his new studio on the island of Majorca, turning to them repeatedly for inspiration in the last decades of his life. The artwork created from this amalgamation of old and new, prewar and postwar, shows an artist pared down to the most elemental, most elegant and sparse execution of his youthful artistic ideals. It is a small selection of these works, on loan from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, that are on view at the Denver Art Museum, March 22 – June 28.
Born in 1893 Barcelona, in person Miró came across, as Desmond Morris once put it, “The exact opposite of his paintings.” He was a short, unassuming man who dressed in conservative, modest suits and was polite and quiet in company. Some of Miró’s demeanor was perhaps attributable to his life before he became an artist: he worked as an accountant until 1911, when he had a nervous breakdown and decided to quit his job to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. On his first visit to Paris in 1920, he immediately became involved with the surrealists and modern painters like fellow Catalan, Pablo Picasso.
Miró lived in dark times, particularly for his native Spain, and though it might not be immediately apparent, that darkness became a part of his work, particularly in his later years.
Occasionally Miró is referred to as a “fringe surrealist,” but this is a stylistic distinction that misunderstands both surrealism and Miró’s work. He was in fact a full-fledged surrealist, participating in their first group exhibition and applying surrealist techniques to his paintings. The only thing that made his work “fringe” was that it didn’t look like any of the other surrealists’ paintings. Infused with color, symbols, biomorphic shapes, energy, and the abstracted elements of automatism–a favorite method of the surrealists that was supposed to unlock the subconscious–Miró developed a distinctive style that was bold, vibrant, and unique, exerting an influence on everyone from Picasso himself to, later, Robert Rauschenberg.
Yet it may surprise people to learn that this man, one of the most well-known painters of the 20th century, once declared he wanted to “assassinate painting” (as well as “break [the cubists’] guitar,”) and worked just as prolifically, if not more so, in sculpture. The majority of his works at the DAM exhibit are, in fact, sculptures, lost-wax bronze castings that integrate seamlessly with the figures and symbols found in his paintings. No matter what medium Miró worked in, his style was absolutely singular and recognizable.
Miró’s work is often described as fanciful, playful, and phantasmagoric, and it’s easy to see why. Take “Harlequin’s Carnival,” for example, which was on display at the DAM last year as part of the Modern Masters exhibit. One of his most recognizable pieces from the 1920s, it’s filled with squiggly lines and strange, imaginary creatures. The energy and visual chaos of “Harlequin’s Carnival,” however, conceal a diligently, even rigidly, composed work of art, divided into distinct quadrants, with a precise balance of color and form. This wasn’t just an artist painting off the cuff; this was someone who, even relatively early in his artistic career, knew exactly what he was doing.
The pieces in the Miró exhibit at the DAM show much more restraint than “Harlequin’s Carnival,” although the combination of lines, abstracted forms and shapes, and odd-looking creatures, remains intact. It can be quite easy to dismiss Miró’s work as “cute” or “childlike”–many of his sculptures look like robots off the set of Lost In Space, and there’s occasionally a cartoonish quality to his paintings. The smiling figure in the lower left-hand corner of 1976’s “Landscape,” for example, appears disarming and charming, a bright spot of innocent marvel in what might otherwise be a very dark, abstract work. Yet there is also something very menacing about Miró’s figures. Like with a Bosch painting, your eyes are treated to a visual feast of color, line, and fantasy, but the fantasy is not necessarily a pleasant one. Miró himself said that if his pieces were to tell stories, they would likely be tragedies.
Miró lived in dark times, particularly for his native Spain, and though it might not be immediately apparent, that darkness became a part of his work, particularly in his later years. In his 70s and 80s, inspired by the political movements of the 1960s, Miró attended sit-ins against Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco (still dead), witnessed protesters beat up or even shot by police, and painted powerful triptychs such as “The Hope of a Condemned Man,” which served as a direct indictment of Franco’s regime. None of the pieces in this exhibit are so overtly political as that work (although the statue of a bull’s head skull could be interpreted as a comment on Franco’s effect on Spain), but there’s no doubt the mood of the era was infused in Miró’s art.
Another one of the major themes in Joan Miró: Instinct and Imagination is that of women, specifically images of women, birds, and stars, a trio that served as a central motif in Miró’s oeuvre. The show opens with a large bronze sculpture of an abstracted female figure, all hips and breasts. Nearby is “Woman, Bird, and Star (Homage to Pablo Picasso),” and a lost-wax bronze casting of an assemblage–or sculpture made out of found objects–of a figure bearing similar forked and celestial motifs. The female figures in Miró’s work, unlike in Picasso’s, are not meant to represent a woman, but The Woman. Like many surrealists, Miró developed a fascination for prehistoric art, and both his sculptures and paintings frequently draw upon ancient symbols and artifacts like the so-called Venus of Willendorf, creating modern echoes of goddess imagery and rock art in a gallery setting. Miró used female figures to represent fertility, birds to represent imagination, and stars to represent the cosmos, forming a symbolic language unique to his work that only enhances the pieces’ enigmatic sensibility.
As the exhibit progresses, one is presented with numerous assemblage sculptures, made with forks, broken picture frames, plates, rocks, and many other objects, pulled together to create figures or abstract pieces. Some of the sculptures have the distinct texture of coral or beach wood–because Miró actually found his materials while walking along the beach in Majorca! While found object art may seem rote or expected today, Miró was one of the first artists to “assemble” found objects together into singular pieces–another surrealist game that relied on chance and the alchemical sense of transformation to create art. Miró knew his assemblages were finished when they’d become their own object.
After the assemblages, the next section of the exhibit presents us with a series of paintings in the style that best defines Miró’s later years. Here we see the frantic lines, squiggles and shapes of “Harlequin’s Carnival” reduced down to their essence, one or two simple lines offset by a dot or star. The best of these pieces is “Poem in Praise of Sparks,” what Miró called a landscape of movement and sound. With two elegant, emotive, lines surrounded by soft marks of red, blue, and yellow interspersed throughout the canvas, “Poem in Praise of Sparks” is arresting. Sitting in front of it, one feels as if one is watching fireworks, filled with a quiet awe at the distant explosion of color and sound. Miró said of this piece, perhaps a tad defensively, “Yes, it took me just a moment to draw this line with the brush. But it took me months, perhaps even years, of reflection to form the idea.” Other paintings in this group are equally emotive, touching one with a sense of peace, tension, or hope.
With these apparently simple, minimalistic works, Miró said he wanted to “capture the maximum intensity with the minimum of means . . . the immobile movement, the eloquence of silence.” A very zen-like statement for very zen-like paintings that have all the elegance and austerity of a haiku poem. Not coincidentally, Miró was deeply inspired by Japanese art in his later years, even collaborating with Japanese poet Shuzo Takiguchi, who wrote the first monograph about Miró’s work, on several works of art.
As Miró got older, he became more concerned with space and how to apply it so that it wouldn’t be just empty real estate on a canvas or in a sculpture, but a psychological force that occupied a place in his viewers’ imagination. In the final section of Instinct and Imagination, we see examples of this in every painting and assemblage. Space is a presence on Miró’s canvas, an essential part of the composition that balances out his bold use of line and heavy application of primary color with a subtly and confidence that didn’t exist when he painted “Harlequin’s Carnival” 50-ish years prior.
Overall there were less pieces in Joan Miró: Instinct and Imagination than I was expecting and, with some notable exceptions, the majority were not representative of his best later work. That said, Miró wanted his art to inspire people to dream and imagine, and the exhibit certainly succeeds in doing that as well as representing the culmination of a brilliant career. Later in his life, Miró stated, “I painted in a frenzy, with real violence so that people will know that I am alive, that I’m breathing, that I still have a few more places to go.” Working until the age of 90, Miró was an artist who defied his age and the expectations that went with it, never going quietly into that good night. From antagonistic political declarations to alchemical processes and poetic, philosophical representations of the universe, the art of Joan Miró, like the man himself, is more than it at first appears.