The Assassin of Painting

A new exhibition at Tate Modern succeeds in freeing Miró the artist from Miró the brand

Michael Prodger

Joan Miró’s paintings are full of joyously bright colour but, he said, “My nature is essentially pessimistic. When I work I want to escape this pessimism.” Perhaps he was too successful. The lightness and optimism that has made his work ripe for cannibalisation by the advertising industry and graphic designers means that he is often seen fondly if disparagingly as merely the jovial creator of sunny pictures. While Picasso is viewed as a heavyweight political artist on the back of a single great painting, Guernica, and as an artistic pioneer on the back of a short-lived technical movement, Cubism, Miró — every bit as distinctive, versatile and fecund an artist as his slightly older compatriot — has been assigned a lower place in the 20th-century pantheon reserved for the not-quite-serious. It is the aim of Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape at Tate Modern, the first exhibition of such size here for 50 years, to show that beneath all the supersaturated colour and childlike scribbles Miró was a very serious painter indeed.
The things Miró was serious about were the concerns of his time: the rise of autocracy, the rule of Franco, the war, the évènements of 1968, the post-fascist succession in Spain) and of his calling (the nature of painting and perception). For Miró the artistic and the political were inseparable: “I understand the artist to be someone who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something, and has the obligation that this thing not be useless but something that offers a service to man.” It was an obligation that manifested itself throughout his career. 
Although as a young artist he was linked to both Communism and Surrealism, Miró preferred to keep his distance and refused to be co-opted into either movement: independence best served his ends. So, for example, his blood-and-soil Catalan nationalism was inherent in such early Douanier Rousseauesque bucolic pieces as The Farm, 1921-22, a painting once owned by Ernest Hemingway and showing Miró’s family property of Mont-roig near Tarragona; and his Surrealist Head of a Catalan Peasant, 1925, in which a countryman has been reduced to a red cap, ocular appendages and a straggly beard set against a sky-like void. In the first painting, which remained important to him, he encapsulated the essence of his native land, in the second the “pure spirit” of its people.
When in the 1920s and 1930s Miró developed his signature style of star shapes, bird forms, attenuated figures, squiggles and primary colours, in order to depict what he called “an extrapictorial reality”, he also turned them into a symbolic language through which to comment on the Spanish Civil War and the wider European conflict. While there is no such thing as a Miró glossary, in the Constellations series c1940, for instance, his marks and patterns can be decoded. They are a palimpsest in which birds stand for warplanes, figures represent Spain or humanity, the Moon is the last night of beauty before the triumph of fascism, dogs are folk memories, and so on. It is an insinuating disjunction that for all their beauty these paintings represent an explicit commentary on militarism. 
Overtly didactic exhibitions are not always successful because they can distort the balance between message and medium but in Miró’s case it is important to counteract what André Breton, the father of the Surrealists, identified as Miró’s “partially arrested development at the infantile stage”. The painter may have taken refuge on his farm, fled Civil War Spain for Paris, wartime France for Spain, Franco’s mainland for Majorca, but his pictures are not innocent and they are not escapist. Whichever fastness he settled in he kept an eye on what he had left behind and his art is always one of engagement rather than disengagement. The ladder of escape — a recurring motif in his paintings — was as much to give himself a means to find a new perspective on the developments of history as a way to flee them. 
While Miró failed to bring about his famously expressed desire to pull off “the assassination of painting” — by which he meant to stop it being a bourgeois chattel — he was nevertheless a successful rebel in other ways. His Surrealist experiments in automatic painting grew into a coherent language that combined Modernism, content and a means of bringing “a world to birth”. And he kept up a running criticism on the iniquities of that world while keeping them aesthetically palatable. It was no mean trick. While some exhibitions reveal their subjects to be lesser figures than often thought, this adroit exegesis succeeds in freeing Miró the artist from Miró the brand. 
An exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery of 42 Golden Age Dutch landscapes from the Royal Collection represents a complete contrast in scale and intent. There is, though, a certain similarity of theme. With the formation of the Dutch Republic in the late 16th century, there was an upsurge in national pride and painters were personally and professionally caught up in the mood. The likes of Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Jan van der Heyden and Meyndert Hobbema portrayed their newly-minted country in fine detail and with a clear eye to its unspectacular charms. 
They may have been working to commission but the pictures make it clear that they felt the same about their native mills, waterways, cattle, buildings and burghers as Miró did about Catalonia. Thirty-four of the works in this choice little show were collected by George IV, who had an eye for Dutch painting if not for stolid Dutch mores. And with this exhibition the Queen’s Gallery adds to its quietly growing reputation for selecting gems from the Queen’s vast holdings and building fine exhibitions from them.

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