In the realm of art, Joan Miro’s earliest and most lasting impression was provided by the frescoes of medieval Catalonia. Of course, Hell and the Apocalypse were the favorite themes of these artists. We meet men sizzling in the cauldron, and a host of other ingenious tortures. An executioner jigsaws his victim from head to toe, and both seem equally delighted by the pretty zig-zag pattern traced by the blade. The air is thick with flying devils and angels, roving stars and fishtail doves. …
This violent, indigenous fancy found an eminently suitable outlet in the direct, expressive idiom provided by the Romanesque style. The Gothic, on the other hand, stifled it with its carefully weighted , meticulous intellectuality , as did the succession of styles evolved out of the Renaissance. This points to the central predicament of Catalan art: native qualities constantly run the risk of entering into conflict with the foreign styles taken over as a result of Catalonia’s no less native internationalism and curiosity. For Catalan art to flourish, foreign style and hereditary traits must coincide. This had happened in the case of the Romanesque , but Catalonia’s vigorous extravagance had not found another real outlet until the birth of a style at the turn of the nineteenth-century variously known as Art Nouveau or Jugendstil. When this did occur , it resulted at once in the emergence of a creator greatly admired by Miro: the architect Gaudi.
Salvador Dali, another Catalonian, once said of his countrymen: “All Catalonians are paranoiacs.” Gaudi, in the course of his fairly long life, completed only a dozen major projects, but they amply testify to the violence and inventiveness of his eccentricity. The columns of his houses erupt like eucalyptus trees; their facades are corroded by a rash of bright ceramic splinters assembled into mosaics; their balconies are overgrown with iron vines; and the chimneys on their roofs are like monstrous bubbles that never manage to burst. Gaudi gave free rein to his imagination. Irregularity was the law. Pyramids are poised on their tips, colonnades lean enough to make the Tower of Pisa seem straight as an arrow in comparison. Everywhere, profusion and planned anarchy prevail.
To materialize his fancies,Gaudi resorted to bold, often prophetic means. As Miro and the surrealists were to do a generation or two later, Gaudi used odds and ends in his creations: shells from the nearby beach, scraps from the textile mill for which he was building a church. Gaudi affirmed that the source of his aberrant inventions was not gratuitous fantasy but nature. His claim is justified, for the landscape of Catalonia can vie in extravagance with the richest imagination; it can be said to belong to the same eccentric lineage as Gaudi and Miro.
These are the real roots that fed Miro’s magic flowers. But roots are invisible; from 1923 onward, Miro appeared to be a true member and product of the School of Paris. Underneath his work as well as his life unfolded in a simple line. It was sometimes deflected but never broken by external influences. Miro was like a Captain Nemo who had died deep into his own element; the disturbances on the surface affected him only distantly.
For a while Miro practiced pure automatism as advocated by the surrealists. Soon, however, a horde of neatly described if unidentifiable monsters invaded his stage. In the early thirties, geometrical abstraction reached its high water mark, and Miro was influenced by the painters Mondrian, Leger and Arp; his forms became less anecdotal, his compositions more severe. Even so, he remained himself.
In 1936, the specter of civil war rose over Spain. Again Miro was affected: his fantastic scenes became anguished, oppressive; the dreams turned into nightmare. When the Second World War broke out, Miro then left a collapsed France . Miro sought shelter amidst the stars- or rather behind them. In the cacophony of a deed world, his “Constellations” captured an echo of the music of the spheres.
In 1940, Miro moved back to Spain, with an occasional visit to Paris. When the war ended and Miro’s art reappeared on the international art scene, it was evident that something in it had changed again. The elements that peopled Miro’s painting had turned from things into signs. They no longer composed a world, but a language. Progress, for signs, lies in clarity and elegance of formulation. At first sharp and minute, Miro’s writing became looser, more dashing; it now had the sovereign nonchalance, the decorative appeal of Oriental calligraphy. Still, the substance of which the signs are made cannot change greatly; but the substance on which they are written can.
His evolution after World War II is a puzzle. In an exhibition of this size one feels confronted simultaneously by the best and the worst that Modern art has to offer–sometimes it isn’t even clear which is which. On the one hand he seems to have settled into the middle of a Miro industry, and much of the work has an empty, formulaic quality. But he also glimpsed something brighter, less delicate, and less polite than anything he had done earlier. I think we can still learn a lot from paintings of the early ’50s like The Bird Boom-Boom Makes His Appeal to the Head Onion Peel, 1952. Later, the big “Blue” paintings from 1961 and the “Mural Paintings” from 1962 show him talking back to the younger American painters for whom he had been crucially influential twenty years before. This level of engagement seems exemplary and not at all typical of his peers.
The sculpture became both more and less interesting after the war. He found a way to be more direct, leaving behind his rather generic surrealist juxtapositions of the ’30s. Miro clearly had a gift for working with clay; there’s something good in the sculpture when it functions as an objectified analogue for the presences in his paintings. A lot of this work, however, raises disturbing questions about how many kinds of things an artist really needs to do.