marvelous automatic: Miro and Roving the Unconscious

Nothing was ever certain about Spanish painter Joan Miro, except the certainty of surprise. A product of rugged , fantasy loving Catalonia, Miro created an unpredictable magic world of forms of his own, that in its way matched together incompatible realities that revealed new and intriguing  aesthetic meanings….notably Miro, used Surrealism as a liberating starting point for an exploration of personal fantasies, conscious or unconscious, often through formal means of great beauty.

"The third main Surrealist tendency drew more attention to the materials used by the artist. This tendency survived the break up of the Surrealist movement during the Second World War. It began with the 'automatic' drawing technique practiced by Miro, Paul Klee and Andre Masson (b 1896). The line of the pen or other instrument was allowed to rove at will without any conscious planning. Masson tried to achieve the same sort of result in painting, by drawing a mass of lines in an adhesive substance on the canvas, adding color by coatings of different colored sand. After the end of the Surrealist epoch, this approach was carried into painting in New York by Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), the 'white writing' paintings of Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and, above all, the vast abstractions of Jackson Pollock which contain a strong element of drawing with paint while the artist was in an ecstatic trance."

Surrealism became politically involved with Marxism and, in 1930, the name of its official mouthpiece was changed from La revolution surrealiste to Le surrealisme ait service de la revolution. The movement’s official date of birth was in 1924, when Andre Breton’s literary manifesto appeared, in which he explained the theory of “automatism” – acts of spontaneous creation, on which the Surrealist theories were based. Two years later, Breton wrote another article devoted mainly to Surrealist painting. When the German Max Ernst (1891-1976), the Frenchman Andre Masson, and the Spaniard Joan Miro met at Kahnweiler’s gallery in Paris in 1923, a certain common direction was agreed upon, although it is difficult to identify a specific Surrealist style since each artist developed his own interpretation of Surrealism. The influence of Freud’s psychoanalytical theories is discernible in all Surrealist painters’ work. His theories identified the psychological processes of the unconscious, stressed the significance of dreams, and gave meaning to apparently incongruous thought-associations and seemingly illogical free associative ideas. …

---In addition to reinvention and confronting historical change, another theme running through the exhibit is escapism. Gerstein selected two prints by Joan Miró from his “Constellations” series, “Sunrise” from 1940 and “Passage of the Divine Bird” from 1941. Gerstein included quotes from Miró near the colorful, surreal works: “I felt a deep desire to escape,” the Spanish artist wrote. “The night, the music and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings.”---

…One day in the mid 1920’s , Jacques Doucet, a former dictator of Paris fashions  and lifetime patron of young writers and artists , was brought to the studio of Joan Miro by two friends of the young Catalan painter- the artist Andre Masson and the poet Louis Aragon. The elegant old courtier sat down, flanked by Masson and Aragon, while Jacques Viot, Miro’s dealer, stood in a corner. One after , Miro placed his canvases on the easel. The first were still lives painted in a sharp crystalline manner derived from cubism. “Quite incisive” , M. Doucet commented curtly.

But then, as Miro began bringing out painting upon painting from which ordinary reality- even in the fragmented, prismatic version in which the cubists had represented it- had vanished. M. Doucet lapsed into silence. It lasted for an excruciating hour or two. Not until he was in the street again with his two guides did the patron speak up: “Well my young friends, you have fooled me often, but you won’t fool me this time. Your friend is mad, stark mad, and that man in the corner was his keeper. While in there, I said nothing, for fear that he might grow excited. Why, he might have taken his brush and splashed it on my face!”

Joan Miro "Dog Barking at the Moon" Original color lithograph 1954 From Revue Verve, Vol. VII

Three weeks later , Masson met the art patron again. “You know, I have bought two paintings by that friend of yours,” said Doucet. And he added, “I have hung them at the foot of my bed. When I wake up in the morning, I see them, and I am happy for the rest of the day.”

Very simply, the aged dress designer had put his finger on the secret of Miro’s art and of its appeal: a spontaneous, vivid, fresh elation, instinctively felt and immediately contagious. It is a feeling experienced unconsciously- sometimes even unwillingly- by almost every spectator. Describing his reaction to Miro’s work several years later, the dancer Leonide Massine could only say very nearly the same thing as Jacques Doucet: “When one sees the combination of colors and forms in his pictures, one experiences, quite involuntarily, a joy and an urge to dance.”

A painting presented to us is like a window opened on a world. In days past, that window was usually a mere glass pane; behind it, you saw the street, your neighbors, a tree, perhaps distorted or “corrected”. Sometimes, the pane would turn into a microscope or a telescope. But Miro was the first artist in history to borrow Alice’s looking glass.

Cat Encircled by the Flight of a Bird Joan Miro was born in Barcelona Spain to father in 1893. His father was a goldsmith and watchmaker. Joan’s parents wanted him to pursue a career in business but Joan insisted on attending the Barcelona School of Fine Arts. Upon graduating, his parents insisted he took business classes. He practiced as an accountant

two years until a nervous breakdown proved to him he was an artist.---Melissa Montgomery

What is it we see through his looking glass? To evoke the spectacle, we need only close our eyes. Indeed, daylight never rules over Miro’s work; even when dozens of phosphorescent suns glow in the painting, its atmosphere remains nocturnal. No wonder, for Miro’s world is the same stuff as dreams are made of. In an endless vacant landscape defined only by the horizontal line, a star sheds a bell-like tear over the misfortunes of a virgin suffering what appears to be a delicious wound. Is the tear to drop upward or downward? The tear hesitates; happily, a dotted line is there to tell it which way to roll. …

Jonathan Jones: Why did he go out of fashion for a while in elite echelons of modern art? In the 1990s, a radical critique of traditional modern art criticism was launched by American intellectuals including Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss. The legacy of surrealism was at the heart of the matter. Surrealism was reinvented by these very influential critics as the ancestor of today’s art in a way that stresses its experiments with photography, collage and the object, thus shifting surrealist painting to the margin of the movement’s legacy.

Lots of people can find this argument attractive because it is easy to see how the surrealist iconoclast Hans Bellmer resembles, say, the Chapman brothers: less easy to see how Miró, with his richly conceived, coloristic, abstract dream paintings, anticipates the art of today.

But there’s one problem with marginalising Miró. He was a genius. To follow his paintings from his early hyper-intense Catalan landscapes in which the earth teems with manic life to his primordial abstractions that seem to reach to the very bottom of the ancestral seas where life evolved, as if all the universe and its history were buried in the cells of our brains, is to see an artist of fantastic power and raw vision penetrate the remotest corners of human knowing.

Miro. The Farm, painted in 1921-22 during his early phase of development. At one time Ernest Hemingway owned this work.

What attracted me was their Europeanness, their camarade- rie, whatever I thought of their paintings, which I admired very much, but I remember the Surrealists asking me if I thought Miro´ was any good. He was too abstract for them, but I said ‘‘absolutely.’’ Miro´ was also suspect in leading a perfectly ordinary, orderly bour- geois life. In fact, Matta told me that once, in a drunken studio party in Paris, somebody had seen Miro´ with his wife come out of church—it must have been a Sunday night— and somebody sober came in, maybe Giacometti—they had put a rope over the rafters, and they were about to hang Miro´ , and they cut the rope….

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As Miro said, “I begin painting, and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself, under my brush. The form becomes a sign for a woman or a bird as I work.” As a result of these ideas, flea markets boomed because they were the homes of inspiration and otherwise useless objects, perfect for the art of the Surrealists.

Miro was an artist that took advantage and used to full potential the opportunities simple forms offered him. Miro would often start his canvases with random washes and then build upon the forms generated by the sponges, rags or burlap he used. After he had something down on the canvas, the forms would inspire Miro to carefully work to a full production. As he states, “the first stage is free, unconscious, but the second stage is carefully calculated.”  Miro was not really a product of Surrealism but was rather a necessity for its beginning. Surrealism needed his work in order to define itself as an art movement. Breton said “by his ‘pure psychic automatism’ Miro might ‘pass as the most Surrealist of us all.'”

"The 1935 painting with rope on it-Rope and People- on cardboard with rope and using oil paints is an attempt to redefine what was acceptable is an example of how far ahead of his time Joan was. Colour, collage, disfigured shapes and the use of non-traditional materials became Joan Miro’s trademark. Being an outsider had served him well: he was making art that was unique..."

In addition to the childlike innocence the Surrealist sought, Miro looked into his dreams and into his childhood for ideas for his art. The Surrealists looked towards dreams because they believed dreams were thoughts and imaginations in the primitive state. Dreams were part of the unconscious, and the unconscious was untainted. In the beginning of the Surrealist period, artists used hypnotism and drugs to venture into the unconscious state to extract images, word and ideas. Andre Breton said that these images and feelings could not be had in the conscious state. Quite often, the Surrealists would create dream-like scenes and scenarios, which would otherwise be impossible in the natural world.

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One Response to marvelous automatic: Miro and Roving the Unconscious

  1. Maureen says:

    Wonderful post, Dave. I continue to be impressed by your vast knowledge and the great way you have of knitting your narratives. Your statement about Miro being “the first artist in history to borrow Alice’s looking glass” is insightful and delightful.

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