Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape, at the Tate

I gulped entering the exhibition – Miro was described as “the most surreal of us all” by the very founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton – and I thought, oh dear, I don’t like surrealism all that much and nervously turned to the back of my booklet to discover there was thirteen rooms filled with the stuff. But, I’m not one to close myself off to the possibility of a change of heart with art. And the first room was to surprise me with its content. (You see the Tate curators made this super decision to put the introductory text outside of the exhibition space to ease overcrowding around art works, and I would guess also to tempt people in through a literary taster – very smart.)

It starts with half a dozen pieces from c. 1918 onwards of his home in Catalonia. These rural scenes are painted with a much greater attention to detail than is known of Miro, and the overall impression is of patterned patchwork quilt. ‘The Rut’ is such an example, and in this painting is evidence that Miro has a great understanding of colour that he would later exploit and/or purposefully ignore in his move towards the more surreal and abstracted. These early paintings of scenes familiar to the artist are interesting because they highlight the two-sided debate in the visual voice of the artist across his life (, and thus this exhibition).

In ‘The Farm,’ 1921-2, the largest and most important of this period, (not least because it is his home that he paints,) features a range of objects, of which those that are particularly habitual to him are partially enlarged. Miro depicts what vision naturally does – it draws you nearer, so that you take further notice of that which you already recognize. Yet, in the next room, when Miro is settled into surrealism, and it is now since the Surrealist Manifesto (of 1924) has been published, he declares, “I don’t think it makes sense to give more importance to a mountain than to an ant.” This is reflected in his approach to drawing a scene and in his choosing of subject matter – he no longer is looking for what is known, but searching the subconscious.

The artist switches between these two things throughout his career – acknowledging the familiar, and rethinking what was visually familiar in contemporary art. Still, this is always done under the pretense of escaping into creativity. His abstract pieces of the 1940s+ were influenced by the expressionists and so are much more rhythmic. For example then, it could be argued that in ‘The Passage of the Divine Bird’ from 1941 (in room 7), that rhythms provides a sense of reassurance – a reassurance that is found in the consistencies of daily life – in what is familiar.

The impact of Miro choosing not to give more significance to a mountain than an ant, is obvious in the scale he allocated items across a composition. In ‘The Barcelona Series’ (named after the city in which it was printed), 50 lithographs shout aliens ahoy! – What I think appear like aliens, are probably only the distortions of a figure according to an artist who is readdressing priorities. Suddenly beady eyes, grasping hands, and killer jaws become what are significant in these pieces. This attitude is hardly surprising as these pieces, exhibited in room 6, were completed during the time of the Spanish Civil War. And here we discover one of the reasons Miro might have repeatedly wished to escape into creativity across his lifetime, via, The Ladder of Escape (as the exhibition is fully entitled). The time of war was when Spain’s cultural identity was under siege. Who’s art could show a greater grappling with a new cultural identity?

Saying that, sometimes my only assumption when I look at a Miro is that I’m looking at a painting made of a Dalmatian rolled around in a fauvist palette. It’s true that much of his work feels playful – something I don’t often associate with surrealism. His ‘Painting (head)’ of 1927 in the second room just made me smirk, not because I think it’s crap like so many assume of Miro’s emptier paintings, but because who couldn’t giggle imaging a Spaniard with whiskers such as he painted. It seems so obviously humoured.

I have to credit again the curators, because I believe my favourite part of the exhibition is very much due to their great curatorship. In the final third is two great octagonal rooms displaying paintings as large as the walls. They are his most simplistic paintings but his most stunning, positioned as they were they are utterly overwhelming. I watched joyfully as others entered the rooms and saw their expressions – the exhibition was worth it just for this (oh and I had a rather nice chat with a middle-aged mummy who’d gone back into art history education with an enthusiastic bump). The great acclaim that these massive murals to colour received when they were exhibited in Paris has lasted. The sensation of colour is a continuation of that early sensitivity, but with a shot of shock. Imagine: bursts of the brightest colours you can consider, splashes of cooling oases, spots of attention homing, and streaks of evening out. This has to be the best of Miro…

The key piece of summer at the Tate, check Miro out before 11 September 2011. See it as part of late night at the Tate as I did!

http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/joanmiro/default.shtm

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