I’ve recently been to ‘the Miro’, the stunning exhibition at Tate Modern. I’ve been to Barcelona too; once, briefly, like a tourist. I took my family on a near-depressingly hot slalom up to Montjuic – hotel map was garbage, honest. Traipsing through a treacly sun we were, sacrilegiously trading moans as the city and the Med emerged in the hushed, glorious haze behind us. Finally, a sweaty “Wow”, then on, down to the nearby Fundacio Joan Miro, which was and is a beautiful space, with beautiful art and a ver ver decent caff. (Go). It’s all got me thinking about… about figures, or ciphers, or being bothered.
Deep breath and a beginning, an opinion…
So let’s be clear about this, in my view we have to/need to shed some of the snaky certainties, the horny machismo, the intellectuality goddammit, shaping our approach; and then we really may find something. Understanding stuff like this might just be a combination of contrary engagements; relaxing as well as fine-tuning our focus; believing and discerning; really standing there. This then may be a way into the vocabulary of the thing – if there ever is a vocabulary – for abstracted art.
Joan Miro hated and was offended by the very notion of his art being ‘abstract’. He was a slowish, diligent painter all his life. He could barely have been more attached to his land, his family farm, his keenly felt Catalan roots. He could not associate his art, his concrete testaments, with abstraction, since they were surely and clearly and obviously the natural expression of his being. (Even if they were mythic or symbolic in ‘nature’ or ‘about’ going beyond the plastic facts). Miro tilled his canvas, and there’s a fabulous tension between his quietly belligerent modesty, this visceral simplicity on the one hand and his ambition for and poetic sense of the search for absolutes, for wonder, for truth.
All the pictorial problems resolved. We must explore all the golden sparks of our souls! Letter to J F Rafols (Montroig, Oct 1923)
But he was an extraordinary man. On the one hand a proud and committed Catalan; on the other a serial abuser of the provincial “handful of imbeciles in Barcelona“. (Letter to J F Rafols 1919).
Almost shockingly clear about the two polarities; 1. The abundance, the dynamism, the cultural sweetness of Paris was essential; 2. His farm (Montroig) was essential, but Barcelona was suffocation and death.
Whilst it makes complete sense that Montroig was not Barcelona, and that Paris was mind-expanding, what continues to fizz – arguably for fifty years – is the HOW/WHY of Miro’s liberation from the shackles of (a prevailing) dogma or form. He was a surrealist who left surrealism emphatically behind. He was time after time a pioneer, somehow kindof quietly; perhaps he played a good game rather than talked it. Miro did, however, choose to involve himself in sometimes unavoidable causes – chiefly to do with his homeland and the civil war – but generally persisted as an outlier. Both Picasso and Breton came to respect his individuality, his importance even.
Often he would let nobody see work in progress; his studio was typically immaculate and private in comparison to many of his contemporaries. There is this real sense – reinforced by reading Selected Writings and Interviews/ Da Capo and Joan Miro/Tate – that he was conditioning himself throughout his extraordinary career, readying himself for the next ‘jolt’ which would imbue both spiritual force and method. And yet this itself was an organic if revelatory process; one which he had to let happen and believe in.
In 1940 Miro began working on a series of paintings called the Constellations. In a letter to his dealer Pierre Matisse you sense his quiet confidence that something “important” was happening. But what is also fascinating to me is the following
I can’t even send you the finished ones, since I have them all in front of me the whole time – to maintain the momentum and mental state I need to do the entire group.
(Selected Writings and Interviews, Da Capo.)
I imagine Miro serenely immersed in some contemplatory groove/purple patch through and during which he expresses an astonishing new force. One which would later lead Andre Breton to say – specifically concerning these paintings – that
No surrealist painter has shown greater capacity for renewal, nor moved further forward in the confirmation of his mastery, than Miro (Interview in ‘Le Litteraire’, 1946).
These signature works are surely bewitching? To me they are. But do we take them as a challenge to our sense of (the order of) things, or… how?
Miro the populist would have no problem with this confrontation. Are they doodles, do they irritate us? In the current cheap colloquialism is this the kind of modern art cobblers that “any child could do?” Is somebody who can’t draw taking the piss? Is that the essence of this proposition? Would it be easier to feel cheated and metaphorically or literally walk away, muttering? The answer is clearly YES. After all, the man is pretty much basing his pictures on chances and accidents – marks on the paper, imperfections! It becomes then a matter of integrity.
So listen. Look. Read. Find Miro, or Pollock, or Rothko or… you name him/her. Because you will find without exception an intense and rather magnificent sense of real purpose which will exorcise the doubts. Will help you get it. (I know the following may sound preposterous but) often what these artists have said or written is almost as exciting and inspiring as the work itself. And I recommend you listen to it. Because the artist deserves your attention and you will benefit. My own extra-curricular work has turned out the following; Miro is unquestionably the quiet genius I hoped for. For his extraordinary faith in pursuing the golden sparks; for his low-burning graft towards freedoms; for his undemonstrative courage. Look at the work.
For many of us actively trying to engage there are difficulties – we are badly trained/lazy/typically at some level visually inarticulate. We can’t make sense, or enough sense of the ciphers/symbols/lines/dots. But what a fabulous challenge! When the artist is trying with such heart to find a new glory he believes common to all of us, how can we not want to follow him, to understand him, to appreciate him, to support him, to enjoy him?
Me, I am finding Miro an absolute wonder.
7th July 2011.