Your own… personal… Mu-nich.

The Munich Trove. What a great story. The spiriting away of proper high-end modern art – Chagall/Picasso/Dix etc etc – by sleeping cohorts of either greedily ambivalent or conflictingly discerning Nazis, bearing canvases through dark tunnels in hay-carts or on dark, dark trains. Or by packing them on reluctant mules for clandestine hikes over the Schwarzwald. Or somewhere – somewhere misty. This is surely so-o fabulous we may have to wheel out the You Couldn’t Dream It Up subheading. More fun though, methinks, to dream up our own, life-changing stash…

Except maybe not a stash; not something the buggers could legitimately take back. No – NO – a gift, a spectacular, real, fuck right off GIFT that The Authorities could gawp at all they liked but never take away. So you can choose to openly display it – put one in the conservatory dwarling, put one right there in the front fucking window!! Wherever you want. And there’s no denying it’s yours. Phew. Woddablast that would be. In my head now it’s already sorted.

So yeh My Inheritance of absurdly wonderful art-stuff happens thissaway – in a whirl. I’m in Venice… and there’s a mighty storm… and everything must surely be lost ’til I swallow up the sea and spit it back out, harmlessly into er… The Dalmatians. And the Richest Man Ever Ever –who has been watching from an unsinkable mega-schooner thing, whilst supping fine Prosecco – sees, and promptly magics up, without my knowledge, the following. For me. To keep.

(If that was all a bit urgent it’s because I just want to get to the bit where I think about which paintings really quick, okay?) Because, yeh, it feels like I kindof get to choose… or does the Rich Bloke like … read my mind?

Hmm. Not clear on that. But whatever, suddenly, they’re all there! On the carpet. With the dog still sleeping under-neath! WOW!! Or should that be POW!!?!!

You Couldn’t Dream It Up But…

The first thing I see is yeh – the biggest. Back there, behind the dog, the parcels and everything. Parked against the wall but taking up half the goddam room. A ginormous box-like rectangle, like a fish-tank only I don’t know yet what’s in it because it’s wrapped in stuff. If I unwrap it now… OMG!! Shark!!

Settle down and think.  And try to be articulate.

Never known how much I like this but ‘The Impossibility of Death or Whatever Thingy’ – Damien Hirst. Bloody great shark in the living room. And what’s the label saying? Oh yeh. Maybe the title is massive on this one. ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. How brooding and primeval and slow (actually) and bewitching and swallowing and challenging is that? Great work, RB and thanks for the early monster red-herring curve-ball. It’s awesome. I know that’s a totally naff and inadequate word for it but close up, that is awesome. And yeh – a surprise.

Whoa. Okay so clambering into this pile here now and… it’s hilarious this. Propped against each other. Just plonked down, pretty much.

Oh, okay – this is great. This is great. This I’ve always loved or been drawn to; David Bomberg – The Mud Bath. Always just thought it’s remarkable and somehow has so many levels, only about half of which I’m getting. But it really pays to look. Nationalism and chaos and blood/mud, I imagine… but there’s something both kinetically charged and sophisticated going on here. It’s a radical British treasure; absolutely e-ssen-tial. Nice one – great start.  Chuffed with that.

Just realised we’re effectively into a Desert Island Discs thing here. How groovy is that? 20-odd artefacts here though, by the look. And they’re all ‘modern’, I think. So it is my Munich.

I’m just going to pull them out and see what’s here. Almost brutally. Line them up or separate them. Jesus. Be careful enough Vinnybach.

Okay, this is really interesting because RB has obviously caught hold of something here; my sense of what’s bloody magnificent or powerful or attractive, rubbing up against conflicting (used that word already I know but it’s right, again) emotions around the artist. Lucian Freud. Part of me thinks genius, part of me thinks brute. The flesh and the eyes; painted or flippin’ ravaged? Incredibly sexual workings-over of the subjects – the people. Unbelievable – no! Corporeal/supra-believable. Hugely, intimidatingly present bodies… and those eyes.

Brilliantly, this one’s a subtler variation. Girl in bed, 1952. But it’s still all eyes. Beautiful. Welling. Meaning (I’m guessing) this man can’t have been a complete brute; there’s just too much poignancy here. What’s next?

Okay. So we’ve gone back a bit. Vlaminck. And I saw a painting of his in Helsinki, I think… but was it this one? No. But it was… it made me think, it made me re-appreciate Vlaminck, position him way higher. This isn’t it. This is ‘Under the Bridge at Bezons’, 1906 and it’s strong again – from that heavy-daubed fauve scene. Colourful ,obviously. Strongish whiff of Van Gogh maybe. Wouldn’t immediately have chosen that. Maybe that’s the point? Move on.

Now this is fantastic. Inspired work by the RB Geezer. A Rothko, but one of the earlyish ones, before he really got going on the Universal wotnots – the ‘mausoleums’ and all that. (Which I love.) Untitled (Subway) c. 1937. Saw this on ‘Power of Art’ – the Simon Schama thing – which I also loved. Weirdly seductive crazee-mirror people on a platform which is also a trance… deeply fascinating. And so, so hinting at the godlike free-form genius to come; a revelation because of the contrast with Seagram murals and all that. A much littler story but a wonderful one. 

And now immediately a BI-IG Print. Of a Richard Deacon sculpture/installation. Whorls of bentwood. Okay… and this would really be about the object’s presence in the room, in the space. But I’ve got it in the two dimensions. Interesting. ‘What Could Make Me Feel This Way 2’. Airy and modern and kindof unstill in a way I’m still trying to get to grips with. Wouldn’t fit so in cibachrome.  Top choice again – think something about the beauty of diversity and open-mindedness is being suggested here. Fabulous.

How many things do they get on Desert Island Discs? Is it eight? And two luxuries? Well I’ve got more than that here but for my next gift (or choice) I have… something again I recognise but which is reduced (as it were) from installation to print form. Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’. Epic and genuinely significant feminist statement from the seventies – still major now. A table laid in celebration and observance of brilliant (largely forgotten) women, controversially featuring ‘vaginal forms’ as plates. Iconic. Massive. Demanding. Demanding recognition. Stunning. If the original installation is still in the Brooklyn Museum(?) let’s us blokes hire a plane and go pay homage. Seriously. Flog a painting or two and go. Onwards.

Last of my eight for now (I’m saving a shedload for private viewing)is… a Miro. A Miro because I love his range. From surreal poetry to polemicist to farm-boy naif to metropolitan boxer. With that particular Catalonian angle, broiling with heat and deftness and parochialism and utopian heart. ‘Constellations’. Symbols that I can’t yet read. Wow, wadda gift. What a mixture of gifts we have. What are yours like?

Birds of Prey Swoop Down on Our Shadows

Doing a lot of necessary thinking about purpose. What constitutes …and which branch to clasp hold of as the river in spate bristles past. Whether there is any hierarchy in action/engagement/habit/belief. Whether anything’s worth anything. And when material ‘health’ is a clear absurdity, does everything become an opportunity for real expression? Is this expression a fraud, an indulgence, or a necessity ordinary life – measured in terms of buoyancy – denies us? Heavystuff, springing from maybe too much time and too much reading and a rumble towards life-change.

But how crazy-real-philosophic is this? Earlier, Russia v Italy in the Rugby World Cup, now becoming – like some absurdist shipping forecast – a kindof spiky Catalunyan idyll. Courtesy Joan Miro – Selected Writings and Interviews (Margit Rowell). Making empty hours full.

How wonderful to feel lifted by colours of such vastly different origins this day. A heartening reminder that perhaps there are no hierarchies, no high art /low sport ‘realities’ to be hastily despatched to safely demarcated brain-zones for judgement. It’s been perfectly agreeable and possible to drift from sport to art – as indeed this blog habitually does. Why deny or fail to appreciate the diverse beauties of spin passes and inspired art? Can I be the first(?) to argue for equanimity between the two, as gestures from the soul?.

(Answer – I could, but I might be talking bollocks).

Again Miro, that believer in the wondrous and the possibly divinely energising has stuck me on the spiritual ski-lift to Montjuic. Because he was absurdly poor most of his working life; because he knew his purpose was to make a poetic response to experience. And he did it, for decades. Call me an old tart, but I find that inspiring.

Points of departure

The idea that Miro seems to have needed a ‘jolt’, a shock or an accident to begin making his art is perhaps no great surprise. Maybe all of us who do creative work rely on or gratefully latch onto a source. For Miro it may have been an imperfection, a stain on canvas ‘primed’ by cleaning his brushes upon it in order to stimulate such an inspirational event. He does speak at some length about this process and one of many things that resonate/jar/jolt is the affirmation that

A piece of thread, therefore, can unleash a world. I invent a world from a supposedly dead thing. And when I give it a title, it becomes even more alive. Miro, XXsiecle, interview with Yvon Taillandier, 1959.

We can most of us, in our turn, fly with this attractive notion. But before we do, let’s remind ourselves that the bulk of humanity, when informed of this cosmic spontaneity, might belch out a not unreasonable protest. Like what kind of painting is that? Beginning with a fucking splodge or a hole or a stain? That’s a fraud! We’ve all heard that stuff.

So what kind of painting is it?

Miro – who, let’s make clear did not always paint the same way (and therefore dear viewer, should you require of your artist the obvious ability to draw the obvious relatively obviously, please refer to… The Farm say, of 1921-2) – Miro I suspect came to depart from these flecks of dust in a heightened state of both confidence and susceptibility. Requiring of the immediate (physical?) impulse but trusting that this sprang from unspoken understandings.

There seems to be very little talk of fate, but an exquisite, a poetic appreciation of the journey from the automatic to the liberatingly real through the process of painting. Something is being found; something more wonderful than that which could have been found by knowing the destination beforehand. I think this may be Miro’s definition of human experience; this expression of faith in the life of the imagination.

I’m besotted with his contrary genius. Farmboy/cosmonaut; diligent mercurial-instinctive doodler. Sign-maker and allotment-holder. Man of principle/man of business. Surrealist and… farmboy. What seems constant however, is the graft, the integrity of the man. He detested dilettantes and those who abused the true calling – at one stage being highly critical of Picasso for his slavery to the franc and the dollar. He worked at it, for decades; quietly, but like a fighter too, in training. Earning the right to express himself, then calling out to the universal.

Miro did ordinary stuff – family stuff, being skint stuff – but dug for the sublime. He left ciphers and signs for all of us to gather, knowing surely that we would lack the confidence to allow them to work upon us or baulk at the work involved in getting them. Always he moved forward and on, in relative independence, in his exacting, exhilarating way.

I find my titles in the process of working, as one thing leads to another on my canvas. When I have found the title, I live in its atmosphere. The title then becomes completely real for me, in the same way that a model, a reclining woman for example, can become real for another painter. For me, the title is a very precise reality.                 Miro, interview as above.

These are not the words or the ways of a fraudster.  Please, go after him; follow.

Finding Miro

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.