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Huge Exhibit Paints Artist Joan Miro in New Light

June 23, 2012

A massive exhibition of the works of Joan Miró is shattering many preconceived notions about the life, times, paintings and politics of this iconic Spanish artist.  Titled “Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape,” this hugely popular exhibit is currently on view in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., its only venue in the United States.

More than a retrospective, the exhibit also emphasizes a little known side of Miró as an artist of his times whose works reflected his unshakeable political commitments. Miró’s political persuasions have been largely overshadowed by his diverse and varying reputation as a modernist, a daring surrealist, a poet of few words, a pragmatist, a lyrical abstractionist and, to at least some in the U.S., as Jackson Pollack’s guru.

Miró was born in Barcelona, capital of his beloved Catalonia, in 1893 and lived until 1983. (His name, Joan, is a variant of  “John” in English and sounds like “Sho-an” in Spanish.) During his 90 years, Miró witnessed two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the rise and fall of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. The some 120 paintings in “The Ladder of Escape” span his 65-year career and reflect his responses to these turbulent times.

On a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I toured the Miró exhibit three times, on three different days, always following well-trained NGA guides through the five galleries needed to properly display this landmark show. Virtually every Miró painting has its own special history, legend or folk tale. But none has a more intriguing past than Miró’s “The Farm” or “La Masia” in Catalan.  One of Miró’s most celebrated paintings, “The Farm” was owned for years–and somewhat squirreled away–by Ernest Hemmingway and at least two of his wives.

The painting depicts Miró’s own family farm in the Catalan village of Montroig (red mountain in Catalan). He started painting this nostalgic piece in1921 while living in Paris and continued to refine it for years. The painting, as described in the NGA catalog, “contains elements of cubism, abstraction and primitivism.” Miró called it his “painting poem.” But back then art dealers in Spain and France refused to exhibit such a “controversial” work.

Enter Hemmingway. In 1925, Hemmingway, then the struggling young writer, saw this painting by a fellow struggling artist, and fell in love with it. Although almost penniless, he managed to buy “The Farm” for a paltry 3,500 francs (about $175) and take it home with him, via taxi.

Hemmingway kept Miró’s beloved painting for years in the Paris apartment he shared with his first wife, Hadley. After they divorced, Hadley remarried and took “The Farm” to America with her. In 1936, Hemmingway, then living in Key West, “borrowed” the painting from Hadley and never gave it back. Instead he took it with him to Havana. In 1959, concerned about violence in Cuba, he loaned the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

After Hemmingway’s suicide two years later, Mary—his fourth wife–took possession of “The Farm” from MoMA and bequeathed the painting to the National Gallery of Art in her will. The NGA finally got the picture (pardon the pun) in 1987. It is featured today on the entry wall of the NGA exhibition.

The first two rooms of this exciting show trace Miró’s career during the 1920s when so many of his works were rooted in Catalonia. Included are scenes of his parents’ farmhouse, the village church and the tilled fields of the Catalan countryside. Look around and you see Miro changing from a young sentimentalist into a budding surrealist.

His five paintings here on the theme of the peasant reduce the principal figure to abstract symbols—showing only the traditional red cap of the Catalan peasant, a wispy beard and a pair of eyes. Also here are pictures capturing Miró’s “ladder of escape” motif in which he connects earth and heaven with an element of playfulness.

The rich “Dog Barking at the Moon,” painted in 1926, is among the most striking of these. On the left hand side of this whimsical sketch a tall ladder stretches into a pitch-black sky but seems to go nowhere. On the right a dog is barking at the moon which looks down as though saying, “I don’t give a damn.”

As the exhibit unfolds, Miró’s paintings become more surreal, provocative and angry. The third gallery is devoted to the terrible years of the Spanish Civil War and its repressive after math (1936-1939). Miró, his new wife and young daughter spent most of these years in exile in Paris, until approaching Nazi troops force them back to Spain in 1940.

Miró’s paintings in this period depict the horrors of war and violence through distorted images of twisted bodies crying out in anguish, fleeing from fire and raising their arms in defiant protest. In one famous work, “Aidez l’Espagne (Help Spain), he overtly states his support for the Republican government in Spain by depicting a Catalan peasant raising a clenched fist in a Loyalist salute. Miró created the scene in bright yellow and red, in support of the Spanish and Catalan flags.

The last two galleries cover Miró’s career from the 1940s to the final years of Franco’s dictatorship (which ended in 1975).  Displayed prominently here are some 40 small works on paper, known as the Constellations, which Miró created in the 1940s. In these, he uses political caricatures to condemn tyranny and dictatorship. The Constellations were exhibited in New York in 1945, securing Miró’s fame in the U.S.  Some argue that they also provided a powerful counterpart to Picasso’s “Guernica.”

Just beyond these are some of Miró’s most explosive and monumental works. They include his famous “Fireworks” triptych which he created by throwing a bucket of paint on to the canvases. In another nearby work, commemorating the student protests of 1968, Miró has used splashed paint and hand prints and graffiti-like improvisation.

The show stopper is called “Burnt Canvasses.” Miró created this dramatic piece by splashing paint onto a canvas, torching it, then walking across the surface in an attempt to harness “the inventive force of fire.”

All of these exotic works stand in sharp contrast to Miró’s quiet, bourgeois life style. He was never into drugs or booze. He was not a womanizer like many of his contemporaries, especially Pablo Picasso, his slightly older friend. He preferred the Catalan countryside to the plush life of Paris and stayed married to his one wife for 54 years.

Miro’s father was a successful jeweler who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But Miro was determined from an early age to devote his life to art. He never deviated although, like many artists, he often struggled to make ends meet. In his late years Miró was finally recognized as one of the leading artists of his time. In 1980, he received Spain’s highest cultural honor, the Gold Medal for Fine Arts.

Miro’s style has always been difficult to categorize. Critics have described his works as everything from poetic to “a toy box for the unconscious mind.” Rather than pin down his style, the new Miro exhibit has simply added a new phrase to the terms used to capture the “true” Miro—“painter and patroit.”

Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art, added the coda. Beyond Miró’s “innocent style,” said Powell, “lies a profound concern for humanity and a sense of personal identity.”

The Miró show was displayed at the Tate Modern museum in London from April to September, 2011. It played at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona from October to March 2012 before moving to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in May. It closes here August 12, 2012, but it will leave the many thousands who saw it or read about it with a deeper understanding of Miró’s life and work.

Gwen Gibson

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