Skip to content

Joan Miró: A life in paintings

March 21, 2011

Miró’s work is loved for its joyful celebration of life and colour. But it also contains ideas of freedom which, in Franco’s Spain, were very dear to the Catalan painter. We look again at the man, and trace his personal journey through six great painting

By  Tim Adams


Miro'sstudio

Joan Miro in his studio at home in Palma de Mallorca, c 1977. Photograph: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis

On the death of General Franco in 1975, Joan Miró was asked what he had done to promote opposition to the dictator, who had ruled Spain for nearly 40 years. The artist answered simply: “Free and violent things.”

The first major Miró exhibition in this country for nearly 50 years, which opens at Tate Modern next month, will cast light on that answer. Miró is not always thought of as a political painter, in the broad or the narrow sense. He was not a creator of manifestos, or a signer of petitions; he was not given to provocative gesture like his contemporary Salvador Dali, nor did he pursue his passions at all costs, like his sometime mentor Picasso. For most of the second half of his long life (he died in 1983 at the age of 90), Miró painted in his studio in Palma, Mallorca, charting a unique course among the movements in postwar painting, and always looking very much his own man.

Politics was for Miró, however, unavoidable, an accident of birth. He was the son of a blacksmith and jeweller who lived on the harbourside in Barcelona. He came of age with the Catalan independence movement, and shared its deep-rooted sense of the possibilities of liberty. To begin with, he identified this freedom with internationalism; he longed to be in Paris. But once he had escaped, he held on to his identity as a Catalan, as a freedom fighter, all the more devoutly and from it developed an intimate visual language, which sustained him all of his working life.

The Tate show will concentrate on three periods of Miro’s constantly reimagined career: his formative years in Catalonia; his exile in Paris in the years of the Spanish civil war and the outbreak of the second world war; and his enthusiasm for the radicalism of the 60s, when he was approaching the late period of his work. Marko Daniel, the co-curator of the exhibition, which will bring together more than 150 works in collaboration with the Miró Foundation in Barcelona, hopes that it will be “a perspective not just on Miró but on the turbulence of the 20th century, the way an artist’s life might be shaped by proximity to these great political upheavals”.

The title of the show, Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, comes from a painting, one of a series, that Miró began in 1939 as the Nazi forces were advancing into France. He was living in Normandy at that time and had begun the works as a kind of personal defence against what he knew to be the horrors to come. The series of paintings dwelt on his profound internal sense of connections between things, an entirely singular private universe that he called the Constellations. When he eventually fled with his wife and daughter on the last train out of Paris for Spain, the paintings were rolled under his arm.

As the exhibition will make clear, Miró’s instinct for political engagement, though heartfelt and full of risk, often lay in these gestures of withdrawal, of self-defence. André Breton, the surrealist, once referred to Miró, for good and bad, as a case of “arrested development”, a childlike artist. The label stuck for a long time but this exhibition should go a long way to revealing how hard-won Miro’s apparent playfulness was. The ladder in that borrowed exhibition title had long been for him an emergency exit to the safe house of his imagination. In a 1936 interview, with the Spanish civil war a looming reality, he spoke of the need to “resist all societies… if the aim is to impose their demands on us”. The word “freedom has meaning for me,” he said, “and I will defend it at any cost.”

Though he was capable of making propaganda images for the Catalan and republican causes, this sense of absolute individual liberty was as much about a sense of wonder at the world; you could find it, he believed, “wherever you see the sun, a blade of grass, the spirals of the dragonfly. Courage consists sometimes of staying close to nature, which could not care less about our disasters”. In this spirit Miró created for himself the alter ego of a Catalan peasant, indefatigable and ribald, wild bearded under a barretina, the red cap of the rural radical. The surface of his life, despite the great fractures of the times in which he lived, was relatively orderly and measured, but you do not have to look for long at his work, including the pictures on these pages, to see that he reserved all of his formidable energies for his painting.

NORD-SUD, 1917

miro-nord sudNord-Sud, 1917, by Joan Miró. Photograph: Collection Maeght, Paris

Aged 24, Miró longs to leave Barcelona for Paris

Miró made this painting in 1917, when he was living in his native Barcelona and dreaming of moving to Paris. He was in the final year of his national service as a soldier; Spain was not involved in the first world war, and he was frustrated that the fighting in France had put his ambitions to enlist in the Parisian avant garde on hold. After a period of depression, he had given up on the career in business that his father had planned for him, and had spent the previous four years, when not in uniform, painting full-time; he had that premature, 24-year-old’s sense that life was already passing him by.

Read more at:  Joan Miró: A life in paintings

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: