JBD

 

Jul 2011 Journal

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Art notes (review)

How genuine is the surrealist soul of Joan Miró? Many Freudian images float through his work, but somehow you feel he was more comfortable with the lovingly painted images of his family farm in Barcelona such as The Tilled Field, when he first put brush to paper. Tate Modern’s latest show, Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape (until 11 September), features over 150 works, but the wall descriptions imply that the turbulent events which threw Spain into civil war in the early-to-mid-20th century, and spawned great works like Picasso’s Guernica, worked equally with Miró’s sensibility. Not so. He offers few political references.

His early representational work was influenced by Impressionists like Van Gogh, and introduce recurring animal symbols such as the donkey. But his pared-down Barcelona landscapes grew increasingly experimental as he dotted huge swathes of colourful background with small images which recall the donkey’s earlier innocence: a cock, a unicorn, a rabbit and, later still, monsters, and the growing imprint of sexual symbolism. These carefully rendered landscapes represent the artist’s visual cri de Coeur - powerful, early graphic forms which hint at German Expressionism - but I couldn’t read any patriotic fervour, pain or anxiety into them.

Miró is known for his languid pen lines dissecting or encircling the tempora colours, like graffiti. His paintings may be sparse blobs of colour against a flat black or blue background. You start to learn the map of his mind: little round discs for eyes, red stripe for the Catalan flag. By the late 1920s, two elements enter the equation: his blue meditative background colour and his wit and humour, such as a dog barking at the moon, or the ladder and the moon, with their shades of William Blake.

Miró’s work looks innocent enough to decorate a child’s bedroom but, on another level, his battle-ground is not the civil war in Spain, but the state of his own mind. These are the bare bones on which his canvasses change and develop, some influenced by Salvador Dali.

In 1934 the Spanish government turned to the right, sparking protests. The fall of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship launched the republic, but again it is Freud and the unconscious to which Miró turned during the1936 mutiny against the Spanish Republic. In late 1936 he chose exile to France, but commercial interests eventually led him towards closer harmony in his composition. However, by now the pulse and the energy of the early works have gone. By the 1960s the student protests all over Europe lent his work a final urgency. His Majesty the King are three totemic tribal sculptures which stand out as a gaunt and disturbed view of the shallow refinement of the modern world.

Bonhams in London have held their inaugural sale of Israeli art and Judaica presented by the Ben Uri. Works by ten significant artists raised half a million pounds. The annual Summer Exhibition has been launched at the Royal Academy and runs until mid-August. More next month.

Gloria Tessler

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