Sunday, June 10, 2012

Escaping to Joan Miró's world at National Gallery of Art: Art review -

Escaping to Joan Miró's world at National Gallery of Art: Art review -

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Starting in the summer of 1921, Joan Miró began to paint a large picture of his family's farm in the coastal village of Mont-roig, south of Barcelona, Spain.

It's a large picture, almost 5 feet wide and not quite square. Divided into equal zones of dusty brown earth and deep blue sky and centered on a spindly tree, its lean branches coming into leaf, it's an inventory of farmyard animals, plants, implements and buildings, including a big rustic barn and a small chicken coop.

He was 28 when he began to map the painting, all rendered in a delicate filigree infused with an even Mediterranean light, and he labored on it for six months.

The result is one of the great images of fecundity in Modern art. Now a prize in the collection of the National Gallery of Art here, "The Farm" is installed there on the entry wall of the lovely exhibition "Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape." The show has traveled to the museum from London's Tate Modern for its only U.S. presentation. (It continues through Aug. 12.)

The prominence of the picture is no surprise, since it represents the start of Miró's maturity as an artist. What's unusual is the role it plays in the quietly but determinedly polemical exhibition that follows.

We know Miró the Surrealist, painter of fantastic cosmologies. Ten nocturnal "Constellations" (1940-41) from his series of 23 small paintings on paper — arguably the greatest paintings on paper of the entire century — are grouped on one flabbergasting wall. (Miró knew they were great, telling his friend and dealer Pierre Matisse that they were "one of the most important things I have done." The show's title, "Ladder of Escape," comes from the ninth in the series.) Like astral maps, they congregate stars, moons, eyes, insects, female figures, birds, musical notations and more in drifting night skies of poetic delicacy.

We also know Miró the Modernist, inventor of a radical pictorial space that would become art's vernacular, especially for New York School painters after World War II. Space in a Miró abstraction is aqueous and atmospheric, an almost stained expanse of thinned color in which up could be down, right is indistinguishable from left and far is near. The nubby surface of the canvas or textured sheet of paper is its own tilled field for the spontaneous cultivation of shapes and forms.

What we don't know — or at least what has remained mostly in the background until "Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape" — is Miró the artist of unshakable political commitments. Landscape painting rose to prominence in the 19th century, carried along with the thriving emergence of nation-states in Europe and the Americas and providing robust images for a new consciousness of national identities. "The Farm" went one step further, rooting character in the humble daily workings of Miró's native Catalan soil.

A text at the show's entrance declares the artist's situation, reminding us that he was born at the cusp of a new and violent century and died almost at its end (1893 to 1983). In his life, he saw "two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the rise and fall of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975." He saw much else, of course, not all of it nearly so grim. But, "through it all he remained deeply tied to Catalonia, the proudly independent region of Northeast Spain where he was born."

That deep-seated independence is the ruling impulse in Miró's art. People often get nervous when art and politics are mentioned in the same breath, but Miró seems to have understood that politics is merely the means by which we organize our social lives together. Art has a role in that — in ways obvious and not.

The show includes some striking moments of pointed political intervention. The most blunt is a poster image — "Aidez L'Espagne (Help Spain)" — made in 1937 amid a tangled, bloody and divisive civil war. A silhouetted figure drawn with a map-like contour is dwarfed by an upraised arm topped by an enormous clenched fist.

Miró was not a propaganda artist. He never painted a work like "Guernica," Picasso's Cubo-expressionist blast of horror at the notorious 1937 Nazi bombing of a Basque town. That was made on commission that year for the high-profile International Exposition at the Paris World's Fair, where it would get maximum publicity — its black-and-white motifs suggesting newspaper clippings. (Miró contributed a two-story mural, destroyed at the exposition's conclusion, showing a Catalan farmer raising a sickle to fight fascism.)

But the beastly figures prominent in the lithographs of Miró's "Barcelona Series," which he began during World War II, are stark, black-and-white monsters that despite their menacing ferocity also seem poised to consume themselves.

There is documentation of a huge, temporary mural painted on the windows of a Barcelona college. "Miró Otro" — the other Miró, ostensibly different from the painter of phantasmagorical whimsy — was a long, horizontal, graffiti-like scrawl. A 21-sheet sketch for the 1969 mural, which Miró scraped off the glass two months after completion in a dramatic gesture of refusal to be enshrined as an artistic icon, shows a linear black swirl sweeping across its length like an unfurling storm cloud. Mural photographs show a vivid counterpoint to the modern building's rationalist style, like furrowed chaos disrupting orderly thought.

And there are the so-called burnt paintings, works from 1973 in which Miró brutalized his canvases. Finished abstractions were cut with a knife and punctured, doused with gasoline and ignited, painted on again and then scorched with a blowtorch, stomped on and cut with scissors.

In a new age of Conceptual art, some praised these tattered canvases as heralding the death of painting. However, dating from the year an ailing Franco began to turn over the reigns of power to a royal heir who would later restore democracy, they actually embody art's ritual rebirth from the ashes. The unstoppable cycle of creative nativity might be obvious to anyone down on a Catalan farm

The installation of "The Farm" at the National Gallery is inspired because, standing before it, a viewer can also see "Landscape With Rooster" (1927), which hangs on a side wall in the next room. A stunning Surrealist work in the fully mature style for which Miró is best known, its composition comes straight out of the earlier painting.

The canvas is divided in two, a limpid expanse of blue sky above a wide brown field. A chunky cloud drifts by, while rocks strewn across the landscape are shadowed in such a way as to simultaneously suggest holes punched in the artist's canvas. It's at once a picture and an object, an illusionistic image and a physical entity.

At the right an effusive rooster greets the dawn. At the left stands a wheel, ancient emblem of civilization.

Between these signs of nature and culture, a ladder links ground and sky, its lower rungs spread wide to invite our climb. Earth, heaven, rooster, ladder, wheel — the configuration has been lifted right out of "The Farm." It's as if an unseen wind has blown through the earlier work, clearing out the embellished clutter and leaving behind only the essential elements of an epic story.

A ladder, of course, goes in both directions — a humble implement for a journey to another world. One begins at the bottom on a struggle toward imaginative bliss or conversely, at the top, clambering toward engagement in mundane existence.

Art matters because it exists in both those realms. Miró's ladder is an imaginative escape from careworn tragedy in a century of unspeakable brutalities. Just as important, as this exhibition avers, it also offers passage into worldly reality, where the vivifying entanglements of social organization reside.

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