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Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937

The Museum of Modern Art New York

November 2, 2008 to January 12, 2009

"Un Oiseau poursuit une abeille et la baisse" by Miro

"Un Oiseau poursuit une abeille et la baisse," by Joan Miró, Paris, oil, aqueous medium on glue-sized canvas, 57 1/2 by 40 1/4 inches, private collection, 1927

By Michele Leight

A decade in the life of Joan Miró (1893-1983) is the focus of a show entitled "Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting" at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the museum that organized the first full retrospective of Miró's work globally, with further exhibits in 1959 and 1973, and a landmark retrospective on the centennial of Miró's birth in 1993. This show focuses on a single transformative decade from 1927-1937, perhaps the least known but important decade in Miró's lengthy career, offering a unique perspective of his artistic evolution through twelve series of paintings that including 90 canvases, collages, objects and drawings.

"48" by Miró

"48," by Joan Miró, Paris, January-mid-February 1927, oil and aqueous medium on glue-sized canvas, 57 1/2 by 45 inches, private collection, with Anne Umland, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, right

The first two galleries of paintings are so spare it takes time to adjust to them, because it is almost inconceivable that the canvases were created by Miró. Unprimed, with minimal application of paint, a collage of feathers, a cork and a hatpin suspended in a desert of white canvas is not imagery we associate with this master of form, color and line. Stunningly unpainterly, they provocatively jab at traditional art making as Miró sought to find his own niche - and chart a new course - by attacking painting itself.

In 1927 Miró notoriously claimed " I want to assassinate painting."

The now famous imagery of humble objects he famously transformed into abstract and poetic compositions are seen here at their most raw and distorted, with very little of the mystical embellishments and modulated colors of his sophisticated later works.

"Painting (The Bullfighter" by Miró

"Painting (The Bullfighter),' by Joan Miró, Paris, January-mid-February 1927, oil on canvas, 50 3/4 by 38 3/16 inches, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne-Centre de creation inudstrielle, Paris. Remittance in lieu of inheritance taxes to the government of France.

Anne Umland, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, who organized this show said the paintings currently on view were created by Miró during a period of economic and political turmoil, illustrating the way his drive to assassinate painting led him to reinvigorate, reinvent and radicalize his own art.

"The resulting body of work is at times willfully ugly, and at other times savagely beautiful. It brings together beloved masterpieces and largely unfamiliar works, transforming our understanding of Miró's legacy for our own twenty-first century times," she said.

"La Signe de La Mort," by Miró

"Le Signe de la Mort," by Joan Miró, Paris, January-mid-February 1927, oil and aqueous medium on glue-sized canvas, 28 3/4 by 36 1/4 inches, private collection, courtesy MaxmArt, Mendrisio, Switzerland

This show reveals Miró at a pivotal point in his career, experiencing doubts about the act of painting itself when Europe was in a state of upheaval and unrest. The first series he created in Paris between January and February 1927, "Paintings on Unprimed Canvas," are so contemporary they seem familiar, like art we might see by young artists in galleries today. Then comes the double-take as we realize Miró created them in 1927. The large expanse of unprimed canvas in "Un Oiseau poursuit un abeille et las baisse," illustrated at the top of the story, is striking for what is not present; bare canvas dominates this, and all seven paintings in this series, that are woefully devoid of color. It is as if by depriving himself of this essential prop of traditional art making - pigment, the most seductive component - Miró was paving the way for the lush, vibrant, painterly works that were to follow and which eventually became his distinctive style.

Negating painting is not a new concept today, but it certainly was cutting edge at the time Miró attempted it. Scrolling down this review will reveal his cacophonic clash of styles, his adamant refusal to commit himself to a unified style until he had exhausted all possibilities. The emergence of the Miró we now recognize becomes all the more spectacular in the final images, which bear many elements and references to this turbulent decade in his creative journey.

"Portrait of a Dancer" by Miró

"Portrait of a Dancer," by Joan Miró, Paris, mid-February-Spring 1928, feather, cork and hatpin on wood panel with Ripolin (original feather has been replaced), 39 3/8 by 31 1/2 inches, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne-Centre de creation industrielle, Paris, Gift of Mme. Aube Breton-Elleouet

"The Spanish Dancer's" series from 1928 in the second gallery features three collage objects that reference the performing female body. Simple everyday objects and materials like cork, nails, sandpaper and a drafting triangle infer carnal and erotic signs, among others. "Portrait of a Dancer," illustrated here, is a composition of a feather, cork and hatpin suspended in a blank field of white.

"Spanish Dancer I" by Miró

"Spanish Dancer I," by Joan Miró, Paris, mid-February-spring 1928, sandpaper, printed paper, nails conte-crayon, and graphite on flocked paper, mounted on paperboard, 41 3/8 by 28 15/16 inches, Museo Nacional Centro de Arts Reina Sofia, Madrid

"Dutch Interiors and Imaginary Portraits, 1928-1929," the third series, feature six paintings by Miró that subvert Old Master Paintings through over-simplification, distortion and by utilizing sharply contoured fields of flat, unnaturalistic colors.

"Dutch Interior (III)" by Miró

"Dutch Interior (1), by Joan Miró, Montroig, July-December 1928, oil on canvas, 36 1/8 by 28 3/4 inches, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, left; "Dutch Interior (111), by Joan Miró, Montroig, July-December 1928, oil on canvas, 51 1/8 by 38 1/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Florence M. Schoenborn

Unlike the Old Masters of the past, Miró has no desire to dupe viewers into believing that the image they are looking at is real - he does, however, reference the traditions of the past.

"Potato" by Miró

"Potato," by Joan Miró, Montroig, July-December 1928, oil on canvas, 39 3/4 by 32 1/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection

"Collage" by Miró "Collage" by Miró

"Collage," by Joan Miró, Montroig, late July-early October, 1929, conte crayon, tar paper, and various papers on flocked paper, 29 1/2 by 42 1/2 inches, private collection, left; "Collage," by Joan Miró, Montroig, late July-early October 1929, conte crayon, graphite, paint, and sandpaper on paper, 41 3/8 by 28 5/8 inches, private collection, Vancouver, B.C., right

Austerity prevails in the nine collages Miró made in 1929 in Montroig, where even the minimal color used for his "Spanish Dancers" is abandoned. Cutting unsightly holes in these canvases, Miro pasted various types of papers underneath them, and his drawn lines are punctuated by opaque, abstract collage elements. This was almost as far from painterliness as it was possible to go, but by 1930 Miro went a step further to create large paintings on white ground that are displayed in gallery five of the show - aptly named "non-paintings" - preparing the way for him to explore other means of expression, like sculpture and bas-relief.

"Painting" left, and "Painting (The Magic of Color)" right, both by Miró

"Painting," by Joan Miro, Paris, January-April 1930, oil, plaster, charcoal, and fixative on canvas, 7 ft 6 15/16 inches by 59 1/4 inches, Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, left; "Painting (The Magic of Color), Paris, January-April 1930, oil on canvas, 59 1/8 inches by 7 ft 4 5/8 inches, The Menil Collection, Houston, right

In the large paintings on white ground of 1930, all color has been bleached out, and with it, all attempt at beauty. The wall text at the MoMA show explains:

"Miró predicted that the five paintings on view in this gallery, created in Paris between January and May 1930, would probably be his 'goodbye to painting, at least for some time, in order to attack new means of expression, bas-relief, sculpture, etc.'"

A gallery with constructions by Miro, including "Construction," Montroig, August-November 1930, oil on wood and metal on wood panel, 35 13/16 27 by 15/16 by 14 9/16 inches, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, left; "Relief Construction," Montroig, August-November 1930, oil on wood, nails, staples, and metal on wood panel, 35 7/8 by 27 5/8 by 6 3/8 inches, purchase, right

Miro's relief constructions and objects were created between 1930-1932, and few have survived.

"Object" by Miró

"Object," by Joan Miró, Montroig, mid-July-November 1931, oil on wood, cake tin, machine parts, masonite, sand, paint and metal, 5 5/16 by 8 1/16 by 1 15/16 inches, Kuntshaus Zurich

In 1931 the American Stock Market crashed, and impacted on Europe. Miro's financial circumstances were dire, described in his letters home as a "terrible crisis." These objects mix found materials, painted figures and passages of glued sand. The real world and the imagination are juxtaposed in the humblest of materials. Wood panels recur "both as defiant references to the tradition of painting on wood panels and surfaces onto which objects are nailed or stapled," according to a wall text at the museum. Miro and the Surrealists called them objects, not sculpture, to separate them from aesthetic norms.

"Painting" by Miró "Painting" by Miró

"Painting," by Joan Miro, Barcelona, March 8, 1933, oil and aqueous medium on canvas, 51 3/8 by 64 1/4 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art A.E. Gallatin Collection, left; "Painting," by Joan Miro, Barcelona, March 31, 1933, oil on canvas, 51 3/8 by 64 3/16 inches, Kuntsmuseum Bern, right

Forced by economic circumstances to work in a studio in his mother's apartment in Barcelona from 1933 to 1934, Miro experimented with paintings based on collages (1933) and "drawing-collages" (1933-34), that became a series of eighteen canvases, six of which are on view at MoMA. Finally, there are signs of the Miro we recognize.

"Painting" by Miró

"Painting," by Joan Miro, Barcelona, June 10, 1933, oil on canvas, 51 3/8 by 64 1/8 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund

"Drawing-Collage" by Miró

"Drawing-Collage," by Joan Miro, circa 1934, graphite, cardboard, paperboard, photograph, sandpaper, various papers, nails, metal hook, and twine on board, 22 5/16 by 29 7/16 inches, private collection, courtesty Galerie Jan Krugier & Cie, Geneva

The wall text at MoMA explains:

"Performing an odd inversion of working from life, through these pairs of collages and paintings Miro made visible his radical transformation of small, illusionistically rendered collage elements into abstract, biomorphic forms, which appear to float in suspension against softly atmospheric backgrounds."

"The Man with a Pipe" by Miró "Woman (Opera Singer)" by Miró

"The Man with a Pipe," by Joan Miro, Montroig, October 1934, pastel on flocked paper, 42 1/8 by 28 3/8 inches, private collection, Switzerland, left; "Woman, (Opera Singer), by Joan Miro, pastel and pencil on flocked paper, 42 by 28 inches, Gift of William H. Weintraub, right

Color returns with a vengeance in Miro's extraordinary pastels of 1934, perhaps the most surprising revelation of this show.

"Figure" by Miró

"Figure," by Joan Miró, Montroig, October 1934, pastel on flocked paper, 42 1/8 by 28 3/8 inches, private collection

The pastels are all dated 1934 on the reverse, and their aggressive, emotionally charged tone coincide with Miro' state of mind at a deeply disturbing time as general labor strikes erupted across Spain in October. A state of war was declared and the army was ordered to violently suppress the rebellion, undoubtedly a traumatic experience for Miro, who described his pastels as "savage," reflecting the threatening atmosphere that surrounded him.

"The Farmer's Meal" by Miró "Rope and People, I" by Miró

"The Farmer's Meal," by Joan Miró, Barcelona, March 3, 1935, oil on cardboard, 28 3/4 by 41 inches, private collection, left; "Rope and People, 1," by Joan Miró, Barcelona, March 27, 1935, oil on cardboard mounted on wood, with coil of rope, 41 1/4 by 29 3/8 inches, gift of the Pierre Matisse Gallery, right

The sixteen paintings on cardboard Miró created between January and May of 1935 on identical sheets of cardboard were described by the artist as an "auto-revision" of his career, or a self-imposed retrospective of how he had progressed as an artist.

"Object (Object of Desire)" by Miró

"Object, (Object of Sunset), by Joan Miró, Barcelona, March 20, 1936, oil on wood, bedspring, gas burner, chain, shackle and string, 26 3/4 by 17 5/16 by 10 1/4 inches, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art modern-Centre de creation industrielle, Paris, purchase

Although "Object (Object of Sunset)" is tagged along with this group of artworks because it was created between 1935-1936, it differs because of the strange tree stump covered in red glossy paint.

"Personnages, Mountains, Sky, Star and Bird" by Miró "Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement" by Miró

"Personages, Mountains, Sky, Star and Bird," by Joan Miró, Barcelona, April 6-16, 1936, tempera on masonite, 11 3/4 by 15 3/4 inches, private collection, New York, left; "Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement," by Joan Miro, Montroig, October 15-22, 1935, oil on copper, 9 1/16 by 12 5/8 inches, Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona, gift of Pilar Juncosa de Miro, right

The stunning small paintings on masonite and copper, illustrated below, were painted between 1935-1936 on an innovative surface (masonite was invented in 1924), but utilizing the timelessness of medium tempera that was invented by the great Renaissance masters to create their breathtaking frescoes centuries earlier.

"Nocturne" by Miró "Two Personnages in Love with a Woman" by Miró

Nocturne," by Joan Miró, Barcelona, November 9-16, 1935, oil on copper, 16 1/2 by 11 1/2 inches, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, left; "Two Personages in Love with a Woman," by Joan Miró, Barcelona, April 29-May 9, 1936, oil on copper, 10 1/4 by 13 3/4 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mary and Leigh Block, right

"In letters to his dealer Pierre Matisse concerning this series, Miró emphasized the meticulous nature of his technique, the slow work that was required to execute the panels, and the solidity of the supports on which he was working, which offered, in his words, 'maximum resistance.' The meticulous care with which he dated each panel suggests a struggle to maintain control within a deteriorating work order as fascist forces gained powers throughout Europe," (from the wall text at the MoMA show).

"Painting" by Miró "Painting" by Miró

"Painting," by Joan Miró, Montroig and Barcelona, July-October 1936, oil casein, tar, and sand on masonite, 30 1/4 by 41 13/16 inches, private collection, Switzerland, left; "Painting," by Joan Miró, Montroig and Barcelona, July-October 1936, oil, casein, tar and sand on masonite, 30 3/4 by 42 1/8 inches, private collection, right

Miró's distinctive style finally begins to emerge in his series of paintings of uniform size on masonite of 1936, that were begun days before the outbreak of The Spanish War on July 17 and 18, and inevitably reflect the turmoil of the country, although Miró said there was no connection. They are raw, unyielding, and gouged on the surface in some places.

"Painting" by Miró

"Painting," by Joan Miró, Montroig and Barcelona, July-October 1936, oil, gravel, and pebbles on Masonite, 30 9/16 by 42 3/16 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Florene Schoenborn and Samuel A. Marx

Miró left Spain for Paris before October 28, and did not return for four years. His wife and daughter joined him there. On January 12, 1937, Miro turned away from pure abstraction and announced his intention do something entirely different, and to return to working from life.

"Still Life with Shoe" by Miró

"Still Life with Old Shoe," by Joan Miró, Paris, January 24-May 29, 1937, oil on canvas, 32 by 46 inches, Gift of James Thrall Soby

The result of this tubulent decade of experimentation culminated in "Still Life with Old Shoe," of 1937, the concluding painting in the show.

Without the framework for Miró's art of this period that outlines his progression away from painting like the story boards of a film, this show would probably bewilder and confuse. Rather than condescend to the viewer that may not understand what is going on, the curator has thoughtfully and without condescension mapped out what amounts to Miró's evolution at the most radical time in his creative life. Surprisingly, the result is clarity, even for those viewers expecting to find Miró's much loved and familiar later works that are as full of mystery, beauty and color as the majority of the artworks at this show are not.

Miró's experimentation during this decade veers between abstraction and figuration, the radical and the traditional, formal virtuosity, and aesthetic "murder." The brutally ugly paintings reflect the unease and sense of doom that overtook Europe as the fun-filled Roaring Twenties came to an end, the Stock Market crashed and political tensions mounted, inevitably leading to World War II in 1939.

"Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937," is a surprising expose of unfamiliar works by an artist that is extremely well known - and beloved - for painting in a particular style. It is like discovering a hidden chamber of Miró's unknown treasures.

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