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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
"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,
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.
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
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,
Miro's relief constructions and objects were
created between 1930-1932, and few have survived.
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.
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.
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
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."
Color returns with a vengeance in Miro's extraordinary
pastels of 1934, perhaps the most surprising revelation of this
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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.
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.