Monday, October 03, 2011

Art Review : Joan Miro : The Ladder of Escape (Tate Modern 9/9/11)

The turbulent history of Spain in the Twentieth Century can be quickly summarised - the instability of the early years erupted into violent civil war in 1936, which led to the dead hand of Franco holding the country in thrall for the next forty years, until his death in 1975 and the rebirth of Spanish democracy. Any artist who has chosen to live in Spain through these years must be viewed in the context of such upheaval. What is brilliant about this exhibition is the way it uses the political context of Spain and specifically his native Catalonia to contextualise the work of Joan Miró.

Tête de Paysan Catalan
by Joan Miro
Tate and Scottish National
Gallery of Modern Art
It starts in Mont-Roig - the home of Miró's family near Barcelona, which he depicts lovingly in paintings which already set out essential aspects of Miró's vocabulary, such as the ladder between earth and the stars which recurs throughout his work and gives this exhibition its subtitle. Miro's work is rooted in his Catalan soil, and when in 1923 General Primo de Rivera comes to power in a coup and bans the Catalan language and flag, Miro subtly responds with a series of paintings based on the heads of Catalan peasants, all of which feature a highly stylised barretina, the traditional headware of the Catalan peasant but also associated with the Revolta dels Barretines, where 17th century Catalan peasants rose up against oppression from Madrid.

As the tanks rumble into Barcelona, Miro escapes with his family to Paris, where he works on the Spanish Republican pavilion. Yet he doesn't produce an overtly political masterpiece like Picasso's Guernica. Miro's work is difficult to interpret, reaching for a vocabulary which has been developed over several years.Yet his title "Le Faucheur" - The Reaper - is an explicit reference to Els Segadors, the Catalan national anthem (incidently, as a protest against the banning of the Catalan language, Miro always gave his paintings French names).

For many years under Franco, Miro painted little, concentrating on pottery. He lived on Mallorca, enjoying international fame but little recognition at home since he refused to participate in state-sponsored shows. When a major retrospective was put on in Barcelona, Miro countered with a project entitled Miro Otro in which traditional dynamic of a multi-work exhibition was challenged by a vast, temporary collaborative mural constructed with young radical artists.

Even as an old man, focussing on a starling series of meditative triptychs which have been heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, he responds to political repression in Catalonia, and in particular the sentence to death of Salvador Puig Antich, by painting The Hope of a Condemned Man. 

What this exhibition does so well is to demonstrate in broad terms the way in which Miro's work has developed, but then to use the political context as a means to highlight aspects of his art. The political is never overplayed, the art is paramount, and this is exemplified by the way in which The Hope of a Condemned Man is displayed alongside explicitly non-political works. The net effect is to make a significant and highly intelligent enhancement of one's understanding of such an important aspect of Miro the person, the artist and of his works.

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