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Joan Miró, The Escape Ladder, 1940. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Joan Miró: 
The Ladder of Escape 

at Tate Modern 

by Anna Leung


It is curious that André Breton who cited Miró as "the most Surrealist of us all" should also berate him for lacking any real social awareness, attacking him for his "petit Bourgeois spirit." This exhibition sets out to disprove Breton’s misgivings by arguing that Miró was not only personally engulfed by events such as the Spanish civil war and sensitive to political issues, but also that his work was principally a means of communicating his rage and near despair. That Breton despite himself may have been partly correct in his intuition about an artist whose paintings he had introduced to the public when he took over the editorship of ‘La Revolution Surrealiste’ in 1924 has been demonstrated by the fact that Miró was, from the beginning of his time in Paris, closer intellectually and geographically to the rue Blomet group of artists that included Masson and the writers Leiris and Bataille than he was to Breton. He never became an official member of Breton’s Surrealist club and, much like de Chirico, his own idiosyncratic style, which some might say prefigured the pictorial rhetoric of Surrealism, was already formed by the time he moved to Paris from Barcelona in 1920. 

Although he considered his technique ‘automatic’ Miró relied neither on the total abdication of conscious thought “beyond any aesthetic or moral preoccupations” that Breton demanded of his stable of artists, nor on the latter’s predilection for photographic surrealism as exemplified by Dali and Magritte. Miró remained through out a radical and independent artist whose output was not dependent on hallucinogens or hypnosis.  On the contrary, he scrupulously and methodically planned each painting in advance and his preparatory drawings invariably squared up. Indeed throughout the twenties though his vision was unconventional his modernist techniques were relatively conventional in terms of his use of non-naturalistic, fauvist colour, his rejection of perspective, and his flattening of the picture plane. What brings him closer to Surrealism is his private language of symbols and signs, such as the ladder that represents escape and freedom on which the curators focus in their argument that Miró’s work has a political orientation. 


Developments in recent Miró studies that challenge the Surrealist appropriation of his work form the intellectual backdrop of this exhibition. Coinciding with the anti- formalist tendencies of Post Modernism far greater emphasis has been placed on the historical and political context of Miró’s work calling into question assumptions that Miró’s universe, as expressions of a surrealist dream world, is essentially hedonistic, whimsical and celebratory. On the contrary Miró insisted that he was a realist. This retrospective exhibition is unusual in that its attempt to highlight political engagement, takes us beyond his best-known work in the forties and fifties into the less well known later part of his career in the sixties and early seventies. Consequently considerably less emphasis has been placed on techniques and composition and more on content and the intentions behind his paintings. It is, however, significant that as early as 1947, when he made his first trip to the United States, he was already aware of the new orientation that would give rise to Abstract Expressionism in America and Art Informel in Europe, for which he may well have been a catalyst, in which the perennial problems of space and time were being reformulated in terms of colour field or gestural painting. And though, at first sight, aesthetic matters would seem to dictate the monumental canvases of Pollock or Newman, a critic such as Harold Rosenberg could argue that the original political agenda had not been totally camouflaged. Might the same be said of Miró?

Joan Miró, The Farm, 1921-22. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Joan Miró was born in 1893 into a family of goldsmiths in Barcelona. He attended art classes from the age of seven. Trained initially as an accountant he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Art against his father’s wishes and in 1920 made the crucial step of moving to Paris. Over the next few years he was constantly travelling between the family property in Mont-roig and Paris. This sense of displacement, which fired his imagination, can be ascribed to a clash of loyalties. A deep attachment to his native Catalonia wedded to his sense of himself as an international Paris based artist was to characterise his whole career, and it has been observed that Miró belonged only where he wasn’t so that, at one and the same time, he was Catalan and a Parisian, a traditionalist and a Cubist. Hemingway, who purchased The Farm (1921-2) as a present for his first wife when living in Paris, commented that Miró was able to paint “two opposing things.” Throughout his career a similar oscillation between polarities can be observed in highly detailed canvases and canvases restricted to a few elements projected against an open colour field. Thus in the early years, though influenced by Fauvist colour and a Cubist sense of fragmentation, Miró’s landscapes and still lifes have been described as ‘detailist’ for their hypersensitive transcription of what he observed around him. Every motif, be it a pebble, stone, cracks in masonry, plants, the most insignificant creature or man-made implement, was scrupulously painted so that each element, as if silhouetted against its own harsh light, seems to inhabit a singular space that disregards the conventional pictorial demands of perspective and scale. 

Inspired by Spanish Romanesque frescoes and folk art, this is a primitivist animist vision that, while it imparts a toy-like character to these pictures, retains a hold on internationalist credentials. The negative connotations of Primitivism, as “undeveloped” or “backward” had of course been reversed in the avant garde’s pursuit of the new and had by this time become part of a critique of modern civilisation that was deemed technologically advanced but spiritually depleted; thus an artist such as Miró was able to celebrate localism and yet be part of the international avant garde. But Miró’s obsession with the distinctiveness of each separate motif goes even deeper on a phenomenological level and corresponds to his fixation on reality as a physical encounter which he attempts to capture by highlighting tactile sensations, representing the experience of the body rather than insisting on a purely visual description. This tendency was to become ever more central to his paintings as he continued to develop a truly idiosyncratic calligraphy of personal signs and symbols.

Joan Miró, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), 1923-4. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

We can trace a definitive move away from traditional landscape towards abstraction if we compare The Farm (1921-2) with The Tilled Field (1923-4). In the latter, weird things are beginning to happen: the tree has an eye and an ear, and a strange collection of animals congregates around it. Yet strangely enough, the picture as a whole does not give the impression of being disordered. This motley assembly of hybrid creatures is fixed against a simple field of ochre. This movement towards abstraction, which like Kandinsky’s is based on residual or vestigial figuration, is taken a step further in Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) (1923-4). What immediately strikes the viewer is the utter strangeness of this highly personal universe in which Miró’s atomised creatures, some of which are geometric and others organic in shape, disport themselves against a yellow/orange horizontal background. Unlike the work of many other contemporary modernist painters the medium, the way the brush manipulates the paint, does not detract attention from a myriad collection of elements that includes, among others - Miró itemised 58 in all - the tongue and whiskers of a sardine, a sun-egg and carob tree with its one leaf, the hunter, his gun and pipe, all of which must have seemed exemplarily surrealist to Breton who almost immediately bought the painting for his collection.

The hunter is represented by a primitive stick man plus a spiral made up of dots which probably denote volume without representing mass but may in addition evoke the hunter’s experience of his own body or the memory of a movement; both of these solutions, the stick man and the line of dots, will reappear in later paintings. The intersection of a horizontal and a vertical line becomes the basis for a series of paintings entitled The Head of a Catalan Peasant (c. 1925).  All the decorative details that characterised Miró’s paintings of his family farm have now been excised and all that characterises the peasant is reduced to his barretina atop a triangular head that sports a few strands of beard. The background is uneven, made up of scumbled layers of paint that vary in transparency and opacity and suggests translucence and density while at the same time bringing a meditative feel to the paintings – it is in effect as if we are able to journey into the inner mind of the peasant. The dotted line reappears in the series of Night Landscapes Miró painted in the summer months of 1926 and 1927. Miró continues dividing the canvas into two sections, the lighter zone as the sky generally at the top, but in Dog Barking at the Moon (1926), which features his first ladder, this is reversed. Again the application of paint is smooth and almost academic; there are no accidents and the figures of the dog and the hare in Landscape (Hare) (1927) could have been cut-outs. The dotted lines in this series figure as movement possibly from the point of view of the animal about to perform it rather than from that of an external and detached observer.

Up to this point, apart from the series on The Head of a Catalan Peasant, politics has not seriously figured in Miró’s practice. This was to change with the founding of the Spanish Republican government in 1931. By 1934, this constitutionally elected government was in danger of a coup from within by right-wing ministers. But what touched Miró viscerally was the declaration of an independent republic of Catalonia swiftly followed by its brutal suppression in his native Barcelona. Miró’s figures, painted on unusual supports such as masonite, velvet paper, sand paper and copper which serve to heighten this expression of a world gone monstrously amuck, take on terrifying forms that embody Miró’s anxiety and foreboding. Their distorted bodies, swollen bellies and genitalia conjoined with insect or reptilian bodies express the artist’s rage and his impotence. These “savage paintings” represent a turning point in the exhibition and demonstrate that his world was hardly merely whimsical or remotely celebratory. A far deeper strain of anxiety permeates his creation. Still Life with Old Shoe, painted in 1937, a year after Franco’s attack on the Republic that precipitated the outbreak of civil war, hearkens back to the Spanish tradition of still lifes that are often imbued with a strange spiritual darkness. With its incandescent, acidic and acrid colours, this apocalyptic painting obviously functioned in Miró’s mind as a metaphor for the nightmarish horrors of war. Whether this meaning is clearly communicated to the viewer is not quite so certain. What is certain is that this is a singular case. Miró abandoned his own subjective vision, returning to the more comprehensible language of figuration, when it came to creating this didactic canvas with its pronounced political agenda; something not repeated in his long career. This is not to say that his passion for politics did not continue to burn but as embers smouldering rather than as a conflagration despite the actual appearance of  “Burnt Canvases” (1973) in response to student and workers’ unrest in 1968.

Joan Miró. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

With France and Britain’s declaration of hostilities against Germany in response to its invasion of Poland in 1939 Miró moved from Paris to Normandy. It was there that he started on a series of 23 gouache paintings entitled Constellations - one of which has the title of The Escape Ladder - which he only completed in 1941. By this time, despite his support for the Republican cause, he had decided to move his family to the safety of Palma, Mallorca where his wife’s family came from. Miró’s universe was now peopled by a whole repertory of strange, sometimes comic, often threatening hybrid creatures (many inspired by Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi as can be seen in the 1944 Barcelona Series of lithographs) engendered from within a shifting, shimmering sea of colour that had been obtained by rubbing, polishing, scraping and moistening the picture ground. These are the most poetic of his work - yet forever lurking amid this trajectory of stars, flowers and sexual parts are hidden ciphers of war: birds that are planes, their bellies heavy with bombs, plus other traps and surprises for the unwary. 

By the late forties and fifties Miró was moving away from an exclusive concentration on painting to explore other artistic practices. He took up ceramics and, accepting many prestigious international commissions, turned his creative energies to designing tapestries and murals. But he continued to explore the expressive potential for play in surrealist found objects and sculpture in general. The collection of sculptural work on display, mostly assemblage pieces, are very unlike the more monumental painted sculpture we have come to associate with Miró which can be seen for instance in the Fondation Maeght. Inspired by the surrealists’ delight in juxtaposing dissimilar found objects, they transform the most common object into an ironic ‘objet d’art’. It is perhaps no coincidence that these sculptures allow for the reappearance of Miró’s calligraphic universe of curious creatures at this specific juncture when in his paintings he was exploring the aesthetic possibilities of largely single colour field canvases, chromatic expanses of blue, red, orange and green enlivened only by a simple line, cluster of black spots or a coloured mark. These triptychs made an immediate impact on the international market with their chromatic intensity. While these seem almost meditative in the absorption demanded of the viewer, the late sixties saw Miró’s reaction to the student protests in a series entitled Burnt Canvases. Wilfully subjecting his own canvases to slashing and burning was a way of communicating his own sustained rage in the face of political realities. However, he also continued to explore the challenge of approaching zero in his triptych titled The Hope of a Condemned Man, I, II and III which, in painterly terms, might seem to represent a Greenbergian reduction of properties to one line and a spot of colour against an almost white ground. These canvases were not intended to be purely contemplative, however. Linked in Miró’s mind with the execution of the Catalan anarchist Salvador Antich in 1974, like all of Miró’s work they were not exhibited in Spain till after the death of Franco the following year.

There is no doubt that many of Miró’s paintings communicate the rage and revolt he personally felt when witnessing atrocities and injustices. But the degree to which this proves that there is a specifically political inflection that can explain his art is questionable. Let’s return to Breton who accused Miró of “loving painting too much.” Miró’s avowed aim to “assassinate painting” seems to contravene this accusation. But if this indeed was one of his intentions, we need to ask what would replace painting and to what purpose? Yet more paintings, it would seem, for painting always fought back. Looking back over Miró’s long life--he died in his nineties--what evidence there is of a real anti-art stance supports an alternative Dadaist proposition closer to that of Jean Arp, namely destruction with the ultimate aim of bringing about a renewal within painting. The “ladder of escape” took Miró into an extremely subjective realm that is better suited to the concept of the artist as shaman whose images have an almost ritualistic function. This was his engagement with the world. Like Picasso in this respect, he was primarily an exorcist. Miró belonged to a generation of artists who believed that art could transform society. The “ladder of escape,” while grounded in reality, is foremost a symbol of the imagination that is metaphysical rather than political. Miró’s was in essence an interior journey that represented a tenuous balance between the ever encroaching forces of darkness and hope.

© Anna Leung May 2011

Joan Miró, Blue I-II-III, 1961. Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

The exhibition Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape originated at the Tate Modern in London where it showed from 14 April - 11 September, 2011. It will next be on exhibit at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, Spain from 14 October, 2011 - 25 March, 2012. It will then travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 6 May - 12 August, 2012. 


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