Eye on Art: Miró at the Modern

Joan Miró, “The Hunter (Catalan Landscape),” 1923-24. Oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 39 ½ in. Purchase, 1936.

“Joan Miró: Birth of the World,” on view through June 15 at the Museum of Modern Art, is both a delight and a revelation. The delight comes from seeing so many of the artist’s early and mid-career works together. The revelation is the work’s variety and subtlety, as well as the level of innovation Miró achieved under the influence of Cubism and Surrealism.

Drawn almost entirely from the museum’s extensive Miró holdings, plus a few strategic loans, the exhibition features well-known staples of the permanent collection galleries and obscure examples that rarely make it out of storage. Apart from illustrated books and other graphics, MoMA owns few of Miró’s late works, so the focus is on the key aspects of the artist’s development, from his youth in his native Barcelona to the 1950s.

The show takes its title from “The Birth of the World,” a 1925 masterpiece that has been regularly on view since its acquisition in 1972. The large canvas is both a culmination of Miró’s progress from Cubist-derived abstraction and a foretaste of the deeply personal language of abstract form that would place him in the vanguard of European modernism. To describe it as ahead of its time is an understatement; it would have seemed startlingly new if it had been painted in 1950. Its background of spontaneously flung, thinned-out oil paint prefigures both Pollock and Frankenthaler, neither of whom could possibly have seen it when they were developing similar techniques, since it disappeared into a private collection soon after completion. And the simplified, ambiguous motifs that dance across its surface became a hallmark of Miró’s work from then on.

This is not to say that Miró hadn’t already evolved a singular approach to abstract imagery. A few early paintings, including an impressive 1920-21 still life with a rabbit and fish on a tabletop — a response to his first visit to Paris and exposure to Cubism — simultaneously simplify and elaborate on his observations, analyzing and interpreting them in his own terms. Still, it wasn’t until he returned to Spain that he was able to synthesize the distinctive formal vocabulary that was embraced by the Surrealists. An emblematic example is “The Hunter (Catalan Landscape),” 1923–24, which the movement’s founder, André Breton, acquired the year after it was painted.

Miró’s art has remarkably broad appeal, in large part because, like Calder’s, his work has a playful quality. But the amusing aspects of his forms often mask a troubling emotional undercurrent engendered by the political and social upheavals of the mid twentieth century.  Surrealism arose in interwar Paris in response to those conflicts, and for Miró it confirmed a direction in which he was already heading. Unlike the Surrealists, however, he didn’t rely on chance and the unconscious to generate imagery. He invented a system of cryptic symbols that recur like pictographs, and he planned his complex compositions carefully, as the detailed study for “Dutch Interior (I)” illustrates. Virtually everything in the drawing also appears in the 1928 canvas, which is based on a seventeenth century painting he saw on a trip to Amsterdam. This is about as far from “pure psychic automatism” as you can get.

For all their quirky charm, Miró’s distorted figures are often in distress, anxious or agitated. Little wonder, when the artist’s native land was in turmoil, culminating in civil war in 1936, followed three years later by the century’s second global conflict. In the two versions of “Rope and People,” for example, twisted hanks of rope are surrounded by schematic figures that seem to be just as wound up, crying out and waving their hands like witnesses to a catastrophe. Painted in Barcelona on the eve of the civil war, they foreshadow the massacre at Guernica that Picasso would memorialize.

In an extraordinary self-portrait, painted in Paris in 1937-38, Miró reflects his own image as a translucent shadow-man, pale and grey, with touches of pastel that seem to drain from his ghostly form like the last wisps of vitality. Surrounded by a galaxy of his symbolic images, some of which cling to him, he stares out at us hypnotically, as if transfixed by his own lack of substance. To me, it reads as a commentary on his helplessness. Like his rope-people, all he can do is bear witness to humankind’s inhumanity.