Paintings as Protest

A new National Gallery show puts political works by Joan Miro in context

May 31, 2012

Joan Miro’s 1973 “Burnt Canvas IV” was one in a series of fire-scorched works that the artist called “anti-paintings.”

At one point in his prolific career, painter and sculptor Joan Miro had a soft spot for long titles: Take 1939’s “Woman Stabbed by the Sun Reciting Rocket Poems in the Geometrical Shapes of the Musical Bat Spittle Flight of the Sea,” or 1940’s “Figures at Night Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails.”

Despite their whimsical names, both works are among the surrealist artist’s most politically charged pieces. As the National Gallery of Art’s new show, “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape,” reveals, Miro — more commonly recognized for his abstract shapes, squiggly lines and colorful canvases — created his share of protest art.

The show, organized by London’s Tate Modern museum, offers a chronological look at Miro’s ideological oeuvre. “He might not have been an activist — but, at times, he was,” says Harry Cooper, the NGA’s curator and head of the department of modern and contemporary art. “I like that this show has an argument, rather than saying, ‘Here is all the best work [by Miro].’ I don’t think that visitors need to accept or even reject it; it’s just something to think about, and it provides a narrative.”

Born in Barcelona in 1893, Miro witnessed both world wars in Europe, the Spanish Civil War and the repressive dictatorships of Miguel Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco. He identified strongly with his Catalan heritage and the northeastern region’s long struggle for autonomy, but also became invested in seeing his country escape totalitarianism.

The show’s subtitle, “The Ladder of Escape,” is a recurring image in Miro’s work, and it may symbolize “the whole problem for Miro of how to be engaged with world events and still preserve his own imaginative freedom,” Cooper says. “He can climb up the ladder to get away from the world … and go off into his incredible imagination — and he can climb down the ladder to get back in touch with what’s happening.”

Miro’s work brought him widespread acclaim. Yet, he resisted praise when it came from leadership he opposed. The Franco regime held a show of Miro’s works in 1968, intending to “present him as a great example of freedom of expression,” Cooper says. “He didn’t want to play along with that.”

Instead, Miro participated in an alternative show in 1969 called “Miro Otro” (Other Miro). Organized by a group of young architects, “Miro Otro” linked the artist with the younger generation’s political and cultural resistance to Franco. Many of his pieces from that turbulent period also reflect a rebellion against authority, including his “Burnt Canvases” (into which the artist literally burned holes) and his “Fireworks” series (made by throwing paint on canvas). “I think you see him really wanting to tap into this political current and unrest,” Cooper says.

Still, “He wasn’t always interested in making protest art,” Cooper says. “He wanted his art to be universal, to deal with themes that weren’t specific to one time and place.”

National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through Aug. 12, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)
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Katie Aberbach | May 31, 2012