For tens of thousands of years man has looked at the sky, in wonder and fear, hope and frustration. In the 1930s, that basic gesture took on a new meaning in Western art and imagination, as people looked to the sky in mortal terror of aerial bombardment. Several of the figures in Picasso’s “Guernica,” a painted protest against the 1937 bombing of a Basque city, look to the sky with faces that seem both monstrous and gripped by monstrous fear.
And so do many of the contorted, anguished figures painted by Joan Miro during the same period. But collective memory hasn’t inscribed Miro’s name among the famous opponents of Francisco Franco’s thuggish right-wing government. Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca, Orwell, come to mind. But Miro’s name conjures images of enigmatic stick figures and sweet ciphers, cavorting in a genial surrealist firmament of lopsided stars.
The curators of “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape,” which appeared first at the Tate Modern in London and opens today at the National Gallery of Art, would like to correct any lingering sense that Miro wasn’t engaged with the dramatic political events of his day. By focusing on his Catalan identity, and seminal works including a lost mural that hung in the same Paris Exhibition pavilion as Picasso’s “Guernica,” the new Miro show emphasizes the artist’s complicated relationship to his homeland, the Spanish Civil War, the devastation of the Second World War, and the long national nightmare of Spain withering (well until the 1970s) under Franco’s criminal rule.
“There is another Miro,” reads the wall text that introduces the exhibition. “Not Miro the childlike inventor, the daring surrealist, the poet of few words, or the lyrical abstractionist.” The other Miro, we learn, was an “artist of his times.”
It would have taken an exceptional solipsism not to make art about war and suffering given the years encompassed by Miro’s long and productive life (1893-1983). In 1937, Miro created a design for a French postage stamp (later made into a poster), meant to raise support for Spain’s Second Republic. Against a rich blue background, a figure in profile raises an oversized, clenched fist to the sky. The words “Aidez l’Espagne” (“Help Spain”) and a fiery red orb balance the simple but powerful composition. Underneath the artist wrote a characteristically optimistic assessment of the struggle: “I see on the fascist side, spent forces; on the opposite side, the people, whose boundless creative will gives Spain an impetus which will astonish the world.”
Later works, including a 1944 series of stark lithographs that make a powerful counterpoint to “Guernica,” and a painting begun in 1968 (“May 68”) that uses splashed paint, hand prints and graffiti-like improvisation to pay homage to the student unrest of the late 1960s, are also easily and obviously read as political statements. And yet it is more uninteresting than enlightening to argue that Miro was a political animal. One senses, rather, that from time to time, he directed a portion of his astonishing creative energy to political subjects, but that he was not by temperament deeply political.