Miro on a higher rung

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.

Rather, it seems that Miro, and the ideas that interested him, generally had one foot in the messy world of human affairs, while the rest of him aspired up and out of the earthbound. One of his basic painted ciphers, a ladder-like figure that gives the exhibition its subtitle, makes that aspiration explicit, but also connects it very much to the internal dynamics of painting. A recurring figure, seen prominently in haunted landscapes such as the 1926 “Dog Barking at the Moon,” the ladder also hints at a three-dimensionality, or painted perspective, that is just beyond the ken of his cartoon-like, flat figures. The point dreams of the line, the line dreams of the plane, and Miro’s little dog dreams of a dimension suggested by the narrowing lines of the ladder.

But Miro’s ladders are also ladders to nowhere. They don’t extend indefinitely, but terminate inside the canvas. The private visual vocabulary he built up over a lifetime takes on similar ambiguity, often heartbreaking in its careful and very human balance of hope and darkness.

In his 1940 “Sunrise at Varengeville,” part of the enormously influential “Constellations” series that was begun in France before the German invasion (and wowed a generation of American painters after the war), there are perhaps two suns, one a jet-black orb, the other seen in partial eclipse, rendered in red as the intersection of two circles, a form that also suggests a basic, earthy female fecundity. Above it a grim-reaper figure scowls and frowns, and nearby a cock crows and a bird takes wing while a robustly stupid-looking peasant figure stares out at the viewer. It is a very dark but not absolutely despairing sunrise, a reminder that every sunrise brings us one day closer to our ultimate twilight.

A fascinating sculpture from 1935-36, “Object of Sunset,” functions like a catalogue of shifting and ambiguous personal symbols. A painted tree trunk is a blood-red reminder of the body and its functions. Onto this a circular metal burner of a gas stove has been fixed, like a Cyclops eye that reminds us also of the flame of life. A coiled bedspring functions a bit like a sculptural ladder of escape (“The fact that I come down to earth from time to time makes it possible for me to jump all the higher,” Miro said in 1948), and a shackle suggests the limits of how far we are allowed to go. It is a ridiculous, comic figure, a hybrid creature that wants to bounce to the sky yet remains doomed to a thickset, earthbound absurdity.

Miro is at his most stunning when his visual symbols overlap (like the two circles that form an eclipsed sun in the 1940 “Sunrise”) with something literal or physical in the artwork itself. In 1974, he made a series called “Fireworks I-III.” Although he was in his 80s, Miro was absorbing and refracting the ideas of artists decades younger, and the “Fireworks” series was made by throwing acrylic paint on a large canvas, and allowing it to drip down, creating patterns remarkably like the falling sparks and flames of a holiday rocket. Gravity is at work in both the thing painted (fireworks) and the painting itself. And suddenly you realize that much of the mesmerizing power of a fireworks display has to do with the same mix of hope and futility hinted at in the ladder of escape. We can only rise so high. We always come down to earth.

In the same gallery with the “Fireworks” series are two of the 1973 “Burnt Canvas” series, in which he painted and burned canvas to create works that are flayed and torn by flame. Miro originally suspended two of the works from this series rather than hanging them directly on a wall, so that both sides were visible. The National Gallery has mounted them traditionally, but they still function poetically. The gaps in the canvas conspire with the lights in the gallery to create multiple shadows on the white wall behind them. One doesn’t dwell on the violence of their production. Rather, you have the uncanny and moving sense that the paintings are healing themselves with light. In one case, the normally hidden wooden stretcher bars form a charred cross which casts a slightly rounded shadow behind the painting, a surreal evocation of a fundamental Christian symbol.

Critics in the 1970s spoke of these works as an “assassination” of painting, borrowing the term from a much younger Miro himself. But a photograph in the catalogue shows Miro staring through the hole in another of the “Burnt Canvas” works (not in the exhibition), and he’s smiling, a big, simple, unselfconscious smile. If these are documents of violence, it is violence contained and directed and subsumed into something far more hopeful and potent than rage.

With a few digressions and some backsliding along the way, the course of Miro’s art was toward ever simpler and more concise gestures. Visitors shouldn’t miss the chance to see two long scrolls, made late in his career, that catalogue many of the artist’s basic figures and visual forms. They aren’t part of the main exhibition (which is large and spread out on two floors), but are open to the public in the library on the ground floor. They dramatize the long arc of Miro’s career, which after this exhilarating exhibition seems more focused and determined than he is often given credit for. Politics is certainly there in the mix. But much more, too.

Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape

is on view at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art through Aug. 12. www.nga.gov.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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