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.