Joan Miro, now 86 and painting still, must rank as modern art's most embarrassed master. "Miro: Selected Paintings," which goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, will help restore his name.
Because it contains only 45 works this little restrospective does Miro a great service: It protects him from himself.
It excludes his crummy recent prints, his tedious ceramics, Nor does it remind us that Miro, of late, has been pathetically prolific.
The humiliating prints, with which his aides and dealers have flooded the art market, have stained his reputation. His huge and tacky tapestries have proved equally egregious (one of the most excessive now hangs in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art).
On trouble with Miro is that most Miros look like most Miros.
Their colors almost always dance, and their forms appear to play. But all those stars and hairs and moons, those bounding dots and squiggles, those familiar "Miroisms," today seem trade-mark-stale. Rare indeed the master whose innovative paintings seem so easily cartooned. Another problem is that the worst Miro cartoons, the thinnest and the dullest, are those that the old man has produced himself.
Some artists must be edited, and Miro is one of them. Both Charles W. Millard, the curator who organized this show, and Abram Lerner, the director of the Hirshhorn, believe that Miro at his best is good enought to stand beside such giants as Picasso and Matisse. And their exhibition is brilliantly selected: The Miro the Hirshhorn shows us is the master, not the hack.
He is usually poetic, frequently prophetic. He is no Matisse, nor is he a Picasso. But Miro at his best paints very well indeed. There are certain passages in certain pictures here -- an apple that he painted in 1919, a peculiar multi-colored shoe of 1937, a back ground that he dripped in 1925, another that he smeared in 1967 -- done with such bright beauty as to make one want to sing. But his art is more than pretty or pleasing. Miro was somehow able to move back and forth in time.
The exhibition begins with a small glowing landscape, dated 1914, whose flaming trees and marching brushstrokes call to mind the last paintings of Van Gogh. Even stranger is "The Village, Parades," a work of 1917. The buildings in the background resemble those carved out by the young Braque or Picasso, while the stripes and Chevrons that dominate the foreground suggest those that would be painted-half a century later -- by Kenneth Noland here.
One amazing picture here. "The Birth of the World" of 1925, seems, at least in retrospect, worthy of its title. With its mural scale (it is more than eight feet tall) and its wild drips and splashes, it seems an abstract expressionist picture made 20 years before its time. Such astonishments occur throughout this exhibition. Here Miro predicts the stains of Helen Frankenthaler: there he points the way to the later bursts and splashes of New York's Adolph Gottleib. More than 50 years ago, Miro was predicting modern pattern painting and yet his playful prophecies all look like Miros.
He was born in Barcelona in 1893 -- it seem exactly the right city at exactly the right time.The city's older artists, the ones who drank together in the Barcelona cafe known as "The Four Cats," one of them young Picasso, already had discovered what they called "modernismo." Miro from the beginning thought the new was king.
So strong was his self-confidence he was able to absorb all he saw around him, the daring pictures of the Fauves and those of the Cubists, old Catalan religious art, and the innovations of Cezanne and Van Gogh. In 1917, before he'd gone to Paris, he met Picabia, the Dadaist. Miro must have been a charmer. His famous friends included. Tristan Tzara and Picasso, Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway, Alexandria Calder and Jean Arp, Diaghilev and Jacques Prevert. The first work that Miro exhibited in the United States was purchased by Marcel Duchamp in 1926.
To Americans, his pictures seemed particularly pleasing. Unlike so many scary and intimidating works of modern art, the picture of Miro, daring as they were, seemed to glint with fun. He painted cats and chickens, pigs and lizards, dogs baying at the moon, animals that, if odd, never wholly lost their animal identities. His colors pleased the eye as his titles pleased the ear. He painted words into his pictures. Titles such as "A Drop of Dew Falling from the Wing of a Bird Awakens Rosalie Asleep in the Shadow of a Cobweb" sometimes seemed to be delightful if not quite decipherable poems.
When Ernest Hemingway decided that he must have "The Farm," an animal-filled painting completed by Miro in 1922, the writer and his friends, among them John Dos Passos, went from bar to bar borrowing the money. You can be sure that the young Americans were laughing as they roamed -- Miro's art casts a mood of fun.
In 1924, when he began to paint a dreamy and more distant version of "The Farm," Miro was so poor he could hardly afford to eat. "I was so hungry. . . I began to reel while I was working. At times my weakness was so great that I could not make it across the street. Sometimes I even had hallucinations, and I'd try to hang on to them to use in my painting." And what was the title that he gave to this dream of starvation? He called the works "Carnival of Harlequin." Miro loved it all, the drawing and the dreaming and the smell of colored goo. Perhaps it is no wonder that he has lived so long so well. In his painting he found, and he distributed, huge amounts of joy.
Through Miro is Spanish, the sadness of his homeland rarely casts a somber shadow on his art. In most of Miro's pictures, one sees that he began by putting on the canvas an open airy field of freely painted color upon which he'd then draw. It is when the two halves of his art, the freely dancing drawing and the color ground beneath, get somehow out of balance that his pictures fall apart. Few such shattered images have found their way into this well-selected show.
This exhibition covers the first 60 years of Joan Miro's career. Millard and Judi Freeman wrote the useful essays in the exhibition catalog. The Hirshhorn exhibition, which shows the painter at his best, will remain on view here through Aug. 17.