Joan Miró at Tate Modern

Filed in Reviews by on May 7, 2011

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Having previously endured the crowds at a Tate members-only evening preview, I visited the Miro exhibition fairly early on a weekday morning. Even though the sun was shining outside, there was still a good number of visitors. This is not surprising as Miro is one of the most accessible and popular of the modern masters.

The exhibition is arranged in a more or less strict chronological order. The early works mostly depict the landscapes of Miro’s Catalan homeland, especially the family home at Mont-roig in a post-Impressionist style reminiscent of Van Gogh and Cezanne. These paintings are fresh and immediate, the colours are earthy and rich and the light is bright and baking-hot. One clearly sees in them the assertiveness and confidence of the re-emerging Catalan nationalist and separatist movement. What one also observes is a flattened perspective in these early paintings that seems almost inevitably to progress into a style where attempts at realistic, if stylised, representation of landscape and figure are abandoned. Most of the figurative detail is discarded and the sky, the earth and their meeting at the horizon begin to comprise nothing but a line where two fields of colour meet. While the overt subject matter is still Miro’s Catalan homeland, and includes depictions of roosters and hares and dogs barking at the moon, the manner in which they are executed foreshadows the increasing degree of abstraction which was to arise in his work.

Miro found himself adopted and spoken of approvingly by surrealist writers, notably Andre Breton; although he made many friends in the surrealist movement, he did not identify with them or very much with any other art movement for that matter. His form of surrealism was the one where the artistic process was itself rendered unconscious rather than only the subject matter. We do not find the fantastic and super-real dreamscapes of Dali and Chirico in Miro’s work. Instead there are shapes, colours and juxtapositions of the two which set out to populate a world which could only derive from the imagination. The fertility of that imagination is remarkable and it is shown very extensively in this exhibition. While the basic elements of structure and expression are repeated and varied constantly in these pieces, somehow every one is fresh and original.

It is in the middle part of the exhibition that one sees the fully matured artist of the 1940’s and 50’s. While these paintings frequently have titles describing their subject, one would find it difficult to discern the forms purporting to be depicted. These paintings are full of sinuous lines and organic shapes and strong, elemental colours.

For me, the exhibition (and by extension Miro’s artistic output in general) has a very good start and an excellent middle but a rather disappointing end. The triptychs and the works surrounding them acknowledge the influence of the Abstract Expressionists but not in a way which helped Miro to say
much that was fresh and new. Nevertheless, this is a must-see exhibition, not just for Miro devotees but also for anyone interested in 20th century art. Miro’s penetrating exploration of the borderland between figuration and total abstraction is a stunning achievement by any standards and many of us will not be lucky enough to see again such a phenomenal collection of his work in one place.

May 2011

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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