The Relics of St Joan: Alexander Adams goes in search of the curator’s Miro

800w, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Miro-Jul-Aug-11-217x300.jpg 217w, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Miro-Jul-Aug-11-742x1024.jpg 742w" sizes="(max-width: 800px) 100vw, 800px" />How often have we seen – of late – exhibitions of Modern masters with didactic subtitles? These subtitles tell us why we should visit this exhibition when we have seen so many on this particular artist before. It is the subtitle that gives us the curatorial slant. What happens is not that famous artists get “played out” but that curators and curatorial imperatives get played out. Museum directors and curators naturally want to show great artists but, unless inaccessible art is made available, there are really only two routes for monograph retrospectives: greatest hits or the hidden side of X. Recently we have seen a spate of the second approach; witness Picasso the Communist, Picasso the Surrealist, Picasso the erotic artist.

Two exhibitions of Joan Miró (1893-1983) in London and Brussels this summer take different approaches. The London display is subtitled “The Ladder of Escape” and aims to revise our view of the artist, while the Brussels display, one on a much smaller scale, is subtitled “Peintre Poète” and presents a more conventional view of the painter. The Brussels exhibition conceives of the artist as lyrical, straining to escape the boundaries of conventional restrictions and mores, whereas the London one purports to uncover an overlooked political dimension to Miró’s art. I visited the Brussels display in person but I am assessing the London one from the catalogue (Tate, £25).

The curators have made a point of selecting some adventurous work (burnt paintings in London, painted weavings in Brussels) which helps to spike the false impression of unalloyed gaiety and playfulness that is often associated with Miró.

Comparatively, the Tate display has the upper hand in many respects. It is much larger; it features famous pieces; it has some strong early paintings and has gathered dispersed sets. For example, Tate has the original Constellations (1940-1) gouaches whereas Brussels makes do with the lithographic reproductions. This group is the summation of many of the painter’s discoveries and is combined  (condensed and unified) into a compendium of possibilities. Overall the Brussels display has a higher proportion of editioned work (prints, books and bronzes) than the London one.

Miró’s output is so large that there is no significant competition between the two shows, particularly as neither display seeks to present a full retrospective. As with Picasso, Miró’s work can still surprise you with overlooked groups. A case in point is a series of paintings on boards from 1935-6. The ones on copper have the aspect of illusionistic solidity, like candy-coloured models in clay in the manner of Picasso’s Dinard bathers or Tanguy’s biomorphs. Comparison with Picasso’s Crucifixion (1930), similarly painted in sharp colours on a small panel, is inescapable and not unfavourable.

What of the Tate premise that Miró’s art was politically engaged?  Miró made veiled anti-Franco statements sporadically (not an insignificant act while living in Spain under the regime, but others went further) and had demonstrated his commitment to the short-lived Republic that preceded the Civil War. His political stance is clear – but in his words and actions not in his art. His posters, picture titling and refusal to collaborate with the regime’s propaganda plans demonstrate this.

Around the late 1940s something goes out of the drawing – some kind of tightness. The tension of attempting to capture something exact has departed, to be replaced with a masterful performance. However much we appreciate the skill of the artist, that cannot compensate for what has been lost – a nervousness, an uncertainty, a sense of exploration tempered by fear of failure. When Miró lost this fear something vital went from his art. The attention and care is still present in the later paintings but the resistance has gone, especially in the largest works, where unlike earlier compositions, dominant gestural marks are untethered and float free of the picture edges and other marks. (For example, see the late triptychs in London.) It gives a sense of liberation but it reduces