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

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

301 Moved Permanently

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 tension and torsion.

Striving to convey transcendence can denature pictures by eliminating the tension they require. Extra-pictorial considerations (a sense of wellbeing and satisfaction in the artist) have overridden the requirements of making art (concentration, revision, doubt, observation from life) to the detriment of the picture. They use the colours and materials of Western art and the borrowed lexicon and approach of Eastern art in an ambitious – but ultimately unsatisfying – experimental fusion. It would be interesting to see some of these canvases hung beside those by Adolphe Gottlieb.

For the late period, Brussels has stronger individual works. It includes late drawings. These have more bite than the late paintings which have a tendency towards unearned largeness. Miró’s post-War engagement with children’s art and CoBrA is more pronounced. The higher proportion of bronzes also shows Miró to advantage.

The late bronzes are some his finest works, not just of that period but of all his whole oeuvre. Miró used everyday objects – baskets, dolls, taps, eggs, nails, cutlery, wood, card, tools – and assembled them in small and relatively sparse compositions. Once the assemblage had been cast in wax he often worked over the wax models, incising lines or gouging holes before the model was cast in bronze. This gives the sculptures a vivifying multi-layered quality. Objects are found and assembled, graphic marks applied and the metal cast. Sometimes Miró would add a further stage by adding paint. The paint tended to lessen the characteristic qualities of the bronzes by diminishing each of the first three stages, submerging them in Miró’s rather over-forceful palette. The greenish patina has pleasing asperity and the authenticity of the generally utilitarian objects brings a toughness of material and fixity of form – a kind of resilience and resistance that largely departed from Miró’s late pictorial art – that makes the late bronzes special.

The drawings in Brussels are especially welcome and good. The raggedness of materials and variety of surfaces (including patterned paper) provides relief from the tessellated areas of colour in the oil paintings.  After the Second World War Miró’s art is at its best roughly finished and textured 301 Moved Permanently (in the drawings, burnt paintings, weavings and bronzes), something that the Tate curators have either ignored or bypassed, as is evident from the selection of the triptychs instead of rougher pieces. Even the late paintings in Brussels have this refreshingly coarser quality.

Both exhibitions have strong points and the Brussels show does not necessarily come out second best by being significantly smaller. While it is commendable that curators seek to broaden our understanding of familiar artists, it is important that curators identify what most aesthetically exciting about the art in question and allow that to determine at least some of their selections. After all, art consists of objects, does it not?

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, was at Tate Modern, until September 11th 2011, then touring to Barcelona and Washington D.C.; Joan Miró: Peintre Poète, Espace culturel ING, Brussels, closed June 19th 2011.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park hosts the first major UK exhibition of sculpture by Joan Miró from 17/03/12 to 06/01/13. With key works set in the landscape, the exhibition fulfils the artist’s desire that “sculpture must stand in the open air, in the middle of nature”.

Alexander Adams is an artist and writer based in Berlin. Three Strikes (poems and drawings) is published by Bottle of Smoke Press (


Jackdaw Jul-Aug 2011