Miró: Two weeks later, by Jon Manteau

Has there ever been a painter that handled or considered ground as effectively as Joan Miró? Just recently caught the last days of Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937, at MOMA, with my good buddy Vince. To say that the show was an inspiration is a massive understatement. It’s a funny thing how age and growing can change one’s opinion about, well… just about anything.

When I was a young art student, young and dumb I should say, I absolutely hated Miró’s work! I thought, “whatever he did, Picasso did better”. How’s that for simplistic, simpleton thought? Crazy, right? Picasso cast such a huge shadow over the majority of the 20th century that on some levels, it didn’t leave much room for anybody else (I’m sure Picasso would love that sentiment). Jackson Pollack spent a large part of his career trying to get beyond Picasso and his monumental achievements, as did many other important 20th century painters.

Think about it, if you have Picasso with all of his megalomaniacal genius and say…Salvador Dalí and his uber-mania, it doesn’t leave much room in the room if you catch my drift. I think it’s interesting. I’m sure not at all by chance, that Miró would occupy a place, art historically, almost right smack dab in the middle, right between Picasso and Dalí. Spaniards all, all three revolutionary, avant gardé, ground breakers. (Note: just making a connection between the three. Obviously there are many other, first half of the 20th century artists who were ultimately every bit as monumental- Matisse, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Mondrian, to name a few.)

Let’s return to the initial, question or premise, Miró and ground. Walking through and observing, room after room of Miró’s works- paintings, collages, drawings and sculptures, one can’t help but notice the importance of the starting point. By starting point, I mean the decision(s) that Miró made in regard to material choice(s), specifically ground. Whether he choose canvas, linen, flocked paper, aluminium paper, copper, cardboard, wood, masonite, etc, these material choices were part and parcel and of paramount importance-to his figure-ground relationship.

When one thinks about painters, specifically painters from the first half of the last century and even more specifically, painters educated in the European, academic tradition, they rarely if ever exist without a fundamental understanding of pre-20th century/academic figure-ground relationship. In a nutshell, I mean how to achieve background-middle ground-foreground by use of value relationships, atmospheric and linear perspectives and color theory. Miró and all the other artists that I’ve mentioned thus far were all supreme masters of figure-ground relationship (Keep in mind that I’m talking about formal relationships. How these material and technical concerns collide with narrative and or subjective concerns varies greatly from artist to artist).

In 1927, Miró stated, “I want to assassinate painting”. He also professed his, “desire…to attain a maximum intensity with a minimum of means. That is why my painting has gradually become more spare”. At this crucial point in time, Miró, seems to have a sought a more pure, almost base, expression. He may have felt that painting had become bloated and full of itself, since the days of cave painting. That it had lost some of its shamanistic, ritualistic power, as artists over millennia gained more and more technical proficiency.

My impressions and understanding of Miró’s subject matter and content are better left to Miró scholars, catalogue writers and art historians, who have exhausted the subject. As a painter, when viewing another artist’s works, my interests tend to focus upon formal juxtaposition, rather than one’s personal narrative. So, I’ll defer to the experts in this respect. Jacques Dupin states, in regards to much of the work that is in this show- “this is a little known and underappreciated Miró…this series is a resounding success both plastically and in the understanding of materials it reveals” (Dupin-speaking specifically about Miró’s collages from Paris, 1928 and Montroig in the summer of 1929).

Dupin also states, referring to the works titled “Painting” (see above), done in Montroig/Barcelona, July- October of 1936, “His sole stimulus was the masonite surface, which served as the background, a surface somewhere between baked earth and hammered, flattened, slightly carbonized straw…What Miró brought back and projected here are more elementary beings, undifferentiated and isolated organic forms, still in search of bodies, still undistinguished from the chaos they have been torn from” (Miró, written by Jacques Dupin, a friend and collaborator since 1956, published by Flammarion in 2004, is probably the most detailed written source to date).

There were two pieces in this show, that stood out like no others, titled “Drawing–Collage”, executed in 1934, with aluminium paper backgrounds (rarely shown or reproduced), which were absolutely sublime. The ground in these two works is ever changing, as does a reflection. The viewer, environment, interaction of light and color, become part of the form, function and narrative. These pieces are so forward thinking, that it took Andy Warhol almost another 30 years to incorporate aluminium foil and reflective materials into his works. Flocked paper collages, brilliant! The Montroig collages of 1929 are quite possibly Miró at his most reductive, minimal best. The room with the “Paintings Based on Collages/1933” was just mind blowing and a real window into the working methodology of this artist. If you didn’t get to see this show…well you missed an opportunity to see one of the all-time greats at the very top of his game.

Clearly there is a symbiotic relationship between the materials that Miró chose to start a particular work with and his subject, form and content. To summarize what I see in Miró’s works from this 10-year period, I would say this…”a collision of organic form, function, tradition, with the inescapable influence of the industrial revolution and the political upheaval of the first half of 20th century”. Wow, that’s a mouth-full!!

If you missed the show, check out MOMA’s web page and click on Joan Miró, Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937. It’s a very well done and informative site.

– Jon Manteau