Joan Miro, and his paintings
To see a painter's work at its tautest intensity, unshelled, as it were, to its intensest naivete, without any protective crust of derivations or emulations between us and it, is one of the rarest of privileges. Perhaps
it is more often possible in poetry than in paintings in a William Blake, in a Christopher Smarts perhaps in a Rimbaud. This is what we have, in Joan Miro's work today: a charged wire without insulation, a primary simplicity
of forms, a vitality of inevitable relationships allowed to take natural order, pictures which seem to have come to life on the canvas, rather than to have been painted.
And as we look back from the immediacy of expression which characterizes Joan Miro's paintings, the reasons underlying those changes in his pictorial idiom, which he has encouraged so diligently over the years, become clear: always a paring down towards this subtle simplicity. From the beginning he has felt a fundamental need to achieve a maximum of intensity with a minimum of means. And the same today, In Miro's opinion nothing is new. "Three forms," he explained, "which have become obsessions with me represent the impress of Urgell" (one of his first teachers): a red circle, the moon and a star. They keep coming back each time slightly different. But for me it is always a story of recovering; one does discover in life..." What Miro has primarily been seeking to recover over the years is that freshness of vision and naivete of concept which is the wealth of childhood. And his recovery of it comes out in the gladness we recognize in the totality of his work - even more so in individual pieces - in the youthfulness of an exhibition such as his magnificent seventy-fifth anniversary retrospective showing, which was brought together in the magnificent Gothic building of the Hospital of the Holy Cross in Barcelona.
Already more than twenty years ago Miro declared,
What we have today in Miro's art is what has been aiming at from the beginning, but what he has realized with an ever increasing fullness during the past everal decades: compassing of a primary vision and a pictorial recording of it which is primitive in the good sense of the word. A magic world, a morning world; colour, playfulness, spontaneity - intensity: a silent singing, an immobile movement.
What is most interesting to me today is the material I am working with...Forms take a reality for me as I work. In other words,rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting and as I paint the picture begin to assert itself or suggest itself under my brush. ”
Miro's reference to his interest in "material" and the stimulus he derived from it was in 1948. By this time he had already for the most part stripped his painting of conventional devices of representation and of anecdotal associations. Reality for him had already become the reality of the painting itself, not reflection or a description of external physical facts of nature. This is the reality which Miro is seeking and has been seeking to realize since the outset of his career as an artist: an aesthetic integration, far as this reality may be from the physical facts of nature which he always takes as his jumping-off place.
To achieve such an aesthetic integration Miro is meticulous in his observation of every detail, free and spontaneous as the result may appear. Like a child, he goes straight to those features he considers most interesting - that are most useful for the picture he is making. The rest is omitted or drastically subordinated. Yet for Miro from his earliest years a picture had to be, as he expressed it, "right to a millimeter - had to be in balance to a millimeter.' For example he recalled that "in painting the Farmer's Wife I found I had made the cat too large; it threw the picture out of balance. this is the reason for the double circles and the two angular lines in the foreground. They look symbolic, esoteric; but they are no fantasy. They were put in to bring the picture into equilibrium.
In his early work Miro had felt the attraction of the mediaeval murals and Gothic retables of Catalonia. From them he learned the compositional strength of local tones and simple colors. His desire for self-discipline led him to simplify things in painting them from nature, just as Catalan primitives had. Then, as he has said, "there was the discipline of Cubism. I learned the structure of a picture from Cubism."
The simple directness of the Catalan muralists led him easily to an appreciation of Rousseau le Douanier. And in the Douanier's work he sound an approach which appealed to his preference for the meticulous delineation of smaller forms as compositional motifs over larger ones - tiny flowers, tiny plants and pebbles, rather than great trees or mountains. He has explained how he used to go to the Bois de Boulogne to pick up twigs and leaves to server as model for the shrubs and foliage in the foreground of his early canvas The Farm.
There was the discipline of Cubism. I learned the structure of a picture from Cubism. ”
But for all his recognition of the necessity of nature as a point of departure for a painting, a picture for Miro has always taken more the character of a metaphor than of a simile. With his brush he says, "This is a star, a ladder, or a woman" not "This looks like a star, a ladder, or a woman." The sign has an immediate reality and is more evocative as itself than what is stands for. Consequently a painting for Miro is closer to a poem than it is to a documentation of a fact of nature - closer to Marianne Moore's description of an ostrich than the Encyclopaedia's. An this is his aim.
In many of his pictures we find lines of verse or rhymes woven into composition. The farm may be seen as Miro's jumping-off place into fantasy. In The Tilled Field he still has a foot on the ground, but the colored balloon of his imagination is beginning to pull him up into the air. Dreams and his reading of French poetry in the tradition of Jarry's Surmale and his association with surrealists in the middle nineteen-twenties carried him into still more individualistic realms. Collages as models for his pictures in the early thirties and the Spanish war in the following years gave his pictorial vocabulary fresh turns of phrase. And by 1948, as he explained at the time, he was allowing the materials of his art to point him the way. In those paintings there were
I make no distinction between painting and poetry. I happen to illustrate my paintings with poetic phrases and vice versa. ”
always these three stages: first, the suggestion, usually from the materials; second, the conscious organization of these forms; and third, the compositional enrichment”
In water colours I would roughen the surface of the pater by rubbing it. Painting over this roughened surface produced curious chance shapes”
Gouaches: in pastel colours with very violent contrasts. Even here, however, only the broad outlines were unconsciously done. The rest was carefully calculated. The broad initial drawing, generally in grease crayon, served as point of departure. I even used some spilled blackberry jam in one case for the beginning; I drew around the stains and made them the center of the composition”
And since that time this search for an always greater simplification, greater spontaneity and freshness of vision has continued almost without interruption down to those paintings which were so personal in his 1969 - 1970 Exhibition.
Even a few casual wipes of my brush in cleaning it may suggest the beginning of a picture. The second stage, however, is carefully calculated. The first stage is free, unconscious; but after that the picture is controlled throughout, in keeping with that desire for disciplined work which I have felt from the beginning.”
But Miro's personal approach is seen perhaps even more clearly in his sculpture than in his painting. Not that his sculpture is richer - by no means. But the steps he takes to recover that naivete and youthfulness which he is constantly and effortlessly seeking in all his work are perhaps more readily recognizable in his sculpture. Here his close response to materials and the hospitality with which he welcomes suggestions from them and gives them a personal adaptation are particularly evident. Also the individuality with which he employs colour arbitrarily, intensely and almost always to the end of gaiety and fantasy.
"Colour", as he said once speaking of his early year, "was for me." It still is for Miro. It is a natural tongue with him. He babbles in it freely as a child. And this freedom gives his use of it that air of spontaneity we recognize in all facets of hi9s art. It adds a freshness and lightness to everything he does - a "white magic," as it were. In his ceramic sculpture in collaboration with Artigas - in that ideal collaboration which they achieve of sensitive artisan and craftsman artist - he finds in the firing of his colours a magic profligate of surprise effects. On is never certain what may occur in the oven - what may come out. Nothing can be preconceived with certainty. Once more the collaboration of the material, and here, in addition, of the process. And in his ceramics the colours that result carry him back personally to those polychrome fantasies of broken tile fragments which give their gaiety to walls and seats of Gaudi's Park Guell, which made such an early and lasting impression on him.
The older Miro becomes, the younger his art. This is what is most striking as we look back over his work: its unity in his persistent search to recover and to keep that morning freshness of vision.
In this sense all his work is one work. And it lives in the youthfulness he has recovered for it. - Text by James Johnson Sweeney