As part of a touring Miró retrospective, which started at Tate Modern last spring and is currently up at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (through August 2012), curators Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale have published Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, a monograph covering the entirety of the artist’s career. In contrast to your typical retrospective catalogue, The Ladder of Escape emphasizes how Miró and his work were affected by the political history of his native Catalonia, Franco’s Spain, and World War II.
Miró, probably the third most famous Catalan artist, was never as politically active as Picasso and Dalí. In fact, Miró often went out of his way to avoid political confrontation. He was never a fan of the Franco regime, but other than refusing to participate in an official exhibition in 1969, he didn’t take decisive action against it either. The Ladder of Escape argues that if one looks at Miró’s work, his underlying rebellion becomes clear. The ladders that appear in many of his paintings symbolize his attempt at escaping, both literally and figuratively, the incomprehensible cruelty of the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Franco regime, as well as the pessimism so prevalent in European artistic and intellectual spheres at the time.
Whether or not his paintings contain subversive political messages, as Daniel and Gale would have us believe, Miró’s powerful three-dimensional works certainly did. As the artist himself once said, “It is in sculpture that I will create a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters; what I do in painting is more conventional.” Unfortunately, the book has only one chapter dedicated to Miró’s sculpture, and the exhibition contains just one three-dimensional work, L’Objet du couchant. Kerryn Greenberg’s chapter addresses Miró’s “anti-monuments” to nature and the everyday, as well as his love of found materials, prehistoric influences, and personification of objects almost to the point of animism. Political concerns come out most clearly in his sculptures of the monarchical figures, which look to be painted pieces of driftwood.
Miró’s most political and, in my opinion, most creative work wasn’t created until after Franco’s death. In collaboration with the La Claca theater group, in the 1970s, Miró designed and created sets, masks, and large puppets for a production of Mori el Merma, a play whose main character was obviously based on Catalonia’s most hated former dictator. At around the same time, Miró made his “Burnt Canvases,” which he not only burned but also walked on, spilled paint over, cut, punched, and, in his own words, “improvised with rage.” When they were first shown in Paris, these sculptural works were hung in the middle of the gallery, so that viewers could contemplate the void and the changing scene on the other side of the objects, as well as the objects themselves (The National Gallery very disappointingly has these bashfully hung on walls).
Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape is a beautiful book, and its essays are both informative and thought-provoking, especially William Jeffett’s “From Miró otro to the Burnt Canvases.” I’m not entirely convinced of Miró’s dissidence through escapism in his paintings, and I find his later sculptural and public works to be much more profound. Perhaps, that’s where the focus of the exhibition and resulting catalogue should have been.
Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape
edited by Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale
New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012
240 pages, 200 illustrations, $60 hardcover