Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

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Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York ©Successio Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011
Joan Miró, 'The Tilled Field', 1923-4

Any attempt to package or polish a painter as pure, abstract and beguiling as Joan Miró might seem as futile as trying to grasp precise meaning in any of his poetic canvases, filled as they are with seemingly primitive glyphs, wandering lines and inconclusive forms. This deftly chosen exhibition, however, not only brilliantly captures the man’s ceaseless painterly progression, but does so through the prism of a life bookended by national and international conflicts, from two world wars through to student riots and the rise and fall of 40 years of fascist dictatorship in his native Spain.

Miró was always a painter first and foremost, so any political concerns or affiliations were only ever of secondary importance. Indeed, he rejected political parties as often as he did artistic movements, going out of his way to avoid taking sides with the cubists or surrealists just as he fled his beloved Catalonia before the Civil War only to then quit his adopted home in Paris at the height of Nazi occupation. A 1917 work in the first room, ‘Nord-Sud’, depicts the young artist as an uncaged bird ready to leave Barcelona and the parochial south behind him in favour of Europe’s cultured capital due north.

Such obvious symbolism soon gave way to a stylised calligraphy of sorts, in which ideogrammatic characters and geometric shapes stand in for objects in nature – a giant ear suggests Miró wanted to bring sound into his work, not just strip away the world we associate with plain sight. Counter-intuitively, Miró kept careful records of these subconscious surges by noting every time he used a particular emblem: stars, crescent moons, spirals and eyes being among the most frequent occurrences in his ‘Constellation’ series. Another recurring symbol, ‘The Ladder of Escape’ represents more than the restlessness of a perpetual émigré – it’s the heady ascent from a tiller of Catalan soil to an interpreter of the celestial firmament.

He was a painter in deep dialogue with himself – perhaps even envisioning himself as the peasant with a guitar and red cap in the 1920s and the condemned men he painted in later life. In one audacious self-portrait of 1960 he overdubbed an older 1937 pencil drawing of his face with a grinning cartoon caricature of his own blobby style, showing just how far he’d come. His boundless creativity comes to a crescendo in the burned paintings and two side chapels of triptychs that are like entering a virtual reality Miró world. From single, daring brushtrokes to swaths of yellow, red, green and blue, you – like the artist himself – won’t be the same when you come out the other side.

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