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Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Joan Miro: Reflections on the renewal of Spain

Special to The Japan Times

No artist's life and work -- not even Picasso's -- better represents the modern history of Spain than that of Joan Miro (1893-1983), whose early work from 1918 to 1945 is now on display at the Setagaya Art Museum.

News photo
Joan Miro's detailliste "Vegetable Garden and Donkey" (1918); "Dancer Listening to the Organ in a Gothic Cathedral" (1945, below)
News photo

During Miro's lifetime, his homeland underwent dramatic change. At his birth it was a decayed colonial empire; the following period of progressive and anarchic change led to bloody civil war and, between 1939-75, decades of rightwing rule under Gen. Franco. With Franco's death came a process of democratic reform that allowed Spain to throw off the past and, finally, embrace its present role as a decentralized, forward-looking member of the European Union -- as well as a popular tourist destination.

Miro's art has become the symbol of this happy ending, being used extensively to publicize the two major events that showcased the new Spain to the wider world: the 1982 soccer World Cup and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. With the vivid optimism of its bright colors and playful shapes, and an iconic simplicity that allows it to transfer easily to other media, such as posters and television, it is no surprise that Miro's art was pressed into service for national PR.

But there's more to Miro's art than appealing logos for Spanish tourism, as this exhibition makes clear. What we detect in the works shown here is the very pulse of 20th-century Spanish history.

Although Barcelona, the city of Miro's birth, is now considered one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, in his youth it was (like the rest of Spain) something of a cultural backwater. This is evident from the eagerness with which the young painter responded to the artistic fashions emanating from Paris. His early works show the influence of Cezanne ("The Bottle and the Pepper," 1915), Van Gogh ("Portrait of E.C. Ricart," 1917), Fauvism ("Cambrils, the Port," 1917) and Cubism ("The Balcony," 1917). Although derivative, these paintings are some of the most enjoyable at the exhibition, delighting with their vibrant colors and the obvious passion and excitement of the young provincial artist.

Even better are the two so-called detailliste works inspired, says the exhibition's curator, Hiroya Murakami, by van Gogh's meditation on Japanese art. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh had written: "If we study Japanese art, we discover a man who is undeniably wise, philosophical and intelligent, who spends his time -- doing what? Studying the distance from the Earth to the Moon? No! Studying the politics of Bismarck? No! He studies . . . a single blade of grass."

This emphasis on the integrity of even the smallest elements is evident in "Vegetable Garden and Donkey" (1918) and "House With Palm Tree" (1918), in which Miro paints each tiny blade of grass and flower petal with a naive charm reminiscent of the paintings of Henri Rousseau.

Works like this may have been daring enough to cause a stir in his native Catalonia, but not in Paris, which Miro began visiting in 1920 and returned to annually thereafter.

Paris broadened his perspective. Reflecting the influx of revolutionary ideas into Spain in the '20s and '30s, Miro's ideas took a more extreme turn and his obsession with details mutated into a radical minimalism. This can be seen in works such as "Nude Descending a Staircase" (1924), which, in its utter lack of artistic device, marks the low point of his art.

Although Miro came to be perceived in the TV age as a kindly old man, in these years his art and his language were aggressive, reflecting the tensions then building up in Spain between revolutionaries and conservatives.

"The only thing that's clear to me is that I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting," he told an interviewer in 1931. "I have an utter contempt for painting."

It is easy to see how this kind of belligerence, transferred to the political arena, could result in the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936 while Miro was in France, where he stayed until the German invasion of 1940 drove him back across the border.

The clearest manifestations of this crisis at the exhibition are the etchings from his "Black and Red Series" of 1938. The tortured distorted figures readily bring to mind those in Picasso's more famous comment on the Spanish Civil War, "Guernica" (1937).

Yet, for all his strong words this period of extremism ultimately led Miro into political disenchantment and detachment. The mood of lyrical escapism first shown in early works like "Carnival of Harlequin" (1924-5) now became dominant, strengthened by the continuing use in his painting of automatism, a method that he believed enabled him to unlock the inner world of dreams and the subconsciousness more effectively than the figurative art of his fellow Surrealists, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.

The results of this evolution can be seen in "Women, Bird, Stars" (1942) and "Dancer Listening to the Organ in a Gothic Cathedral" (1945). With their anthropomorphized, hieroglyphic shapes, childlike freedom of line and exuberant color, they already contain all the elements that would later come to typify Miro to the world -- and provide Spain with the perfect graffiti to blot out the Franco years.

"Joan Miro: 1918-1945" runs till Sept. 23 at the Setagaya Art Museum, (03) 3415-6011. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission 1,300 yen, 900 yen, 650 yen and 500 yen.

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