05 October 2012

'Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape'

[I only occasionally publish a report on an art exhibit on ROT. For one (important) reason, I have no credentials to discuss art, though I have plenty of experience as a consumer. Unlike for plays, I don’t feel compelled to report on every exhibit I see, either for the record or for any other reason. When it comes to art shows, something in the experience has to have spoken to me, even if it’s only great pleasure in the work or the display. As a result, I haven’t written about an art exhibit for quite some time—the last ones were all last year, in fact, ending with the Paul Gauguin show at the National Gallery of Art in June 2011. None of the shows I’ve seen since then have caught my imagination strongly enough to overcome my general reluctance to spout off on a subject in which I have so little background. Until this August, finally, when my mother, a cousin, and I went to the National Gallery again for Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, a large show of the surrealist’s paintings spanning most of his career. (Admittedly, aside from having a long-standing affinity for Miró’s work, one reason for this enhanced interest is the fact that it took Mom and me three tries to get to the show, which we managed to do in its last week. That’s not including one attempt Mom made with a friend after I had left Washington when I was there in June. After all that effort, I guess I was primed to appreciate this show a little more than I might have otherwise. Not that it wasn’t a completely worthy exhibit of some really terrific art anyway.) So, then, here are my impressions of The Ladder of Escape, a retrospective of the paintings of Joan Miró (1893-1983). ~Rick]

I’ve been going down to Washington somewhat more often lately than I used to, principally for family reasons. On my recent trip down in the middle of June, my mother and I took in two plays (see my ROT reports on The Servant of Two Masters, 9 July, and Memphis, 14 July) but we also tried twice to get to the Mall to see Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape at the National Gallery of Art (6 May-12 August). Both times we abandoned the effort for irrelevant reasons. Essentially because of that, and because Mom had made a lunch date with a cousin who lives in Baltimore but whom we don’t see so often, I planned another visit to the Nation’s Capital in early August to try to catch the show before it finally closed. So I took my usual Kosher Bus down on Monday, 6 August, and we met my cousin Andy the next afternoon at the Garden Café in the West Building where a special menu had been created by Chef José Andrés, best known in the District as chef-owner of Jaleo, a trio of Washington-area Spanish eateries popular for their tapas selections. Renamed for the duration of the Miró exhibit, the Garden Café Catalonia featured Catalan-infused dishes such as empedrat de mongetes, a tasty white bean salad with vegetables, black olives, and tomato; sopa freda de cireres de Santa Coloma de Cervelló, delicious cold cherry and tomato soup—and really, really different; samfaina, a pleasant Catalan vegetable stew; and pollastre a la catalane, a savory Catalan chicken stew with dried fruits and nuts.

After lunch by the 19th-century French marble sculpture Bacchus and a Faun (after Jacopo Sansovino) and a fountain with Herbert Adams’s art nouveau bronze Girl with Water Lilies (model 1928), we trooped through the underground concourse—it was a very hot and humid outdoors, as it was all that week along the Potomac—to the East Building for the large show which covered several galleries on two floors. It was an absolutely magnificent exhibit of the life’s work of one of the world’s most fascinating artists, one whose art had intrigued me since I first encountered it decades ago. (One of my favorite works at NGA was Woman, the 1977 Miró tapestry that used to hang in the main atrium of the East Building. It had been commissioned for the I. M. Pei structure, but a number of years ago it was removed, ostensibly for cleaning, and has never been returned to its place of prominence in the big entrance space. I miss it every time I go there.)

The Ladder of Escape was organized by the Tate Modern in London in cooperation with Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, in association with NGA. Washington had been the exhibit’s last stop on a three-city tour following stays at the Tate Modern from 14 to 11 September 2011 and the Fundació Miró from 13 October 2011 to 25 March 2012. Unfortunately, no further visits are planned, so I’m doubly glad I finally managed to get to it just before it finished up in Washington. Curated by Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale of the Tate Modern in collaboration with Teresa Montaner, a curator at the Fundació Miró, the 160 paintings, drawings, prints, and a single sculpture span more than half a century, from Portrait of Vicens Nubiola (1917) to the Fireworks series (1974). Ladder is arranged basically in chronological order, which allows spectators to view the artist’s development from early Hieronymus Bosch-like landscapes to his more iconic floating blobs of color, stars, moons, suns, flowers, stick figures, and letters. The curators’ motive for the chronology, however, is different: history. Daniel and Gale propose that Miró, not generally considered a political painter, was an “artist of his times.” Because he lived through World War I (1914-18), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II (1939-45), and Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s dictatorship of Spain (1939-1975), Ladder’s curators posit that Miró was engaged in the issues of the time. In addition, they contend, he was a passionate Catalan, championing the culture and traditions of his homeland and displaying a Catalonian nationalism in his art. The surrealist’s political interests are coded in his paintings, however, without being expressed overtly. They have to be sussed out, which Daniel and Gale accomplish with the wall panels, just so we don’t overlook the political content.

But I tend to go with most of the art critics whose reviews I read: the attempt to make Miró into a political artists is quatsch. All of us wax political sometimes, and there’s no denying that two or three of the works on display in Ladder have strong political undertones, especially during the Civil War period and the authoritarian dictatorship of Franco when freedoms and artistic expression were suppressed and dissidents were persecuted and sometimes disappeared. (Look at Aidez l'Espagne, the 1937 design for a French postage stamp which was Miró's most public statement during the Spanish Civil War. A Franco-Spanish nonintervention pact prevented production of the stamp and the design was converted into a poster.) I also think you can find political meaning in just about anything if you try hard enough, especially if it’s art that’s as open to personal interpretation as the surrealism of Miró. The painter didn’t talk about his art so much; most of his work is left to the viewer to interpret so it’s a little like the patient who tells his shrink that all the Rorschach blots look like figures engaged in sex. “Why do you keep seeing sex in all the inkblots?” asks the doctor. “Me?” replies the patient. “You’re the one drawing the dirty pictures!” That seems to me what Daniel and Gale have done—substituting politics for sex, of course.

As for his focus on Catalan life and imagery, I’m not sure that’s necessarily so political, either. Many artists draw on the culture of the regions where they were born without getting embroiled in the political issues of the region. Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner were passionate Southern writers, but neither one refought the Civil War (pardon me, the War for Southern Independence) in their art. Williams did take stands on civil rights and the Vietnam war now and then, but in essays and letters that were published separately from his plays, poems, and short stories. So, if Miró included allusions to his Catalan heritage in his paintings, I don’t find that he was campaigning for the independence of Catalonia or crying out against the suppression of Catalan culture. He was painting what he knew and loved—like most artists. Of some of his early paintings, Miró remarked later, “I am very much attached to the landscape of my country.” In The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) (1923-24), for instance, Miró inserted a tiny image of the crossed flags of France and Catalonia attached to a scythe and suspended over a ladder into his surrealistic landscape. (By the way, that’s the “ladder of escape,” a recurring image, as we’ll see, in Miró’s work to which the exhibition’s title refers.) But these were the main places where he’d lived and the image struck me as more sentimental than political. (In The Tilled Field, 1923-24, Miró painted three little flags, with the Catalan banner flying between those of Spain and France. Like the banners in The Hunter, they’re hardly prominent.) If there’s nationalism in this, then its innate, not necessarily purposeful.

Happily, as Ken Johnson of the New York Times declared, this “muddled” interpretation didn’t mar the show as a collection of wonderful paintings and drawings. The situation reminds me of a van Gogh exhibit I saw at MoMA in 2008, Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night. (Coincidentally, I saw another Miró show on the same visit, Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937.) Of the van Gogh exhibit, I wrote:

The curators want to make the point that night was a special inspiration to van Gogh (though we know that what attracted him to Arles and Provence was the extreme brightness of the southern sun and the colors that virtually assaulted him in that yellow light). I suppose there’s a legitimate argument to be made for that point (if art needs an argument to justify an exhibit), but my suspicion is that someone wanted to mount a van Gogh show and, there having been so many just in recent years, that she or he decided there had to be a “unique” perspective to rationalize a new exhibit. Anyway, that’s what it looked like to me. Not that I care, of course. I’ll accept any excuse to mount a van Gogh show; all I want to do is see the paintings. And if The Starry Night’s there, or his sunflowers, or some of his portraits—I don’t even need a rationale.

The press generally agreed, despite reservations or even outright objections to the curatorial conception for Ladder. (The Washington City Paper called it “a hard sell.”) The Washington Times described The Ladder of Escape as “an artist’s astonishing chronological journey through the major movements of modern art” and the New York Times declared, “It is a beautiful and exciting show.”

Joan Miró i Ferrà (pronounced in Catalan: zho-AN mee-RO) was born on 20 April 1893 in Barcelona, the Mediterranean port city that’s the historical capital of Catalonia, the ancient Spanish state on the northeast coast. He was the oldest child and only son of Miquel Miró Adzerias, a goldsmith and watchmaker, and Dolores Ferrà, the daughter of a cabinetmaker in Palma de Mallorca. At the age of seven, he began drawing classes at a private school and at 14, enrolled in La Escuela de Artes y Oficios Artísticos (School of Fine Arts) in Barcelona. At the insistence of his family, Miró also studied business and started his working life in his teens as a clerk, but in 1911 he suffered a nervous breakdown followed by typhoid and after retreating to the farm in rural Mont-roig his parents had bought as a vacation home, devoted himself entirely to his art. The emerging painter’s early influences and inspirations were visionary artists Bosch and William Blake, then the Fauvists and Cubists, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. He had his first solo show at the Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona in 1918, but his work was roundly rejected. In 1920, the young surrealist moved to Paris to join the gathering of artists in Montparnasse, the bohemian quarter of what had become the art capital of the western world. There he met American writer Ernest Hemingway and fellow Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, twelve years Miró’s senior, who was immersed in his Cubist period at the time. He regularly returned home in the summer, spending time at Mont-roig (Catalan for ‘red mountain’).

In Paris, Miró completed several canvases he’d started in Mont-roig, including The Farm (1921-22), The Hunter, and The Tilled Field, all of which were in the first gallery of Ladder. Aside from the fact that these works from this early period were unknown to me, they were revealing as an initial stage in Miró’s development of an individual style, the surrealism for which he became universally known and recognized. With some influences from cubist and abstract painting, Miró filled his canvases with details from his memories of Mont-roig, but images filtered through a dream or the subconscious and scattered about the scene as if dumped from a strange child’s toy box. “The Farm was a résumé of my entire life in the country,” the painter acknowledged. “I wanted to put everything that I loved about the country into that canvas—from a huge tree to a tiny little snail,” he explained in a way that sounds more nostalgic than politically motivated. His later work is wholly unreal, fantastical, but The Farm, for instance, is part real and part unreal. All the elements are recognizable, but the overall effect is magical and otherworldly. NGA’s website sums this period of his work up very nicely for me:

Events of daily life in the farmyard are meticulously rendered, each element carefully observed and precisely described, yet the overall effect is strangely dreamlike. Miró’s style—fanciful and playful, while wonderfully detailed and thoughtfully arranged—creates a kind of magical realism.

The general resemblance to Bosch is palpable both in the way Miró filled his frame with images—NGA materials called it his “detailist” style; his later work left a lot of unfilled space, a sort of void in which his amoebic shapes floated gravity-free—and in the symbolism with which he imbued those images, meaning that may or not be immediately clear. The symbols Miró employed just grew less and less representational and more and more abstract. (Surrealism draws substantially on dreams, so many of the images Miró and other surrealists present are often private, open to each viewer’s own interpretation. If I respond one way and you another—we’re both right. Perhaps that’s how Ladder’s curators got their notion of pervasive political statements.) Being introduced to these works of the ’teens and ’20s of which I hadn’t been aware was one huge benefit of the organization of Ladder—getting to see the Miró before the Miró I knew.

In 1923, Spanish general Miguel Primo de Rivera launched a military coup, establishing a dictatorship (1923-30) which suppressed Catalonian autonomy. In Paris, the painter joined the Surrealists which had organized in 1924 under the leadership of writer and poet André Breton (who wrote the group’s manifestos). He began to move away from the cluttered busy-ness of The Farm and Tilled Field, turning toward the spareness and abstraction of his later work—though he didn’t altogether abandon pictorial images. In many of this period’s canvases, called “animated landscapes,” a small number of animals, especially dogs and birds, and even people appeared in cartoon-like representations, often juxtaposed with unrelated abstract objects on fields of lush color. Landscape (The Hare) (1927), for example, shows a rabbit with a spiraling sphere, and Dog Barking at the Moon (1926) and Landscape (Landscape with Rooster) (1927) depict, respectively, a dog and a rooster with a ladder. One recurring image is the stick figure of the Catalan farmer with the ubiquitous red cap (called a barretina in Catalan, the museum materials tell me), as in Head of a Catalan Peasant (series, 1924-25). Again, here’s evidence of a sort of casual nationalism that seems more devotion to his native culture, romanticized to be sure, than insistently activist. The abstraction, reduced to a few lines and dots, rather than an evocation of Catalan nationalism, can be read as a prideful self-representation of the artist.

The ladder (of escape) in these works represents the connection between the natural world and the preternatural, or the real world and the world of imagination and dreams. Miró, the visionary, the dreamer, climbed from the realm of reality, the mundane and solid, to the realm of the metaphysical and symbolic where things like gravity and logic (and politics?) don’t exist. Daniel and Gale want the ladder to be grounded in the quotidian world of politics and issues, reaching up to the escapist word of imagination and magic. In 1940, however, when the artist was fleeing France to evade the German occupation, he painted The Escape Ladder, a representation of a fairly prosaic and literal point: the escape from the Nazis. The red-and-black striped ladder leads from the bottom edge of the painting, where all kinds of strange and even threatening hybrid creatures are depicted, up into Miró’s mystical heavens, studded with his blobs, stars, and moons, where his imagination lives, and where, I think, art provides him a refuge from reality. Generally, Miró’s ladder was his route into the haven of his imagination from distressing and unpleasant surroundings, including political reality. Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post asserted that “Miro's ladders are also ladders to nowhere,” but I find that too dismissive; however, Ken Johnson’s final assessment of the symbol in the New York Times rings nicely:

But ladders go both ways. They can be a means of escape from worldly woes, but they also may lead the visionary prophet back down to earth, where he may try to get people to become better oriented to transcendental realities—by making art, for example.

Eventually, the painter distanced himself from the organized Surrealists because he rejected Breton’s alliance of the art group with the communist party. Miró never signed the Surrealist Manifesto, signaling, I believe, his resistance to political activism even though he was bitterly opposed to Franco’s rightist Falangists and surely backed the Republicans in the Civil War, whose cause was supported by the communists and socialists. (The Falange was openly championed by Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s National Socialists.) Miró, according to his personal history, wasn’t a joiner or an activist, and unlike his countryman Picasso, who exiled himself to France all through the Franco dictatorship, Miró left his native land for artistic, not political reasons in 1920 and returned to work in Falangist-controlled Spain in 1940. As Jeffry Cudlin put it in the Washington City Paper, “Miró was an aesthetic revolutionary, not a political one.”

Miró married Pilar Juncosa in 1929 and remained with her until his death. In 1931, the year Miró’s daughter Dolores was born, Pierre Matisse, the youngest child of painter Henri Matisse, opened a gallery in New York City and represented the Spanish surrealist, thus introducing him to the Unites States with frequent exhibits of the Spaniard’s work. Because of the deprivations of the Depression, the Mirós returned to live in Barcelona in 1932 and the painter continued to work in the brief second Spanish republic established after the ouster of Primo de Rivera; the return of democracy briefly reinstated some of Catalonia’s autonomy. When the Spanish army suppressed the nascent republic in 1934, foreshadowing the coming civil war, Miró engaged in a creative period during which he vowed to “assassinate painting,” the subject of the MoMA exhibit I viewed in 2008, Painting and Anti-Painting. Works during this time weren’t painted on canvas, but on Masonite, copper, and thick paper, using odd media like casein, tar, and sand instead of paint, with shards of newspaper, tarpaper, or sandpaper affixed to them. Ironically, these 1936 works usually bear the title Painting—perhaps in the same turn of mind as surrealist René Magritte when Miró’s Belgian contemporary wrote across The Treason of Images (1928-29), a depiction of a pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe).

At the end of 1936, after the civil war began, the family went into self-imposed exile in Paris, following the events in their homeland from a distance. Miró’s work took on a bitterer and angrier tone, with figures in attitudes of fear, supplication, anguish, or protest. In Still Life with Old Shoe (1937), a withered, brown apple is speared by a misshapen fork and splotches of garish colors pop out of a black background as if glinting in a blackout. (This painting has been called Miró’s Guernica, though I wonder if the artist would have felt that way.) According to the Washington Times, Miró called the objects in the work “tragic symbols of the period—the tragedy of a miserable crust of bread and an old shoe, an apple pierced by a cruel fork and a bottle that like a burning house, spread its flames across the entire surface of the canvas.” But rather than relish this anguished painting for its apparent political—or, at least, topical—expression, New York Times art critic Johnson observed: “What is immediately captivating about it, though, is how the rustic objects seem to glow numinously from within. It is an image of supernatural immanence in the humblest of circumstances.”

In 1937, the beleaguered Republican government of Spain commissioned Miró to paint a mural for its pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition (World’s Fair) and the artist created Catalan Peasant in Revolt, his first major foray into politically significant art. (Note that his subject wasn’t Spanish, though, but Catalan—his lifelong national pride still holding sway. Catalonia remained a stronghold of Republican support.) Better known as The Reaper, the two-story mural, destroyed or lost when the building was taken down, depicted a Catalan peasant raising a sickle (a common symbol of communism, perhaps not coincidentally), ready to combat fascism; it hung in the pavilion near Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war work, Guernica.

In 1939, the Spanish Republic fell to Francisco Franco’s Falangist forces and Germany, which had used the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for its war machine, prepared to invade France. Miró moved out of Paris south to Normandy, but when the Wehrmacht marched into Paris in 1940, he returned to Spain, now firmly under Franco’s rule. The painter and his family settled in Palma, the main town of Majorca in the Balearic Islands; Miró’s wife was from Palma. (Franco’s government declared Spain neutral during World War II so, despite the Caudillo’s ties to Hitler and Mussolini, those living in Spain, unlike in Unoccupied France, were safe from Nazi persecution and arrest. Intimidation by the Spanish government was another matter, of course.) Between 1940 and 1941, as he was retreating, he completed the gouache (a kind of thick, tempera-like watercolor) series Constellations, small paintings on paper, many of which are in the exhibit. As if to help make my point, Miró said of these exquisite little paintings covered with human figures, animals (especially birds), moons, and stars, “I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets of paper with no preconceived ideas.” (I loved these little pieces and if I were to come back for one of our Midnight Shopping Trips, I’d head straight for them. And swing by The Farm, a painting once owned by Miró’s friend Hemingway, on the way out.) During this period also, the first monograph on the artist was published (Shuzu Takiguchi, Miró [Tokyo: Atelier, 1940]).

After the war, Miró returned to Paris periodically to explore new painting techniques while he continued to live in Barcelona. In 1959, André Breton asked Miró to represent Spain in The Homage to Surrealism exhibition alongside several other artists, including fellow Spaniard Salvador Dalí, and Miró created a series of sculptures and ceramics, a medium in which he’d begun to experiment, for the garden of the Maeght Foundation, a museum of modern art in Saint-Paul de Vence in the south of France near Nice, which was completed in 1964. In Ladder is another overtly political work: May 68 (May 1968-December 1973), which uses splattered paint of blue, black, yellow, and red; palm prints; and graffiti-like squiggles and curved lines on a white background to pay homage to the student-and-worker protests that swept the world, especially Paris, that month.

In 1974, Miró created a tapestry for New York City’s World Trade Center. (He avoided doing tapestries until he learned the technique; then he produced several, including Woman for NGA in 1977.) His World Trade Center Tapestry was one of the works of art lost during the 11 September 2001 terror attack. Franco died in 1975 and Spain became a constitutional monarchy under King Juan Carlos de Borbón, but the last years of the dictatorship had been fraught with unrest, protests, and crackdowns. The political situation affected Miró’s work once again and he created his Burnt Canvases series, two examples of which from 1973 are in the show. The painter splashed paint from the can onto canvas he scorched with a torch, adding thick brushstrokes and treading across the surface. They are ugly but powerful and emotive works. Miró said he was trying to harness fire’s “inventive force,” but the distressed works, one of which reveals the wooden stretchers usually hidden by the canvas, looked to me like the remains of an art show that had been attacked by a mob, perhaps one geed up by forces opposed to non-traditional art.

The Ladder of Escape ends with the waning of Franco’s dictatorship, though Miró’s creative life continued for eight years after the Caudillo’s death and Spain’s return to democracy. Barcelona’s Fundació Joan Miró was established in 1975 and in 1981, the city of Palma opened the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró a Mallorca in four studios the artist donated. In 1979, Miró received an honorary doctorate from the University of Barcelona and in 1980, he received the Gold Medal of Fine Arts, Spain's highest cultural honor, from King Juan Carlos. He was still creating new work in the last years of his life, including 1981’s The Sun, the Moon and One Star, for Chicago’s Loop. The large, mixed media, outdoor sculpture, later renamed Miró's Chicago, is located across the street from a large, untitled steel sculpture by Miró’s countryman Picasso (informally called the Chicago Picasso, 1967). He also created the monumental (and deliberately phallic), ceramic-clad, concrete sculpture Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird, 1982) for the Parc Joan Miró in Barcelona, his native city. (In Catalan, the word ocell is also slang for ‘penis.’ Even at 90, the man had a mischievous sense of humor.) The artist, who suffered from heart disease, was unable to attend the installation because he was too ill; he died less than a year later at age 90 at his home in Palma, Majorca, on 25 December 1983.

Like Ken Johnson in the New York Times, who wrote in his review that “evidence of worldly political engagement is hard to find,” most of the criticism of The Ladder of Escape agreed that the curatorial conceit was a stretch. Roland Flamini characterized the notion in the Washington Times as “circumstantial at best” and Jeffry Cudlin of the Washington City Paper admonished that Miró’s art “is not . . . best viewed as the product of repressed regional identity and allegiance to the political left.” When the curators of Ladder ask if Miró was a politically active artist or a visionary one, if his art came from the times he lived through or despite them, Cudlin responded, “These are not difficult questions to answer, and pretending that they are is disingenuous.” In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott decreed that “it is more uninteresting than enlightening to argue that Miro was a political animal.” He determined, “One senses, rather, that from time to time, he directed a portion of his astonishing creative energy to political subjects, but that he was not by temperament deeply political.” Only in the Washingtonian did Sophie Gilbert seem to support Daniel and Gale’s contention, stating that “the extent of Miró's political involvement is revealed in . . . the hidden symbols” of his art. Gilbert views the painter “as a barometer of his era.”

Aside from ending the exhibit nine years short of the end of Miró’s life, the curators had carefully selected fewer than 170 works from a creative output many times that number. (None of Miró’s ceramics and only one of his sculptures, 1936’s Object of Sunset, is included.) The curators had grouped the works into periods of the most volatile political tension of Miró’s lifetime: 1918-1925, when Catalonia was an independent state, only to have its autonomy suppressed by a military dictatorship; 1934-1941, during the tumult of Spain’s civil war and the beginning of World War II; and 1968-1975, a time of extreme-leftist European activism. As I said earlier, any of us might wax political—and many of us have cultures, often from our birthplaces, to which we have a strong affinity. Van Gogh was drawn to workers at their labor, a subject that occupied him both artistically and philosophically because he believed that artists were also laborers, only in the fields of culture. He saw artists, farmers, and dockworkers as kin, and labor was an ennobling endeavor—but did that make van Gogh some kind of socialist painter? If our work were presented conscientiously pruned with the proper explications, might we all not seem devoted to politics—or any subject which we might actually have addressed only occasionally? Even with that predetermined focus, Daniel and Gale included many paintings in Ladder that contained no salient political or even nationalistic theme, such as the breathtaking Constellation series, painted during a particularly tense time in Miró’s life as he and his family were trapped in Normandy by the advancing German army, and many of their wall texts don’t mention political issues at all.

On the other hand, it would have been difficult, not to say impossible, for an artist (indeed, any sentient person) not to feel moved, even angered, by some of the events to which Miró was witness. The Spanish Civil War was bloody and devastating and diverted Spain from a brief period of democracy following the Primo de Rivera dictatorship to 36 years of authoritarian rule; World War II, particularly the German occupation of France, where Miró had settled, was shattering; and Franco’s regime was oppressive and repressive, especially for artists and intellectuals, many of whom were killed (playwright Federico Garcia Lorca) or fled (Pablo Picasso). Miró was certainly an emotional and passionate artist, which isn’t the same as being politically engaged; even if he made occasional, and sometimes very blunt, statements about politics and Catalonian national culture, that doesn’t make him a “political artist.” Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (who was a political artist) declared, “To be an artist, one must first be a man, vitally concerned with all problems of social struggle . . .,” and I believe that that’s what was operating for Miró: he was just being an artist moved by the life around him. In the end, however, no matter what the exhibit’s organizers may have had in mind, there are always the paintings. No matter what excuse someone may have used to bring them together and let me look at them, it didn’t interfere with that immense pleasure.

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