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Joan Miro @ The Tate Modern

I suppose I should start with me never really being a fan of Miro. I’ve never fully appreciated his work and never really cared. Poor of me, I know.

It was a lovely day at The Tate. Southbank was sunny, nice breeze from the Thames and not too many school kids around.

I am a fan of Tate’s retrospectives. There is usually something there for everyone; the tourists, the people that have seen it all before and those who say ‘that’s not art.’ I’ve been a member of Tate now for about four years, but this was the first time that I ever used one of their audio guides. I can highly recommend it; though if you aren’t a member, it can make for a costly trip. £14 for the ticket and £4 for the audio guide.

The first room consisted of the work most would be unfamiliar with. Produced in his early 20’s while still working as an office clerk, these paintings were homages and studies to his local and loved farmlands of Catalonia. Slight elements of Cubism in the architecture and very details social studies of the workings of the land, which reminded me a little of Brugel the Elder.

The difference between Vegetable Garden and Donkey (1918) and The Filled Field (1923/4) is unbelievably. Already we seen ‘miro’ motifs starting to appear; motifs that will stay part of his career for the following fifty years. The movement in the blue skies, the branches and leaves and part of the Miro I recognise. the energy in the shapes of the tilled field are the curved lines that we will se time and time again throughout the exhibition.

The abstracted horses and lizards in The Tilled Field, the disembodied eye and ear floating above the tree signify a shift from the real to the symbol and a blatant infulence from the Surrealists.

Room 2 focuses on the influence of the surrealists - paintings flooded with metaphors and signs and faces made up of a simple cross feature often. Four paintings titled The Head of a Catalian Peasant show variations of the same but the common motif is the red ‘barretina,’ a traditional hat worn by many during 19th Catalonia, especially in rural areas. Although not work often at the time of painting as part of everyday life, it was something that was seen as part of the folk revival scene and was worn as a political sign.

The late 1920’s showed more of a move towards the political in his art, albeit subtle. All obvious elements of the real and form are now gone from his work, leaving just symbols and abstraction. This progression in Miro’s work coincided with Spain’s economic depression and the move towards civil war under the Franco regime. Prevalent signs in his paintings of this period were ladders and wheels, showing dreams of assent to a better place and hopes of Spain’s progression.

Despite being now popular on an international scale, in Spain, Miro  was poor and the economic despression and Franco’s crack down on anything promoting Catalonion nationalism meant his work wasn’t sellings and went into hiding.

The 1930’s work showed visions of nightmares and the obsene.Naked Woman Going Upstairs (1937) looks like something that may have influenced the nightmare trips of Ralph Steadman.

The work that maybe impressed me the most in the show was The Barcelona Series (1944); a series of 50 stark black and white lithographs. For me they came across like a Guernica that had been chopped up to bits. Each image, hand sketched or painted direct onto transfer paper showed the contorted faces and emotions felt by Catalans during the civil war. The Barcelona Series had never been show in it’s entirety under Franco’s rule; instead being shown in parts in private exhibitions set up secretly in collectors homes.

Room 8’s Constellation Series (1940-47) was work I was most familiar with, as I had sold signed prints of these in the past as part of my job @Washington Green. This, admittedly, was some of the only Miro work I had previously liked.

These small and beautiful works of gouache and oil washes on paper are exactly what I expected. A lot of the time with exhibitions like this, you are overwhelmed by how different in size works by these modern masters are - Dali’s were so much smaller than I expected. Each work is dated so that they describe a series of events that coincide with the beginnings and end of WWII. As they progress, each image becomes more detailed, with more ladders, contorted faces and later women and birds. My favorite was Women Encircled by the Flight of a Bird (1941).

The final few rooms of the show is total abstraction and deconstruction of not only the art but of Miro himself. At this time Miro was critically lauded, not only internationally but at home in Spain now, now being recognised as an important Spanish master.

Room 9’s centerpiece was a plinth full of bronze work and the magnificent Message From a Friend, which looked like Moby Dick diving down onto a black sea. In fact, Message From a Friend is actually an abstracted arrow from an airmail envelope from his friend, fellow artists, Alexander Calder.

Blue Triptych was overwhelming. I never had any concept of how big this would be, as on paper I had never liked these images. In the Rothko-esque set up, the gallery becomes a church and the triptych an alter. The blue washes are emersive and calming, filling your entire field of vision - like being underwater.

In the 1970’s, in the setting of his new studio, his revisited many older works that were hidden during the war. In an interview he said this was like ‘pulling out bad weeds from his garden.’ ‘Pulling’ is an understament.

Room 11 is full of works from the Burnt Canvas Series. Here old works were doused in petrol, set ablaze and reworked with mops full of paint, while still alight and trapped in his studio, with his assistant waiting with a wet towel. Here Miro is 80 and reassessing his entire life as an artist.The works are hung as sculpture, with the viewing peering through the burnt holes, seeing the gallery on the other side.

Equally as deconstructive, is Head which was created over 34 years. originally conceived in 1940, all we see of the old painting is a waving hand, as in 1974, Miro obliterated the work with a solid black demonic head with one red eyes looking out. The hand could be waving; it could be waving for help or drowning. The hand could actually now be that of the head. Just like most of his work from this period, the meaning is up to us and is not given away at all.

Fireworks Triptych (1974) is reminiscent of both Twombly and Pollock. Buckets of black paints are thrown at the canvas. But this doesn’t look like an attack. The black paint is organic and floral like. In fact, Miro was well aware that the word for firework in Japanese, ‘hanabi’, means ‘flower’.

Here Miro is influenced by Pollcok, just as Pollock was influence by Miro when his was his Constellations show in New York.


I really enjoyed the exhibition. I have come out with a few fondness for Miro, especially the earlier and final years of his career. I also learned much about the Spanish Civil war and now want to read more about it. I highly recommend the show.

Rating: 8/10

Recommended artists:


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