As I discovered when I visited the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, a lot of Miró can sometimes be too much Miró. I soon got bored with the repetitiveness of the paintings on show there, all with similar colors and full of the artist’s pet symbols. The retrospective at the Grand Palais, however, gives a much more rounded picture of the œuvre of the man Jean-Louis Prat, curator of the exhibition and former director of the Fondation Maeght, credits with bringing poetry to painting.
The first thing that surprised me was how much I liked some of Miró’s early work, when he was still experimenting with different styles. Although he refused to be labeled as an adherent of any group or movement, the influence of the Cubists and Cézanne, for example, is clear, and he was often grouped with the Fauves during the early years in Paris. A few of the paintings on show could even be mistaken for Matisses or Modiglianis. The self-portrait pictured here (which belonged to Picasso) reminded me of Modigliani’s portraits in the way the facial features are treated.
The seemingly naive landscapes, among them the marvelous “The Farm” (1921-22), depicting his family’s farmhouse in Catalonia, are packed with detail and oozing with charm. “The Farm” once belonged to Ernest Hemingway, who said of it: “It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint these two very opposing things.”
Miró himself saw “The Farm,” which took him nine months to paint, as a summary of his work at that time and as a point of departure for what was to come. A riot of activity takes place around the tree in the center, with a multitude of objects and people, plants, animals and even insects all doing their things. The plane of the picture is tilted toward the viewer to get it all in. Even the facade of the farm building seems alive, with its plaster crumbling away and plants growing out of it.
In the mid-1920s, the now-familiar organic forms begin to appear in Miró’s work. “The Harlequin’s Carnival” (1924-25), like “The Farm,” contains a multitude of things, but most of them are no longer recognizable, just various shapes interacting frenetically in a surreal scene. Surrealism had given Miró the freedom to leave realism behind. As he himself put it, “Surrealism opened up a world to me that justified and soothed my torment,” but he refused to be classified as a Surrealist either.
Fantastic creatures and shapes continued to populate his works for the rest of his life, but toward the end, the paintings, which became monumental once he had a studio large enough to accommodate them, started to veer toward minimalist abstraction, as in the trilogy of “Blue” paintings from 1961 (one of them is pictured at the top of this page). Miró called these three paintings “the culmination of everything I have tried to do.”
Having seen the work of Miro at several stages of his life, I found a poetry in the early and late works that I didn’t see when looking at works of the middle years in the Barcelona collection.