A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape


Joan Miró, The Escape Ladder 1940

Museum of Modern Art, New York © Joan Miró and Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

Tate Modern

14 April – 11 September 2011



In Barcelona, in 1893, Catalan artist Joan Miró, now known as the Father of Abstract Expressionism, was born into a world moving towards Modernism and modernization, in which his art would come to embrace strong senses of both his growing internationalism and appreciation of his Catalan identity. Throughout the course of his artistic career, Miró’s work drew on the political events around him, a fact this exhibition seeks to highlight. Good idea, as today  Miró tends to be so well known for his iconic, self-invented language of reoccurring symbols: spidery stars and spirals, crescent moons, birds, triangles, dots and of course, wispy ladders of escape, ‘linking terrestrial and celestial’, ‘grounded on earth, aimed at sky,’ that other pivotal aspects of his art are sometimes disregarded. One of the biggest coups of this well staged exhibition, the first of Miró’s work in London for fifty years, is that it marks the first time all five of his large-scale triptychs are being exhibited together. Judging by the crowds in attendance on the first Saturday morning, the largest I’ve encountered since The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters at the Royal Academy of Arts last year, it is a coup that has not gone un-noticed.

Room one of this comprehensive exhibition features paintings circa 1917 - 1924, many with dream-like colours, increasingly apparent aspects of Surrealism, and diminishing traces of Cubism, in esthetically pleasing folk-art inspired landscapes exhibited in date order as the artist preferred. His parent’s farm, Mont-roig, is often a focal point. Earlier paintings in this group inadvertently reflect Miró’s artistic influences: the wavy brush strokes of Van Gogh, the pared down still-life of Cezanne, vivid colour pallet of the Fauve painters and varied aspects of other artists of note, among them, the lyricism of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. A 1917 painting, featuring a novel by Gothe even enables access to one of Miró’s early literary influences. A crowd of admirers repeatedly formed around the largest canvas, The Farm (1921 – 22), a compelling work reflecting the more condensed style Miró had developed in Paris.


Joan Miró 

The Farm, 1921-2 

National Gallery of Art, Washington 
Gift of Mary Hemingway 
© Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011



Surrealist poet Andre Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 in Paris, where Miró was then based, and the artist’s archetypal ‘Peasant’ series reflects this philosophy. Head of a Catalan Peasant 1925, the most known of a series in which every painting has nearly the same title, explores various modes of painting simultaneously, while 1924’s Peasant’s Head whimsically features thin wiry lines suggestive of the Catalan flag where a beard might have been.

Through his art of the mid to late ‘20’s, including the ‘Dream Paintings’, with their white forms on coloured backgrounds,  Miró further explored the Surrealists ‘fascination with the subconscious’…as ‘manifested through their juxtaposition of unrelated objects.‘ The artist’s ‘animated landscapes’ revisit earlier imagery through the lens of Surrealism. Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) 1923-4 was once owned by Surrealist leader Breton. The most notable painting from this period, however, is the glowing, fiery green, Still Life with Old Shoe (1937), a Surrealist impression of the aftermath of the Civil War.

The turbulence of the time is also apparent through the distorted figures of Miró’s pastel ‘savage paintings’ of 1934, as right-wing ministers joined the liberal government, sparking widespread protest, and the Catalan Republic declared in Barcelona was violently suppressed by the army. Late ‘35 and early ’36 found the artist painting ‘pared down figures in barren landscapes’ in searing electric colours on copper and Masonite; the ‘Metamorphosis’ collage drawings which followed elaborated on this series.

When Miró went into exile in France in late 1936, the Civil War was a dominant influence in his work. His five and a half metre high mural, The Reaper (1936) displayed with Picasso’s famous Guernica at the Exhibition Internationale in Paris, was sadly lost when the Pavilion was dismantled. A large scale photo of Miró working on that mural graces the entrance to this exhibition.

The late 1930’s and early ‘40’s was a prolific time for Miró , and a wide selection from his ‘Barcelona’ series of fifty black and white lithographs with their Peru Ubu inspired ogres, dictators and innocent victims are displayed here. Their subject matter is understandable, as Barcelona and Madrid had fallen in early 1939, and General Franco’s Nationalist armies controlled Spain thereafter. The end of the Civil War marked the beginning of a dictatorship that was to last until Franco’s death in 1975.
The lithographs spanning the gallery walls lead neatly into a room full of paintings from Miró’s acclaimed series, The Constellations (1940-41). Along the way however, that marvelous white, red, and yellow on black marriage of symbol and text, A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress 1938, drawing on Miró’s newly acquired art of poetry writing, in which an escape ladder symbolizes earthy sexuality, inspires. His 1939 ‘Flight of a Bird’ series exhibited nearby indicates Miró’s growing concerns over the ‘race for aerial supremacy,’ a notion which newspaper clippings the artist saved seems to verify.

Considerably smaller, but high on impact, ‘The Constellations’ series of twenty three paintings, (1940-1), nine of which are on show here, still have the power to mesmerize viewers via the skill, versatility and imagination of their creator. Each work is inscribed with a date and each conveys its own unique sense of volume and mass, with floating shapes drifting through seemingly vast or limited areas, depending on the density of forms and/or background inherent to each imaginary terrain. Among this series, Morning Star (16 March 1940), and Awakening in the Early Morning (January 27, 1941), with its’ ‘tendency towards greater complexity’ and ‘sense of optimism,’ and the last of the series, The Passage of the Divine Bird (12 September 1941) are personal standouts. Miró  completed one of these paintings every ten to fourteen days, the second group of ten while he was in ‘internal exile’ with his wife’s family in Mallorca as the German Army invaded France, and the final three, on his return to Mont-roig in ‘41 where he also worked on the Barcelona series, featuring much of the same imagery.

After a decade spent working in ceramics, Miró, as ever, understandably influenced by his own symbolic vocabulary of mark-making and, ‘the disparate elements of Gaudi’, returned to painting and sculpture in the 1960’s. Now widely seen as a ‘key figure of the interwar avant-garde’ who was still experimenting with his art, Miró began to rework canvases which had been in storage since he left Paris. At that time, he was connected to the art worlds of Paris and New York rather than those of Spain, and some of his ‘60’s paintings are a direct response to U.S. Abstract Expressionism.  One example of this is his painting, Message from a Friend (1964), inspired by an arrow drawn by his friend, artist Alexander Calder.

A viewing of Triptychs, 1961-62 Blue I, III / Blue II, III / Blue III / III is one of the most immersive experiences one could have as an appreciator of art, and the way in which these large scale paintings are displayed here, in a curved room, with each grouping opposite the other is apt. The intensely coloured trio, Mural Painting I Yellow – Orange (18 May 1962) Mural Painting II Green (21 May 1962) and Mural Painting III Red (22 May 1962) compliment the deep, soothing blues of their counterparts.


Joan Miró 

Blue I-II-III 1961 
Centre Pompidou, Paris 
© Collection Centre Pompidou, Dist. RMN / Philippe Migeat 
© Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011




In keeping with widespread government hypocrisy and the anarchy erupting in response around the world at the end of 1968, as students in Spain’s were protesting their repression, Miró’s ‘Burnt Paintings’ formed a link to his ‘savage paintings’ of the ‘20’s.  Barcelona celebrated Miró’s seventy-fifth birthday as Miró otro (‘The Other Miro’) exhibition, for which the artist painted ‘directly on the windows of the Association of Architects in the city centre, took place, exhibiting his work with those of younger artists he’d influenced.  In late 1973, Miró created his ‘Burnt Canvases’ in response to these times, showing paintings he’d actually set on fire, to challenge the status quo. When these innovative works were first exhibited in Paris in 1974, two canvases were shown suspended in space, as they are here.

Two white triptychs, 1968-73, were painted in Miró’s traditional eighteenth century house, which he used solely for the purpose of creating artworks. The first series, entitled Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse (1968) and the second, The Hope of a Condemned Man, (1974), the latter of which is dedicated to executed Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, are both deceptively simplistic, yet surprisingly moving. It’s a true artist who possesses such power to move viewers through his art.

In his eighties, Miró was still as experimental as ever, as his final triptych, Fireworks I, II and III (9 February 1974) with their vigorous splashes of black paint, nodding to Jackson Pollack, bear out. His ‘quietly active intellectual opposition’ to Franco’s regime is still in evidence too, never more so perhaps, than in the sculptural series displayed here, largely composed from found objects such as rough-hewn parts of wooden beams, with the grandiose titles of His Majesty the King, Her Majesty the Queen, and His Highness the Prince (all 1974) made the year before the dictator’s rule finally ended in 1975. With Democracy finally in flower, as Miró accepted an honorary degree from the University of Barcelona in 1979, he spoke of the social responsibility of the artist: ‘I understand that an artist is someone who, in the midst of others’ silence, uses his own voice to say something and who makes sure that what he says is not useless, but something that is useful to mankind’. Truer words were never spoken, then, by a humble but knowing master.  


Tate Modern – Level 4
Admission 15.50 (13.50 concessions) including Gift Aid or 14.00 (12.20 concessions)
Open every day from 10:00 to 18:00 and until 22:00 on Fridays and Saturdays
Tickets: or call 020 7887 8888

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