(Joan Miro, Autoportrait)

The National Gallery’s new Miro exhibition (Joan Miro: Ladder of Escape) is an eye-opener in more ways than one. Not only does it showcase both the vivid color of Miro’s painting (to which online images simply do not do justice) and his exquisite and unerring sense of balance, it also provides a fresh perspective on both the breadth and depth of Miro’s art.

Personally, I’m extremely fond of Miro, but I’ve always thought of him as basically a whimsical surrealist, creator of such hauntingly delightful images as the Dog Barking at the Moon and the Woman Listening to Music, and the man behind peinture-poisie such as This is the Color of My Dreams.

What the new exhibition shows us is a more politically engaged Miro, a painter deeply responsive to the world he lived in and the times he lived through. Beginning with early Catalan peasant paintings, with their flag-waving patriotism,

(Joan Miro, Head of a Catalan Peasant)

Miro’s paintings and profoundly reflective of the political climate he lived in, a point the exhibition drives home by placing the paintings in their historical context. Like Dali (Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, Autumn Cannibalism), Miro responds to the premonition of war in almost barometric fashion – the shapes in his paintings seem to twist and bend under the pressure of history (see, for instance, the Woman Fleeing from Fire), creating images that are at once nightmarishly grotesque and hauntingly accurate. Where Miro differs from Dali is that in place of the latter’s exquisitely detailed draftsmanship, Miro gives us the unmediated crudeness of tormented shapes and primal colors, so  that his paintings (such as The Two Philosophers, Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement, or a series of Paintings from 1936 that use tar, sand and shoe polish) are immediate and savage in a way that Dali’s are not.

Joan Miró. Still Life with Old Shoe. Paris, January 24-May 29, 1937

(Joan Miro, Still Life with Old Shoe)

But perhaps the most haunting of Miro’s political paintings on display at the exhibition is the Barcelona Series, a collection of fifty lithographs drawn from 1939-1945. Seen individually, these black and white drawings, with their outlandish shapes and their stick-like figures, seem almost like caricatures. Taken together, they become a haunting catalog of nightmare, snapshots from the darkest recesses of the surreal imagination, and possibly the most devastating series of images to come out of Spain since the drawings of Goya.

But political engagement is not the only thing this new retrospective showcases. It also highlights the variety and experimentation of Miro’s work. To be one of the true masters of surrealism is achievement enough, but the exhibition shows us that Miro never stopped developing as a painter, never stopped growing in new and unexpected directions. So in addition to Miro the surrealist we get Miro the abstract expressionist, with three great murals, and the incredible Fireworks triptych, and the visceral beauty of his burnt canvases. It is a testament to Miro’s influence on the artwork of his century, that wandering through the exhibition I was reminded, at different points, of Chagal, Kahlo, Cornell, Rothko, Twombly and Rauschenberg – and all this over and above the inescapable comparisons with the other surrealists. Perhaps the most stunning illustration of Miro’s development as an artist is provided by his Autoportrait (above) – in which an immaculately constructed self-portrait from the 30’s, is overlain, two decades later, by a grafitti-like reduction to its essential shape. It’s the perfect image of Miro’s unique genius.

That said, the true highlight of the exhibition for me was the Constellation series of paintings, including People at Night Guided by the Phosphorescent Track of Snails, Woman Encircled by the Flight of Birds, and the Ladder of  Escape (from which the exhibition takes its title). Each of these paintings is a minor miracle of balance:pulsing with lyrical energy, the ambiguity of the individual shapes offering an infinity of interpretations, even as the brilliant background coloring, and the impeccable arrangement of shapes, creates an aesthetically ravishing whole. Placed side by side, as they are in this retrospective, the effect of these masterpieces is breathtaking, as though someone had rendered your most secret dreams in a series of carefully plotted star charts, and hung them up in some magical map room of the soul. That these works were painted while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War, only heightens their emotional impact, reminding us how great art must not only respond to History but resist it, counterbalancing the violence and suffering of the human condition with visions of hope and beauty. But in the end these paintings need no explanation, no amplification through context; they are, in and of themselves, works of the most exquisite visual music, absolute in their genius, and guaranteed to leave all who see them with stars in their eyes.

L'estel matinal

(Joan Miro, L’estal Matinal)