There is no doubt that Tate Modern’s blockbuster Miró exhibition – the first in London for almost 50 years – is going to be popular.
Even those who know nothing about Miró can recognise his work – bright colours, lots of shapes, that’s him! This exhibition is informative without overloading, successfully revealing the seriousness that underpinned much of his work. But, if you don’t already love Miró, I’m not sure The Ladder of Escape will make you fall for him and, after 13 rooms of Stygian gloom, you may well be glad to escape.
The Escape Ladder, 1940 – image via www.moma.org
And, always prepared, I did indeed have a pair of ‘escape’ shoes ready and waiting. After my successful shoe-changing last Thursday, I took flats with me as spares (running shoes you might say) but it seems that common sense had abandoned me this morning. Realisation dawned too late that, had I changed shoes, I would have been tripping over 4 inches of trouser leg. The flat shoes were just ballast in my handbag.
A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem), 1938 – image via www.tate.org.uk
It is fascinating to follow the progression of Miró’s unique language, evoking freedom and energy in his early years. In fact, it is often easy to get caught up in that vocabulary and forget to study the work as a whole. The strength and vibrancy of his colours result in enigmatic works that entrance the viewer. Miró witnessed some of the most turbulent years in Spanish and European history yet his political response was sporadic.
Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937 – image via www.moma.org
This exhibition attempts to politicise Miró but often goes too far. The influences of time, place and politics do not make all of his work political. In this regard, the captions are sometimes excessive although their visual analysis is effective and helpful for those viewing the works for the first time. A universal problem crops up in this exhibition – the captions refer to comparable paintings but no images or room numbers show where one might see these works. Confusing!
In the first room, the light grey of the walls creates an airy feeling. By the second, it feels drab. By the third, it becomes claustrophobic. The wall colour (and lack of light) is a real problem. These works need colour and light to be best displayed and the monotonous grey is melancholic. Some éminence grise at Tate will probably rationalise this as a reflection of contemporaneous politics but, for me, it ruined an otherwise beautifully curated exhibition.
Room 4 (one of the darkest of the exhibition) presents pastels of distorted figures and Miró’s intense expressive power is evident in the savage brutality of the works. Miró dates all these works octobre 1934 saying they were meant to capture the turbulence on the streets and violence of the times. The miners’ strike on 5 October 1934 was followed the next day by a general strike and the declaration of a Catalan republic, bringing Barcelona to a standstill. Times were changing and the mounting trouble is explicit in these violent and highly-sexualised works.
Personnage, 1934 – image via www.centrepompidou.fr
By room 7, the dim lighting was starting to make me feel depressed. The further into the exhibition you get, the darker it becomes. The darkest room of all houses the Constellations series; a beautiful small-scale series built through recurring structures and figures – the crescent moon, uneven Mironian star, spidery star and the spiral. Yet, you can barely see these works, they cry out to be flooded with light.
Chiffres et constellations amoureux d’une femme, 1941 – image via www.artic.edu
The exhibition is overwhelming – 150 works gathered from all over the world. It’s hard to pick favourites; the textured works from summer 1936 deserve close study with their strikingly crude surfaces. Be sure to admire two gorgeous paintings quite early in the show, The Hare (1927) and Dog Barking at the Moon (1926) with their simplicity strengthened by Miró’s powerful use of colour. These simple flat planes with isolated forms create dreamlike nocturnal scenes where animals venture out to reclaim the natural world as their own. The nocturnal is a fundamental element of Surrealism showing the irrational and undisclosed, the mysterious and unconscious.
Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926 – image via www.philamuseum.org
Miró’s oeuvre is truly amazing – from detailed landscapes to huge abstracts; it is hard not to like him. The exhibition focuses on three sections of his painting career, yet he was hugely prolific across a vast range of media including sculpture, carvings, collages, puppets, tapestries and ceramics. Although we do see a group of sculptures placed centrally in room 9, you cannot circumnavigate the works individually and have to view their backs through other works -a confusing montage.
Miró’s creativity never ceased and his endless experimentation is evident in the burnt canvases where he cut the works with a knife, punctured them with sharp objects, applied paint and petrol then ignited them. A complicated process followed by further painting, burning, walking on the works, cutting with scissors, punching holes, tilting the canvases to allow dripping all the while using a wet mop to control the procedure and a blowtorch to heighten certain areas.
Burnt Canvas, 1973 – image via www.telegraph.co.uk
Miró’s ‘violence’ was carefully executed, laying bare the structural architecture of a painting while denying it a leading role. He rejected traditional concepts of art, preferring to go his own way and break the mould, gesturing to the liberty his country sought. As in his 1974 Paris retrospective, two of the works are suspended to show both front and back as if they were sculptures – somewhat ironic considering the cramped display of his actual sculptures in the previous room. The drama of the suspended works could have been heightened by more effective lighting that would have created more powerful shadows. The wall colour once again detracts as the wall-hung canvases do not work with the dreadful grey showing through.
Tate must be praised for the unification of Miró’s five triptychs, placed within specially-built octagonal rooms, designed to create a sense of isolation. You lose yourself in the immersive blue of Blue and the texture that almost seems alive of The Hope of a Condemned Man (1974). I truly felt part of the works, reminding me of a similar isolated but transportive experience in front of Monet’s waterlilies at the Orangerie. I could have sat in both spaces for hours, lost as the artists intended.
One critic has referred to the light-flooded galleries of Tate. Maybe we were at different exhibitions as I left feeling ill and exhausted from the gloom. There is, however, no denying that this is a stunning exhibition. Do not let the greyness detract – you really should pay homage to Miró’s genius and the Tate’s mastery in bringing these works together.
From this Thursday 14th April until 11th September 2011.