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June 08 2011

10 of the best spots for art in Barcelona

There's more to Barcelona than Antoni Gaudí and the Picasso Museum. Jill Adams, editor of The Barcelona Review, taps into its unconventional arts scene

As featured in our Barcelona city guide

Prostíbulo Poético

How do you like your prostitutes? Speaking Catalan? English? Romanian? Prostíbulo Poético (Poetry Brothel) has plenty of whores for hire to give you … a private poetry reading in a candle-lit corner. This literary whoring takes place once a month in different bars. Though it's never quite the same, it usually begins with some kind of music, then Madame Eva introduces the putas, who each read some of their original work, permitting the customers to size 'em up, after which all barriers come down and you are free to pick your favourite, pay €1 for their services and retire to a corner.
• Various venues. Next event: 9pm, 16 June at Horiginal (cafè+poesia), Carrer Ferlandina 29,

Esther Arias Galería de Arte y Taller

Everyone exits Metro Jaume and heads directly to the Picasso Museum via Carrer Princesa. But there is a much more attractive short cut that will take you past Esther Arias's gallery in a warm and inviting 18th-century building. Although Arias often devotes a wall to a guest artist, this is her taller (workshop) and the paintings on display are her own: enchanting, colourful abstracts with a dreamlike quality. Along with the large canvases, there are some exquisite framed acrylics on paper at a good price. This is the perfect place to begin a walk through the Born with its many art and artisan shops.
Carrer Cotoners 14, +34 93 268 2494, Open Tue–Sat 10.30am–2pm, 4.30pm-7.30pm

Museu Frederic Marès

Housed in a lovely medieval palace next to the cathedral in the Barri Gòtic, this museum is often overlooked – people don't tend to flock to see walls filled with crucifixes. But many of these sculptures, painted or in plain wood, come from the 12th and 13th centuries, retaining the Romanesque separation of the nailed feet. They're quite bizarre and utterly mesmerising; one has Joseph of Arimathea clinging to Christ with a most curiously placed right hand. The wooden Madonnas are coarse rather than sweet, and the Christ child often looks old enough to be at university. The upper rooms house an astounding collection of objects, from hatpins to garters, gathered by sculptor/traveller/hoarder Frederic Marès.
Plaça Sant Iu 5, +34 93 256 3500,, adults €4.20, children, concessions free; free Sun 3pm-8pm; all day first Sun of the month. Open Tue–Sat 10am–7pm, Sun and holidays 11am-8pm

Galería Artevistas

The posh uptown galleries, mainly along Consell de Cent, showcase known artists with several zeros attached to the price. To enter, you must buzz, wait to be let in and it's a rather stuffy exchange, though you will find some superb art. For an altogether different experience, head to the Artevistas, which features young artists, some of whom have definitely arrived. It's very near the Ramblas but secluded from all the tourist bustle, as it sits in a covered passageway. Here the doors are wide open and you step into a burst of colour. It's a happy place, and you might well find a budding talent.
Passatge del Crèdit 4, +34 93 513 0465, Open Mon 2pm–9pm, Tue–Sun 11am–9pm


Carrer Enric Granados is a tree-lined pedestrian street in the Eixample, beginning just behind the University of Barcelona and sloping gently upward to Avinguda Diagonal. Filled with cool outdoor cafés, restaurants and well-established art galleries, such as N2 Galería, ADN Galería and Ego Gallery, this is the place to stroll for art and maybe catch an opening on a Thursday night. Cosmo café & galería de arte sits at the bottom of the slope and is a super place to begin or end your walk. It's a fun and lively bar/café with good music, and there is a large exhibition space in the back where Catalan designer/multimedia programmer Jaume Osman Granda is showing (until 12 June).
Carrer Enric Granados 3, +34 93 453 7007, Open Mon–Thur 8.30am–10pm, Fri–Sat noon–10pm, Sun 2pm–10pm

àngels barcelona

For a more experimental art experience, visit àngels barcelona in the heart of the Raval. Internationally known artists, such as Catalan conceptual artist Joan Fontcuberta (Googlegrams), experimental German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, and the British installation artist Richard T Walker are just part of the impressive repertoire of this gallery. Typically, you'll encounter an abstract installation, a visual creation space and a film/video downstairs with seats for viewing.
Carrer Pintor Fortuny 27, +34 93 412 5400, Open Tue–Sat noon–2pm, 5pm– 8pm

Taller Creativo Bencini

This gallery/workshop is located behind Santa Caterina Market, which is worthy of a look for its postmodern architectural design and its vividly multicoloured, wavy roof. From here, head to Federico Bencini's, where you'll find a bright space full of his magnificent monotype prints created on wood and metal. He will be glad to explain the process to you if you are unfamiliar with it. Sharing the taller is Raúl Pernia, a sculptor who creates amazing organic set pieces. Together they can transform an interior into a cutting-edge wonder. Turn left upon leaving and have the pleasure of getting lost in the art haven of El Born.
Carrer Semoleres 10, +34 68 631 5053, Open daily 11am–2pm, 5pm–8pm

Eat Meat

Located in the Gràcia, an area chock-full of boho shops, trendy cafes, and few tourists, is Eat Meat, a non-profit cultural organisation dedicated to the principle of "art for laying bare contemporary obsessions [which include] mutations of form and essence, hybridisations, new visual engineering, the sickness of the soul, other rituals, the monstrous, the transgeneric and alterities". Camping Cannibal was the most recent exhibition by sculptor Nico Nubiola, whose stunning wood relief pieces, without being macabre (trust me), depict mutilated human bodies "like chickens in a supermarket". Take a walk on the dark side and confront the depths of the human psyche.
Carrer Alzina 20, +34 93 284 2894, Open Thur–Fri 6pm–9pm, Sat noon–2pm, 5pm–8pm, during exhibitions

Ulls Blaus and NIU

How deep into the culture are you willing to go? It will help if you speak Spanish or Catalan but the young people who hang out at Ulls Blaus welcome everyone, not that you will be greeted at the door, simply accepted. This hidden taller obert sits at the end of an uninviting, rundown passageway in Poblenou. Most everything here is made of recycled material and begs a closer look – don't miss the WC. On Friday evenings at 8pm, emerging visual artists and/or musicians offer entertainment in the small sala. Not far from here is NIU, another alternative multi-art space for upcoming artists where electronic music is the norm but anything is possible. Bars at both locations.
Ulls Blaus, Passatge Caminal 13 (off Carrer Pallars 175, +34 66 912 2586, Open Tue–Sat 5pm-10pm. NIU, Almogàvers 208, +34 93 356 8811, Open Tue–Sat 5pm-10pm.

Palau Dalmases

There is no sign at the entrance, in the heart of La Ribera, only a doorman. You peek into a gorgeous 17th-century courtyard with a richly carved staircase behind. Is this a bar, and can I enter, you wonder. Yes, it is, and yes, you can. Stepping through the heavy wooden doors into Espai Barroc, you feel as though you have wandered into a baroque film set, with candelabras, fat cherubs, reproduction paintings, kitschy tableaux and the odd surrealist touch. The palace itself is rich in history, and worth a look around. Stick to wine or beer at €6, and feel transported to an era of sumptuous extravagance.
Carrer Montcada 20, +34 93 310 0673, Open Tue–Sat 8pm–2am, Sun 6pm–10pm

Jill Adams is the editor of the online literary magazine The Barcelona Review, © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 27 2011


Spain: From Spanish Revolution to World Revolution

Demonstrations on the streets of Madrid on May 15 have turned into big camp outs all over Spain, and across the world.  There had not been any police intervention since the second day of protests in Madrid, May 17, but on the morning of May 27 Barcelona protesters started sending messages that they were being evicted. According to the police, it was not an eviction but an attempt to allow for the cleaning patrols to do their job. Videos showing police charging against demonstrators have gone viral:

Updates can be followed through @acampadabcn twitter user and through the #acampadabcn hashtag:

@jedweightman AP confirms rubber bullets used to disperse protesters in Barcelona #acampadabcn #spanishrevolution #solidarity #demo2011

@acampadabcn Compartid y difundid todas las fotos y vídeos sobre lo acontecido hoy, q lo sepa todo el mundo!! #acampadabcn #bcnsinmiedo #laplazaresiste

@acampadabcn Share and spread the word about the pics and videos of what happened today, let everybody know!! #acampadabcn #bcnsinmiedo #laplazaresiste

Police reaction has managed to attract more protesters to the camps and it will likely spark solidarity all over Spain and the rest of the world. Mobilizations in Spain have ignited what has been called a “World Revolution”, with more than 600 demonstrations and camp outs taking place in solidarity with Spanish protesters, as this interactive map shows:

Blogger Alexander Higgins has gathered videos of demonstrations all over Europe, such as this one taking place in Bastille, Paris, on May 20.

World demonstrations can also be followed through the World Revolution: Real Democracy Facebook page, and by following the #worldrevolution and #globalcamp tags on Twitter, and the dozens of tags for each location such as #acampadaoporto, #greekrevolution, #prisedelabastille, #europerevolution… which users employ for sharing locations and calling for demonstrations, videos, news and insights on the reasons to demonstrate.

@mariyastrauss: Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. #WorldRevolution

@liandraleao: Greece right now! #greekrevolution #spanishrevolution #europerevolution #worldrevolution

@moxybeirut #unitelb what are your thoughts about a #acampada hashtag for #Beirut #Lebanon as part of the #worldrevolution?

The extent of the movement has exceeded everyone's expectations. Protests in Spain have turned into something quite different from what the first demonstrations were. The group Democracia Real Ya [es] (Real Democracy Now), which organized the May 15 march, has since dissociated from the camps, whose updates can now be followed through the [es] (Take the Square) website. Spanish independent news site Periodismo Humano [es] published on May 26 a report on the first 40 peoplewho decided to camp out on May 16, which lead to a movement that gathered tens of thousands and has become global.

The first 40 at Acampadasol on May 16. Image source: Periodismo Humano

Some users have expressed concerns that the camp itself might become the goal:

@svillodas: La gente llenó esta plaza para luchar contra un régimen putrefacto, no para aprender a tocar la guitarra o hacer disfraces #acampadasol

@svillodas: People took this square to fight a corrupt regime, not to learn how to play guitar and make customs #acampadasol

To challenge these concerns, protesters published On May 26 four starting points [es] that, according to the site, have been agreed upon by consensus at the latest assembly:

  • Electoral reform oriented to a more representative form of democracy and more effective devices for citizen participation.
  • Rules that ensure political transparency in order to fight corruption
  • Effective separation of public powers
  • Devices for citizen control of political responsibility

May 20, 2011, Puerta del Sol, Madrid, Spain. Photo by Julio Albarrán, republished under a CC License.*

What will come next? Protesters have not decided when they will leave the square, but assemblies are already organized in more than 30 neighbourhoods to continue discussing several different issues. This will be the second stage of a movement that is allowing citizens to learn about democratic processes from their own experience, while attempting to teach main political parties a lesson in democracy.

*Photo by Julio Albarrán, taken from his Flickr stream, and republished under CC License BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Play fullscreen
YouTube - Indignats | Desallotjament de la Plaça Catalunya

// Die Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona wurde heute früh von der Polizei leergeknüppelt, unter dem Vorwand, den Platz reinigen zu müssen. Ach ja, und um Gefahren abzuwenden für den Fall, dass der FC Barcelona die Championsleague gewinnt…
Reposted fromkrekk krekk

May 25 2011

Back in the bullring: Richard Rogers's Las Arenas – in pictures

A Barcelona bullring – built in 1900 but left to decay as interest in bullfighting faded – has been transformed by architect Richard Rogers into a retail, entertainment and leisure complex

May 24 2011

Las Arenas: Beware of the stampede

The people of Barcelona are flocking back to this once cherished bullring – now that Richard Rogers has turned it into a Pompidou-style mall with a stunning view

Federico García Lorca described bullfighting as "probably Spain's greatest poetic and life-sustaining wealth". So what does it mean now that the corrida is giving way to the rituals of metrosexual grooming? This is what has happened at Las Arenas, formerly Barcelona's second bullring and now its newest shopping mall. The ornate, Moorish-looking circular facade of the original remains; but inside, architect Richard Rogers has inserted a colourful circus of leisure, in an atrium criss-crossed by escalators, walkways and giant structural elements. It's like walking into a giant tin of Quality Street, populated by Spanish fashionistas buying designer shades.

To be fair, it's not just the young and hip who come here. Las Arenas had more than 300,000 visitors in its opening week this March: that's around a tenth of the city. The rooftop public viewing terrace has been a huge hit, offering an unrivalled 360-degree view of the city. Families seem to have incorporated the building into their evening stroll. Senior citizens stare in amazement as they ascend the escalators, perhaps recalling great bullfights they saw at Las Arenas, where fearless matadors once struck poses in the face of charging bovine fury; now, the closest contact between man and beast might be the purchase of a leather manbag.

Next January, Catalonia will become the second Spanish state after the Canary Islands to have abolished bullfighting. Barcelona has been the epicentre of the anti-bullfighting movement; but, despite the fact that an estimated 70% of Spaniards are indifferent to the sport, and much of the outside world regards it with horror, the rest of Spain is unlikely to follow just yet. There is a vociferous minority who regard it as an inseparable part of Spain's identity, starting with King Juan Carlos, who once said: "The day the EU bans bullfighting is the day Spain leaves the EU."

Catalonia's rejection of bullfighting could be seen less as a cultural shift than a political one, part of its long-running beef with central government over issues of autonomy – though it has proved a red rag to nationalists. As a riposte, Madrid last year classified bullfighting as a protected part of the region's cultural patrimony. Valencia and Murcia did the same. "It is an art form that deserves to be protected," said Esperanza Aguirre, leader of Madrid's conservative regional government, adding that it "has been part of Mediterranean and Spanish culture since time immemorial".

Few could argue with Aguirre's latter point. No other country has formed such a complex relationship with an animal. The bull has shaped Spain's art and culture, from cave paintings right up to the famous Osborne brandy bull, the giant black billboard silhouette that looms over landscapes across the country. Goya, in particular, was influential in his enthusiasm for the death, drama and symbolism of the corrida; he even designed costumes for matadors. His 1815 work La Tauromaquia (The Art of Bullfighting) features 33 lithographs that recall – or perhaps imagine – a colourful history of the sport. Men pole-vault over bulls and fight them sitting on chairs or standing on tables; often the bulls get the upper hand. Picasso, who sketched fights as a boy, said the bull in Guernica represented "brutality and darkness" against the people. Bullfighting is still reported on the arts pages in Spanish newspapers.

But, while the corrida might have cemented feelings of Spanish identity elsewhere, the same cannot be said of Catalonia, where it is often seen as the "foreign" sport of the Castilian oppressors. Post-Franco, Spain has successfully settled regional differences using another cultural medium: architecture. The shining example is Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, which not only put the Basque city on the cultural map, but helped bring a precarious peace between the separatist region and the rest of Spain. Now, in Barcelona, the architecture of Las Arenas is doing the opposite: sending out a message of regionalist defiance.

Las Arenas had not hosted a bullfight since 1977. It was built in 1900, on what was then the city's south-western edge. One of three bullrings in Barcelona, it had been a local landmark; but when the architects took possession of it, the building was covered in graffiti, trees were growing in it, and homeless people sheltered in its stalls. "It might have been easier to completely rebuild it," Rogers tells me. "It was a very weak structure with very thin walls. We had to shore the facade, then almost completely rebuild it inside. But the thing they insisted on, and I think they were proven right, was keeping the circular form, the historic form. It's not just a building – it's a piece of Barcelona."

The exterior is in a style known as neo-mudéjar, a 19th-century revival of Moorish architecture, characterised by striped stone arches and ornate tile and brickwork. This style was adopted by many bullrings of the era, including Madrid's Las Ventas, Lisbon's Campo Pequeno (which now has an underground shopping centre), and La Monumental, Barcelona's other surviving bullring, currently holding its final season. After that, chances are it will also undergo a Las Arenas-style transformation.

Having been built before the road outside, Las Arenas sits several metres above street level, a fact that Rogers exploits. A ring of steel supports around the base seems to hold the entire facade up in the air, and one enters the building by walking beneath it. The shopping and cinema levels within are an independent structure, organised around a central atrium, while the top two floors and the roof deck, which jut out over the old facade, are held up by four giant structural arms rising dramatically through the atrium. Where once the area around the bullring was taken up with its facilities – pens for the bulls, plus those two essentials, a chapel and a hospital – now it is all accessible public space, making it once again a piece of the city. "I have to say," says Rogers, "it's turned out better than I ever expected."

The term "hi-tech" now seems a quaint way to describe Rogers's style, especially in a historic refit like this; but, as with his breakthrough design for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the structural and service systems within the building are openly expressed in bright colours, and the joins between old and new are treated with similar honesty. Each service element here is coloured according to function: red for the structural steel; yellow for the giant structure supporting the roof; orange for the toilet cubicles; purple and pink for the fire escape and ventilation. The colours bring to mind the capes and costumes of the matadors, though now we humans are the cattle being coaxed by them.

If bullfighting was never Barcelona's thing, architecture very much is. This is surely the most architecturally exciting and forward-looking city in Europe. Looking out across the city from Las Arenas, it's an enviable spread of enlightened city-making. Ildefons Cerdà's visionary street plan of the 1860s laid the foundations for Catalonia's distinctive modernista movement of the early 20th century, which peppered the city grid with sensuous, organic structures, not least the works of local hero Antoni Gaudì, whose Sagrada Familia is the city's stunning centrepiece.

Back from the dead

There has always been room for foreign architects in Barcelona, too. A stone's throw from Las Arenas, Mies van der Rohe's cool, minimal German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exhibition has been reconstructed, a true jewel of Modern architecture. Today, the city is dotted with works by virtually every great architect of our age. Rogers himself has something of a special relationship with Barcelona. He designed the Hesperia hotel, a little further out, in 2006, but he has also served as an adviser on architecture and urbanism to two Barcelona mayors, Pasqual Maragall and Joan Clos, who are credited with turning the city around.

"Barcelona has had the most amazing success, in terms of urban regeneration, probably in Europe," says Rogers. "They said it would take them 20 years to make a difference, and that's what they did. They connected up the city: it had been terribly cut off from the sea by the old port, which had died and was a no-go area. Now it's five kilometres of beach and city. It's made Barcelona what it is."

Rogers also notes that Barcelona is the only city that has successfully exploited its hosting of the Olympics, in 1992, to improve the city. It was the template for London's 2012 Olympic plans, says Rogers, who was Ken Livingstone's urban adviser. "You can't just spend x billion pounds for 17 days of sport. You must use it as a catalyst to improve the life of the city, and to lever the poorest areas of the city on to a better economic and social footing – which is exactly what we plan to do in London." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 30 2011

Juan Miró, a titan of art whose presence is still felt

The expressionist pioneer Juan Miró, once feted as the greatest living painter in Spain, is the subject of a forthcoming Tate exhibition

In a small, windowless room away from the crowds at the Barcelona foundation built to maintain the legacy of Joan Miró there is his library. It contains poetry, of course, as well as Plutarch, Hemingway and Lewis Carroll. But on the same shelves there are other books – the pulp fiction thrillers of Edgar Wallace; the schlocky master criminal Fantômas novels; a David Lodge; an unread Ulysses.

It says a lot. For such a wildly imaginative, radical artist there is lots that is reassuringly everyday about Miro. He had a very happy, stable marriage. He was extremely organised. He wasn't known as a big drinker or party animal. In photographs he has no Picasso or Dali-like swagger. He looks like a slightly apprehensive accountant, worried that he's mislaid some receipts.

But it is his art that makes Miró the titan that he is. Next month Tate Modern in London will stage the first major UK exhibition devoted to his work for nearly 50 years – a remarkable gap which, Tate hopes, will mean an entirely new generation can have their eyes opened to one of the most important of all 20th century artists.

The show, which will travel to Barcelona and Washington, also aims to confound expectations and explode a few myths. "Miró's work is often understood in ways that are a little simplistic," conceded the show's co-curator, Marko Daniel. "People look at his work as if it were childlike, or childish, and they tend not to see the depth of passion that goes into it."

Today Miró, a genuine pioneer and forefather of abstract expressionist art, is revered in Spain. Not as a hero necessarily but as a great man whose presence in his home city of Barcelona is everywhere.

It was not always the case. During most of the Franco years Miró was better known abroad. "He went from being almost entirely invisible in the Spanish art world to being feted as the greatest living painter in Spain," said Daniel.

It is also said that he did not really involve himself in politics, living his later years in a kind of self-imposed internal exile under Franco. That may have been true but, the show will argue, it does not mean that Miro was unengaged.

"Throughout the years of internal exile he engaged in a very deliberate process of resisting approaches from the Franco regime which wanted to involve him in representing them abroad. He refused to take part in state-organised exhibitions."

The show will draw heavily from the foundation he helped create back in 1975. The building's modernist beauty and grandness is a reflection of the adoration that Miró is held in by Barcelona.

Fly into what is now terminal 2 of the airport and you can't miss the enormous ceramic mural which looks as stunningly, vibrantly fresh as it did when he installed it with his lifelong friend Josep Llorens i Artigas in 1970.

In the city itself there are the mosaic tiles he designed, walked over by thousands of tourists on a part of Las Ramblas. Or the many artworks that dot the city including, in Parc Joan Miró next to the old municipal slaughterhouse, one of his last sculptures, the 22-metre (72ft) high Woman and Bird. But it is the Joan Miró Foundation that has so many of his works and keeps the flame burning for Miró. There are more than 200 paintings, 178 sculptures, textiles, ceramics and around 8,000 of the drawings that Miró assiduously kept, going back to when he was an eight-year-old.

The foundation helps paint a picture of an artist who is striking not just for the quality of his output, but the longevity.

This is a man who was collaborating with Max Ernst in 1926, designing for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and in 1978 designing grotesque puppets for a collaboration with the experimental theatre company La Claca called Death to the Bogeyman (a reference to Franco). 

Miró was born to reasonably well-off parents in the old town of Barcelona in 1893, 12 years after his friend Picasso and 11 before Dali. Like most young artists of his day, Miró had to be at the centre and that meant Paris. It was here that he fell in with the wrong crowd, or poets at least.

But what an effect it had on him. He was galvanised and completely changed his working practices, abandoning figuratism and embracing surrealism. This most mild-mannered of artists was now proclaiming that he wanted to "assassinate painting".

In 1956 Miró settled in Palma, Majorca, home of his wife, Pilar. The Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró was created in 1981, and visitors can see the artist's studios and methods of working as well as a good many works in the permanent collection.

As you walk up to the studios there is the sound of Turner prize winner Susan Philipz singing Roxy Music's More Than This, a commission from 2007 that fits the beautiful setting overlooking the Mediterranean.

Inside the studios visitors are first struck by Miró's graffiti-like drawings on the whitewashed walls, rapid expressions of his ideas that have the look of cave paintings but would become bronze sculptures or ceramics.

There are, of course, paint splashes everywhere, and Daniel and his Tate co-curator, Matthew Gale, get visibly excited as they work out where in the room some of his most famous works were executed.

In another light-filled space there are paintings everywhere, reflecting how Miró would often leave a work for years before finishing it.

The Tate show will not be an exhaustive retrospective, although it will have something like 150 of his works.

Above all, it will address his political engagement, one that has sometimes been called into question. 

Given the times he lived in and "his extreme sensitivity both to the poetic and to the social and political", said Daniel, "it's not that we are making the claim that he was politically engaged but he could not be anything but.

"In all the work he produced the social and political is always there at one level. He was fully attuned to the world around him."

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, at Tate Modern 14 April-11 September © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 20 2011

A life in paintings

Miró's work is loved for its joyful celebration of life and colour. But it also contains ideas of freedom which, in Franco's Spain, were very dear to the Catalan painter. We look again at the man, and trace his personal journey through six great paintings

On the death of General Franco in 1975, Joan Miró was asked what he had done to promote opposition to the dictator, who had ruled Spain for nearly 40 years. The artist answered simply: "Free and violent things."

The first major Miró exhibition in this country for nearly 50 years, which opens at Tate Modern next month, will cast light on that answer. Miró is not always thought of as a political painter, in the broad or the narrow sense. He was not a creator of manifestos, or a signer of petitions; he was not given to provocative gesture like his contemporary Salvador Dali, nor did he pursue his passions at all costs, like his sometime mentor Picasso. For most of the second half of his long life (he died in 1983 at the age of 90), Miró painted in his studio in Palma, Mallorca, charting a unique course among the movements in postwar painting, and always looking very much his own man.

Politics was for Miró, however, unavoidable, an accident of birth. He was the son of a blacksmith and jeweller who lived on the harbourside in Barcelona. He came of age with the Catalan independence movement, and shared its deep-rooted sense of the possibilities of liberty. To begin with, he identified this freedom with internationalism; he longed to be in Paris. But once he had escaped, he held on to his identity as a Catalan, as a freedom fighter, all the more devoutly and from it developed an intimate visual language, which sustained him all of his working life.

The Tate show will concentrate on three periods of Miro's constantly reimagined career: his formative years in Catalonia; his exile in Paris in the years of the Spanish civil war and the outbreak of the second world war; and his enthusiasm for the radicalism of the 60s, when he was approaching the late period of his work. Marko Daniel, the co-curator of the exhibition, which will bring together more than 150 works in collaboration with the Miró Foundation in Barcelona, hopes that it will be "a perspective not just on Miró but on the turbulence of the 20th century, the way an artist's life might be shaped by proximity to these great political upheavals".

The title of the show, Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, comes from a painting, one of a series, that Miró began in 1939 as the Nazi forces were advancing into France. He was living in Normandy at that time and had begun the works as a kind of personal defence against what he knew to be the horrors to come. The series of paintings dwelt on his profound internal sense of connections between things, an entirely singular private universe that he called the Constellations. When he eventually fled with his wife and daughter on the last train out of Paris for Spain, the paintings were rolled under his arm.

As the exhibition will make clear, Miró's instinct for political engagement, though heartfelt and full of risk, often lay in these gestures of withdrawal, of self-defence. André Breton, the surrealist, once referred to Miró, for good and bad, as a case of "arrested development", a childlike artist. The label stuck for a long time but this exhibition should go a long way to revealing how hard-won Miro's apparent playfulness was. The ladder in that borrowed exhibition title had long been for him an emergency exit to the safe house of his imagination. In a 1936 interview, with the Spanish civil war a looming reality, he spoke of the need to "resist all societies... if the aim is to impose their demands on us". The word "freedom has meaning for me," he said, "and I will defend it at any cost."

Though he was capable of making propaganda images for the Catalan and republican causes, this sense of absolute individual liberty was as much about a sense of wonder at the world; you could find it, he believed, "wherever you see the sun, a blade of grass, the spirals of the dragonfly. Courage consists sometimes of staying close to nature, which could not care less about our disasters". In this spirit Miró created for himself the alter ego of a Catalan peasant, indefatigable and ribald, wild bearded under a barretina, the red cap of the rural radical. The surface of his life, despite the great fractures of the times in which he lived, was relatively orderly and measured, but you do not have to look for long at his work, including the pictures on these pages, to see that he reserved all of his formidable energies for his painting.

NORD-SUD, 1917

Aged 24, Miró longs to leave Barcelona for Paris

Miró made this painting in 1917, when he was living in his native Barcelona and dreaming of moving to Paris. He was in the final year of his national service as a soldier; Spain was not involved in the first world war, and he was frustrated that the fighting in France had put his ambitions to enlist in the Parisian avant garde on hold. After a period of depression, he had given up on the career in business that his father had planned for him, and had spent the previous four years, when not in uniform, painting full-time; he had that premature, 24-year-old's sense that life was already passing him by.

The presence in his painting of the journal Nord-Sud – founded in Paris that year by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire among others – hints both at this anxiety, and at a solidarity with the ideals of freedom the magazine represented. The caged bird behind it is faced with an open door, but has not yet flown: "I must tell you," Miró wrote to his friend and fellow painter EC Ricart in 1917, "that if I have to live much longer in Barcelona I will be asphyxiated by the atmosphere – so stingy and such a backwater (artistically speaking)."

Miró was, above all, desperate, in the spirit of the moment, to be part of an -ism, or, better, to create one. Impressionism was dead, he suggested: "Down with weeping sunsets in canary yellow... Down with all that, made by crybabies!" He was already anticipating the demise of cubism, futurism and fauvism (though the latter in particular has a strong influence on his painting here). The scissors are open ready for him to cut ties with the past and present, with Catalonia (represented in the characteristic vase), and with Goethe-esque rites of passage. But his hopes of finding that new style, that new way of painting seemed to be beyond him, and to the north.

Two years later Miró still found himself maddeningly caught in this limbo, and finding new torments in his friends' departures: "Ricart must have told you," he wrote to JF Rafols in August 1919, "that he is determined to go to Paris for a few months. I am afraid that he will get a fright unless he realises that life in Paris is expensive if he does not manage to go there with a good monthly allowance... I am definitely going at the end of November. You have to go there as a fighter and not as a spectator of the fight if you want to do anything..."

When Miró eventually did make it to Paris, in 1920, he called on Picasso, whom he had never met, but whose mother was a family friend in Barcelona. Picasso looked out for him, bought a painting that Miró showed him, and helped him into the radical society he had dreamt of. Within a year, Miró's tiny studio at rue Blomet received regular visits from his new friends: the poet Paul Éluard, the playwright Antonin Artaud and the artist Tristan Tzara. Sud had found his way Nord.

THE FARM, 1921

Broke in Paris, he reflects on his roots

"When I first knew Miró," Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1934, "he had very little money and very little to eat, and he worked all day every day for nine months painting a very large and wonderful picture called The Farm..."

Miro found that his life in Paris allowed him to understand his Catalan roots, that formative light that had seemed so oppressive, with a new and startling clarity. His parents had bought a country house in the Catalan mountains at Mont-roig in 1910, in part  to help him recover from depression. It was where he learned to look at the natural world. In The Farm, he later recalled, "I wanted to put everything I loved about the country in the canvas, from a huge tree to a tiny little snail." He brought dry grasses up from Mont-roig to Paris so he could "finish the painting after nature".

Because he was working so hard on the painting during the day he took to boxing in the evening at a local gym as a way of relaxing. Among his sparring partners was Hemingway. Miró, so the story goes, impressed the writer first with his punching and then with his painting.

Hemingway was determined to buy The Farm. He agreed with Miró's dealer to pay 5,000 francs for it, which, he recalled, "was four thousand two hundred and fifty francs more than I had ever paid for a picture..." When it was time to make the last payment he risked losing the painting because he didn't have the money. On the final day he trawled around every bar he knew in Paris, with his friend John Dos Passos, borrowing cash, and eventually raised the funds.

"I would not trade it for any picture in the world," he wrote. "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 those two opposing things."

Miró's obsessive attention to a kind of personal storehouse of imagery, the carob tree, the animals and insects of Catalonia, his footprints in the place he fell to earth, begins to find its full expression in this painting. "For me an object is always alive," he later observed. "A cigarette, a matchbook contain a secret life much more intense than certain humans… I see a tree, I get a shock as if it were something breathing..."

"After Miró had painted The Farm," Hemingway wrote, "and after James Joyce had written Ulysses, they had a right to expect people to trust the further things they did, even when people did not understand them."


Thanks to André Breton, Miró finds surrealism

Only two years after he painted The Farm, Miró was spending more time back in Catalonia, trying out ways to distil the essence of his Catalan identity still further. He had become friends in Paris with André Breton, finding his once longed-for -ism. Surrealism, an artistic response to the power of dreams and the subconscious, was only a brief obsession for Miró but its ideas informed his painting of the mid-1920s, and his methods thereafter. "Every idea has to develop in my unconscious, and sometimes it takes years... The starting point is absolutely irrational, sudden and unconscious: I start off blindly..."

The compulsive detailing of his earlier painting had by the time of The Hunter become a kind of playful shorthand. He had a powerful sense of the emptiness of his remembered landscape, animated only momentarily by human action; life becomes explicable as a diagrammatic series of gestures and relationships, "the underlying magic", as Miró described it, and he developed a way of painting that seemed to respond to those energies. He was in search of the essence of things. In The Hunter, his Catalan peasant alter ego is captured simultaneously in the act of shooting a rabbit for his cooking pot and fishing for a sardine for his barbecue.

Miró explained the detail of the painting in the following terms to one viewer: "The Catalan peasant has become a triangle with an ear, eye, pipe, the hairs of a beard and a hand. This is a barretina, the Spanish peasant headdress… And the man's heart, entrails and sexual organs. I've shown the Toulouse-Rabat airplane on the left; it used to fly past our house once a week. In the painting I showed it by a propellor, a ladder and the French and Catalan flags. You can see the Paris-Barcelona axis again, and the ladder, which fascinated me. A sea and one boat in the distance, and in the very foreground, a sardine with tail and whiskers gobbling up a fly. A broiler waiting for the rabbit, flames and a pimento on the right..."

André Breton acquired The Hunter in 1925, the year after he wrote his Surrealist Manifesto. He believed that Miró had found a way to depict the "poetic reality" of life, in ways that his manifesto had described, but which he had not fully imagined. Miró was not much interested in manifestos, thoughprinciples he pursued were not going to be written by anyone but himself.


A family man, in exile from the civil war

For a while in his 20s and 30s, Miró had felt his freedom almost unconstrained in Paris. When he returned to the city in 1934, though, now married and a father, he carried a sense of foreboding about the state of Spain and Europe: "I had this unconscious feeling of impending disaster," he later wrote. "Like before it rains; a heavy feeling in the head, aching bones, an asphyxiating dampness..."

From the beginning of that year, Miró found himself unable to draw anything but monsters; the human figure became a grotesque of teeth and genitals. The margins of his sketchbooks are populated with visions of nightmarish couplings and weirdly erotic subhuman bodies. He had a sense of himself as prophetic in some way, and was troubled by these portents. "If we do not attempt to discover the magic sense of things, we will do no more than add new sources of degradations to those already offered to people today, which are beyond number... if the powers of backwardness continue to spread, if they push us any further into the dead end of cruelty and incomprehension, that will be the end of all human dignity," he wrote. The outbreak of civil war in Spain and the rise of fascism across Europe confirmed his worst fears. He contributed images for propaganda posters, the raised fist of the Catalan peasant, for the republican cause. But in Paris, in 1937, where he had gone with his wife and daughter to escape the bombing, Miró now found himself a prisoner from the terror at home, and at a loss to know how to respond.

He felt he had to begin again from first principles. He came across a gin bottle in the street, brought it home to his apartment, and began to paint a still life, which quickly took on the atmosphere of his apocalyptic anxieties. The painting took him five months to complete from January 1937. His friend and biographer Jacques Dupin calls this painting "Miró's Guernica", his simple riposte to Picasso's epic. Its objects could not be more mundane – a fork, a bottle, an apple, a loaf of bread – yet these homely realities seem threatened by a kind of hallucinogenic doom. "The civil war was all bombings, death, firing squads..." Miró wrote to his dealer Pierre Matisse, (son of Henri). "The composition is realistic because I was paralysed by the general feeling of terror and almost unable to paint at all... We are living through a terrible drama, everything happening in Spain is terrifying in a way you could never imagine. I feel very uprooted here and nostalgic for my country..."

In an interview at this time, Miró was asked about his state of mind. "I am pessimistic, I am tragically pessimistic," he said. "No illusions are permitted. More violently than ever before there will be a struggle against everything that represents the pure value of the spirit."

He incorporated the old shoe in the picture as a gesture toward Van Gogh; he had the sense that his eye was bringing all the world's psychosis to everything on which it fell; the objects in the painting seem lit by a savage incandescence, the light comes from the direction of the artist.


The artist retreats to an inner universe

In 1939, at the outbreak of the second world war, Miró and his family moved to Varengeville on the Normandy coast, a few miles from Dieppe. Georges Braque was a neighbour. The village was subject to a blackout, and that fact prompted Miro's most luminous and affecting series of paintings, the Constellations (six of which will be included in the Tate show). He explained their genesis in a letter to a friend: "I had always enjoyed looking out of the windows at night and seeing the sky and the stars and the moon, but now we weren't allowed to do this any more, so I painted the windows blue and I took my brushes and paint, and that was the beginning of the Constellations."

Painted on paper, the pictures create the most vibrant expression of Miró's inner universe, with its by now recognisable system of codes and symbols. The ladder of this painting had always been a fascination for him; it had acted as a metaphor for his attempts to put his painting on a different plane of understanding the world, as a path away from mundane realism. Now it becomes an even more urgent gesture toward flight: "I felt a deep desire to escape," he wrote of that period. "I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings."

On 20 May, with the advance of the German forces, he managed to get his wife and daughter on the last train for Paris, from where they miraculously found room on a train leaving for Spain. Miró had time to take nothing with him, except a roll of the starry paintings. The family got passage to Palma, Mallorca, where Miro had spent his childhood summers with his grandparents, and where, on 1 August, he resumed work after more than two months of escape. The Constellations, which Miro completed in Barcelona, were among the first artistic documents to reach America after the war, and were exhibited in New York in 1945. Andre Breton, who saw them, talked of how at a "time of extreme perturbation" Miro had escaped into a realm of "the purest, the least changeable..."

MAY, 1968

Now 75, he backs the Paris uprisings

After the war, Miró based himself in Mallorca; if this looked like retreat, though, he still allowed the world to invade his work. In contrast to contemporaries such as Dalí or mentors like Picasso, Miró seemed able to chart a stable course through the latter half of his long life, reserving his energy for his painting. In his biography of his friend, Jacques Dupin marvelled at Miró's ability to live a life that was "utterly free of disorder or excess". In his studio, order ruled. Canvases were neatly filed according to a complicated and rigid system, brushes were cleaned as soon as they were used and arranged in order of size; tubes of paint were laid out in strict sequence. "I have often seen him bent over a sheet of paper, and flick off a grain of dust that has just alighted on it: each time the practised gesture is just the same," Dupin noted. "Nothing is left to chance, not even in his daily habits: there is a time to take a walk, a time to read, there is a time to be with his family and there is a time to work."

The work itself, though, was anything but ordered, and deliberately so. Miró reserved all of his anarchy for creation. "We Catalans," he was fond of saying, "believe that you must plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump high in the air. The fact I come down to earth from time to time makes it possible to jump higher."

Miró became aware that the energy in painting, like everything else, was moving to America. He saw a Jackson Pollock show in Paris in 1952 and recalled saying to himself: "You can do it too, go to it, you see, it is OK!" He had no interest in pure abstraction, though. "You get freedom by sweating for it," he believed, "by an inner struggle..."

Miró liberated his work in different ways, painting with his fingers and on the floor, burning and slashing his canvases in later life. By the 60s he had created a much bolder, more ferocious style. Spain was still under Franco, and even in Mallorca, Miró felt the dead hand of dictatorship, the anti-freedom he had always hated. With the student uprising in Paris in 1968, he hoped to bring more of the spirit of rebellion home. At the age of 75 he hurled his paint at the canvas as a shared act of defiance: "[This painting] is all explained by the title: May 1968," he later said. "Drama and expectation in equal parts: what was and what remained of that unforgettable young people's revolt..."

At the opening of an exhibition that included this painting, in 1978, after Franco's demise, Miró paced up and down in front of it, uncharacteristically. His wife, Pilar, told him to sit down, and he refused. "Damn it, let them see me standing up," he said. "I painted these paintings in a frenzy, with real violence so that people will know I'm alive, that I'm breathing, that I have a few more places to go." He was 85. "I'm heading in new directions!" he exclaimed. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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