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March 28 2012

In praise of … Joan Miró | Editorial

Following last year's exhibition at Tate Modern, a new show in Yorkshire displays his weird and witty sculptures in bronze

You wait 50 years for a Miró exhibition in Britain and then two come along at once. Last year Londoners had the chance to be dazzled by the Catalan surrealist's extraordinary breadth of imagination. Now, the weird and witty sculpture in bronze to which he turned in the final years of his career is on show among the soft green hills of Yorkshire. Here is an artist who for most of his 90 years created work with vision and inventiveness, and above all with an inexhaustible passion. Whether he was motivated only by the tragic politics of the 20th century, especially those of Catalonia and Spain, remains in dispute. But anyone who stood in Tate Modern surrounded by the huge triptychs he painted at the same time as he began working on his monumental sculpture will surely acknowledge that, in an era where it was repeatedly denied, his creativity was driven by his unfaltering urge to describe the importance of freedom. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 16 2012

Cerith Wyn Evans, Joan Miró and a new Leonardo – the week in art

Enigmatic installation art by the Sussex seaside, Spanish sculpture in Sheffield, and a hidden masterpiece – all in your weekly roundup

Exhibition of the week: Cerith Wyn Evans

The art of Cerith Wyn Evans is fiercely louche. Romantic fire flashes across silvered emptiness. Mirrors and palms, words and fireworks hang in the charged, enigmatic air of his installations. Sometimes, Wyn Evans pays homage to heroes such as Pier Paolo Pasolini in images that are historically and politically explicit. Elsewhere, he leaves meaning to be completed by the viewer in works of art that are all tentative atmosphere.

The tension in Wyn Evans' work between apparently fractured, disillusioned ambiguity – suggested by the reflective surfaces in which he shows us our own, puzzled selves – and flashes of heat and light, redolent of passion and rage, is poetic and powerful. It is fashionable now to stereotype the young British artists who made their names in the 1990s as crass and one-dimensional. But Wyn Evans is nothing if not nuanced: his installations have a baroque richness and chiaroscuro mood. There is an epic grandeur to his communication of a big and mysterious emotional life. One of our most provocative artists, in a fine place to see anyone's work; fireworks will blaze on the roof of the beachside pavilion, and flames of memory flicker on the sea.

• At De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea from 17 March until 10 June

Also opening

Leonardo da Vinci
Featuring 10 drawings from the Royal Collection, the greatest in the world of Leonardo's works, this travelling exhibition celebrates the Queen's jubilee. Take a look at his Leda.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, until 25 March

Suzanne Treister
Hexen 2.0, a psychedelic paranoid history of the internet, is the latest art foray among the steam engines.
Science Museum, London until 1 May

Eve Arnold
A chance to reflect on the brilliance of the late Magnum photographer.
Art Sensus, London until 27 April

Martin Creed Artist Room
A new addition to the Artist Rooms collection presents an overview of Creed's everyday poetry.
Tate Liverpool until 27 May

Masterpiece of the week

Unknown 16th-century British artist, Portrait of Sir Henry Unton, c1596

This is the best bad painting in Britain. When the well-connected Elizabethan gentleman Henry Unton died in 1596, his widow commissioned this fascinating cartoon strip-style picture that encompasses his whole life, and all his achievements, in a swirl of crowded images. At the centre is a portrait of Sir Henry himself. All around him we see his travels abroad, his life on his estate, a feast where he not only watches a masque but also plays the lute – a key genteel accomplishment of the time – and his funeral. It is at once naive and packed with information, a painting that takes us into the heart of Shakespeare's Britain. Like a tomb sculpture in a parish church, it is very moving in its simplicity.

National Portrait Gallery

Image of the week

What we learned this week

The stories behind the best things photographers refused to snap

Why fishermen in Hastings are maddened this week

That Miro has descended on Yorkshire

That Billy Connolly has released his debut art collection

That a new Leonardo may have been found


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Jeremy Deller talks to Charlotte Higgins about his new show at the Hayward, Joy in People, at the Guardian Open Weekend on 24 March. New tickets released. Find out more and book at © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 14 2012

A breath of fresh air: Joan Miró at Yorkshire Sculpture Park – in pictures

Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield is staging Britain's first major exhibition of 79 sculptures by Joan Miró

January 31 2012

Miró's Catalan totems to go on show in Yorkshire

First major UK exhibition of surrealist's sculptures opens in Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the spring, with shows by former Pogues member and Anish Kapoor to follow

Bulls, monsters and giant eggs will sprout from the countryside near Wakefield this spring as Yorkshire Sculpture Park stages the first major UK show of Joan Miró's sculpture.

The Catalan surrealist, whose paintings were the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern last year, believed that "a sculpture must stand in the open air, in the middle of nature". Up to 20 of his works will be situated outdoors, with another 76 located in the YSP's indoor gallery.

The works have been loaned by several institutions in Europe, including the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, and will include Personnage, a squat 1970 sculpture cast from waste materials, and La Caresse d'un Oiseau, a three-metre painted bronze described by one critic as "a whimsical totem of female sexuality".

Miró was a late starter at sculpture, creating his first work in 1931 when he was at 38. He made about 400 sculptures ranging from small ceramics to huge bronzes, until his death in 1983. "His family said that Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the correct place to show this work," said the gallery's director, Peter Murray, at the launch of the gallery's 2012 programme.

Just before Christmas, a Barbara Hepworth sculpture worth £500,0000 was stolen from Brockwell Park in London but Murray said he was confident the outdoor Mirós would be safe. "The Sculpture Park is secure – like any major gallery or museum, we have 24-hour security, though obviously I can't go into details."

The park had record numbers of visitors last year, with more than 350,000 visitors up 100,000 on 2010. "Our audiences have been building over at least a decade," said Murray. "We're very skilful at curating shows which work indoors and outdoors so you get a sort of unity of statement and the same will happen with Miró. It will attract huge numbers and the imagination of many people."

The Miró show will consolidate Yorkshire's growing reputation among arts lovers. Last May, the Hepworth Wakefield opened 20 miles away and received 350,000 visitors in 2011, twice the number predicted. The area has also received a boost thanks to David Hockney's Royal Academy exhibition of huge landscape paintings, though that concentrates on the East Yorkshire Wolds rather than the West Riding, where the YSP is situated.

Spread over 200 hectares, the YSP has the largest collection of Moore's sculptures outside the artist's foundation in Perry Green, most displayed outdoors against the spectacular landscapes of the Dales. Further exhibitions scheduled for 2012 include two works by Jem Finer, formerly of the Pogues; an Anish Kapoor show curated from the Arts Council collection, and a show by Richard Long to coincide with an exhibition by the same artist at Hepworth Wakefield.

Clare Lilley, programme director at Yorkshire Sculpture Gallery, said she was looking forward to seeing how Miró's sculpture would look alongside the gallery's collection of Barbara Hepworth works. The exhibition opens in March. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2011

Miró, Van Gogh and Tate St Ives – the week in art

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Jonathan Jones's top shows this week

Joan Miró
The art of Joan Miró is part of the history of abstraction, as well as a highlight of the surrealist movement to which he belonged. His early dream paintings have much in common with the contemporary abstract works of Arp, while late works offer a European answer to the freedom of Pollock and the American abstract expressionists. A truly important modern painter.
• At Tate Modern, London SE1, until 11 September

Ron Arad's Curtain Call
Artists including Mat Collishaw and Christian Marclay project films on a giant silicone curtain created by designer Arad in a multimedia summer spectacle at the venue legendary for its association with 1960s psychedelic lightshows.
• At Roundhouse, London NW1, until 29 August

Tate St Ives Summer Exhibition
There is a minimalist tone to some of the art in this year's eclectic summer show at the Cornish Tate by the sea, as the restrained and passionate works of Agnes Martin are juxtaposed with Martin Creed's gallery half-filled with balloons. Two excellent reasons to include modern art in your British beach holiday, and the surf is amazing, too.
• At Tate St Ives until 25 September

Twombly and Poussin
You can get a very good notion of why the late American painter mattered so much in this excellent selection of mostly smaller works by him. It also features Poussin's majestic Arcadian Shepherds. Eerily, some of Twombly's works are funereally displayed in the mausoleum built into this gallery, while a film by Tacita Dean offers a portrait of the artist near the end of his life.
• At Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, until 25 September

Thomas Struth
Panoramic photographs of resonant, spectacular places, and unsettling juxapositions of modern people with historical cultural landmarks, make Struth a distinctly thought-provoking artist.
• At Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, until 16 September

Up close: sun-worshipping summer masterpieces

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
Sometimes this painting fills you with happiness. At other times, if the light on it is a little less bright, it can appear desperately melancholy. It is a modern version of religious art: where a medieval street corner might display a statue of the Virgin Mary to console people in their everyday lives, Vincent's flowers, in a faithless age, find hints of spiritual meaning in nature and offers evidence of earth's beauty to strengthen the soul. And yet the unease shows through.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden, c1465
Bellini's rosy-fingered dawn creeping over a north Italian hillside, brightly illuminating a little town whose people are still asleep, is one of the most beautiful homages to the sun ever painted. Earth's star has not yet appeared in the sky, but the pink fiery promise of its coming that spreads through sharp blue is a miracle of natural observation.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

John Michael Rysbrack, Sunna, about 1728 -1730
Statues of Greek and Roman gods and heroes were the convention in 18th-century landscaped gardens, but Lord Cobham decided to be different in his garden at Stowe. He commissioned Rysbrack to carve marble figures of the pagan Saxon gods, a savage English pantheon. This deity with flaming hair hewn from stone is Sunna, the Saxon god of the sun, as imagined by 18th-century antiquarians.
• At V&A, London SW7

Sculptures from east pediment of the Parthenon, about 438-432BC
The wine god Dionysus reclines to watch the rising of the sun's chariot in the mythological representation of day and night that ancient Athenian sculptors carved on their city's greatest temple. Colossal marble figures of gods, fragmentary but overwhelmingly powerful, convey the titanic authority of Greek myth. While the sun chariot rises on the left side of the group, at the right of the scene one of the horses of the moon goddess rolls its eye.
• At British Museum, London WC1

Maeshowe, about 2700BC
Visitors to the Orkneys in summer are there at the wrong time of the year to see the winter solstice light penetrate this cairned chamber. But at any time of the year it is a fascinating testimony to ancient humanity's adoration of the sun. Just like ancient Egyptians and Aztecs, the neolithic builders of this camera-like stone structure aligned their architecture, and presumably their lives, to the cycles of the sun.
• At Stenness, Orkney Mainland

What we learned this week

The truth about Ai Weiwei's interrogation by Chinese police

How the Medicis' riches not only powered the Renaissance, but created the modern banking system

Why the world needs a nude sculpture of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez

How artists captured the violent riots of London's past

Why a blockbuster Alexander McQueen show could lead to a fashion takeover in art galleries

Image of the week

Your art weekly

@MrsSymbols Treasures of Heaven, at @britishmuseum: spectacular, scholarly, spiritual, superstitious – and symbolic #artweekly

@camilayerlarte I highly recommend "You are not alone" an ArtAids Foundation exhibition at @fundaciomiro in #Barcelona #artweekly

Have you been to any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones.

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April 16 2011

Ladder of Escape

Tate Modern, London

There is a painting in this wonderful exhibition to make one laugh out loud. It shows a chocolate landscape beneath a black night sky against which a ladder stands, as if one could climb up to the stars. A comet shoots teasingly past. On the ground, a multicoloured critter with something like paws and jaws barks at the moon with all the energy implicit in its tightly sprung form. The moon is not quite immune to this absurd display: it has a painted heart. But it also wears a satirical red nose.

Dog Barking at the Moon was painted in 1926, in Paris, where Miró had been living on and off for five years. It is frequently described as a work of surrealism; Max Ernst was Miró's neighbour in Montmartre, historians point out; Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard were close friends. But it has equally been interpreted as a personal manifesto. Here is the young artist as a pup, trying to find his voice in the international avant-garde. The beautiful ladder must therefore be his art, by which he will ascend, per ardua ad astra.

When Miró died in 1983, at the age of 90, he had long been cherished as the last of the modernist stars. His pictorial language was singular, instantly recognisable and – quite rightly – no longer perceived as some Catalan dialect of surrealism. Its elements were, and remain, upliftingly joyous and familiar: signals, signs and flags, butterflies, eyes and shooting stars, dots and darts, insects, sperms and body parts, whiskery critters and innocent forms that proliferate like teeming cells through the cosmos of his art.

To see the early works at Tate Modern is to be transported. The opening room is a blast, each painting radiant with the hot colours of Tarragona, near Barcelona, where Miró's family had the farm that appears in his 1922 masterpiece, with its marvellous inventory of farm life depicted as if both observed and excitedly remembered.

The Farm is a visual primer: A for ass, B for byre, C for cockerel and corn. How many birds can you count? Are the footprints animal or human? Every entity is given its own autonomous space in the picture, separately praised but connected by rhyming shapes: stream and path, snail and pebble, roof and furrow. And everything is in the ascendant, reaching up to the brilliant cobalt sky.

This is partly because the painting has a quasi-cubist space, tilted upright; and presumably because Miró is celebrating the thriving upward growth of home. But it must have something to do with his new way of painting, too, in which objects have a double life as letters – the E of a crate, the A of a ladder, the O of wheel, pail and sun – and everything is simultaneously inside the scene and written on its surface. The Farm is both picture and poem.

It is a great breakthrough: once seen, never forgotten. And it heralds so much of what follows. Look at Landscape With Rooster and you see that sky ladder appearing again alongside the bird with his own tiny version. His spreading tail feathers rhyme with the spokes of an abandoned wheel and all of this earthly impotence is gently mocked by a shape above, a frisson of brushmarks that both depicts and conveys the sense of flight.

Look at the series known as the Constellations, where the twinkling forms are connected across the canvas as if by tracery, necklace or web, each painting somehow marrying surface diagram with mysterious, spacey depth. Or at the many works where Miró does almost everything you can do with a line – dot, circle, wave and hyphen to circumflex, cedilla and letter; cartoon, diagram and word to childish squiggle and exquisitely realistic illusion: an infinite play of legibility.

Lines breed, stick figures merge with sunrays, discs fracture into pinpricks, cross-hatched spiders fade into air. Things lose their identity in this exhilarating miscegeny and human forms enter the free for all like players to the game. What's this? A Catalan peasant as two stars, a scarlet hat and a beard of bunting. What's this? A Catalan peasant in the blue night, two stars and a puff of smoke!

The humour of the Catalan peasants becomes much more apparent when all the paintings are brought together. This retrospective is beautifully orchestrated, by Matthew Gale, to present Miró's phases as quite distinct: the animated landscapes, the constellations, the black-and-white Barcelona lithographs unfolding like a strip cartoon (no insult: Miró is one of art's few comedians), the public murals, the late sculptures. Unlike the partial shows of the past, it gives you Miró whole.

But it also wants to make him into something he is not – a political artist responding to contemporary events with polemic and protest. One sees the nominal evidence, to be sure – the memorials to the assassinated anarchist, the titles referring to martyrdom and torture. We are to think of Miró's burned paintings as outcries, though they look like large dolls' house windows; to contemplate the parti-coloured Still Life With Old Shoe in terms of the Spanish civil war.

But the expressly political works are so weak the best one can say is that Miró's sincerity is not in doubt. Enormous canvases in which a small point is writ too large, tiny sketches that offer no thoughts. The case for Miró as a modern Goya goes against the visual evidence (unless it's apparent in the decline after the second world war, when his art stalls). It is quite hard even to spot a mood swing in this show.

This emphasis on politics, moreover, feels slightly apologetic, as if one had to find a more serious claim for Miró than the exultant beauty of his work. It is often said that one can feel the sensations of his art, its tremulous lines and rustling forms, vibrations and pulses. And sometimes one hears its bright melodies and quizzical cacophonies in the same painting. In Awakening in the Early Morning, the pale dots that outline each form ring in the dawn as clearly as cold morning dew.

This synaesthesia seems part of a lifelong aim to get painting airborne, to make it more alive in as many senses and dimensions as possible. Walking through this show, one sees the artist constantly trying to release his brilliant little ideograms from the flat background, to free the motif from the substrate without using perspective; to prop the ladder against pure colour.

And when Miró achieves this, the result is pure joie de vivre. Landscapes become weightless, figures and forms are like skywriting, suffused with colour and light. The material world recedes, the poetry floats free as air. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 13 2011

A whiplash or a punch

Adrian Searle considers Joan Miró's The Hope of a Condemned Man, inspired by the execution of the Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich and forming part of a new exhibition of Miró's work at London's Tate Modern

April 11 2011

Joan Miró: A fine line

Though Joan Miró came to assassinate painting, no other artist made it seem more alive. Adrian Searle revels in the contradictions of Tate Modern's major new retrospective

Whenever I have been to the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona – and I have visited Josep Lluís Sert's lovely building on Montjuïc many times over the last quarter-century – I try to see Miró's great 1968 triptych Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse. It isn't always on display. There's nothing much to the three white canvases. No colour, no forms. Each enormous canvas is painted with a single black line over an unevenly primed white ground. You can tell where the slender brush has run out of paint, is recharged, then continues on its way with the same unknowable purpose, like the passage of an ant or a bird in flight, or the journey the eye makes along a horizon. Or like a long hair lost in the bedsheets, a memory of something or someone.

The recluse of the title might be the artist himself, painting one afternoon with the shutters closed against the brightness of the day in his studio on the island of Mallorca, during the month that the students rioted in Paris and General Franco still ruled Spain. It is a daft idea, to paint just a skinny wandering line across such a big canvas. How could it possibly work? But it does. There is a palpable difference between a line that's alive and tense and somehow natural, and one that dies like a bum note. You can feel the vitality of Miró's line from your head to your toes, your hand clenching and unclenching in your pocket, somehow feeling in your own body the artist's concentration – the tensing of his wrist, the movement of his hand – as you follow the line on its way to nowhere. I imagine Miró holding his breath as he draws, and I hold mine too as I look.

This work, along with three other late, large triptychs, is now being shown in two beautifully installed octagonal rooms towards the end of a new retrospective at Tate Modern. Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape brings us his art not just in its most characteristic guises – playful, childlike, direct – but attempts to bring out Miró the "international Catalan" and internal exile in Franco's Spain; Miró the political artist; and the avant-garde surrealist and modernist who wanted – so he once said – to assassinate painting.

Miró never did succeed in killing painting, that walking corpse that still refuses to lie down and take it quietly. He had a brush in his hand, not a stake. He also wanted his art to be useful. In 1979, four years after Franco's death, he said in a speech at Barcelona University that "being able to say something, when the majority of people do not have the option of expressing themselves, obliges this voice to be in some way prophetic … When an artist speaks in an environment in which freedom is difficult, he must turn each of his works into a negation of the negations, in an untying of all oppressions, all prejudices, and all the false established values."

Nowadays this sort of talk sounds a bit quaint. We have almost lost our faith in the redemptive powers of art. In Spain's newly emerging democracy, Miró's art felt symbolic, both of resistance to Franco's state and of the new freedoms that were coming into being. With the best of his work, I too feel genuinely lifted, transported, energised, though I just feel deadened looking at his murals and public sculptures, the endless prints, that overly jolly logo he devised for the La Caixa savings bank.

Whatever formal and sometimes theatrical murders Miró perpetrated on his art – at one point dousing paintings in kerosene and setting fire to them, just like Yves Klein - you feel Miró's heart wasn't entirely in it. He could never escape his wit and energy and ribaldry, though at times this was mixed with a profound anger. In his long Barcelona series of lithographs, conceived around 1940 but only printed in 1944, Miró depicts buffoonish, highly sexualised but impotent ogres menacing innocents across a suite of 50 prints. They're based on playwright Alfred Jarry's cowardly dictator Pére Ubu as much as Franco and his generals.

A series of copper panels from 1936 sees exquisitely nasty, lurid figures squirm and gesticulate, show off their sex organs and pontificate in arid landscapes (in one case, in front of a pile of excrement), filled with disgust and a loathsome sexuality. Later, in the 1973 triptych The Hope of a Condemned Man, Miró alluded to the execution of the young Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, garrotted in prison that same year. The three-part painting is dominated by a line that sighs and falls with faltering resignation, percussive scribbles of colour like memories about to pass, and a thin rain of flicked paint. One cannot but think of the artist contemplating his own passing, though he was to live on until Christmas Day 1983, dying at 90, having seen the first socialist government come into power since the civil war.

Breasts, balls and tongues

Miró was never cut out to be a total iconoclast, and in his art the ghosts of Jan Brueghel, Hieronymus Bosch and the anonymous masters of the Romanesque frescoes that once decorated churches through the Catalan Pyrenees, collide with his fertile imagination. They make themselves felt alongside the influences of his friends Picasso and Masson, and works by Gorky, Rothko and Pollock he encountered in his trips to New York in the late 1940s and 50s.

Influence is one thing. What Miró found in his forebears and contemporaries, as much as in the world about him, were formal openings and opportunities, mental spaces as much as physical forms, that he could inhabit. Miró was always Miró. Whether he was painting donkeys and vegetable patches and a carob tree, in paintings as detailed as The Farm (bought by Ernest Hemingway), or in paintings as emptied-out as his schematic portraits of Catalan peasants, or his triptychs and late abstractions, the drive is all his own.

There's just too much life in his art, even if it is sometimes of an alarming sort. Here, even emptiness pulses with energy. Paul Klee famously talked of taking a line for a walk. Miró could draw a line across galaxies or from the breast to the hip; along an entire horizon or into an all-engulfing void. Sexual energy pulses through his work, along with scatological Catalan humour and earthiness, a love of nature, and nostalgia for the rural life.

Miró's art was colourful and dirty, life-affirming and nasty, musical and jarring, lyrical and ejaculatory and excremental. There are penises and vulvas, assholes and pubic hair, breasts and balls, lips and eyes and tongues everywhere, even in the 1940-41 Constellations series, which jangles with heads and stars, birds and bullseyes, monsters, fish, a bestiary of madness and teeming thoughts, all related in some strange and almost astrological way to war, and to Johann Sebastian Bach. How at once lovely and unsettling these paintings are; they rock the mind as well as the eye.

Refusing the official stamp

Miró kept the paradoxes going. He insisted on his Catalan name – Joan not Juan – but titled his works in French. His art – and he would insist his soul – was rooted in Catalonia, but also in surrealism, and in postwar American painting. He continued to live in Mallorca, and show internationally, while refusing the honours of Franco's government or to participate as an official Spanish artist in biennales, sabotaging almost all attempts to get him to do so. Unlike Dalí, he made few accommodations to the state, just as he had earlier refused to become a social realist or a communist, or to toe the surrealist line. This is why Miró became so important a figure for a younger generation of Catalan artists, like Antoni Tàpies and the visual poet and playwright Joan Brossa.

Hardly any retrospectives are complete. There is always something missing – either absent works or the artist's spirit, which can easily be destroyed by bad curatorship. The last big Miró retrospective I saw, in New York in 1987, missed so much of the Miró present here, a deeply complex artist, political and playful, full of sex and spirit, earth and sky. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 08 2011

Joan Miró: at home in exile

On the eve of the new Tate exhibition, Colm Tóibín charts Joan Miró's travels to the creative hub of 1920s Paris, his refuge in Mallorca and his return to his native Barcelona a hero

There are four buildings which were important for Joan Miró, and each of them in different ways helps us to understand his complex spirit and the art he made. The first was the building where he was born in 1893; it is in a small arcade off Carrer de Ferran, near Plaça Sant Jaume in the old quarter of Barcelona, with the inauspicious address of Passeig del Credit. Miró's father had a business in nearby Plaça Reial mending and making watches. Even though the city was going through enormous changes in the years when Miró was growing up, he seemed as much stifled by its conservative atmosphere as excited by the new architecture or the political ferment there.

Miró had none of Picasso's prodigious and precocious talent. He was, from an early age, more interested in pure colour and structure than in representation. In any case, he could not make academic drawings. Thus when he began to study art in the Llotja, where Picasso had studied, he was not encouraged to stay. At the age of 17, under pressure from his parents, he began work as a clerk; he toiled in an office six days a week from eight in the morning until nine in the evening, and after a year suffered a kind of breakdown.

He was, and indeed remains, an easy figure to misread. He seemed shy and timid, but he possessed a deeply uncompromising spirit. His work may seem apolitical and pure, but he remained all his life a fervent Catalan (his notebooks are in Catalan or French, but not in Spanish), and he made his left-wing sympathies clear during the Spanish civil war and under the Franco regime. He had many friends, but, despite a connection with the surrealists, he was a member of no group, and remained a deeply independent figure.

At the age of 19 he went to study in an art school run by a Catalan called Francesc Galí. He still could not draw, could not, in his own words, tell the difference between a curved line and a straight line. Galí worked with him, tried to make him do still-lives of objects without colour such as a glass of water or a potato. Miró invariably made them look like sunsets. Nonetheless, he admired Galí and made a number of friends in his art school, and, like Picasso before him, began to enjoy the street life of the city.

He became aware, however, that the real world was elsewhere, that there were no cubists or constructivists or surrealists working in Barcelona, that most contemporary art displayed in the city was old-fashioned and dull; he was indignant when an abstract painting by a friend was publicly mocked. He came to see Barcelona as philistine and confining, and, like Catalan artists of previous generations, he began to dream of Paris. His mother and Picasso's mother were friends, and, while he saw the Parade which Picasso designed for the Ballets Russes in 1917, Miró was too shy to call on him. By the time he did so, Picasso had left. Despite his shyness he became friendly with Francis Picabia, one of the leaders of the dada movement who had taken refuge in Barcelona during the war, but Picabia merely whetted his appetite to leave. "I must tell you," he wrote in 1918, "that if I have to live much longer in Barcelona I will be asphyxiated by its atmosphere." Once the war was over, a note he sent to a friend contained just three words: "PARIS! PARIS! PARIS!"

Before he left early in 1919 he went to see Picasso's mother, who gave him a cake to take to her son. The older painter introduced him to dealers in Paris, talked about his work and bought paintings from him. Although Miró disliked the people he met with Picasso, he found great personal and artistic liberation in Paris, in the streets themselves and in the museums and galleries. He was so excited by the place, indeed, that at first he could do no work.

The second building that matters in the life of Miró is a farmhouse in a place called Mont-roig, close to the beach in the province of Tarragona, which Miró's parents bought when he was 16. Just as the atmosphere in Paris would come as a shock to his system, so too this house and the landscape around it, filled with olive groves and with jagged red rock, where he was left at peace to draw and paint, had an enormous impact. He did a number of famous early paintings of the buildings which made up his parents' holding, including The Farm. But he was interested too in the smallest aspects of nature, how grass and trees grew, in the animals and farm implements, in the light from the sea, and how certain local villages in the area were configured.

Mont-roig became a refuge for him from Barcelona; and, once he was in Paris, it also became his refuge from the fierce sensations which that city offered him. Soon it was a refuge, too, from a group of associates there, including some painters, and writers such as Hemingway, with whom he sparred in the boxing ring. In 1923, Hemingway bought the painting The Farm from him.

In the 1920s, as he moved each year between Paris and Mont-roig, Miró's work began to change under the influence of the surrealists, but also because of his own strange limits as a draftsman which became, as he invented his own iconography, a kind of gift. Some of his signature images and hieroglyphics, he later said, were also brought on by the hallucinations caused by hunger. At times, when money ran out and his work did not sell, he returned to the family apartment on Passeig del Credit, where he worked in an upstairs studio. In 1929 he married Pilar Juncosa, who came from a cultured Mallorcan family; in 1931 their only child, Dolors, was born.

As his fame spread, Miró found an American agent, Pierre Matisse, son of the painter, and between 1932 and 1939 had 20 exhibitions of his work in America and Europe, but none in Barcelona. In 1968, as the Franco regime began to liberalise somewhat, he was finally given a retrospective, which took place in the Hospital de la Santa Creu in Barcelona. Miró was pleased at the recognition, but he felt the loss too, of not having been able to show his work in the city of his birth for 50 years. He had taken so much of his inspiration from Catalonia. Now at last he was back in his own city.

He asked for a site where he could build a foundation – the Fundació Joan Miró – and donate many of his own paintings which he still held, and encourage family and friends to do likewise. The authorities were still uncertain about his fame and his status, but gave him the most beautiful site on the side of the hill of Montjuïc, overlooking both the city and the sea. The white building designed by his friend Josep Lluís Sert, who had designed the Spanish pavilion in the Paris Exposition of 1937, is both low key and exquisite in its shape. Its very whiteness seems to breathe in the light. Each room is shaded from the direct glare of the sun; the light is thus both guarded and intense, making the galleries seem like a sanctuary against the world outside. The way the rooms are made seems to add to the strength of Miró's images, but also offers them a sort of mystery and beauty and delicacy. There are times when his work seem filled with a hard-won simplicity, images pared down to a number of pure marks and symbolic gestures. Other paintings are filled with images; they are busy and ominous, or funny and surreal. But some of the work is also beautifully and sensuously painted; the sparseness of the imagery, especially in the work of his final years, seems to serve to emphasise the paint, offering it a sort of transcendent power. Some of his sculptures on the roof are very funny.

Nearby is the Palau Nacional, which is now the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. This houses a collection that had a profound effect on Miró when he was growing up, work that mattered to him as much as any of the contemporary paintings he saw. This is the superb collection of Romanesque wall paintings which comes from small churches dotted all over the Catalan landscape. The collection was formerly housed in the Parc de la Ciutadella, an easy walk from Passeig del Credit. Miró once pointed to the veins running up his arms when a friend of mine asked him if this collection was important for him. His father took him to see this collection during his childhood. He loved the flatness of Romanesque painting, the importance given to small things as much as to angels or saints, and the mixture of simplicity and a sort of deep and deliberate line and use of colour which gave it a stark intensity.

The fourth building that shaped Miró's art was the large, light-filled studio which Sert designed for him on the outskirts of Palma de Mallorca in the mid-1950s. This is now open to the public, preserved as Miró left it when he died, with some of his unfinished work, his brushes, his paint.

Miró's arrival in Mallorca at the outbreak of the second world war requires some explanation. Essentially, he went there because he had nowhere else to go. Since he had made a painting, The Reaper, which hung close to Picasso's Guernica at the Spanish pavilion in Paris in 1937, and had openly supported the Spanish republic, he was in some danger after 1939. Once Franco took power in Spain, Miró therefore remained in France. When it became obvious that a German invasion was imminent, he made his way back to Catalonia, but was warned not to go to Barcelona; instead he went to Mallorca where his mother had roots, but, more importantly, where his wife's family lived.

For Catalans, the Balearic Islands are filled with a sense of pleasure and mystery. The language spoken is very close to Catalan. But there are great variations within the islands themselves. Mallorca, for example, is a bastion of old conservatism and bourgeois values. Unlike Menorca and the rest of Catalonia, it supported Franco from day one; and even since the return of democracy it has generally favoured right-wing parties. Going there with his wife and daughter in 1940, Miró had the best of both worlds. He could live in a Mediterranean, Catalan-speaking country; he could work with the light he loved. But he could also live quietly and safely under the protection of his wife's family. Thus he could be at home and in exile at the same time. He was careful in the years of the dictatorship to make his opposition clear without becoming a martyr.

For more than 40 years he worked on the island, producing paintings, sculpture, ceramics, lithographs. Most of the time he managed, despite the limits of his own systems, not to grow tired, or to parody his own iconography. And when the old dictator died in 1975, he was ready to come back to Barcelona to make political posters and album sleeves, to work with young theatre companies and to relish the success that his own foundation enjoyed. With his soaring imagination, he helped to remake the city of Barcelona, the place he had once despised. He loved, for example, the graffiti that began to appear on the walls after 1975. He made a set of colourful tiles for the Ramblas.

By the time he died in 1983 at the age of 90, he was a hero in the city, one of those who had kept the faith in dark times not by making propaganda but by lifting the Catalan spirit beyond argument, by creating an openness in his own pictorial space, working with a sort of daring innocence with light and paint, figure and line. His work, and indeed his exemplary presence in the world, exuded freedom, the dreaming mind at its most exalted, images at their most pure.

Miró is at Tate Modern from 14 April-11 September. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From Frida Kahlo in Dublin to Joan Miró in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

Surrealism? It was always old hat

The Tate's new Joan Miró show reminds me that surrealism was neither original nor revolutionary, it had clear antecedents

The Joan Miró exhibition at Tate Modern will draw attention, once again, to one of the 20th century's most famous art movements: surrealism. As a young artist from Catalonia coming to Paris, home of the surrealist movement, Miró absorbed its ideas and became one of its most brilliant artists. In its time, surrealism was seen as amoral, disgusting and extreme because it claimed to make art from the stuff of dreams. Today it is celebrated as a living influence. But was surrealism an original art movement at all?

I think that far from being a revolutionary vision hatched out of the brain of its leader, André Breton, the surrealist movement was actually the last echo of a quest for the irrational that has roots deep in the 19th century. The surrealists themselves hinted at this by frequently citing influences such as art nouveau. But when you examine the sheer scale, and radical scope, of the 19th-century obsession with dreams, illicit sex, secret confessions and the collapse of reason, you have to wonder if the surrealist movement actually said anything new at all.

The Gustave Moreau Museum in Paris is a good place to find the surreal before surrealism. Moreau (1826-1898) was painting unfettered fantasia of the irrational in the 1860s, more than six decades before the "surrealist revolution". His paintings and sketches in this museum return to such images as Salome dancing to secure the death of John the Baptist, Helen on the ruins of Troy, the loves of the gods and the dark side of myth. What transports them beyond illustration is Moreau's disturbingly suggestive style: he combines sharp, jewelled details with vague mists of colour in a way that raises his art from depiction to dream. It is like wandering into someone's drugged mind.

Moreau was seen by his contemporary J-K Huysmans, high priest of decadent literature, as a unique visionary, and he was exactly the kind of artist the surrealists named as a forebear. But while surrealism is constantly recycled by modern art museums, you have to go to Paris to find out much about Moreau. And he is not a unique case. By the late 19th century, fantasy was everywhere in avant-garde art. In Paris, you see the intensity of dream life in the colour-saturated later works of Degas, the jungles of Rousseau, the graphic art of Odilon Redon. Add into the mix Munch in Scandinavia, Klimt in Vienna, and Aubrey Beardsley in Britain and you have something far more substantial than a foretaste of surrealism. You have an earlier art of dreams, nightmares, sexuality and the macabre that illuminates the movement founded by Breton as just a coda, an epilogue.

The conventional history of modern art is a fiction. It is assumed to start in about 1900, when in reality modernism was alive and kicking in Paris by 1860 (at the latest) and by the 1890s was generating great, strange art all over Europe. Miró knew this, as did Dalí, because they grew up in the shadow of Antoni Gaudí's encrusted, organic, undulating turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, the greatest theatre of dreams that anyone has ever built. The visitor to Barcelona is impressed by Miró, but swept away by the architecture of Gaudí, that rises like one of Moreau's temples from the 19th-century epoch of dreams. © 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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