Joan Miró

by Adrian Blakey in The Great Artists Series

Catalan painter, Joan Miró (1893-1983) was a native of Barcelona, Spain. Whilst also a spectacularly skilled sculptor and ceramist, it’s his painting that I’m going to explore here as that’s the medium that I work in as an artist. Influenced by the distinct styles that he encountered around his local seaside region, Miro developed his own unique style.

If you’re not familiar with Miró, you can read about his background and influences here.

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His style and some of his most interesting works are featured in this brief video:

The originality of Miró’s style is immediately obvious. I’ve seen his work described as blend of abstract and Surrealism, and other things such as Fauvism and Expressionism.

But I don’t find that useful in creating my own art. I think you need to go back to basics and start with some quite fundamental observations.

The appeal may be instinctive, sometimes emotional and even visceral, but what’s he actually doing in these paintings?

Let’s look at a few specific works and try to find out. To begin, I’ve selected a work entitled “The Gold of the Azure” painted in 1967:

This work engages the viewer immediately. The use of strongly contrasting colors makes a powerful yet slightly mysterious statement. His enigmatic use of motifs such as fine lines and dark blobs is typical to so many of his works.

I can’t help but interpret the black curve as leading into the purple object. Near the right edge of the picture, at the end of the black ark, I see a minimalist humanoid figure looking to it’s left.

If you read the black curve from that figure in a clock-wise way, it suggests a progression from the figure into the purple mass.

A second figure with an enlarged lower section in the bottom left of the image also appears humoid.

What does it mean? Does it suggest pregnancy? Is this a depiction of the moment of fertilization?

The outstretched arm of the left-looking figure appears to be about to release something. Or perhaps it represents sexual organs instead of a hand?

Does the red dot symbolize the blood  of a new life, while the child-like stars create a significance of no lesser scaler than the universe itself?

The thin horizontal line across the center of the picture that crosses the purple object suggests a curved space that is enclosing it. The darkening of the yellow background along the left and upper edge areas serve to push the action directly into the foreground.

Regardless of how fanciful, and possibly bizarre, these interpretations may be, I am struck by how remarkably effective this work is at both a visual, and at an intellectual level. The simplicity of its elements defy their balance and the harmony that their careful placement creates.  This is very far from a random abstract.

Not all of Mirós works are so opaque. In “The Singing Fish”, the title of the work makes it’s interpretation obvious:

Miró developed a sophisticated language of visual expression. The child-like simplicity of the stars and blobs in “The Gold of the Azure” above illustrated some of it. Here, we again have stars and illusions to the sun and the moon.

But for me, the single most recognizable characteristic of a Miró work are the colored segments. Almost clichéd through overuse, this device is typical of and common to  many of his works. Miró uses thin black lines as hard containing edges that create spaces, each of which is assigned a single or limited range of colors. There is a flow and juxtaposition between the use of color in these segments, and sometimes it is difficult to follow the plan.

In “The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings” painted in 1953, the telephone icon on the lower left takes this to extremes:

Some of Miró’s works are overtly abstract and figurative at the same time. Take “Homme et femme devant un tas d’excréments (Man and woman in front of a pile of excrement)” as an example:

In “personnage devant le soleil (Figure in front of the sun)”,  Miró’s child-like image challenges us to take it seriously:

This was painted in 1968’s very late in the painter’s career. By then he was enjoying a level of fame and prestige that might make you wonder whether he was at times factiously painting doodles that were deliberately incomplete, designed to offend and frustrate critical analysis. Could  works like this have been mere cynical exercises to prove that anything he painted would be accepted and exhibited, merely because he painted it?

Or does this work  have a more profound interpretation? Could for example, the black “A” shaped figure be a minimal representation of femininity and menstruation, depicting bleeding below and a large red enclosed egg to the right? The incorporation of the star icon and the partial suggestion of blue sky above seem to suggest a perpetual cycle of renewal  and regeneration. This work seems to be both optimistic and yet bleak at the same time.

Compare this with a much earlier work from 1924, painted while he was still becoming established:

I consider this work entitled “The Hunter (Catalan Landscape” to be a masterpiece. This is sophisticated and subtle. You can find excellent interpretations and commentary here and here. Miro is reported to have explained it 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…

So how does all this influence me today as a painter? I am in awe of how far Miró was able to take the notion of developing his own visual language, a convention of the use of motifs in a deliberately representational way. Works such as “Catalan Landscape” that appear highly abstract are actually deliberate constructions that tell figurative stories. It is evocative of the arid heat of Spain while rich in meaning, and dealing with themes of substance.

As a painter, I also  use abstraction in a figurative way to tell concrete stories. In  my earlier works like “Biogenesys“, I was exploring the beginning of life and projecting forward over a span of billions of years. In a  “A Broken Man“,  I was exploring the conflict between daily life, with all of its noise and distraction, and the loss of simple ideals. In my current works like “Mother Earth“, “Unstill Life” and “Desert Ice“, the “story” in the artist statement gives the viewer a solid  point from which to start interpreting the works.

I’ve  explored minimalism in works like “Perky” and “Ladybird“.  Miró takes his minimalist imagery to another level of apparent simplicity.  It was Picasso who said  “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”, but I think this applied to Miró as well.

Miró has set a very high bar for those of us that have come afterwards. His thought provoking works, and so many characteristics of his style, will continue to inspire many generations of painters well into the future.

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