26 Jul 2011

Miro, Miro on the wall …Mirror of our tortured souls?

Flush with just about all the bad news any of us can absorb, I made my way last night to see the Tate Modern’s vast blockbuster Miro show. Entering the building with friends I felt the cares of the world slip away and prepared to indulge my soul. And what an indulging!

The first room displays beautifully observed realist painting of his childhood home in Barcelona. I say realist, but something surreal begins to emerge in each. Then the deluge, the explosion into what he became famous for – full blown, at times angry, radical, surrealism. It kicks off with ‘Dog Barking at the Moon’ with a ladder disappearing into the black.

Suddenly I was back. Although Miro was addressing the repression of Catalan identity, the seed bed of the Civil war to come – war, exile, fascism, suffering were all in his pallet. Yet somehow now Miro was speaking to our present day.

Norway, Somalia, Murdoch, and Winehouse… somehow the turmoil of each is there on the walls of Tate Modern. At one point, there is a great sweep of some fifty lithographs depicting toothy ogres, dictators and their innocent victims. The monstrous massacre of young people on a Norwegian island; the suffering of nomadic Somalis in the Horn of Africa; the consequences of unaccountable power that has wormed its way into all public life; the death of a single talented tortured soul. All reach out from a time when Miro was struggling with fascism at home and abroad. Having fled fascist Spain for sublime Paris, he is, all too soon, forced to flee Nazi storm troopers for restless rebellion back home in his beloved Catalonia.

Maybe this is what art does – exercises our present emotions with the consequences of other times experienced by the artist’s head and eye.

But Miro finds vast canvasses of peace too. A wonderful run of three vast rich blue canvases. Followed by another triptych of huge white-based canvases representing “Hope of a Condemned Man”. For the old student rebel, his burnt, holed, placard canvases from 1968 have a particular resonance.

You find what you find in a show like this. But I emerged somehow reassured and purged of the thought that this is in any way the worst of times. It is not. Today’s vile behaviours are aberrant. In Miro’s heyday tyranny was the norm.

Catch it before Miro, Miro is off the wall – an exhibition of his work on this scale will not come again in our time.


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18 reader comments

  1. Martyn Comley says:

    Have you been watching the wonderful ‘British Masters’ series on the BBC? A beautiful programme depicting 20th Century British artists’ responses to some of Britain’s more challenging times, as well as their reactions when things improved. Again with resonances that still hold true today.

  2. Saltaire Sam says:

    In some ways I’ve had a similar experience recently, Jon, not with an art exhibition but reading about chartism and the struggle for oppressed workers to drag rights from the ruling classes.

    As you know it is a story of abject poverty and deprivation for those who created the wealth, denied by those with the capital, enjoying undreamed of wealth and luxury.

    Of course many things have changed for the better in the intervening 150 years. There have been many improvements in the lot of working people but the underlying conflict is the same. Indeed reports today suggest the gap between rich and poor continues to get wider.

    Unlike you at the Miro, I am sad to say that I am not becoming more optimistic as a result of what I’m reading.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    Rare exceptions apart, I think you overrate surrealism.

    In fact painting and sculpture have long been replaced as main art forms by video-audio. Fixed representational art was doomed by the development of photography, moving pictures and radio, to say nothing of improved graphics technique. Now it is rightly treasured as a memory. Sadly, it has also become a financial commodity.

    Once representation went, what was left? It could only be attempts to picture emotions – a terribly difficult but not impossible task. In turn that is complicated by individual moods and tastes of viewers, as your observation illustrates. In your case it hit you at, apparently, the exact right moment.

    A truly gifted and sensitive painter like Miro will always get his emotions on canvas, surrealist or not. So small wonder the Civil War shows up somewhere. As with Picasso, it was the seminal moment of his life. Hence the brilliance of “Guernica.”

    All that said, I am no big fan of surrealism. For me it is a last gasp of a moribund art form. At its worst you get Piet Mondrian, who I think is a complete waste of canvas and paper. Then you get Pop Art, which is another story altogether…

  4. adrian clarke says:

    I will state an interest.I would not go if i was paid , to see this exhibition.
    Some will call it art,and Miro will have made a lot of money from it .Just as the so called Connoissaurs will swoon over this exhibition and see all sorts of imagery,the answer is in their first three letters “con”.That is the same of much of the so called “art of today and the past century.One only has to look at the ridiculous “Turner “prize
    Not only that it also mirrors the frivolous state of much of what we see about us and the exhibitionism of youth and some popular music.No wonder it results in twisted minds that see nothing wrong in furthering their causes by killing.Anything goes in their sad beliefs.
    It is time democracy took over and the will of the majority prevailed.
    Perhaps it is time for an “Arab “spring in this country and worldwide.

    1. Saltaire Sam says:

      Adrian, that is probably your silliest blog ever.

      The fact that you don’t like modern art does not automatically make it a ‘con’ and to try in a convoluted way to suggest that modern art represents a mindset that creates mass killers is just plain daft.

      And are you seriously saying that if the majority don’t approve of something, it shouldn’t exist?

      Is there no room for someone who happens to enjoy a minority interest – crown green bowling, perhaps – to be allowed to indulge in that? Should there be a referendum to ask if the majority approve of my desire to look at a Rembrandt portrait?

      And who gets to vote in your world wide arab spring? Given the number of people in China who might not approve of the English way of life, presumably you would exclude them?

      Sometimes it is important to engage the brain before deciding that whatever you don’t like is necessarily a bad thing that threatens civilisation as we know it.

    2. Moonbeach says:

      A bit harsh, Adrian!

      I remember looking at a load of Pollocks and thinking that there is hope for us all to make a fortune if only we could persuade a benefactor of our genius.

      But let’s be honest, the artistic merit of, say, an ancient jock strap escapes all but the most perceptive!

      I also remember a civil servant writing “spherical objects” on a Paper that he particularly disliked.

      His boss replied “Who is Spherical and to what does he object?”

      Whatever the ‘art’ it has had an emotional effect on us!

    3. adrian clarke says:

      Saltair, i like it :) my silliest blog ever!!!!
      Because i see no merit in daubs on a canvas,that the connoissaurs would have us believe is full of unseen meaning.
      I take it you have looked at some of Miro’s works. If you have and you get something out of it i am very pleased for you, as i am for those willing to shell out thousands of pounds to own one.It shows the unreal value of money and the fact that people can consider it as art, alongside unmade beds strewn with condoms.
      To me it is a frivolous mindset.Yes similar to the mindset of those who have no feeling for others .
      I am sorry you see that as silly, but you probably see it as silly to live within our means, and that an austerity program is not needed to survive.As long as Miro pays his taxes ,on what he earns here, let him take the suckers for a ride.

  5. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    I thought I may just have a web photographic exhibition of Joan Miro’s work but no, to view, we have to pop down to the Tate.

    The many mediums available to us to express and carry emotions are expansive, yet the emotions themselves are very few. Think about feeling. Perhaps that is contradiction or simply an anomaly. We have to think to feel because it is not solely a response without triggered roots.

    We say we feel elation , sadness, excitement, fear and so on , but without the connection of mind what does that emotion physiologically do except excite us ( meaning neurologically excite us ) in some way.

    The visual arts do not impact on my psyche as much as visual real , for instance my garden lifts me, and not by any means as much as music, however that transportation to another emotional level takes me there.

    Would Mires art form take me there, Could I sense that heirarchical emotional pull, the god particle .. I will never know the trip would be too expensive.

    1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      Sorry again Miro. doing 10 things at once ie. triggering roots or a triggered response.

      Essential emotion though ,what is it ? Is it that top of the head and flying out of the brain emotion that for me is an accompaniment to Bach’s Matthew passion or that gut stirring feeling when listening to Shoshtakovitz piano music or that fearful butterfly feeling waking up from a bad dream or the stress you cannot get rid of.

      Why do we react to some things and not another?
      It isn’t a human to human thing , there aren’t any feramones involved… beats me.

    2. adrian clarke says:

      Save your money Margaret.There is excellent “real” art in many of our museums.Art that makes your hair stand on end and sends goose bumps through your body.
      Not the Surrealist nonsense that makes you say “did someone pay for that?in scornful disdain

  6. Barbara says:

    A few years ago I saw an exhibition of modern Vietnamese art at the Singapore National Art Gallery. The emotions exhibited in the works of the artists of the emerging post war Vietnam were immensely moving and inspiring.

    I shall always remember it. The conflicts of history should remind us that tragedy has always been part of the human experience frequently fuelled by lust for power and greed.[dare I say it primarily by men and religious differences]

    The responsibility of the media to educate and inform rather than sensationalise should help us recognise these traits. That is why these current investigations are so vitally important.We have an advantage that previous generations did not have.

    Will we recognise it and use it productively or use and abuse it?

  7. Philip says:

    As with most things, there’s good modern art (like much of Miro) & bad modern art. The best surrealist paintings make us look at & think about the world in a different way. The problem for most of us that genes, upbringing & life experience give us a set of perspectives with which we’re comfortable and we don’t, won’t or can’t take the opportunities offered to us to look at the world from other perspectives. We seek those external perspectives which resonate with our own & ignore/avoid/dismiss others.
    It’s rare that I’d say I “like” any painter. I like paintings, rather than artists. Even Turner, who has inspired both my writing & my painting, painted some dross. There’s some Picasso I’d sit in front of for ages, other I’d pass by in seconds. There’s good contemporary art being produced – though most of it isn’t well-known or being sold for inflated prices. We are in an era of immense change & diversity, where boundaries in many fields are mutating or even disappearing. I doubt there’s ever been an era like it for the explosion of creativity. But that doesn’t mean that all or most of it is good or more than ephemeral.

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Philip i agree it makes me look at the world in a different way!!
      I wonder what man can do ,or paint that others do not consider art.Lets face it certain people have raved over chimp art and elephant art.Me i would rather see stoneage cave art.
      At least it shows we are all different and have different values.
      Dare i suggest it is the art of the looney liberals or is that too strong.

    2. Philip says:

      Adrian – I’d say Miro is a mixture of socialism and using the currently fashionable style to get his message across. For the most fashionable modern “artists” it’s a mxture of anarchism, self-importance, media-hype & capitalism

    3. adrian clarke says:

      Philip that says all there is to say about Socialism.I am warming to your interpretation.A load of c**p

  8. Andrew Wales says:

    I saw you there and glad to hear you enjoyed it. I have seen a lot of Miro’s work down the years but still found this exhibition something of a revelation and like you it left me full of hope! Very much worth the trip and a life affirming experience.

  9. Paola Buonadonna says:

    Jon, thank you for this post. I love that you still find the time and the intellectual energy to ponder and to wonder. You are a rare public figure who, while holding a mirror to our sad (but sadly not uniquely awful ) times every night with grace and aplomb (for a number of years now), never somehow persuaded himself that he was more important than the story or became THE story itself. If we had a million like you might just about be all right. Given that there’s only one of you please please please carry on wondering, writing, marvelling and sharing. With great respect and affection, P

  10. Marverde says:

    Only two lithos on the white walls of my home. Both are Mirós. Had them for decades. They don´t bring to me the horrors of war, not even of that war that so scarred my family. Picasso and Goya do that. I do not have their works on my walls but on books I can close.

    Miró simply makes me happy. It has always had that effect. Like the happy winds of Mallorca, the place he chose to live in and die.

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