I had never given the work of Joan Miro serious thought, although of course I knew it. It is easily recognisable, full of distinctive shapes and colours, with a charm and humour that attracts attention. Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape at Tate Modern provides a stunning overview of his development as an artist, a perfect way into his thought and output for someone in my position. It is clearly laid out with many major works, the first major retrospective of his work in Britain for nearly fifty years and it lets us see the mind of an artist at work as his vision develops.
Miro’s early work is full of concentrated detail and more or less representational although he was already exploring links between reality and his imagination. His love of his country and in particular his Catalan heritage, shines through.
Quite soon he began to pare down what he included in his paintings, a process of refinement and reduction that continued all his life, A Catalan peasant is reduced to a simple arrangement of symbols, a red barretina, strands of beard, and a cross. Representing the Catalan heritage was an act of defiance at a time when Spain was being centralised by force. It is an image of a cultural identity which is under threat and half hidden. He responded to the violence of Spain’s civil war by painting furious and heartbreaking images of people in extremis, tortured abstract shapes with vivid colours on Masonite. Having seen the early images, especially a wonderfully benign portrait of a peasant who is reduced to bare essentials of a few lines and splodges but seems to smile out at you it is terrible to see the suffering which he depicts. There seems to me to be a deep kindness and humanity at the heart of Miro’s work and you can’t help but wish that he hadn’t had to see such suffering.
One of the most iconic works in the exhibition is Still life With Old Shoe, painted in 1937. It seems to burn with an inner light and shows the basic needs of life, food, drink and clothing, all of which seem to be under threat, as indeed they were, from a formless,nameless violence. It is the least still life that you could ever hope to see, vibrating with colour, beauty and righteous anger.
The Constellations, some of his most beautiful works, were made in exile in Normandy and Mallorca in 1940-1941. They have enormous presence, still, reflective and beautiful, each a complex web of colour shape and pattern. It feels as though he is beginning to conceptualise his anger and start to move beyond it to a place of peace and contemplation. The ladder was always a key symbol for him and it now becomes a means of escape and a beacon of hope. There is a beautifully balanced sculpture of a ladder which reaches up from a rock in the exhibition and they appear throughout his work.
It was his later work which struck me most powerfully. By the 1970’s Miro had refined his vision down to simple exquisitely placed marks blobs and lines, elegant works which you can lose yourself in. They are deeply spiritual and satisfying to look at. Hope for a Condemned Man sits in its own space, large, precise and confident, and it asks gently for quiet and contemplation. I have no idea why a few perfectly placed lines and blobs of primary colour can bring hope in the most difficult of traumas. I can only tell you that they would, and they do.
There is also a wonderful fireworks tryptych signed on the same day as Hope of a Condemned Man. Although it is almost entirely in black and white with just a few touches of primary colour it manages to explode off the wall, giving the essence of fireworks in the darkness by using a kind of negative image in which the white light of the fireworks in the darkness becomes a series of dark curving shapes on a white background.
Finally there are the burnt canvases. Two of them hang proudly in mid air, bloodied but unbowed, a celebration of a quiet mans ability to endure, survive and love through his art. They were made at the same time as the contemplative work, inspired by student protests. There is some wonderful footage of Miro and his assistant at work on them in his studio, using fire indoors with no fear whatsoever and he caresses one of them afterwards with a look of deep joy and fulfillment on his face. He was eighty at the time.
I came to this exhibition excited and interested, ready to learn about someone who has always intrigued me from a distance. I left feeling humble in the face of someone who lived through terrible times during a long life, but never lost the ability to live, develop, love and create.