On the work of Joan Miró.
The Artist of the Subconscious
Joan Miró i Ferrà (1893 - 1983) is best known for his whimsical paintings that expertly merge dreamscapes with reality. Upon closer examination, though, there is much more to this Surrealist painter than merely the colorful abstractions for which he is best known. For Miró, painting was not a hobby, but a means of lifeblood. His path to artistic enlightenment began with an ill-matched career as a businessman, before he realized his calling as a painter. Miró escaped his bourgeois, commercial life by enrolling in art school, much to his father’s dismay. Though Miró was initially inspired by Impressionism and Fauvism, we witness a curious entropic progression by tracing his repertoire. As years passed, his paintings became less figurative and began to almost exclusively take the form of naïve, childlike abstractions. According to Miró, however, his paintings never depicted a realm outside the scope of the human condition. Miró includes the subconscious as part of this collective human experience, as dreamlike fabrications strongly permeate his work.
Miró’s early paintings concerned more recognizable subjects than would those composed in his later trademark style. The early works are marked by vivid colors and varied brushstrokes strongly emblematic of Fauvist influence. The transition to his distinct later style can be attributed to his financial struggle in the mid-1920s. “During this period, hunger gave me hallucinations and the hallucinations gave me ideas for paintings,” said Miró of this stylistic development (Candela 11). From this point on, Miró created visually striking ethereal dreamscapes, replete with floating geometric figures that seem to dance upon their monochromatic canvases. The titles often elucidate what the figures are meant to represent. Logical themes rooted in human experience are fictionalized by the whimsical, organic shapes and vivid colors used by the artist. A good example of this is Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird (1926), whose title roots the scene in reality without explaining the aesthetic choices made by the artist. Since the art is rooted in the subconscious, however, the nonsensical visuals are justified. We don’t need to make sense of the choices because, by definition, the subconscious defies logic. This piece “works” because it registers as a never-before-seen addition to the viewer’s aesthetic vocabulary. It is a unique, fantastical landscape that offers the viewer an imaginative escape. It does not require critical analysis to be enjoyed, even though the title does make clearer what the forms are meant to represent.
I was first introduced to Miró’s art during a visit to Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art in 2012. The exhibition, called Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, fascinated fifteen-year-old me. The childlike sketches and paintings offered me something mysteriously familiar while appealing to my senses in a new way. Back then, I did not know or understand the political implications behind the Surrealist movement, let alone Miró’s personal motivations, but Miró’s dreamscapes provided me with a pleasurable viewing experience nonetheless. I believe herein lies the success of Miró’s work. His art functions independently from its context. Though context may shine a light on his artistic process, it is otherwise dispensable in understanding the art. However, if we concede that art is a mode of self-expression by the artist, who is a product of his time, it would seem that the art relies on temporal and social contexts after all, effectively creating a paradox.
When I was first exposed to Miró’s work, I felt like I had been transported somewhere faraway, to a land that defied logic and human understanding, while simultaneously recalling familiar childhood abstractions I may have created as a child. The large-scale works were especially dazzling. The simplistic color palette and floating forms created an easily digestible product whose unique look offered a pleasant detour from the visual vocabulary I had accumulated up to that point in my life, largely consisting of classical, realist painting. This is also a reason for Miró’s artistic success. The smooth forms register as organic, yet on the other hand alien for their bizarre over-simplicity. This combination might appeal to a wide array of audiences for its digestibility as something unique yet familiar all at once.
We have established that Miró’s art can be enjoyed without context, but would ignorance result in the loss of one of the painting’s dimensions of meaning? This raises several broader questions about the relationship between art and artist. Do we need to understand the personal modes of thought of the artist to enjoy a painting? This particular question is especially relevant in modern and contemporary art, since a large portion is somewhat conceptual and relies on context as much as aesthetic impact. In some cases, knowing the background of an artist may reveal the identity of an abstract figure as a personal symbol. Miró remains adamant that the figures in his art are not mere abstract objects, but instead representations of real objects common to the human experience. In other words, Miró’s insistence on the figurative nature of his art challenges us, as viewers, to interpret them as such, despite their apparent abstract qualities which invite us to daydream of far-off worlds. This theoretical approach also forces us to redefine our visual vocabulary in regards to our perceptions of reality. In this way, Miró’s art inhabits a space between pure aestheticism and figurative art. Despite the apparent opposition present in juxtaposing these two artistic approaches, the similar juxtaposition of our immediate visual response of recognizing Miró’s art as abstract in combination with Miró’s own theory justifies the conflicting nature of the art.
At the same time, Miró’s art works because it communicates the shared human subconscious in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The forms exist in a way that is abstract yet still recognizable, and they do not necessitate in-depth analysis to be discernible. Just as one can find symbolic meaning within a dream even while there is probably no definitive hidden meaning, Miró’s art allows viewers to impart their own experiences upon the figures. Like dreams, Miró’s fantastical scenes are nonsensical products of the imagination, which are ultimately formed by relatable human experiences. Miró challenges the viewer to quit searching for a deeper meaning, and simply experience the art in front of them. After all, it is this notion of shared experience that creates such universality in Miró’s art.
Miró’s art offers a dreamlike escape from the atrocities witnessed during his lifetime. Yet they cannot be reduced to an underlying political message. What separates a work by Miró from a work like Picasso’s Guernica is that Miró’s response to war is marked by hallucinatory, naïve images which seem to refute any hint of conflict altogether. In this way, though, the art is paradoxically marked by the conflict by which it was inspired, as a blatant evasion of the event. A Picasso confronts the conflict, while a Miró responds in the only way he knows how: by embracing psychological escape and fantasy, and by finding solace in a realm beyond the earthly. This notion of escape is something that seemingly haunted Miró throughout his life, at least since his early rejection of bourgeois conventions to pursue a life of self-expression through art.
Despite Miró’s escapist mentality, however, this is not to say that he remained indifferent to the Surrealist and anti-Fascist causes. His 1937 painting The Reaper is the closest Miró ever came to depicting a political image. The original painting was lost in 1938 but a few black and white photographs remain. It depicts a Catalan peasant farmer in active revolt against the violence of the Spanish Civil War. The figure would have been easily identifiable as Catalan to its audience: visitors to the Spanish Republic’s pavilion of the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. Donning a traditional barretina hat and flailing a sickle, the peasant farmer exemplifies Catalan identity and dissonance against Spanish rule, as a symbol of those who were deeply affected by the violence (Meritxell).
Though The Reaper speaks to a broader social issue—the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War and specifically its devastation upon the Catalans—it is still presented with Miróesque flourishes to dull the urgency of the painting. The mood is airy and light instead of reflecting the heavy subject matter. The painting does not broadcast a message or call to arms, nor does it bear the emotional weight of a work akin to Guernica. Instead, The Reaper distorts a cliché symbol to vaguely address the turmoil faced by Miró’s people, but in a manner that is aesthetically and classically Miró. The painting was actually displayed in the same quarters as Guernica for the 1937 Exhibition but was outshined altogether, which may have contributed to its subsequent loss—or destruction (its present fate is unknown).
In the case of The Reaper, Miró’s art did not quite “work” as planned. It “works” in the sense that it is an excellent display of Miró’s personal stylistic mastery, but remained unsuccessful nonetheless. The Reaper failed, in a sense, because it didn’t quite fit the bill for what a politically driven war painting ought to look like. Miró relied too heavily on the subconscious aspect of his work, with the end product being a distorted moment of introspection that did not actually depict any historical event. It failed to evoke agony and suffering in the same vein of the more explicit Guernica, because the audience could not relate to the imagery. Guernica depicts a variety of figures which collectively mourn the tragic events of the Spanish Civil War from differing perspectives. For example, on the far left we witness a desperate mother cradling the lifeless body of her deceased child, in a manner which recalls the art historical subject of the pietà. Elsewhere in the painting we can see a fallen soldier, and even livestock. A distressed bull looms over the scene, serving as a recognizable symbol for Spanish bullfighting culture, and perhaps even a personification of Spain itself. Seeing this otherwise stoic creature in a moment of defeat would have solidified the harrowing reality of Spanish weakness during this wartime tragedy. All these unique figures collectively implicate the devastating effects of war on all walks of civilian life. On the other hand, The Reaper attempts to depict a similar message, but fails to offer the audience a compelling, relatable subject. Instead, Miró attempts to symbolize the entire region of Catalonia through the depiction of a rather unrealistic farmer, clad in stereotypical clothing from the region. This myopic attempt at personifying an entire region through the portrayal of a lowly farmer ultimately resulted in the painting’s failure at the Exhibition. In his monumental book, Art as Experience (1934), scholar John Dewey claims that art “lives only in communication when it operates in the experience of others” (108). This quote shines a light on the poor reception of the piece. Miró resigned his notion of depicting the shared human experience when he painted The Reaper by too strongly involving his own Catalan identity, and thus the art faltered. It operated in an overly intimate way that dissociated the life experience of the audience. Had he remained loyal to his philosophy of depicting the common human experience, one must wonder if perhaps the painting would have been received differently. Perhaps then we would speak of The Reaper in the same way we speak of Guernica today.
Despite The Reaper’s flop at the Exhibition, to say definitively that the art failed would be an oversimplification of the fact. As Dewey concludes, whether or not communication of the artist’s mental machinations is the intended goal, the very definition of a successful artwork is one that allows the audience to view a moment in time from a perspective other than their own—that is, the artist’s. If we analyze The Reaper in this Deweian light, the art functions successfully. But as a piece of art that has virtually disappeared from the annals of history, leaving only trace suggestions of its existence at all, it appears Miró’s genius was overshadowed by his contemporaries.
Though some of his pieces were received far better than others, Miró is still regarded as one of the great Surrealist painters. He approached his art in a unique way that balanced his own imagination with recognizable appeals to the human subconscious. When a Miró works, it simply works. Whimsical portrayals of the subconscious mind require no critical analysis or explanation, and can be enjoyed at face value, which largely contributed to his success as a painter. Though he wavered in his more politically inspired artistic endeavors, Miró remains ever steadfast in his positive reception by the modern art world today.
Candela, Iria. Joan Miró. London: Tate Pub., 2011. Print.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Putnam, 1934. Print.
Knight, Christopher. “Art Review: A Passage into Joan Miró’s World.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 10 June 2012. Web.
Meritxell, Beatriu. “A Hymn of Freedom.” Tate Etc. 22 (2011): tate.org. Tate, 1 May 2011. Web.
“Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape.” National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art. Web.