IF THERE is such a thing as a born artist, Joan Miro was one. Almost as soon as he learnt to write, he handed his parents a note which read: “I wish to become a painter.” They enlisted the young Joan at art school, but he did not do well there, and in 1910 he was enrolled as a trainee at a Barcelona haberdashers. His career as a clerk was short. Miro took to sketching in the ledgers. He also fell so ill that he was sent to the family’s country house to convalesce.Order now
The influence of the landscape around Mont-Roig, in southern Catalonia, can be seen in many of the 180 paintings now assembled in Barcelona to mark the centenary of Miro‘s birth. The exhibition, which runs until the end of August, charts the development of one of the greatest Spanish artists of this century. It moves from sketches he made as an eight-year-old, via his figurative and later surrealist paintings, to the simple forms and primary colours of his later work.
That Miro is not as well known as his contemporaries Picasso and Dali has as much to do with personality as with art. Picasso aimed his passion at the outside world. Dali’s public life was an eccentric extension of his surrealist vision. Miro was different. Timid, fastidious and conservative in his dress, he was given to silences of legendary proportions and to a strict working routine more befitting the clerk he never became than the artist he was. All of his energy was directed inward, into his art.
But, like so many young artists in the early decades of the century, Miro could not keep away from Paris. He moved there in 1920 and his first years were marked by extreme poverty. Hunger made him hallucinate, and at times frustration made him bang his head against the wall. His output of that time reflects the surrealist company he kept. He knew Andre Masson, Andre Breton, Rene Magritte, Jean Arp and Max Ernst. Breton later said: “Of all of us, Miro was the most surrealistic.”
His best-known friendship of that period, however, was with Ernest Hemingway. They took boxing lessons together. It was Hemingway who bought–“for a few centimes”–Miro‘s first great work, “La Masia” (“The Farm”). It had taken Miro nine months of eight-hour working days.
Only half-heeding Picasso’s advice–“Don’t leave Paris if you want to be an artist”–Miro chose to spend his winters there and his summers in Mont-Roig. He did this until 1936, when the Spanish civil war made him stay in France. Then the invading German army drove him, his wife and child back to Spain in 1940. Miro called the work of this time “my savage paintings . . . full of oppositions, conflicts and contrasts”.
A self-portrait from the period has the same decided, serene expression as one he had painted 18 years earlier, but his eyes and hair are engulfed in flames, his face is distorted. As he worked on it, Miro wrote to his friend Pierre Matisse that the painting “will sum up my whole life”. In 1960, though, he felt compelled to return to the painting. Then living in isolation in Majorca, an “internal exile” from the Franco regime, he got a friend to print a full-size copy of the original, which he worked over in his new style.
The simplicity of his later work–he died on Christmas Day in 1983–has given him the reputation of being a spontaneous artist. But the preparatory sketches he made throughout his life, 300 of which are on display at this exhibition, show that a careful process of synthesis lay behind each work. Miro once said that everything in his paintings and sculptures was derived from something he saw. “For me, conquering freedom means conquering simplicity”.