THE SPRING OF 1920 was a hard time for Joan Miro. The young Catalan had arrived in Paris from Spain in early 1919 when pre-war intellectual and artistic conceptions, like the European balance of power, had been swept away in blood and destruction of the World War. The Dada movement was the new wave in art--but only of the moment. And Miro, though he remained somewhat aloof from its influence, would come to be acknowledged as the formal master of the surrealist movement which grew as Dada disintegrated.
But the first few years were difficult. Miro continued to paint farm scenes inspired by his native Spain that were realistic on the surface yet almost nightmarishly intense in spirit. Ernest Hemingway bought a huge work entitled "La Ferme," which Miro had toiled over for nine months in a studio with no heat and broken windows. Poverty was hardly romantic: Miro could only afford one lunch a week; on the other days he ate dried figs and chewed gum. For the "Carnaval d'Arlequin," one of his early masterpieces, he made many drawings
into which I put the hallucinations provoked by my hunger. In the evenings I would come home without having eaten and put down my sensations on paper. I went about quite a bit that year with poets because I felt that it was necessary to go a step beyond the strictly plastic and bring some poetry into painting.
To bring some poetry into painting. That was in. many ways one of the chief effects of the Surrealist movement launched in 1924 by Andre Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto." A pamphlet alone, of course, could not channel the direction of all creative artistic endeavor completely or all at once. Breton was to discover this as early as 1929, when increasing arguments among early Surrealists about the value of automatism began to splinter the group; but in the early 1920s, Breton's writings put forward a new way of looking at life as a whole. Surrealism began as a literary movement, but its tenets led beyond culture--even though, today, it is chiefly manifested in art--towards what the Chilean artist Sebastion Antonio Matta Echaurren maintained to be "the total emancipation of man." For Breton's message was as revolutionary as any of the political tracts of the time:
In this day and age, logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest.... orbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices.
The art of Joan Miro, even today, reflects the cultural confusion in which Surrealism had its roots. At the Rolly-Michaux gallery in Boston aquatints and lithographs of Miro's, mainly from the last ten years, are on exhibit. These works, despite their optimistically bright colors, their fantasy and their wit, despite the simplicity of the cut-out shapes that compose many of the pictures, express many of the original ideas that animated the Surrealist movement. There is a delight in the absurd and the childish here but, at the same time, you feel almost as if the artist was playing a rather bizarre joke on his audience. He presents shapes and figures that are not the abstractions they appear to be, but symbols. And what you, as an individual viewer, see in thos symbols is as much an indication of your own psychological state as of the artist's. Miro has insisted that a form is "always a sign of something," yet, viewing these works, one is never quite sure whether the artist is giving away signs about himself or somehow gleefully declaring to his audience that what they see in his work is not him but themselves.
Miro has written, too, of the artist as a vessel: "Rather than setting out to paint something, I begin to paint, and as I paint, the picture begins to assert itself or suggests itself under my brush." This consciousness of his artistic role is completely at variance with the aesthetics of bourgeois art that Rene Magritte and Jean Scutenaire decried for lending art the characteristics of a superior activity, despite its removal from the real-life concerns and activity of most people. They criticized bourgeois individualism in art because "the middle-class artis claimsto express elevated sentiments relevant only to himself," whilst most men make something. One does not get any sense of this security in superiority from Miro's paintings or his graphics.
THE WORKS ON EXHIBITION in the gallery mostly use a combination of different etching techniques--aquatint, monotype, lithography, drypoint--are mostly large (approximately 40" by 28") and all expensive (ranging between $5000 and $7500). The techniques used in the creation of the pictures belie the apparent simplicity of some of the design. Miro adds further texture and richness to the design by using drypoint engraving, embossing and carborundum, a graining stone that makes heavy furry lines.
The exhibition includes several famous works: "Equinoxe," the 1968 "Le Grand Sorcier," "Le Penseir Puisant," and two comparatively recent pieces, "Maja Negra" and "Le Sarrazin a I'Eoile Bleu," where Miro has added details by scratching into the paper with his fingernail, exposing the paper.
Yet one of the most interesting etchings was a comparatively small one (approx. 14" by 20"), the 1958 "Les Philosophies II." The black silhouettes are almost like calligraphy with brilliant patches of yellow, pink and lime dashing the picture into life. It looks rather like a circus scene and reminds you a bit of the wire Statuette of Alexander Calder. "Le Samourai" again is reminiscent of characters painted with a thick brush. Only it is as if the long black strokes suddenly begin to drip down with the sheer weight of the paint and hence bulge at the ends like some monstrous pseudopodia of amoebae. This biomorphis is a common feature of the works--the fusion of natural and artificial objects is like that of Jean Arp, the founder of the Zurich Dada movement who later associated with both Surrealists and Abstractionists. "Le Samourai" brings to mind one of the anthropomorphisizing and metamorphosizing images of Arp: "A stone voice face to face and foot to foot with a stone glance." The thick black strokes are superimposed on a square of purple that shades into red. There is one blue and one yellow eye.
"Le Chasseur de Pieuvres" brings to mind an octopus--but with only four legs. It swirls around blackly shooting out clouds of green and yellow ink amidst sea-shapes like diatoms magnified thousands of times. "Serie Barcelone" is likewise a collection of natural forms of unnatural dimensions and hues. Looking at it is like looking through a microscope at a variety of different cell structures stained orange, green, blue and every other color.
"Le Rebelle" depicts an abstract concept--rebellion. One black arm reaches high over the head of a figure not recognizably human. The other arm seems atrophied, dwarf-size. There is one red eye in the center of the face: a favorite Surrealist technical device symolizing both inner and outer vision. "La Fronde" harks back to the theories of Sigmund Freud, one of the great heroes of the founder of the Surrealist movement. A person with a tiny head and huge, bloated body curls around in an endless, crazy, frightened somersault--a Freudian might see it as a picture of someone's terror when they are about to be born.
Walking away from these works you may feel that the look of Joan Miro's art has radically changed from his early work. Yet, without becoming stale, the motives behind it are still somewhat the same. As Miro wrote in 1939, describing his early struggles for recognition, he has constantly striven, whatever medium he uses, "To try and go further than easel painting... to try to go as far as possible and through painting to get closer to the people who are never out of my mind."