“Peaceable contentment, untroubled by any curiosity, is a tangible sign of the insupportable bumptiousness that is the most obvious prerogative of the majority of mankind,” Michel Leiris wrote in his entry on metamorphosis in Georges Bataille’s Critical Dictionary in 1930. “To remain at ease with oneself, like wine in a wineskin, is an attitude contrary to all passion, and consequently to everything that is really worthwhile.” Perhaps Leiris was thinking of painter Joan Miró, at least in part, when he wrote the entry. For it was to Leiris, a Surrealist poet and writer that the painter had confided six years earlier in 1924, that: “You and all my writer friends have given me much help and improved my understanding of many things.” Having come under the influence of poets, Miró underwent a rebirth in his work that the artist himself identified with the completion of The Birth of the World in 1925. The painting was, he said, “a sort of genesis.” A current exhibition at MoMA, organized by Anne Umland and Laura Braverman and titled Birth of the World, corroborates Miró’s analysis, positing this painting as the artist’s first breakthrough in his attempts to achieve a visual poetics, a task with which he would remain concerned throughout the rest of his life.
February 24 – June 15, 2019
The Birth of the World hangs centrally in the first of the two galleries that comprise the show, positioned as the painting where Miró broke with the style of his earlier work. At six by eight feet it is one of the largest in the exhibition and dominates the room. A viewer can’t help but notice its subdued and muted overall palette, which diverges so drastically from the rich color typically associated with Miró. Over the entirety of a sporadically primed canvas, Miró applied murky color that approximates the hues of a dark, aging bruise. He did so in haphazard fashion, spattering, spilling, and sweeping the paint so that the canvas is pregnant with deep color in some areas, while only lightly washed in others. While the application of the overall color was random, Miró’s marks on the canvas were not. He worked out his final shapes in preparatory drawings and sketches. A triangle with a pointy appendage; a red sphere with a trailing yellow tail; a white sphere protruding from a spindle, atop an upside-down and asymmetrical U-shape are all early hieroglyphs of the types of forms Miró would return to henceforth. This amalgam of the impulse to give work over to the unconscious combined with a measure of calculated precision was akin to surrealistic poetry, with its free play of words existing within structural frameworks. Several paintings pre-dating The Birth of the World aid in illustrating what a seismic shift in Miró’s work the painting represents. An early figurative picture, Portrait of Enric Cristòfol Ricart (1917) displays the gestural brushwork of German Expressionism, while in Still Life I and Still Life II (both 1922 - 1923) Miró seems to be experimenting with Constructivist techniques, with geometrical objects and shapes arranged on flat planes. However, Birth of the World, though dark in palette, is fully realized Miró, a work instantly recognizable as from his distinct hand.
From there, the exhibition proceeds in laying out a case for the evolution of the artist’s visual poetics, an alphabet of forms that he developed into a singular language. The 1930s were an especially fruitful period for Miró in this endeavor, and the show dwells strongly in that decade. For Miró, who was deeply affected by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and watched in horror as fascism overtook his country, evolving this language became not only a means of coping with Spain’s political iniquities but also a means of personal resistance against Franco’s regime. Though the works on view extend through the mid-1950s, by which time Miró had fully matured in this vein, the works from the 1930s really highlight the artist’s transformation.
One need only compare a still life from that period, Still Life with Old Shoe (1937) with those he made fifteen years earlier to see just how dramatically his phraseology had metamorphosed. The items that make up his arrangement—a fork-speared piece of fruit, a corked bottle, a hunk of crusty bread and a laced shoe—do not immediately register as the items they profess to be. The objects quaver and wobble in syrupy undulations, their masses nearly blending in with the black, abstract shapes that articulate the painting’s background. The whole painting itself seems to reverberate like a just-struck tuning fork, and its atomic palette of alien greens seem to suggest an otherworld the artist no longer recognized. And in Personages, Mountains, Sky, Star, and Bird (1936) a psychedelic landscape coalesces into a musical phantasmagoria. In tangy, almost pungent primary and secondary colors we see the forms that have become so associated with the artist: the surrealistic human forms, mysterious birds, and swooping arcs. The sinuous curves are tinged with eroticism; the fantastical mask-like faces dazzle and frighten. Severe eyes bore into your soul. Miró the poet is fully present.