Sam Francis

Untitled, 1984

106.7 X 73 inch

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Chronicles of Modernity: the Pioneering Legacies of Joan Miró’s Wandering Symbolisms

Chronicles of Modernity: the Pioneering Legacies of Joan Miró’s Wandering Symbolisms

By Andrew Bay, UK


Joan Miró lived and created his art through the most turbulent years of the 20th century. He witnessed the political havoc caused by the Spanish Civil War, experienced the unprecedented chaos of the 1st and 2nd World Wars, and survived the nightmare of living under Franco's totalitarian regime for more than 30 years. Joan Miró was born in 1893 in Barcelona, Spain. Miró's father was a successful jewellery business owner, who hoped his son would take over the family business. Although he studied commerce at the University of Barcelona out of loyalty to his family's business, Miró also took art classes at La Llotja, the art school where Picasso had famously studied. In 1911, whilst recovering from typhus in the countryside, in his family's farm, Miró's passion for painting fully came to the fore, in a series of early paintings, which he produced in a feverish creative outburst. Years later, he compared his recovery to a sort of quasi religious experience, perhaps a result of his semi-delirious state of mind, caused by the fever. He had been transported to a new plane of perception through his sketches, and he was determined to follow his creative Muse upon returning to Barcelona. Shortly after coming back to the city, he attended a Modern Art exhibition, which displayed works by Fernand Leger and Marcel Duchamp. He was thus introduced for the first time, to the new artistic trends, which were coming to light in Paris. After completing his studies, and supporting the family business for a few years, he finally decided to set sail for Paris in 1920, at the age of  27. 

Upon his arrival in the City of Lights, Miró quickly met with Tristan Tzara, who was zealously preaching the gospel of Dada in Paris art circles. Miró easily mingled with the artists and writers, gravitating around the burgeoning Dada movement, and around them, he rapidly discovered new artistic possibilities, he could've only dreamed of. Miró really felt at home in Paris, where he lived for the following 10 years. "The Farm," which was painted during those early years, in the winter of 1922, is usually considered to be one of his early great works. A memorable tessellation of geometric planes, depicting a barn, in the middle of a ploughed field, the painting illustrates Miró's close relation to modern art. His distinctly unique perspective on reality, greatly appealed to Ernest Hemingway, who loved and bought the painting. In "The Tilled Field" (1924) and "Dog Barking at the Moon" (1926), the disconnectedness between the physical world and the scenery, captured by Miró, is even more conspicuous. This fractionalisation of the experience of consciousness and reality, which permeated Miró's paintings at the time, caused the Surrealists to take great interest in his work. As a movement, they had collectively lost faith in the narratives hitherto provided by Science and Progress, which had been shattered by the horrors of the Great War. The Surrealists, led by Andre Breton, wanted to find out what lays dormant beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. They felt that It was there, in the realms of the unconscious, newly discovered by Freud and Jung, that a new future could be imagined for humanity, a future which they frantically attempted to capture and express through their art. 

But this period of artistic effervescence, was soon to be marred by the great economic Depression of 1929, which dramatically shook most European countries to their core, causing significant social unrest and hardship for the vast majority of people across the continent. Miró's own growing sense of dread and desperation, was reflected in some of his new paintings titles: "Figures in Front of a Volcano," "The Two Philosophers." These were distressed reflections of the political and economic turmoils which had engulfed Europe in the 1930s, and they were steadily coming to the fore in Miró's work. Images and symbols evoking the tragedy of the period, spread like wildfires across the discontinuous planes of his canvases. In September 1939, General Franco's troops triumphantly entered into Madrid, and Hitler's Wermacht had conquered Poland: the 2nd World War had just begun. Miró found solace in his creative practice. In the summer of 1940, living safely with his family, in a small village in Normandy, he started to sketch the first drafts of what would become his famous "Constellations" series. They began as an innocent composition of blotches, strewn without a care on paper. Very quickly, however, Miró began to perceive animal shapes and human forms through the colour patterns; planets and stars came to life from boldly drawn charcoal lines. Paint found its way among these disparate elements, to organise these primal draughts into beautifully crafted oil paintings. 

Unfortunately, German bombardments over Northern France forced Miró to relocate to the island of Majorca with his family, in early 1941. There, he completed another "stream-of-consciousness" group of works, which he called his "Nocturnal Constellations." They stunningly mirrored the works he'd completed in Normandy the previous year. Miró's splendid imagination produced a fairy-tale-like universe of confident allegories, arrays of stars falling in love with women, and women falling in love with scintillating motifs by the edge of rocks, planets and silver lakes. Poetry was the safe haven where Miró had found refuge against the madness of a dying world. It was in the fervour of this creative peak that Miró received a request from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to organise a retrospective of his art, which they were eager to present to the American public.  This sparked the beginning of a growing interest in his work from the global art world: a commission from the UNESCO in Paris quickly followed, as well as offers from major museums across the United States.  The War eventually came to an end and Miró decided to settle down in Palma de Mallorca, off the coast of Barcelona. In his new studio, which was the most spacious one he'd ever worked in, he started to revisit old paintings, which he had been unable to complete during the war.

Miró experienced yet another spectacular artistic breakthrough, in this new environment, when he was in his 70s. He haphazardly became inspired to start producing triplets symbols, of whichever topics or objects would capture his imagination. The execution in itself was a summary, but reducing his conceptual approach to these bare elements, proved to be a tremendous step forward for the artist. He had to abandon all his previous commitments to known techniques and creative strategies; this was an ascetic, tabula rasa exercise, to which he committed wholeheartedly. He had elevated his practice to this state of absolute contemplation, from which he could question the very essence of painting as an art form and a means of human expression. The canvases had become a gateway which he could break through; once they'd been cracked open, they could be fractured into smaller, individual pieces, with paint merely being used as a surface sanded over them, to enable the artist to set himself, and the canvas free. These experiments led to his famous "Fireworks" series (1974).                                            

After the death of General Franco, Spain's King Juan Carlos awarded the painter the gold medal for Fine Arts. Miró worked tirelessly to his final days, producing works in a myriad of contexts: theatre, ceramics, sculptures. His unique oeuvre stunningly documented the unprecedented torment and turmoil of the 20th century. Miró's voice, in his own words, was "a cry of joy" which had delivered him "from the anguish, of this unavailing, modern world."         

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