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May 30, 2012

Joan Miró: Art in the Service of Mankind

Right now what interests me is the calligraphy of a tree or a rooftop, leaf by leaf, twig by twig, blade of grass by blade of grass, tile by tile. Joan Miró (1918)

Joan Miró (1893-1983) was and remains an artist who worked with a poetic muse. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, from May 6 through August 12, 2012, hosts Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape. The DC exhibition concludes a tour that began at London's Tate Modern (April 14-September 11, 2011) and progressed to Barcelona's Fundació Joan Miró (October 13, 2011-March 25, 2012) before bringing the 120 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture to two floors of the National Gallery's East Building.


The quote that introduces this discussion (and the exhibition as well) cued the Dresser to look for aspects of Miró's poetry. Certainly his attention to imaginative language is often experienced in the titles of his work--Miro-WomanStabbed.jpg"Woman Stabbed by the Sun Reciting Rocket Poems In The Geometrical Shapes Of The Musical Bat Spittle Fight Of The Sea," 1939; "Une etoilé caresse le sein d'une négress," 1938 ("A Star Caresses the Breast of a Black Woman"); and "The Escape Ladder," 1939.

However poetry pervades his colorful paintings rendered in flat perspectives such as his Hieronymus Bosch-like "The Farm" (1921-1922) with its complex symbols: a dog barking at the moon, dry red earth contrasted with a woman (her back to the viewer) washing something in or retrieving water from a cistern, and a rooster on a ladder pedestal versus the simpler unattached symbols of a dove, snail, and fish. Ernest Hemingway, who in 1924 met Miró through Gertrude Stein, fell in love with this painting saying, "It has in it all you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there." Hemingway who had very little money at that time had to compete with his friend poet Evan Shipman (they rolled dice to decide the matter) to get the high-priced painting ($5,000) from Miró's dealer and then negotiate an installment plan for paying. After he bought this work, Hemingway eventually hung it in the dining room of his Havana home and would neither lend it for exhibitions nor show it to visitors. Twenty-six years after Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, his widow Mary Hemingway donated the painting to the National Gallery of Art.MiroTheFarm.jpg

Miró said, "Poetry and painting are done in the same way you make love; it's an exchange of blood, a total embrace - without caution, without any thought of protecting yourself." The statement reveals the level of passion and commitment that Miró brought to his art, but to fully understand where this painter found his well of supercharged emotion, one needs to know about Miró's origins. Born in Barcelona, Miró was a Catalan patriot intent on bringing separate recognition, if not independence, from Spanish rule, especially during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.


Miró believed the role of the artist was "to be someone, who amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something...that is of service to mankind." One detail that the Dresser particularly noticed was a fragment of newspaper with the words, "El Poeta Llull" in one of Miró's Metamorphosis collages that were created in 1935-1936. Ramon Llull (1232-1315), a Majorcan writer and philosopher, wrote the first major work of Catalan literature. As a philosopher and logician, Llull also influenced Gottfried Leibniz.

Miro2Philosphers.jpgHere the Dresser's mind muses over the inspiration of Miró's striking painting "Two Philosophers," 1936, which effect menacing poses in their red stick figures with oversized penises and strange claw feet. Could these figures represent the opposing forces of the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936 or some earlier more primitive time that might include the working time of Ramon Llull who was intent on converting Jews and Arabs to Christianity? And thinking of the numerous paintings with ladders thrust skyward, could Miró be thinking of some celestial or spiritual escape for mankind?

Miró, whose work shows the influence of Surrealism, Cubism, Fauvism, and medieval painters like Bosch, read Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire as well as Surrealist writers like Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard. Here's an excerpt from "The Artist, the Art," a long poem by Lilah Hegnauer that muses on beauty that has come with a terrible human cost. This poem comes from Hegnauer's poetry collection Dark under Kiganda Stars in which she chronicles her humanitarian work in Uganda.

THE ARTIST, THE ART (an excerpt)

II. The Artist

How do I justify the artist? I'm so far
from the words of suffering that they've
become colloquial: slum, ghetto, thin,
sick, starving. Does the scale boy know
that his starving face makes his eyes so big
they glisten with beauty and makes his
hip bones stick out like tails of fish, blunt
above his drooping trousers; the heads of the fish
are the two bony clusters above either side
of his tailbone. How do I justify the artist?

Sometimes I don't wash my hair, sometimes
I watch and mimic a sooty chat with my
shoulders hunched around my ears and my chin
tucked into my chest with what I'd like to think
might be humility. As if all this wasn't also art
or play at beauty. As if it gets me farther from myself.

by Lilah Hegnauer
from Dark under Kiganda Stars

Copyright © 2005 Lilah Hegnauer

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