Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

The ladder of escape

Michael Calderbank considers utopian dreaming and political engagement in the Joan Miró exhibition at Tate Modern

June 16, 2011
4 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


  share     tweet  

Joan Miró’s art has long proven popular for its vivid colour and its wilfully primitive and frequently playful style, sometimes mistaken for whimsy. His work is often cited to demonstrate the influence of surrealism on painting and sculpture, and his influence can also be felt in the emergence of abstract expressionism in post-war America. But the particular value of this retrospective at Tate Modern – the first in Britain for more than 50 years – is that it allows a certain distance from these art historical labels. It permits us to view the work afresh, in the context of the artist’s engagement with the problematics of place, politics and imagination over six decades.

Above all, the curators restore the signficance of Miró’s native Catalonia in the development of his identity as an artist. His fascination with the land and the labour of those who have shaped it, and with the sun and the sky, which colour the dreams of its people, lies at the core of Miró’s art. Producers and dreamers, rooted but transcendent, belonging but also escaping, the Catalan peasants figure as the very model of artistic production. The visual co‑ordinates of Miró’s imagination – the insistence of the vertical axis (the ladder as a literal and metaphorical presence; the orientation to the sky, the sun, birds and stars) – are bound up with the lived experience of a place and its people.

In this sense, one of the most dramatic paintings in the exhibition is The Two Philosophers (above), which dates from 1936, the year that saw the reactionary onslaught on the Spanish Republic commence. If the world is to be set aright, it seems to suggest, the ideas of those who have floated free from the conditions of material reproduction must be radically overturned and realigned with the perspective of those with a better grounding in reality.

Alongside his (no longer existing) mural The Reaper – originally displayed alongside Picasso’s Guernica at the Republican Pavilion of the Exposition Internationale in Paris – and the print of a poster (Aidez l’Espagne, opposite) produced on the same occasion to raise money for the Republican cause, this is perhaps when Miró’s political commitment is most explicit in his art. The political tenor is still unmistakable in the Barcelona lithographs produced after Franco’s dictatorship was established, although the mood of these monochrome images is understandably much darker. Their images of looming monsters and scary authority figures can also be read at a psychoanalytic level, in terms of anxiety in the face of the castrating father and also as evidence (in their compulsive repetition) of trauma.

But it would be a mistake to believe that Miró’s work leaves behind political engagement in the wake of Franco’s victory. Indeed, in exile the critical negativity of the artwork, its capacity to reshape elements of the world into an alternative order that stands apart and reveals the contingency of the world as we experience it, takes on a renewed urgency. But the artist faces a constant struggle to prevent this negative space from being eroded by forces of commodification and recuperation by the bourgeois institutions.

Miró spoke of his ambition as nothing less than the ‘assassination of painting’ and experimented with the physical destruction of the art work (burning, scratching and staining the canvas) as a dialectical move in the re-affirmation of its critical potentiality. The triptych Hope for a Condemned Man (1974), which Miró linked to the imprisonment and death by garroting of 25-year-old anarchist Salvador Puig Antich by the Franco regime for allegedly killing a policeman, is all the more striking for its abstraction. Pared back to something approaching minimalism, the purity of its primary colours balanced against the dirty and stained canvas, it seems at once to gesture towards a moment of utopian transcendence and berate itself for being unable to realise the potential that it appears to hold out.

At Tate Modern until 11 September 2011

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


7