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 Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.

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


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.


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