Saturday, June 23, 2012

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through August 12, 2012

I've not blogged in two weeks - last week, I didn't get to any museums, but I made up for it this week by hitting three shows.  The first is this exhibit of Joan Miro works now on at the National Gallery.   It's an enormous show; you can only get through it in an hour if you do not dawdle.  If you want to spend a bit more time, allow for two outings, or see it on a weekend.  It's on two floors, so you'll get some exercise walking up the circular staircase.

Miro used ladders in many of his works.  On a symbolic level, he used the ladder to escape from the harsh conditions of his life into the freedom of his imagination.  He also used the ladder to descend once again to document the oppression he saw around him.  Miro's definition of an artist is, "one who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something."  I was excited by this opening description and prepared for some moving and confrontational art.  What I saw, however, left me wanting.

In his early career, his art was observational: paintings of his surroundings, which put me in mind of the embroidery of the woman who escaped the Nazis in Poland and sewed a story of her early life many years later.  Her art was on display at the Ripley Gallery a while ago.  It's funny how a small village in Poland can look so much like a small village in Spain, perhaps because the paintings are not meant to be as realistic as a photograph, but were meant to convey the feeling of living in a village, among a close group of family and friends.

Later, Miro's work became more abstract, due to the influence of surrealist artists then active in Paris.  He viewed these paintings as more "true" than if they had been painted from nature.  I was reminded of the exhibit of view paintings I saw earlier this year - how they would alter the landscape a bit to make things prettier than they are in real life in order to give their customers the views they kept in their minds, rather than the less romantic views that are actually there.

Miro went through several periods in his career, in response to conditions in Spain and throughout Europe.  In the 1930s, he experimented with non-traditional materials, sand and tar,  in order to "assassinate" painting.  This is where he starts to lose me - everything is just called "Painting," and it's difficult to see the value of it.  Granted, he's not using paint or canvas, but so what?  If the only thing your piece has going for it is the fact that it's not traditional, that just doesn't say much to me.

His paintings from the Spanish Civil War period are anguished, as one might expect.  I understand his feelings of horror as his country was swallowed up in dreadful violence.  What I can't quite get is how the paintings reflect this.  They seem to me to be just stick figures and blotches of color; I do get the feeling of sadness, but I'm not moved the way I would be with a bit more realism.  I want to like these, I really do, but it's all just flying over my head.

Towards the end of the show are his Constellation paintings - I'm not sure how I feel about these.  I like his use of color, but they seem like just so many blobs to me.

I think the value of this show, for me personally, is that it's raised a question in my mind.  If an artist creates a piece and says that it is meant to show his feelings on a particular issue (war, oppression, injustice), is that what it, in fact, does show?  And, if I can't see that, what does that say about me, the viewer?  If I see something completely different, is my interpretation wrong?  I have no good answers to these questions, but I feel that this will rattle around in my brain for a while.

Verdict: If you like Miro, do not miss this extensive retrospective of his works.  Allow plenty of time, as this is a big show.

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