Miro at the Tate Modern

Not time to explain fully everything I saw at the Miro exhibition at London's Tate Modern, which you can read about here. The exhibit is masterful and well worth the price. But an unfortunate preoccupation of the exhibit's textual commentary was to condense the idiosyncrasy and immense variety of his work, surprising and again surprising in every room, into a single narrative about Miro's political affiliations and commentary on topical events. This was in the typical post-modern art curator's fashion, in which the art is not allowed to say anything for itself but made to speak for conceptual frameworks, -isms, and context, and occluded in the process.

It would be difficult to understate the importance of the Spanish Civil War on any Spanish or European or even any Western artist at the time, and Miro's Catalonian loyalty added another dimension to the story of his artistic response to the conflict. Nevertheless the exhibit somehow managed to overstate the war by neglecting the fact that the surrealists in general and Miro in particular were obsessed with depicting psychological phenomena (as understood through contemporary psychoanalysis) that they believed to be definitive of human existence and prior to, determining of, topical events, however momentous.

If anything the paintings, in consistent contrast to the placards that insisted on a coherent political-military narrative, showed Miro's descent into the subconscious and exploration of dark, often sexual, and certainly internal, forces. The horrible symbols he developed for these forces -- especially the ferocious elephantiasic human forms -- rarely resembled contemporary European conflicts and their images (the woman fleeing a burning house being a poignant exception). They rather appeared as symbols of subconscious drives that must have been supposed to lead to the phenomenon of war itself, even -- especially -- in the atrocious forms of civil war (national self-mutilation), technologically-advanced total war, and genocide. The museum text failed to notice that as its chronology progressed into the Spanish war, the paintings began showing more, and more monstrous, reproductive organs.

Miro's failure is that he has no Guernica. The work he exhibited alongside Picasso's masterpiece-of-masterpieces is not extant, as the exhibit explained. Its survival would not have guaranteed equivalent status to Picasso's masterpiece, which, even if it alone survived, would ensure Picasso's immortality. Miro's achievement seems to have been the cumulative effect of his many works, rather than a single work that says it all -- continual invention of peculiar styles and an elaborate personal symbolism that expanded throughout his life and connected each new technical phase to its predecessors. But the work of Miro's among those in the Tate exhibit that comes closest to Guernica-like sweep is the one that depicts the "tragedy of the old shoe." And here Miro's deliberate avoidance of specific war imagery is clear. The real story of Miro's art is not its involvement in barbarous current events, but detachment from them and obsession with images of the nightmarish psychology at the root of them.

The exhibition commentary erred even in its mission of foregrounding the political and military context by diminishing the impact of World War II relative to the Spanish civil war. The exhibit raised the term "Phoney War," referring to the period of Allied inactivity between Hitler's invasion of Poland in fall 1939 and the eruption of hostilities with France in spring 1940, yet adopted the term subsequently in the exhibit to refer to World War II itself -- a grave error of judgment in an attempt at historical contextualization. This can probably be attributed to the post-modern curator's sense of his own cleverness in implanting a hidden critique of the "myth" of WWII. (This hidden critique was confirmed when later placards referred to most WWII monuments as "bombastic" compared to Miro's unimpressive blobs of un-sculpted clay and found objects.)

Miro's nationality and his whereabouts at different times may be cited by way of explanation for the heavier emphasis on Spain's war, but his work within the exhibit speaks otherwise. The Barcelona Series, 50 terrifying lithographs of black ink on white paper, which consumes a lengthy wall in the heart of the Tate exhibit, showed the most direct artistic response to war, and it was produced in 1944.

This series brings me to the connection with satire. Miro's entire artistic response to the human disasters of the 1930s and 1940s could be viewed as satirical, with the anguished, toothed faces and worn-out ordinary objects and looming gigantic penises all standing in a satirical position toward the horrors and atrocities. But the Barcelona Series specifically grew from Miro's reading of Ubu Roi, the satirical play by Alfred Jarry, which ridiculed bad kings and bad professors alike. The play, written in the 1890s, depicts a tyrannical protagonist who exhibits the worst of infantile emotions and animalistic desires.

The historical background to Miro's work is unavoidable. But the psychological is essential. As usual our post-modernists, in converting Miro's work into just another political protest, have failed to grasp the depth of his terror and his condemnation. Like Cervantes, whose bones will bear the mark, Miro had witnessed war himself. For both Spaniards, however different in other respects, war was not only a matter of acting on bad ideas but also a symptom of an incurable corruption at the heart of humankind.

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