Miro on Spain: Ogres and Visions Dance in Savage Webs of Tyranny

Miro's bloack and red visions speak of war in a tone not too distance from that of Goya

New York Times, Dec. 11, 1998, p. E37
"Miro's Black and Red Series: A New Acquisition in Context" at the Museum of Modern Art, through February 2, 1999

The rise of Fascism in the early 1930's inspired nightmare visions in the work of many European artists. Not the least of them was Joan Miró (1893-1983), who saw his native Spain savaged by the dictator Francisco Franco. In 1938, working in Paris, Miró produced a powerful series of eight small-scale etchings known as the "Black and Red Series," which responded -- as had Picasso's painting "Guernica" a year earlier -- to the agonies of the Civil War that put Franco in power.

Museum of Modern Art
Joan Mir o's 1938 "Black and Red Series" of etchings was a response to the Spanish Civil War. The small-scale series, including Plate 2, above, is the cornerstone of a show at the Museum of Modern Art.
The etchings, recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, are the cornerstone of a show at the Modern, "Miró's Black and Red Series: A New Acquisition in Context." The show includes some 150 prints, illustrated books, drawings, posters, photographs, paintings and sculptures, not only by Miró but also by his Surrealist predecessors and contemporaries, from Alfred Jarry to Salvador Dali and Picasso. The all-star cast of works assembled by Deborah Wye, chief curator of the department of prints and illustrated books, demonstrates yet again the remarkable depth of the museum's resources.

And the show embraces several themes: Miró's intense preoccupation with etching, which he was studying in the workshop of his friend, the Polish painter Louis Marcoussis (1883-1941), and the development of his artistic vocabulary at the time; the considerable impact of Surrealism on his art, and the international reverberations of the Spanish Civil War.

The large drama of the series belies the works' small size. In stark black and bloody red on white grounds, they deal -- in Miró's own eloquent language of signs and symbols -- with the forces of war and oppression. The series begins with a lyrical overture in black and white, an inspired doodling of biomorphic squiggles in a vertical format that include a spidery black sun, a pair of dancing insectoid creatures, a snail-like whorl and various linear elements. The second print, a horizontal, is somewhat closer to realism. It depicts a distressed family of three fragile figures (Miró, his wife and daughter?) in a confused landscape, menaced by an ogre's head, a hair-raising icon of Franco with a long phallic nose and what seem to be horns for ears.

The copperplates from the first two etchings were combined to create the remaining compositions. In the third, Miró printed two images from the first copperplate, one reversed atop the other, one in red, one in black. The resulting work is far more complex; in the rest of the series the horizontal and vertical plates are manipulated to create a bewildering web of biomorphic forms that speak of horror and mutilation in a tone not too distant from that of Goya's "Disasters of War" almost 200 years earlier.

The "Black and Red Series" belongs, as do a number of other etchings in the show, to the "savage" period of Miró's work, running from the mid 1930's to the early 50's, and focuses on the down side of humanity. "Woman and Dog in Front of the Moon" (1936), a brightly colored pochoir (made by the use of stencils), is a grotesque image of a woman in yellow, a fat white tongue flicking crazily out of her gaping mouth, a horn emerging from her neck, a feeble red arm and hand protruding pitifully from her shoulder, her bosom fronted by a small dog in a white cartoon blurb. The horn, the long protuberance of the tongue and the monster face itself presage the visage of Franco in "Black and Red."

A whole wall of black-and-white etchings, many done in Marcoussis's studio, includes "The Awakening of the Giant" (1938), another grotesque, open-mouthed face enlivened by an upraised hand that seems to threaten and warn, attended by the stars, suns, phallic symbols and linearities that are ubiquitous presences in Miró's work. "The Three Sisters," also from 1938, show women frantically waving their arms in vain efforts to escape a world gone topsy-turvy. A group of lithographs from Miró's "Barcelona Series" of 50 prints, published in 1944, still displays the savage elements of his earlier work. Misshapen figures and fierce, snarling semblances of faces populate the prints shown here from the series.

With the coming of World War II, Miró took himself and his family to Normandy, where he began another series, of 23 gouache and oil-wash works on paper known as "Constellations." In their intimate size, narrative sequence and hints of savage imagery, they link up with the "Red and Black" series. But in spirit, they are very different.

They were fed by Miró's desire for escape, by "night, music and the stars," he said. From the series, the Modern shows the exquisite "Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers" (1941), whose tapestrylike, overall composition of abstract, biomorphic and Surrealist forms seems to rise above human misery but recalls the "Black and Red" series in its intensity.

Like other artists and writers, Miró participated in more direct propagandizing for the Republican (anti-Franco) cause. A colorful pochoir poster he produced in 1937 to raise money for the Republicans shows a Catalán peasant raising a thick, defiant fist, and the slogan "Help Spain." It is displayed in a section of war-related works by him and others, among them Robert Capa's searing 1936 photograph of a Loyalist soldier stopping a bullet, antiwar drawings by Spanish schoolchildren and Picasso's 1937 suite of etchings and aquatints, "Dreams and Lies of Franco."

The final part of the show puts Miró in context with the work of his Surrealist antecedents and colleagues, starting with Jarry's raucous 1896 creation of "Ubu Roi," whose presence is manifest here in books, announcements and a jokey photographic monstrosity by Dora Maar (1936).

Other notable items on view include illustrated books by Dali and Max Ernst; engravings by Picasso; examples of Surrealist "automatic" drawing and painting by André Masson, made by undirected movements of the hand, and rayographs by Man Ray, photos made without the use of a camera.

There is also a drawing by Miró, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and Max Morise, produced by playing the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse in which a piece of paper was folded into sections.

Each artist drew on a section, concealing his work from the others, et voilá! the gloriously meaningless composition "Exquisite Corpse, Nude" (1926-27) was produced. Yet this part of the show seems a little tacked on to the rest of it and it's too perfunctory in its examination of Surrealism's impact on Miró. Well, you can't have everything.


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/miro-art-review.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:08 EDT