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Through patient effort, Miro evolved an art of beguiling freshness and spontaneity, developing a highly personal language of signs and symbols and displaying his savage delight in the absurd.
At the beginning of the century, Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, was the cultural centre of Spain. It was here that Miro discovered the works of the Post Impressionists, the Fauves and the Cubists which helped to shape his early style. But it was Catalonia's mountainous landscape where Miro's family came from that was his greatest inspiration. In his early 'realist' paintings, he recorded every detail of this landscape with scrupulous attention and devotion. 'What interests me above all', he wrote to a friend, 'are the tiles on the roof, the calligraphy of a tree, leaf by leaf and branch by branch, blade of grass by blade of grass.' While he was working on The Farm in 1921-22 a tribute to his family house in Montroig he used to take clods of earth and grasses with him in his suitcase when he travelled to Paris, so that the precise details would not escape him.
But there was also a strong element of fantasy in Miro's character, which attracted him to the less realistic work of the early Romanesque painters who decorated the old Catalonian chapels with frescoes of simple, brightly-coloured figures, using distortion and a hieratic scale for symbolic or emotional effects. He also admired the stocky painted plaster figures made by local artisans for their lack of artistic pretension. Such things appealed to him for their naive humour and honesty, and the tricks of distortion and of depicting important things much larger were later assimilated into his own work.
In Paris, Miro was encouraged to develop his imaginative faculties by the Surrealist poets and artists that he met. Fascinated by their experiments with summoning up the unconscious through states of hallucination, he would sit for hours in his studio capturing the strange sensations and forms he experienced when hallucinating himself through extreme hunger. The artistic freedom of this method was vital to his creative development: from the early 1920s onwards, Miro no longer used space and colour in a realistic way to depict everyday objects, and the forms that appeared in his paintings became a personal language of signs and symbols.
Miro's Catalan peasants became stick-like figures, for example, recognizable by their attributes: Phrygian cap and a pipe perhaps or a wedge-shaped hunter's knife and gun. Many of Miro's humorous figures look naive and unsophisticated, like children's doodles, and he was deliberately trying to evolve an art that would stimulate basic sensations of humour, fear, excitement and passion in the spectator; to 'rediscover the religious and magic sense of things, which is that of primitive peoples'. He developed his new figures by a process of simplification, a stripping away of unnecessary details. 'Showing all the details', he said, 'would deprive them of that imaginary life that enlarges everything.'
The same figures Catalan peasants, women and birds, ladders, stars and strange nocturnal creatures appear over and over again in his work. The ladder, for example, was part of the familiar clutter around the Montroig farmhouse, but gradually it became transformed in Miro's paintings into a symbol of escape, often leading into a night sky as in Dog Barking at the Moon (left). Woman was usually portrayed as Mother Earth, 'to whom Mini always offers his devotion': a symbol of fecundity as she is often shown in primitive ethnic sculptures. And the bird, like the ladder, represents the freedom of the spirit and an escape from mundane everyday reality. Other shapes and hieroglyphs are not so easy to interpret, sometimes being there just to satisfy Miro's sense of balanced composition, but they all contribute to the haunting fascination of his work. 'It is signs that have no precise meaning that provoke a magic sense', he believed. Sometimes, these eccentric symbols are reminiscent of Chinese or Japanese written characters, and Miro is paintings become a playful form of calligraphy.
Miro felt free to distort and rearrange as his imagination dictated, and to place anatomical forms arms, heads, breasts, hands and feet and other signs in comical juxtapositions. Some of his paintings, like Harlequin's Carnival, are very light-hearted and humorous, as if Miro took a childish delight in arranging his toys, but his forms have also been described as 'torture instruments'.
During the 1930s and the war years, and particularly in the Barcelona Suite of lithographs, Miro created a nightmare world of vicious grossly distorted monsters. His women sprouted ugly spikes of hair, claw-like nails and their gaping mouths are filled with jagged fangs. Both his males and females, often attacking each other, were given enormous sexual organs. Distressed and disturbed by political events, Miro was showing man in all his bestiality and cruelty, indulging his most destructive instinctual drives and the coarser aspect of his humour.
Miro had no respect for conventional aesthetic standards. Apart from the content of his work, he often chose to use the meanest of materials, making collages and sculptures out of cardboard and old sacking, lengths of rope, rusty nails and bed springs, broken crockery and endless bits and pieces picked up on his walks. Often these objects were the inspiration he needed to spark a composition, supplying 'the shock which suggests the form just as cracks in a wall suggested shapes to Leonardo'. Sometimes, just a splotch of colour on a canvas, a dribble of turpentine or an escaping thread would do the same.
Miro's influence on 20th-century artists has been enormous. His fascination with textures and his free, spontaneous creations inspired the tachiste painters and 'action' painters like Jackson Pollock, while his strange, naive characters were taken up by the Art Brut painters after the Second World War. His enormously varied output, covering painting, sculpture, ceramics, collages, etchings, engravings and lithographs, remains a continuing source of inspiration.
In 1928, Miro paid a brief visit to Holland, where he was intrigued by the detailed realism of Dutch 17th-century genre paintings in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. He returned to Paris with a few postcard reproductions of the pictures he had seen, from which he painted his own series of 'Dutch Interiors'. Dutch Interior I was based on Hendrick Sorgh's Lutanist of 1661. Miro, however, transformed the original with the medieval logic of the Romanesque Catalan artists, painting important things large and unimportant things small - and sometimes removing them altogether. Instead of the lyricism of Sorgh's picture, Miro's 'Dutch Interior' has a frenzied, dancing rhythm.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish