Exhibit of the week
Joan Miró: Birth of the World
Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through June 15
Joan Miró is “a modernist for everybody,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. The flamboyant Catalan (1893–1983) found his artistic voice in the creative ferment of early-20th-century Paris, yet his bouncy, pictograph-laden images, unlike the sometimes purposefully unsettling art of Matisse or Picasso, tickles the poetic imagination of its viewers. Because his art is so friendly, he has been celebrated, at times in the past, in ways that “feel somewhat flimsy now.” But don’t be embarrassed if you still adore Miró, as I do. His “determinedly delighted” sensibility is timeless because it is almost anti-modern, open to the simple pleasures of childish play and artisanal tinkering.
Miró had ambition to spare, said Michael FitzGerald in The Wall Street Journal. The son of a Barcelona watchmaker, he became determined, in his words, to be an “International Catalan,” rooted in his home region but participating in Europe’s wider avant-garde. The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), completed in 1924, perfectly achieves that goal. It explodes the idea of a Catalan hunter into scattered signifiers—a pipe, a stick figure, a rifle of sorts—and sets them on a background of red ochre and gold that’s part landscape, part abstract color field. In Paris, he had seen the work of the Cubists and resolved to surpass them: “I shall break their guitar,” he reportedly bragged. He gravitated toward surrealism, a movement whose embrace of spontaneous thought and drawing “freed his mind to follow the unpredictable turns of his imagination.” A breakthrough arrived with The Birth of the World, a large 1925 canvas, now generally considered Miró’s masterpiece, in which simple shapes, lines, and pictographs float atop a mottled gray background that anticipated the spontaneous painting of Jackson Pollack. Surrealism’s founder, André Breton, labeled it as revolutionary a work as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
But The Birth of the World “went almost immediately underground; it was too far ahead of its time to have an immediate effect,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. The Museum of Modern Art deserves credit for reviving the painting’s reputation in the late 1960s, and in the “euphoric” first gallery of the current Miró exhibition, it “shines forth from the far corner, like a beacon.” The show, unfortunately, suffers from an anti-climactic second half after capturing Miró’s rapid growth throughout the 1920s. From his midcareer, we see a few mischievous experiments, including a fusty 19th-century portrait that Miró “ingeniously altered” in 1950, “sanding it down here and there and adding the signs and symbols of his antic universe.” But none of the paintings Miró created after 1951 appear here, meaning we see little of how New York’s abstract expressionists inspired him to expand on his own earlier innovations. While “it’s great to see all the early gems,” the full story of the artist “awaits a truer telling.” ■