‘Ladder of Escape’ celebrates the range of Joan Miro

Symbols and codes are employed in a variety of styles

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Of the three great Spanish artists of the 20th century — Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro — the first is a recurring subject of National Gallery of Art exhibitions, with seven shows in the past three decades. But while Dali awaits his turn, beginning Sunday Miro gets some overdue attention from the National Gallery in “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape,” a major new exhibition of well over a hundred works spanning his long, productive life.

In reality, labeling Miro as Spanish is a misnomer. He was born in 1893 in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, the strongly nationalist northern province with its own identity, language and culture — and now its own autonomous government. And while Picasso (some 10 years Miro’s senior) moved to Paris and — with significant exceptions — became detached from any national characteristics, Miro’s emotional and creative point of reference remained firmly Catalan despite his own artist’s pilgrimage to France from the 1920s to the outbreak of World War II.

The National Gallery’s Miro exhibit is an artist’s astonishing chronological journey through the major movements of modern art. Fauvism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism — all are more or less easily identifiable, but invested with an obsessive, fantastic — and quite often disturbing — depiction of an inner universe expressed in a language of codes and symbols.

The Catalan peasant of Miro’s tributes to rural Catalonia becomes a stylized triangle representing the peasant’s traditional hat; his ubiquitous birds are shown merely as an eye, a wing, a beak; his women are little more than a few brush strokes and a parade of erotic female parts (one difference with his two iconic contemporaries was Miro’s apparently monogamous domestic life; with him, it was all in the mind).

And then there’s the ladder, which served Miro as a multipurpose metaphor that varied according to context. “The Escape Ladder” of the exhibition title was painted in 1940 following the artist’s hurried departure with his family from France in advance of the German occupation. Here, the ladder represents his escape from Nazi oppression, even if returning to Spain meant living under the fascist regime of dictator Francisco Franco.

"Still Life with Old Shoe," 1937 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

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“Still Life with Old Shoe,” 1937 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) more >

There are galleries in this impeccably displayed exhibition where the anger is as subtle as a car crash: Dogs barking at the moon, vicious-looking birds tearing at heaven knows what. This often grotesque, barely contained fury expresses what is, in fact, the underlying theme of the exhibition: what the catalog calls “Miro’s sometimes uncomfortable confrontation with social and political concerns.”

The exhibit’s portrayal of an artist passionately responsive to his era’s political convulsions represents something of a change from the conventional scholarly emphasis on Miro as a forefather of abstraction. The curators attempt to make their case by focusing on works from the years 1918-1925, when Catalonia set up an independent state, only to have it suppressed; 1934-1941, covering the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War and the start of World War II; and 1968-1975, a period of ultra-leftist terrorism in Europe.

The case for the more politically engaged Miro appears circumstantial at best. More so, for example, than Picasso’s. There is no “Guernica” (1937) — the greatest history painting of the 20th century — to buttress the argument. Picasso’s powerful canvas was a response to the bombing in the Spanish Civil War of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes rehearsing the “blitzkrieg” tactics they later used in World War II. A daylong series of raids left the town in shambles and killed more than 1,600 civilians; and Picasso’s painting gained a monumental status as an antiwar symbol.

What has been called Miro’s “Guernica” is his “Still Life with Old Shoe” (1937), not a work on an epic scale but, rather, a mundane collection of everyday objects set against a background of flame and black shadow. Miro called them “tragic symbols of the period — the tragedy of a miserable crust of bread and an old shoe, an apple pierced by a cruel fork and a bottle that like a burning house, spread its flames across the entire surface of the canvas.”

Picasso shunned his homeland throughout the long reign of the dictator. Miro went home to Spain in 1939 and within two months had resumed work. He remained based there throughout the fascist regime, apparently without interference from its rigorous censorship. He signed no manifestos and joined no public protests. Instead, he channeled his anger through creation. Savage, grotesque faces, bared sharp teeth; his work is dark and unrelenting.

In 1944, the Brazilian consul smuggled to New York seven of Miro’s “Constellation” series, and the Spanish artist’s work was shown in the United States for the first time, gaining considerable attention. Begun in France and finished in Spain in 1941, these 23 gouaches on paper are densely crowded with numerous black triangles and other geometric shapes seemingly in random order. Miro would say in later interviews that the effort of producing such intricate designs was his escape from the tensions of the time.

By the 1960s, still living uncomfortably if not precariously under Franco’s iron fist, Miro had created a much bolder, more ferocious style. He daubed paint with his fingers, hurled paint at the canvas, painted on the floor, and later burned and slashed the canvas.

By the time we reach the graphic pyrotechnics of his lithographs covering an entire gallery wall, we are a long way from the almost linear conventionality of “The Farm” (1921-22), a painting of the family farm in the mountain village of Mont Roig. In this early Miro masterpiece, which opens the show, the artist’s close attention to detail finds expression in a picture that’s crowded with birds, chickens, a donkey working a corn-mill, twigs on the ground and the kitchen sink. “The Farm,” once owned by Ernest Hemingway and now in the National Gallery’s permanent collection, is one of the very few works in the exhibition that shows Miro as an almost conventional artist.

One problem with Miro is that once seen, the symbols, squiggles, and ectoplasmic blobs that sprang from his creative imagination appear easy to imitate. One London critic called them graffiti for grown-ups. The one-line plus big blob works of his later life (he died on Christmas Day 1983) add little to the distinction of a career marked by radical changes of scale and style. It is this ceaseless self-reinvention that prevents the array of 150 or so works on exhibit from seeming repetitive: It may not be pretty, but it’s addictive.

WHAT:Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape”

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