- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

Joan Miro (1893-1983) figures as one of the most intriguing sculptors especially of painted works of modernist times. Though his surrealist paintings and prints are shown extensively, his much rarer sculptures have not been exhibited together since a 1971 show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Fortunately, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is focusing on these later works in its unusual exhibition "The Shape of Color: Joan Miro's Painted Sculpture." It's a treat for admirers of Mr. Miro's humorous 3-D images and the first time a museum has exhibited the sculptures as a group.

Exhibit co-curator Laura Coyle also has included relevant sketchbooks, preparatory drawings and archival photos to show how he worked.

Age never slowed him down. The artist was in his 70s and 80s when he made these innovative, comic figures, although he had designed his first three-dimensional objects in the 1930s.

Mr. Miro made these earlier wooden constructions and arranged surrealist assemblages of objects when he was questioning the expressive effectiveness of oil paint. He made them during one of his most rebellious periods, a time when he was wondering if he could fully express himself in the conventional medium of oil pigment. The artist was eager to explore alternative ways for creating art. At one point, he even said he wanted to "assassinate" painting,

"It is in my sculpture that I will create a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters; what I do in painting is more conventional," he wrote as early as 1941 in his "Working Notes." The fantastic figures and animals of this "world" would not find fruition until the 1960s, when Mr. Miro experimented with painted bronze, plaster and polyester resin in the late sculpture.

It's hard to believe Mr. Miro's "monsters," amusing metaphoric figures that seem to dance, sing, kick and joke their way through the show, represent the two worlds in which he always worked: the savage and comic, the macabre and hedonistic. The Corcoran sculptures definitely belong to the comic. They're a lot of fun.

"La Caresse d'un Oiseau (The Caress of a Bird)," a playful bright yellow, red, green and blue construction topped by a yellow straw hat, opens the exhibit. Already, visitors should be smiling. Mr. Miro used a variety of found objects for the image: an ironing board that suggests the legs; a straw hat worn by plowing donkeys in Spain to protect them from the sun (holes let the donkey's ears pop through); a turtle shell to indicate the figure is female; and a toilet seat the red triangular shape with the hole from an outhouse for the torso.

Mr. Miro modeled a blue bird on top of the figure's head to evoke the sensation of a bird brushing a woman's face. "'La Caresse' shows the artist's insistence that the comic presence of the figure be coupled with the poetic, suggestive title," Ms. Coyne says.

Mr. Miro constantly collected objects he found near his studio. As with other sculptures, he arranged a group of them on the floor for "La Caresse" and chose the ones that best suited his idea.

In "Femme et Oiseau (Woman and Bird)," he combined several found pieces to make still another hilarious figure: On top he placed a Spanish Civil Guard hat with what could be either a bright red pompom or a bird attached; the round box of a Mallorcan pastry called ensaimade was copied for the blue torso; he tilted a small black stool for the legs and attached a bright yellow barbell to one leg of the stool.

"Sa Majeste (Your Majesty)" is even funnier. He probably cast the bright red crown from a loaf of bread. Catalonians often bake bread in different shapes for the holidays, and this form was perfect for the sculptor. The lemon yellow head was modeled after a gourd. (Mr. Miro loved gourds and collected them.)

"They could be the bellowing mouth of a bossy king or the swollen womb of a queen," Ms. Coyle writes in the catalog.

Though he came to sculpture late in life, Mr. Miro's interest in three-dimensional form began early. The artist worked with an innovative teacher, Francesc d'Assis Gali, when he was a student at Barcelona's Escola d'Art. Gali encouraged his pupils to put on a blindfold, feel an object or face and then draw it from memory. The artist always remembered that the exercises were crucial to his understanding of form.

Mr. Miro was born in 1893 in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. His mother, a native of Mallorca (where he moved at the end of his life), came from a family of craftsmen. His father was a watchmaker. He remained attached to Catalonia throughout his life, especially to the family farm at Montroig. Though he experienced the major art movements of his time cubism, surrealism, dadaism, fauvism after he moved to Paris in the 1920s, he was a visionary poet with his feet planted firmly in the Catalonian soil.

"The Catalan character is not like that of Malaga or other parts of Spain. It is very much down-to-earth," Mr. Miro told the American curator James Johnson Sweeney in 1948. "We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air. The fact that I come down to earth from time to time makes it possible for me to jump all the higher."

"He was quiet and reserved, yet he had an incredible imagination and creative side," Ms. Coyle notes.

The show holds more surprises. The artist could be contrary in choice of subject matter and even more so in his technique. He started sculpting in terra cotta in the 1940s and 1950s, then began using bronze in the 1960s. Bronze, a traditional, older medium, usually was thought of only in terms of monumental statues of heroes on horses in parks.

The former dadaist and surrealist also could be mischievous. Though Mr. Miro used bronze for most of the witty figures of the Corcoran exhibition, he painted them with shiny enamel house paint to give them their brilliant colors. "Not everything is what it seems, and sculpture is not always permanent," he could have been saying.

Mr. Miro began with drawings, placed a clay mold around the actual objects and then cast them. "Jeune Fille S'Evadent (Girl Escaping)," the show's most humorous work, is fashioned from a swimming-pool spigot (used as a headpiece), sponges for the torso and sexy mannequin legs. He then painted the figure with his favorite colors of red, blue and yellow.

This surprising, humorous show is on view at the Corcoran through Jan. 6. It then travels to the co-sponsoring institution, the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., from Jan. 25 through April 7.


WHAT: "The Shape of Color: Joan Miro's Painted Sculpture"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p. m. daily except Tuesday; until 9 p.m. Thursdays

TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and member guests; $1 students with valid ID

PHONE: 202/639-1800

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