Joan Miró's Wild Decade
Ready-made materials, the uglier the better, were another anti-art resource for Miró, as in this striking silhouette. The profile is literally hacked from roofing material that a critic of the time called Miró's "black tar paper of the dead." The textured black paper catches the light like a lava field or a lunar landscape. The image was said to resemble French composer Georges Auric, but a closer identification might be the man in the moon. Miró has drawn a strange glyph around the tar paper eye, like a hand with legs and a dangling spider. Miró married one of his cousins in 1929, a happy marriage by all accounts, but his art got wilder rather than more domesticated during the following years.Joan Miró's Wild Decade
Miró and his wife had divided their time between Paris and the Spanish coastal village of Montroig, where his family was from, but the stock market crash of 1929 brought austerity to his life and to his art. Holed up in a spare room in his mother's apartment and working with discarded junk, he fashioned "objects"—like the Minimalists of the 1960s, he refused to call them sculptures, which sounded too highfalutin and arty—like this small enigma of wire mesh, paint, and wood. The MoMA curators invite us to read the mesh as a downbeat substitute for the weave of a painter's canvas, but the whole thing looks cagelike to me, with penned-up animals (the red and white forms seem based on bones) and that sinister spider again. By now, Miró had broken with the Surrealists and their simplistic notions of manipulating inner and outer reality. He was hanging out instead with harder-edged philosophers like Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris, dedicated to a more "materialist" vision of bodily functions rather than dreams and an interest in so-called "primitive" art and violent ritual.Joan Miró's Wild Decade
As the political situation worsened in Spain, with Franco violently cracking down on opposition to his fascist policies, Miró embarked on a series of grotesque portraits with swollen heads and deformed limbs. He claimed to be aiming at something "unpretentious and very ordinary" in these pictures, but it's hard to say what ordinary reality he was trying to render. They are executed in pastel but with none of the sensuous softness that Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec got from that powdery, butterfly-wing medium. Miró later called these his "savage" pastels, and he may have been responding (as Rosalind Krauss has suggested) to Bataille's critique of the fascist preference for idealized physiques. There's nothing idealized in these pastels. Miró's day-glo figures radiate alarm, like this woman with her cartoon breasts and grossly enlarged feet that seem to anticipate Francis Bacon's meaty body parts. It is unfortunate that she has come to be popularly known as "the Opera Singer." I'd say that that's a newspaper, not sheet music, in her hand, and that she's shouting out the bad, bad news: "Extra, extra!"Joan Miró's Wild Decade
Now the news has worsened. We've entered the blasted terrain of Goya's Disasters of War and Guernica. Three or four figures are divided by a coil of real rope, hung on hooks protruding from cardboard. The gagging figure on the upper left looks away in horror, with a parallel figure like an echo in the upper right corner. A Matisse-like idealized nude below has a grotesquely distended foot that exactly echoes the lower tangle of rope. What does the rope signify? A public hanging? A tied-up prisoner? And, yet, there's a vigor to the whole red, white, and blue composition that has its own weird beauty and coherence. "I give greater and greater importance to the materials I use in my work," Miró told an interviewer at around this time. "A rich and vigorous material seems necessary to me in order to give the viewer that smack in the face that must happen before reflection intervenes."Joan Miró's Wild Decade
And then, six months after the full-scale Spanish Civil War had erupted, Miró abruptly decided to do "something absolutely different." He hadn't used models or props for many years, but now, exiled in Paris, he assembled what he called a "very realistic" still life in his studio and returned to the slow methods that Hemingway had so admired. It was as though the careful rhythms of the artisan were the proper response to the chaotic mayhem Franco was unleashing on his own people. Miró had written of his desire "to attain a maximum intensity with a minimum of means." A fork stuck into a wizened apple, an empty gin bottle, a crust of black bread—this may be a Depression vision, but it has a Wizard of Oz intensity, with the old shoe assuming the weight of life itself, irradiated with meaning. This still life has the scale and feel of a landscape. There are bright lights on the distant horizon, no doubt about it, but whether it's a better day coming or something more sinister remains uncertain.