Saturday, 24 May 2014

Joan Miró: "Colours Like Words That Shape Poems"

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

I just spent a few days in Barcelona, the city beloved of artistic types, party animals and those in search of the Catalan soul. It was my first time in this city, and I enjoyed the spectacular Gaudí buildings, the seaside and lovely seafood, the winding streets of the Barri Gòtic, the relaxed atmosphere and catching up with friends and family who were there at the same time. I think it is time for me to re-read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia: as in any European city, darker histories lie behind the pleasant touristy reality you see on a brief visit.

On the last day, my friend flew out earlier than I did so I had a few hours left to visit the Fundació Joan Miró on Montjuïc. I knew Miró's work, of course, but this art gallery visit was a revelation - I didn't realise previously how much I liked his art. I think there is a ubiquity to Miró which means it is easy to take him for granted. His bright colours and gently geometric human and animal figures have been incredibly influential. It was wonderful, though, how this gallery displayed the range of his work and its development, the influence of Surrealism, of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and his fascination with public art. I found the works very psychological. They exerted a gentle pressure on the mind which was very emotionally cleansing. Miró's almost comical depictions of people seemed to me to show humans as they are, full of oddities, of over- or under-developed qualities, and curious leftovers from childhood (as in the sculpture which showed a baby's foot emerging from the back of a small human figure).

What was totally new to me was the extent to which Miró was influenced by and collaborated with poets and poetry. Early on, he read Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy, and during World War II he was influenced by Spanish mystic poets. Miró said that the purpose of painting was to produce poetry, and some of his works are called 'Poem-Paintings'. He also wrote some poetry of his own, which mainly served as notes and ideas leading on to visual artworks. In Paris, he associated with Surrealist poets, and his paintings are a visual expression of this genre of writing. He was friends with the poets André Breton and Robert Desnos, among others. Miró's Constellations are a particularly beautiful series of paintings which represented the artist's desire to escape the nightmare of World War II. They strongly feature images of stars, birds and women, and while dreamy, their bright accents of colour occasionally seem like stabs of pain. Breton later wrote a series of poems which not only illustrate but carry on a dialogue with the Constellations. Miró also made plans to collaborate with Robert Desnos, but was only able to illustrate some of Desnos' work decades after the poet's tragic death in a Nazi concentration camp.

It could be that the sense of wonder which overtook me in this gallery was related to Miró's poetic approach. I don't generally consider myself a fan of Surrealist art or poetry, but sometimes I wonder if it's just that I haven't found the key yet. Maybe I have found it now. I did think of Paul Celan, which admittedly I often do. He wasn't precisely a Surrealist, except maybe in his earliest works (including some of his Romanian poems, as opposed to his more famous German poems) but he was influenced by their work and approach. I have also seen some of the work of Celan's artist wife, Gisèle Lestrange, which is well suited to accompany his poems. It's not very similar to Miró, but perhaps there is some emotional commonality, or at least in the way that the art and the words seem to work off, illustrate and engage in dialogue with each other. Another poet recently said to me in a discussion about Celan that it seems as though he used language to bypass language. Celan's work uses surreal images to go directly to a place of emotion and reaction which reminds me, disturbingly, of the electro-shock treatment he underwent in the last years of his life. Although I found Miró much gentler, even in his darker moments, similar metaphors come to mind to illustrate how I reacted to his work.

I'm not sure whether these two poems by Breton and Desnos (below) have any direct connection with Miró, but they seem to have certain things in common with the great painter's work and to illustrate the approach he had in common with the Surrealist poets. "I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music," Miró said. He certainly succeeded. 

CHOOSE LIFE (André Breton)


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