The Assassin of Painting
Early bucolic: Joan Miró's "The Farm, 1921-22", once owned by Hemingway
Joan Miró's paintings are full of joyously bright colour but, he said, "My nature is essentially pessimistic. When I work I want to escape this pessimism." Perhaps he was too successful. The lightness and optimism that has made his work ripe for cannibalisation by the advertising industry and graphic designers means that he is often seen fondly if disparagingly as merely the jovial creator of sunny pictures. While Picasso is viewed as a heavyweight political artist on the back of a single great painting, Guernica, and as an artistic pioneer on the back of a short-lived technical movement, Cubism, Miró — every bit as distinctive, versatile and fecund an artist as his slightly older compatriot — has been assigned a lower place in the 20th-century pantheon reserved for the not-quite-serious. It is the aim of Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape at Tate Modern, the first exhibition of such size here for 50 years, to show that beneath all the supersaturated colour and childlike scribbles Miró was a very serious painter indeed.
The things Miró was serious about were the concerns of his time: the rise of autocracy, the rule of Franco, the war, the évènements of 1968, the post-fascist succession in Spain) and of his calling (the nature of painting and perception). For Miró the artistic and the political were inseparable: "I understand the artist to be someone who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something, and has the obligation that this thing not be useless but something that offers a service to man." It was an obligation that manifested itself throughout his career.
Although as a young artist he was linked to both Communism and Surrealism, Miró preferred to keep his distance and refused to be co-opted into either movement: independence best served his ends. So, for example, his blood-and-soil Catalan nationalism was inherent in such early Douanier Rousseauesque bucolic pieces as The Farm, 1921-22, a painting once owned by Ernest Hemingway and showing Miró's family property of Mont-roig near Tarragona; and his Surrealist Head of a Catalan Peasant, 1925, in which a countryman has been reduced to a red cap, ocular appendages and a straggly beard set against a sky-like void. In the first painting, which remained important to him, he encapsulated the essence of his native land, in the second the "pure spirit" of its people.