(Joan Miro, 1893-1983)
Text from "Encounters and Reflections", by Arthur Danto
"ON JANUARY 24, 1937 the Catalan artist Joan Miró, prevented by civil war from returning to his homeland, set up in the gallery of his Paris dealer, Pierre Loeb, a still life on which he worked every day for a month. The painting was finished in his studio on May 29 of that difficult year. It consists of an apple, into which a lethal, six-tined fork has been stuck; a gin bottle shrouded in torn newspaper, secured with a thong; a heel of bread; and a left shoe, its lace untied. The apple is brown, so perhaps rotten; the bread is dried; the shoe, we learn from the title Still Life with Old Shoe, is worn. Each object relates to a heavy shadow, represented by black free-forms of the sort we associate with Miró's vocabulary of shapes-forms that came to be emblems of modern art in the plaques ofHans Arp, in the flat metal pieces on Calder mobiles and in modernesque jewelry and coffee tables, and which have their natural counterparts in deeply lobed leaves or kidneys or human feet. It is possible to read the shadow cast by the gin bottle as a weeping silhouette, but it is also possible to read too much into the painting, wanting it to be deep. The shoe is painted in yellows and greens, reds and bright blues-footwear for a one-legged harlequin. James Thrall Soby compared the work-polemical, memorial, ostensibly lamentational-with Picasso's Guernica, to which it was allegedly intended as an artistic response.
"Form for me is never something abstract," Miró once said. "It is always a token of something. . . . For me, form is never an end in itself." So here is a work of political reference and artistic allusion, a work supposed to draw its meaning from the events that elicited it and from other art elicited by those events. But how could one tell, descending the coiled ramp of the Guggenheim Museum, that this is a piece of political art, an exile's meditation on war and loss, a dark poem in a dark time, a counterthrust in the style wars of Paris? It looks like what its title says it is: a still life with a shoe. The shoe is luminous, parti-colored, comical. But the image is otherwise realistic and recognizable, like a good cartoon. That fact sets it off from the works that immediately surround it: Miró had not painted objects realistically and recognizably since 1923, even if his forms were always tokens of real things. But that fact, if it is even relevant, would not be visible in the painting alone, without the context of its peers.
"I saw this wonderful exhibition on a sparkling May morning. The Guggenheim must have had its skylight washed of the accumulated Manhattan soot for the occasion, and the brilliant sky was mirrored in the blue pool (itself almost a Miró shape) at the base of the ramp, making the museum's core a well of light. Outside in the park, under the new green, there were runners in bright costumes, vendors, children, dogs. The paintings themselves were gay and playful, and filled with creatures so inventive and good-humored that one had the sense of passing through a display of zoological or botanical or entomological extravagances-whiskered, flittering innocent beings, utterly unsuited to the struggle for existence, goggle-eyed, bearing the blank staring expressions of brilliant fish in tropical waters, or insects in flower-mad gardens, or radiant birds flying among ornamental planets. Where there were humans, they seemed mainly to be carriers of jolly genitalia. Still Life with Old Shoe ought to have stood darkly against the ambient gaiety like the Ancient Mariner at the wedding feast. Instead, it looked like part of the carnival, as if the wedding guests had refused to accept the spell of the old loon's tale, had decked the mariner out with silk and ribbons and made him part of the dance. The external knowledge of the circumstances in which the painting was made, however, fought against this spontaneous assimilation, and demanded that one reflect on the fact that one was traversing a total life in art (Miró died in 1983, at the age of ninety). Ought the contradiction between what we know about this painting and the overall sense of hedonistic celebration call the latter into question? After all, that is exactly the contradiction between the meaning of the painting and its surface. Or is this particular painting a failure, Miró not being up to expressing that level of intention?
"It would, I think, be remarkable if each of the paintings in the show held a tension at all like the one I find in Still Life with Old Shoe, for then their meanings would be so external to their formal achievement that we would need a dictionary to read the show. A shoe, a bottle, a piece of fruit with a fork in it or a knife, a crust of bread-these compose the pedagogical still life set up in the art academies of that era. For all one knows, Miró's painting is an exercise in nostalgia for the Barcelona art schools of his youth. There is a tradition of mystical still life painting in Spain, where achingly familiar objects are transfigured by an unearthly light against an impenetrable blackness. In 1922 Miró had painted a number of severe still lifes of carbide lamps and grills, kitchen utensils and, in one case, a blade of wheat, displayed like the emblems of martyrdom in uncanny spaces and immersed in a light so absolute that the shadows have been reduced to thin drawn lines. But these, like almost everything he did before 1923, seem to be about art. There is an early still life in the Cubist manner, in which a live rabbit and rooster are juxtaposed with a demijohn and a smoked fish on a sheet of newspaper together with an onion, a pepper and some greens, which may refer to the bodegón tradition of Spanish still life painting, or for that matter may refer to Cubism rather than stand solidly in that style of representation. Standing outside a style to which he refers, a stranger and a commentator, detached, a bit derisive, putting bits and pieces of art to his own ends, associated with the Surrealists but never finally one of them, a Parisian but an outsider, Miró seems insufficiently in the world to be making a statement about it rather than a statement about statements or about styles. So Still Life with Old Shoe comes as an interruption. Small wonder we would never have known it was a response to the Civil War in Spain if no one told us. Small wonder it fails to communicate the feeling it was intended to convey. Small wonder the surrounding works refuse to allow it to speak of suffering. It is too isolated, like a single serious and direct thing-"By the way, I am dying"-uttered in the monologue of a great comedian.
"Consider in this light Miró's climactic masterpiece, The Farm, executed over nine months in the three places that defined his life from 1921 to 1922: the parental farm at Montroig, Barcelona and Paris. In those years, indeed as a regular rhythm until the Civil War put a stop to it, Miró moved between Catalonia and Paris, between the tradition in which he sought his identity and the brittle world of Parisian intellect, where he lived among poets and thinkers rather than the cultural patriots of his native province. The two forms of life, one feels, pulled him in two directions, and this tension is embodied in The Farm. The painting has the unsettling quality of something observed and at the same time dreamed of or remembered. Hemingway, who owned it, described it perfectly: "It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there." Hemingway went on to say, "No one else has been able to paint these two very opposing things." What is remarkable about the painting is the oppositions it internalizes, just as Miró himself internalized as a matter of personality the circumstances of his shuttled existence. Picasso belonged wherever he was. Miró belonged only where he wasn't: his not being in Paris defined his Spanish reality, and vice versa.
"The Farm is energized by two incompatible artistic realities, corresponding to the polarities of Miró's life. It has the obsessive documentation of visual reality that we find in primitive painting: each leaf on the dominating eucalyptus tree is separately painted, each rock in the stony field to the right is given an autonomous space, each blade of grass is given its own identity. The lichen on the cracked façade of the farm building on the left defeats this impulse: you cannot register lichen spore by spore, at least not in the middle distance of a landscape where spores would be negligible specks in proportion to the façade they adhere to-though the particularity of treatment gives an uncanny microscopy to that surface. The barking dog, the rabbit, the snail, the cock, the donkey, the dove, the pail, the watering can, the wagon, the plow, the dozens of farm implements, the farmer's wife, the baby by the wash trough, are each suspended in the shadowless clarity of a metaphysical illumination-it is the kind of light one gets through an optical instrument. The space recedes to distant mountains, but the trees and bushes at the horizon are treated with the same measured detail as the foreground objects, as if perception were indifferent to distance. All this pulls the farthest objects forward to the surface plane, and indeed, when we look carefully, we notice that the plane on which all these objects are arrayed, and which seems to recede, is itself tipped up. There is, for instance, a tiled area, supposed to be lying flat on the ground, which in fact is parallel to the surface. Behind it, again, is a path that seems at once to go back and to rise up, like an abstract flame. It is as though the artist had intermixed, in a single work, the illusory space of traditional landscape with the shallow space of Cubism, so that everything is on the surface and at the same time bears no relation to the surface, which, after all, is not part of the landscape. There is, for example, a trestle table in the middle distance in the form of a letter A. If it is a letter, it belongs on the surface, as writing. An A in the landscape is dissonant, as if the work were a rebus puzzle. But a table, of course, belongs to the world of a farm. Everything is inside and outside at once. And superimposed on the primitive meticulousness of a picturesque farm are the devices of the most sophisticated painting of the century so far. Part of what brings everything to the surface are the Cubist rhythms, the sense of pattern, of fragmentation, of reduction and abstraction. "No one could look at it," Hemingway wrote, "and not know it had been painted by a great painter." He is right, but no one who knows great painting can look at it without sensing the divided consciousness and the aesthetic indeterminacy of an artist who sank into his art the oppositions of his vision: Catalan and Parisian, traditionalist and Cubist, naif and cosmopolite.
"Of this great painting, Miró later said, "It was the summary of one period of my work, but also the point of departure for what was to follow." And though he could not then have known what precisely was to follow, the fact that it is the largest painting he had undertaken up to that time is an indication that he had chosen to make an important statement through it. Miró was perhaps not as poor at that stage of his life as artistic mythology maintains, but canvas and paint, then as now, were costly items, especially if one had no idea if one's work was going to sell. The size of the canvas plays a part in an affecting vignette left us by Hemingway, who describes how he bore it home as a birthday present for his wife, Hadley, after paying off the last installment of the 5,000 francs it cost: "In the open taxi the wind caught the big canvas as though it were a sail, and we made the taxi driver crawl along."
"It is instructive to think of The Farm together with Still Life with Old Shoe. The latter is a failure, not so much as a painting but as a painting about war, for its subject never penetrates the work save by the external imposition of a symbolic interpretation. "In some sense," Jacques Dupin claims in his catalogue essay, "this unique and fantastic painting stands as Miró's Guernica." Dupin curated the show, and he is an enthusiast. But as Miró's Guemica, the painting fails. Miró was certainly sickened by the war in Spain, but he was not finally a political person: Art was the substance of his life and hence of his art, which is most genuine and best when, as in The Farm, it is about its own processes. The first works we encounter in the show are two drawings from 1917, before Miró had visited Paris for the first time. They are dense with Parisian references and mannerisms even so: the male and female nudes are geometrized, all arcs and angles, evidence that the news of Cubism had arrived in Spain and was deflecting advanced artists from whatever path their training would have set them on if the twentieth century had not happened instead. Miró was still dealing with Cubism in The Farm, painted five years later.
"Dealing with Cubism, for he felt at once its seductiveness and its dangers. It could not be ignored, but at the same time it almost guaranteed artistic mediocrity, for Paris in the early 1920s was full of second-generation Cubists. Picasso confided to his dealer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, that he had become rich by selling his license to paint guitars, alluding to the endless cubed and stretched guitars that formed the motif of the Cubist legions. The Farm was a liberation, even if Cubism remained an internal force in its dynamics. "I will smash their guitar," Miró said when he realized he had found another path, visible inThe Farm only in the light radiating from his later work, which began, abruptly, in 1923. The Tilled Field of that year shows us the Miró we know and love. The space has moved so far forward that the ground is nearly vertical. A tree shows an eye amid its leaves, and has grown a hallucinatory ear from its trunk. The farm animals are there, still recognizable, but the hen has taken the form of a grotesquely unbalanced dumbbell, with a globular body and a tiny head. The mare has developed immovably thick legs, as wavy as sine curves, and her tall swishes forward like a calligraphic question mark. The whole painting is like an exultation at having broken through to the style-pictographic, idiomatic, autographic-that was to be his from now on. If he were a poet, we would say he had found his voice.
The art historian Michael Baxandall has introduced an interesting concept in discussing Picasso's portrait of Kahnweiler. There is a system of interchange between advanced artists and their patrons and critics which is analogous to a market, but which involves ideas and refinements instead of money. He gives this system the name troc, which means "barter" in French. Picasso was en troc with poets like Apollinaire and intellectuals like Kahnweiler, who demanded certain artistic performances from which they and the artist benefited. The great American painters of the 1950s were en troc with Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Troc requires mutual interchange rather than unilateral influence, so that present-day artists are not en troc with the intellectuals they admire, such as Derrida, who knows little about painting, and Baudrillard, who cares little for it. Miró was intensely en trocwith the poets and the theorists of Surrealism, with Picabia and Tzara, Breton and Masson, Artaud, Próvert, Desnos and Michel Leiris. My own sense is that his breakthrough owes a lot to this intimacy. He showed with the Surrealists, and took over a great deal of their ideology and a degree of their silliness, but as long as the conversations rang in his head, as long as he was painting for an audience that was instantly responsive and critical, he maintained a minor greatness.
"Miró remained in Paris from 1936 to 1941, the year Normandy was bombed, when he settled in Palma de Mallorca, his mother's birthplace. The next year he returned to Barcelona, where he found he could live after all. His work thinned after the war, though his productivity remained, and his influence became immense, especially in New York, where his ideas were absorbed and transcended by Gorky and Pollock and Motherwell. In a way, his truly creative life ended when the troc ended. In this regard he bears a resemblance to Chagall, who was a great artist when he was in tension with the ideologues of the School of Paris, but who simply manufactured Chagalls when the tensions eased and commerce took over. One senses that the greatness of Picasso andMatisse in part consists in their being en troc with themselves as their own intellectuals. Appropriately, there is proportionately little painting in the Guggenheim show after 1950. In those years Miró's energies mainly went into ceramics and into a kind of terra cotta sculpture. This was an artistic return, of sorts, to Catalonia, and it was a nice way to round off Miró's particular life. The show has the cadences of a marvelous biography. Go on a really sunny day."